I’ve become pretty addicted to reading AGE OF ULTRON reviews. It has got to be the weirdest Marvel event ever published, particularly in its endless contradictions. It didn’t follow the typical structure of an ‘event’ comic, but it was also very by-the-numbers; nothing really happened, but concurrently too many things happened. Even Marvel’s treatment of the series is rather vexing, published without the level of hype normally befitting a summer event yet also labelled as essential reading for those who need to know the Next Big Thing in the MU.
But here’s the thing – every thing awful about AGE OF ULTRON is what it represents in a historical context. If we’re looking at it as comic book consumers in the 21st century, as what a superhero comic is expected to be, it is an insultingly empty advertisement for an Ultimate Universe miniseries and something about SPAWN. In fact, it’s almost a beautiful representation of our perceived sophistication as an audience, that cynical snark that David Foster Wallace fought so passionately against – we resented AoU from the beginning for being so beneath us, we knew that it would be more empty extravagance yet we ate it up, feeling good for ourselves when the dust cleared and our presumption was correct.
I don’t mean to say that the problem with AoU is people who buy comics – but I think that’s the problem people have with it, more than anything. Fans are sick of hearing this endlessly repeated, but it’s true; if we don’t want more event comics, we have to stop buying them. I think of last year’s AVENGERS VS. X-MEN as an experiment for Marvel – blatantly transparent in its disrespect for the audience, AvX featured multiple writers and artists churning out product on an accelerated shipping schedule, not telling a story but setting up future ones. The fact that we all bought it anyway is on us, and I think Marvel has learned something from that – AGE OF ULTRON features three regular artists, with the last issue illustrated by a half dozen more.
We were willing to buy something as artless as AvX on a bi-weekly basis, so would we buy more of the same at an almost weekly basis? Could this accelerated shipping stop the dreaded numbers drop-off, creating some inflated shipping numbers from the comic stores that much place orders months before they can gauge a reaction to a series? And who says we can’t do two events a year, AGE OF ULTRON being a mere prelude to the even bigger and aptly named INFINITY?
But here’s where I gotta clarify – I’m not against any of this. I am completely for Marvel experimenting with how they practice their publishing schedule. That is completely in their prerogative, and they have every right to do it, and I think the results speak for themselves – brilliant, imaginative, $2.99 and monthly series like RED SHE-HULK, DARK AVENGERS and WINTER SOLDIER get cancelled while double-shipping 4 dollar titles that receive nothing but ire from fans continue to make the top 10. It’s not on Marvel to keep putting out a MORBIUS book because I enjoyed it, it’s on them to put out books that sell.
But here’s the thing – I actually liked AGE OF ULTRON quite a bit. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I liked it. Now, I’m a crazy person who will pick up every Marvel title until the day he dies regardless of quality, and I do understand that some people are going to limit their titles to the ‘ones that matter’. I also think it’s great that they’re expressing their distaste for this series – I am not one of those people who cries that we should keep our mouths shut about comics we don’t enjoy (because where’s the fun in that?). I completely understand feeling like you had a fast one pulled on you, a comic where the title villain hardly makes an appearance, feeling as if you just purchased a $40 preview for Galactus eating an alternate universe where Hulk eats people.
However, there was so much about AoU I really enjoyed – the opening salvo of destruction by Bryan Hitch was, to my surprise, quite engrossing to me. I’m sure many of you will be prepared to make cries of hypocrisy after my distaste for MAN OF STEEL’s destruction porn, but I wasn’t upset that MOS had broken buildings and wanton destruction, I was upset that it had it without context, an endless barrage on the senses. Hitch’s highly detailed rendering felt out of place for the almost Looney Tunes style of THE ULTIMATES, but I thought it worked perfectly in selling a future of utter hopelessness. In fact, even the infamous ending of Captain America finding himself inert, so defeated that he found himself backed into a corner with not one idea as to how to save the world, moved me.
Granted, two issues devoted completely to setting a mood isn’t something we’re used to seeing in event comics, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. Tim O’Neil argues that blockbuster superhero comics should have different rules than an art house film, but I think that sort of distinction is ridiculous. Firstly, there’s nothing artistic or genre-defying about AoU – it only features minor cosmetic differences, such as opening with the villain having won without explanation, or becoming a completely different story halfway through – but we would be well off to see more unique sensibilities in the superhero comics world. Setting up yard posts or claiming that crossing a certain line turn your superhero books into cerebral pretense is the sort of thing that creates the kind of stagnation that critics (rightly) spend so much time rallying against.
After this sparse intro, Bendis gives a touching send-off to his favourite Avenger, so caustically referred to by the fanbase as the writers ‘pet’, Luke Cage. Cage’s drive to do in absolutely anything in the name of his family is rather touchingly executed in his final moments, and I’ve often been moved by Bendis’ obvious and sincere admiration for the character. After seeing many other Marvel heroes fall at the hands of Ultron’s robot army, the story takes a rather startling shift – in complete desperation, Wolverine travels back in time using Doctor Doom’s old time portal, to kill Hank Pym and stop Ultron from ever being created.
Followed by the Invisible Woman, it’s here that the story shifts into a further exploration of Wolverine’s gradual and conflicted maturation as a character. Wolverine’s internal struggle as a teacher of young mutants and murderer is fascinating on two levels – I’m not so sure Marvel will ever have the confidence to turn Logan into the pacifist the writers seem intent on turning him into, and as a result, Wolverine has become symbolic of the creative/commercial push and pull in mainstream superhero comics. As a character arc, it’s entirely fitting and moving that Logan would find a life of peace, but as a viable IP? The dude with knifes for hands has to kill stuff.
The unique world view of Wolverine and Sue Storm is captured pretty wonderfully by Bendis. This isn’t two characters I think I’d want to see in an old-fashioned team-up, but it really works – Storm is a very mature and intelligent woman, the complete antithesis to where Wolverine currently finds himself. The Storm of the AoU world has seen here family and friends murdered before her very eyes, her children stranded in deep space. She has a weariness, an understanding of the world well-earned, and despite Logan’s many years on her, she’s suffered a much deeper sort of pain than him. Their arguments about morality are fascinating and complex for this reason – it isn’t the tired boy scout versus rebel that we’re used to with Cyclops and Wolverine. It’s a person who sees problems as very complicated and manifold things versus someone who sees a problem as a task that needs solving.
AGE OF ULTRON also features the staples of time-travel stories, including an alternate timeline in which the Avengers are replaced by a team of Defenders consisting of Star-Lord, the Wasp, and a one-eyed Captain America, among others battling in a magic war with Morgan Le Fay. It’s fun stuff! Or at least, I had fun with it, as I did with Wolverine’s second trip through time, leading to an amusing convoluted argument with himself and Hank Pym. I never expected AGE OF ULTRON to be the way it is, but that isn’t a bad thing. I enjoyed having my expectations played with, I enjoyed seeing the summer event skewered ever so slightly, and the much ballyhooed Galactus/Angela ending honestly did fill me with a sense of excitement for ‘what comes next’.
AGE OF ULTRON is so weird. As a reflection of the superhero communities’ current taste and expectation of what a cape comic should be? It’s the worst. Almost passionately lazy in it’s storytelling, following storytelling tropes with an ardent responsibility, and completely unashamed in its disrespect for our artistic demands as an audience – treating artists as interchangeable producers of stock – AoU features a lack of plot, and an almost knowing superiority that we’ll buy whatever comic promises a revelation at the next World Changing Thing. However, it honestly does feature some brilliant characterization, a really unique exploration of Wolverine by contrasting him with a character I’d never think to pair him with. It sacrifices much of it’s page count to setting mood, something superhero comics in general rarely attempt. And, even if it is strict in following tropes, there is quite a bit of fun in seeing alternate futures, dystopian post-apoc settings and time travel paradox. AGE OF ULTRON is the worst, but, okay, I gotta be honest – I actually kinda liked it. And maybe that’s on me – maybe I’m the problem. Maybe we really have to think about what we want from these publishers and the level of quality we expect. Maybe we, and I know you’re sick of this cliche, finally start voting with our wallets, because just like Wolverine, we’ve got the ability to change the future.