THE ONE WHERE Game over man! GAME OVER! Ultron, the AI created by the Avenger Hank Pym has returned and conquered the world. An indeterminate time later Hawkeye stages a rescue for a fellow Avenger, we find out just how bad things have got and discover a little about some of the other heroes left standing.
VERDICT When is a crossover not a crossover? When it features no more than 10 tie-ins and a 12-issue (Including two specials) mini-series. Marvel’s attempts to cure crossover fatigue are both welcome and necessary, given how bloated the traditional Summer uber-story has become. What’s particularly interesting is that Age Of Ultron is designed to be as low-impact as possible. Aside from the relatively tiny issue footprint, Marvel has assured readers that all the art for the mini-series is complete so this, for the first time in a while, is a crossover which should ship on time, be relatively easy to collect and isn’t still being written and drawn.
I know. I’m scared too.
It’s not the only new ground the series is breaking either, as the mini-series opens in the last place anyone would expect it to; the middle. Ultron has won. The world is in ruins and, judging by this issue, has been for some time. It’s a gutsy choice, especially for a story clearly planned as one of the crown jewels of Marvel’s year but it works perfectly. The overall tone is positively apocalyptic, somewhere between 28 Days Later and Escape From New York , and each successive scene shows us how bad things have got, how far things have devolved and provides clues as to what might be going on (See THEORIES below).
Bendis’ script cleverly subverts expectation by focusing, not on the traditional Avengers big three, but Hawkeye. It’s a smart move on one hand – after all he was one of the breakout stars of the movie and his solo title is one of the best comics on the market today – but it’s also a gutsy choice. This isn’t a story where the usual heroes swoop in and save the day. It’s a story where the usual heroes are dead, or paranoid, or missing, or broken. This isn’t just how the world ends, it’s what happens after the world has ended and the last desperate struggles of those lucky enough to be alive.
Sounds awfully grim, doesn’t it? And to be honest it is. This is one of the grimmest titles Marvel has put out in a while. Not only do we see Ultron reigning supreme but Hawkeye has transformed from the amiable everyman of usual to a brutally efficient killer, while Tony Stark has become a Howard Hughes-like recluse, frantically holding the line for a plan that may never come.
It’s brave writing, and whilst it’s slightly decompressed (As Bendis is wont to do), it feels justified. There’s no exposition, no pause for effect, just us hitting the ground running in a world that doesn’t want us there. If later issues continue this sort of pace, then I suspect there’ll be cause for concern, but right now this is the perfect way to introduce the world. Even better, it means what we find out we find out by discovery rather than being told, further locking the reader into this fascinating, apparently dying world. A world which is stunningly rendered by Hitch and Neary, old hands at this sort of thing from their work on the original runs of The Authority and The Ultimates .
Paul Mounts, the book’s colourist, also deserves special credit for the mechanical, industrial blues and greens the book is soaked in and the entire creative team deserve a pat on the back for the chilling moment towards the end where the panels themselves vibrate as an Ultron unit deploys its anti-personnel weaponry. This is confident, assured art for a confident, assured script and a hell of an opening act. The world may be ending, but weirdly, it’s rarely felt in safer hands.
THEORIES So what the hell’s going on? Marvel has said the book is rooted in Marvel NOW! continuity so they clearly want us to assume that this is the primary Marvel Earth we’re seeing. But if is it really? If so, how? And where else could this story be set?
Theory 1: This is the Marvel Now! Earth… now. At some point in the near future Ultron arrives, destroys most of the Earth’s superhuman population and conquers the planet.
• Marvel has said the book is set in Marvel Now! Continuity.
• Fantastic Four and The Superior Spider-Man are both confirmed as tie ins for the series and are both definitively set in the here and now.
• The characters are all recognisably the characters in other books.
• Given that the Guardians Of The Galaxy are being set up as “Earth’s last line of defence against threats from space” and Fantastic Four shows a swarm of Ultrons in space, the Guardians are either asleep on the job or about to have a very bad first day at work.
• Spider-Man is specifically referred to as Peter Parker and reacts as though he was, in fact, Peter Parker. This, given recent events in Superior Spider-Man isn’t totally outside the realms of possibility but is a bit of a stretch.
• Captain America is present and not at some distant point in the future. Which isn’t much evidence given he’s in the Avengers titles too right now, but it still raises an interesting point.
• A whole bunch of people, many of whom have their own book or books would have to be dead or very incapacitated for this to work.
Theory 2: This Isn’t The Marvel NOW! Earth This is an alternate universe where Ultron has arrived and conquered the planet.
• Breaking Marvel continuity in half whilst still in the process of rebooting and rebuilding is perhaps a little extreme. An alternate universe would ensure all bets could be off, without any lasting damage being done.
• Hawkeye isn’t just killing people with no compunction, he’s doing so in a manner which suggests this isn’t new behaviour. He’s certainly killed people in his solo book, but it feels different here, instinctive, natural. This may not be “our” Clint Barton.
• She Hulk has close-cropped hair. Again, not conclusive but I don’t think this is a hair style we’ve seen Jennifer Walters with in the main universe.
• Beast, Sue Storm and The Thing are all glimpsed in the ruins of the SHIELD helicarrier. The Thing and Sue Storm are both out in space (And FF , expressly set a year later than Fantastic Four , contains no mention of these events) and Beast doesn’t appear to be displaying his current mutation (although that may have more to do with the art being completed a while ago).
• With the exception of Hawkeye’s mildly Ultimates -esque gear, every costume we see is in keeping with Marvel’s primary continuity. Tony Stark’s black and blue Tron -style bodyglove is particularly close to the design aesthetic in his own book for example.
• It would be more than a bit of a cop out if this turned out to be an alternate universe.
Theory 3:The Story Is Set In The Future Marvel has been quietly laying the groundwork for the next few years for some time now, with references to “The Ultron War” as well as something that seemed to be a Martian invasion. Therefore, this book could be set a short time in the future when this event finally breaks across the world.
• A sequence from this issue was included in the Point One special, implying, very strongly, that the story takes place in the core Marvel universe and the near future.
• The fact the book is set after the initial invasion definitely places it in the near future of a Marvel universe, and most likely the primary one.
• As above, the costumes are all pretty much exactly where they are in the current universe and She Hulk could always get a haircut.
• Everyone looks unkempt (there are some excellent new beards) but not visibly older, suggesting this is a relatively short time into the future.
Evidence against :
• Given Marvel’s claim that this will impact a very small amount of titles, surely every creative team not directly involved in the series will have to acknowledge it in their own books. This could make for an interesting background event but it could also mean every Marvel title has a lot of “clearing up after Ultron” in it for the next year.
• If it’s set in the near future that opens up the possibility of the whole thing being written off with heroic time travel, changing the past or a very, very big red RESET button. Time may, literally, tell.
BEST IMAGE Either the shattered remains of the SHIELD helicarrier in Central Park or the chilling final page.
WHO’S WHO AT THE END OF THE WORLD There’s a surprisingly large cast in this first issue and most of them are very well known. However, the villains are a pretty interesting bunch:
Ultron: The world’s angriest AI first appeared, disguised as the Crimson Cowl, in Avengers #54 published in 1968. He was identified in the next issue as Ultron-5, and used a “synthezoid” called the Vision to try and destroy the Avengers. The Vision of course joined them and Ultron was defeated. But like all good killer robots, he never quite stayed dead.
Ultron’s origin is fascinating, as he was not only created by Avenger Hank Pym but his brain is based on the patterns of Pym’s own. The AI quickly grew to despise its creator and attempt to take his place. However, up until now it’s never been successful…
Hammerhead: Hammerhead is, appropriately given what he’s doing here, a Spider-Man villain. He first appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man #13 in October 1972 and is a Maggia (the Marvel universe version of the Mafia) enforcer. He gets his name from the fact he’s had his entire skull replaced or reinforced with an extremely strong metal. Since then he’s waged war against, and with, several major supervillains and remained a dangerous player in the Marvel underworld.
The Owl: Leland Owlsley, aka “The Owl” is actually a Daredevil villain, making his first appearance in Daredevil #3 published in August 1964. Rather wonderfully, he’s a former financial investor who – when his corrupt practices were revealed – set up shop as a crime lord and developed a serum that helped him fly. Since then he’s plagued Daredevil, Black Widow and Spider-Man in particular, and continued to experiment on himself, and at one point was selling Mutant Growth Hormone distilled from his own body.
Mutant Growth Hormone: Not a villain as such, but still worth noting. The survivalists/pushers at the start of the issue are trying to get someone hooked on MGH or Mutant Growth Hormone. First appearing in Amazing Adventures Volume 2 #11 this is a hormone that when extracted from mutants and injected into “normal” humans it will temporarily give them superpowers. Sometimes those powers will mirror the powers of the mutant the MGH is extracted from, sometimes not. Either way it’s a chilling demonstration of how bad things have got that MGH is suddenly the drug of choice.
•When is this happening?
• Is this the core Marvel universe?
• Where was Ultron?
• Why did he invade?
• How did he win?
• Which heroes are still alive?
• Which villains are still alive?
• Has Ultron taken over the entire planet or just the US?
• Why are the Ultron units we see yellow?
• How long ago did Ultron invade?
• What is the vast structure over New York?
• What was Tony Stark terrified Ultron had infected Haweye and Spider-Man with?
• Why was Spider-Man being held captive?
• Why was Hawkeye told once he left the helicarrier he could never return?
• What happened to Captain America’s shield?
• Where is Iron Man’s armour?
• Why were the Guardians of the Galaxy unable to defend the planet?
• What is the “understanding” Ultron has with the villains?
• What happened to Thor?
“This isn’t going to be pleasant.”
“Considering the week I had, unpleasant sounds absolutely fabulous.”
Hawkeye and Spider-Man, making the best of the worst.
Age of Ultron #1 is available now, priced £2.85. Thanks to www.travellingman.com for the review copy.