Not too long ago I was on holiday in England. While the weather could at times be charitably classed as less than ideal, it was still a fantastic experience and one that I would heartily recommend to anyone with an architecture fetish or immense and overwhelming love of bacon (seriously, English bacon is frikkin’ awesome). During my stay I visited the Forbidden Planet store in London, which is basically a semi-underground Shangri-La for comics and pop culture nerds like me.
After piling a number of books into a basket that would almost certainly eclipse my luggage weight limit for the flight home, I took them to the counter. The salesman unpacked them, scanned them…then stopped at a particular one.
“Look,” he said, “I don’t usually do this, but are you really sure you want to buy this book for £56?”
I blinked, confused. “Um, why?”
“It is the worst thing I’ve ever read in my life,” the salesman claimed. “Seriously, borrow it from a library or from a friend, but I would really recommend not wasting £56 on it here.”
My eyes widened in shock. “Seriously? It was worse than Avengers vs. X-Men?”
The salesman nodded sagely. “That’s the glory days compared to this piece of trash.”
I could hardly believe my ears. Putting aside for now the fact that a salesperson was actively and emphatically warning me off spending quite a bit of money on one of their products (which in itself has never happened to me before), this man was insisting that the book was the worst thing he’d read in his life. Further, that it was worse than AvX, considered by me to be one of the worst crossover events of recent memory and having earned a deserved spot on my worst books of 2012 list. I didn’t think there was much in the way of blockbuster superhero summer events that could eclipse the mediocre plot and complete letdown of Marvel’s top writing talent in such a method that AvX ended up doing. Clearly, this salesman believed otherwise.
So there was nothing else for it. I thought for a moment, then replied, “In that case, I have to read it.”
The salesman shook his head – out of bemusement or lamentation, I wasn’t sure – and put Age of Ultron in my shopping bag.
This experience set the bar for my expectations going into the first of Marvel’s two blockbuster superhero summer events for 2013 (the other being the considerably more awesome-looking Infinity). Granted, those expectations were minimal to begin with; I’d read the first two issues during the initial release, and while they showed promise they weren’t good enough for me to consider sticking with them long-term. Wait until the hardcover’s out, I thought, then see if it lives up to the hype.
Well, perhaps “hype” is the wrong word. The path to the story has certainly been long and winding, set up during a one-off Avengers issue back in 2011 and being left mostly unregarded or mentioned since then. Despite his insistence that he was done with the Avengers and with big crossover events, Brian Bendis nonetheless returned this year to scribe the epic 10-issue series touted as an absolute and complete game-changer for the Marvel Universe in a way that seemed to evoke the DC groundbreakers of Crisis on Infinite Earths and Flashpoint. The story’s resolution was so secret that only half a dozen people in the whole world (including Bendis) knew what it was beforehand, and when the last issues were printed they came sealed and polybagged to avoid anyone spoiling the grand conclusion to Bendis’ epic (not that that did him any good, as it turned out that an intrepid internet user was able to leak the story a few days before release anyway. Curse you, denizens of the internet!).
With that in mind, I dived into Age of Ultron. Like AvX before it, the hardcover came with both the core story and a few ancillary issues as well that promised a diversity of writing talent and story focus. While I already knew the broad strokes of the ending I was curious to see if the road to that ending was well-paved and executed, and if the salesman’s dire warning to me would prove prophetic.
So in the end, does Age of Ultron meet the hype, exceed expectations and give us a crossover worth reading, or did the salesman have it right? Well… in short, it’s meh.
The story starts off pretty standard for an event comic; Ultron kicks Avengers ass, takes over the world and creates a superhero mortality rate that ensures some kind of reset button will get hit at the end. A world-beating idea is hit upon by those who remain to go back in time and kill Ultron’s creator, Hank Pym (aka as Ant-Man and a bunch of other goofy aliases). Wolverine steps up to the plate alongside Invisible Woman (whose presence in the story is never quite justified) and heads off to do the deed.
Then some stuff happens. Then the world resets. Then a character from Spawn appears.
What begins as a carefully paced, tonally-sharp piece very rapidly devolves into an over-the-top superhero spectacle that makes Fear Itself look tame in comparison. The entire middle chunk of the core story deals with Wolvie and Invisi-Lady killing Pym, then realising it wasn’t such a good idea, then convincing past selves it’s not a good idea, then Iron Man becomes Darth Vader, then Ultron disappears, then he’s back and takes over again, then Morgana Le Fey shows up, then Captain America dies-
Ok, time out. Way too much stuff happens, yet at the same time not much is going on at all. The plot gets thin, with a lot of splash pages and minimal dialogue used to pad out the book’s pagecount, then suddenly it all wraps up again at the end. It’s kind of hard for me to describe; things happen, then they stop happening. Ultron’s around, then vanishes for most of the book before reappearing at the end for the predictable superheroic event-ending victory. If it didn’t say otherwise on the cover, I’d be convinced that Age of Ultron was the product of no less than seventeen different writers who took scraps of separate stories they’d envisioned and combined them into something with a vague narrative structure.
And yet, I don’t hate it. Normally this is the kind of overblown, explosive superhero event book I’d steer clear from and recommend only as jailhouse wallpaper (as is the case with Avengers vs. X-Men). But I enjoyed it. It was stupid, its plot got very incoherent around the middle and the constant switching back-and-forth between artists was a little jarring, but I didn’t end up hugely disliking it. By the time I got to the ending I wasn’t as enthralled and energetic like I was when reading Siege, I didn’t feel equal parts satisfied and annoyed like in Batman’s Night of the Owls, and I didn’t despise and detest it the way I do The Children’s Crusade. It was just a good, fun, rolling superhero adventure with dumb plotting and some pretty decent artwork. What it lacked in cerebral material and narrative solidarity was made up by a few fun character moments, some great battle sequences and some truly excellent back-up stories in the issues accompanying the core series.
The two biggest problems that plague Age of Ultron go thus; first, its position in canon is dubious. It’s logical to assume the book takes place during Marvel’s NOW! relaunch (at least, before Wolverine turns into a gorier Doctor Who), but the issue there is that too much of the current Marvel world isn’t represented in the story. Many Avengers uniforms are either completely different to their normal attire or are the older, pre-relaunch outfits like Captain America’s fish-scale costume or Spider-Man’s blue and red getup rather than the Superior black and red duds he’s rocking these days (and on that note, if it weren’t for the Superior Spider-Man back-up issue it’d be damn near impossible to tell if the Spidey we’re reading here is our good ol’ pal Peter Parker, or that octopus guy who’s hijacked his body for a bit). There’s few references to many of the recent events that have happened in Marvel NOW, so the story could very easily have just taken place in some cosmic nether-reality where an author’s attempt at auteur writing co-exists with whatever readership Rob Liefeld reckons he gets.
Second, for a book with the character’s name in the title there’s surprisingly little actual Ultron in it. He’s almost a book-end to the story, appearing at start and end and being almost entirely forgotten during the Avenger duo’s temporal road trip. Now while there’s no contractual obligation to have the big baddie appear in every issue of a giant summer crossover, it does help reinforce him as a villain if he’s present, y’know, at all. You could be forgiven for thinking that a more appropriate title would be Age of Ant-Man, since the book spends most of its time trying (and only partially succeeding) to paint Hank Pym as the real threat to the multiverse. I can imagine Ultron getting on the phone with his agent after this book and asking for an appearance in a DC book out of insult at his minimal casting. He’d fit right in with that Forever Evil series they’re doing at the moment, right?
Despite these problems – and these are only the bigguns, mind, there’s plenty of other nails I could hammer into the coffin – I liked Age of Ultron. The dialogue isn’t as snappy as Bendis’ previous work on titles like Dark Avengers or Daredevil, the artwork by a veritable army of illustrators gets muddled and lacklustre here and there (though the art in some of the back-up stories is truly fantastic) and it is far, far from being anywhere near the best event comic you could hope to read. But I enjoyed it. Keeping in mind that I’m usually one to like things most others hate, take my opinion with a grain of salt. I would definitely say AvX still takes the cake as the worst event book I’ve read in the last five years, and were I to choose either that or Age of Ultron to read on a long plane flight it’s not even a competition. You’ll definitely get better mileage from other Elseworlds-styled series’ like Flashpoint or House of M, but take Age of Ultron for what it is – an event book, with lots of action and a marginal plot. You could definitely do worse.
One last note: the back-up stories are awesome. Ok, some of them (particularly Fearless Defenders) are forgettable, but I found the real character-based meat of Age of Ultron came in one-offs like Black Widow losing her eye, the Apocalypse Twins getting a life lesson from Kang the Conqueror or the truly excellent Mark Waid-written backstory and character study of Hank Pym in the book’s closing issue, which acts as a segue to the upcoming Avengers A.I. series. I would almost go so far as to say these issues are better than the core story, but on reflection they’re apples and oranges; Age of Ultron is the canvas, the back-ups are some well-chosen brushstrokes.
And yeah, maybe the Forbidden Planet salesman was right in saying that £56 (almost $100AUD) was a bit steep for this book. If I’d known then what I know now I might’ve waited for the paperback instead. But for a nice hardcover to add to the collection, sitting on your shelf for the occasional perusal, there are worse things you could shell out that much cash for. Or you could, y’know, go outside, enjoy the sunlight and have a picnic with attractive members of the opposite gender for roughly the same amount.
BEST QUOTE: “Logan and I have gone back in time to stop Hank Pym from creating Ultron and destroying the world. And we carjacked Nick Fury’s vintage SHIELD flying car to do it. That alone should probably seem crazy. But once you’ve been to the Negative Zone and back nothing really shocks anymore.” – Sue Storm