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Brian Michael Bendis’ Avengers – The Age of Ultron (Review)

This March, to celebrate the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we’ll be taking a look at some classic and not-so-classic Avengers comic books. Check back daily for the latest updates!

Age of Ultron is Brian Michael Bendis’ last hurrah on Marvel’s massive Avengers franchise. Bendis began writing Avengers when it was a third-tier comic book property, and he was – in a large part – responsible for turning the comic franchise into a sales juggernaut. The fact that Marvel was simultaneously working on a massive cinematic universe built around these characters – if only because they’d sold off most of the other ones – probably didn’t hurt.

So, with Bendis moving off the Avengers franchise, ceding the crown of lead Avengers writer to up-and-comer Jonathan Hickman, he wrote Age of Ultron. It was a story the author had been hinting at for quite some time, from the first arc of his relaunched adjectiveless Avengers title through to his short run on Moon Knight. Having completed a grand sweeping story arc running from Avengers Disassembled through to Siege, Age of Ultron feels like an epilogue to Bendis’ run – a post-script to the tenure of the man who changed the franchise.

It also feels, rather awkwardly, like the most self-consciously Avengers-y Avengers story ever aveng(er)ed.

Over-exposure is killing Wolverine...

Over-exposure is killing Wolverine…

Bendis’ approach to the Avengers was iconoclastic. Part of what turned New Avengers into such a fascinating read was the way that it relentlessly skewered the sacred cows associated with the franchise. Bendis killed off Hawkeye; he turned the Scarlett Witch into a global threat; he destroyed the mansion; he recruited Wolverine and Spider-man to join the team – a move which made sense sales-wise and consolidate-your-major-brand-wise, but which clearly went against decades of precedent.

Bendis wasn’t shy when it came to criticism of the Avengers franchise’s history. New Avengers took the heroes from their lives of luxury and status, turning them into down-and-out social pariahs. The villains of Bendis’ run were less cartoonish than they had been in the past – corrupt political figures and street-level gangsters became concerns for the team. The Avengers seemed to spend as much time fighting each other as they did punching bad guys in the face.

Swinging into action...

Swinging into action…

There’s a very credible argument that Bendis effectively transposed the X-Men set-up to the Avengers. This isn’t as much of a criticism as it might sound – there is a reason that Uncanny X-Men became a breakout hit when it decided to focus on the trials of a bunch of down-and-out dysfunctional superheroes. From the outset, The Avengers have really been a very upper-class bunch of superheroes, characters who take pride in their place at the top of the superheroic food chain. They even have a butler, and characters like Hawkeye seem to take a surreal pride in their membership of the exclusive club.

Given how subversive and deconstructive Bendis’ New Avengers run had been, it’s fascinating that he spent most of the tail end of his run – his work in the short space of continuity that Marvel dubbed “The Heroic Age”, with the relaunch of adjectiveless Avengers following on from Siege – trying very hard to capture the look and feel of classic Avengers stories. There’s a sense that Bendis had blown everything apart and was now enjoying the opportunity to put it back together.

America, %$#! no...

America, %$#! no…

His work in this space has a decidedly old-school feel to it. This is obvious from his choice of artists on adjectiveless Avengers. On New Avengers, Bendis collaborated with rougher and more modern artists like David Finch and Lienel Yu; on Avengers, he worked with more conventional old-school veterans like John Romita Jr. or Walt Simonson. Even his choice of villains and his general storytelling style seemed more nostalgic – after years of telling a street-level grounded story, his first adjectiveless Avengers arc was a time-travel romp with Kang as the foe.

Age of Ultron is really the pinnacle of this shift in emphasis. The title is a clue – it’s a comic book built around one of the most classic Avengers bad guys. The last time that Bendis wrote for Ultron was in the opening arc of Mighty Avengers, a comic book that Bendis consciously styled as a more conventional Avengers throwback. The use of Ultron here is generic at best. He’s a genocidal bad guy who plans to destroy mankind… because.

Picture perfect...

Picture perfect…

There’s no effort made to define Ultron or what he wants. Indeed, Ultron is pretty far removed from the action for most of the story. The story opens with Ultron already having conquered the world, and it’s revealed quite quickly that he is controlling events from the future. Which might be an interesting story hook, but it’s really just introduced to make it harder for the heroes to stop him. Ultron is in the event’s title, but he is so generic that he could easily have been replaced by somebody like Apocalypse.

(Then again, Bendis has arguably never been particularly interested in writing generic supervillains. Early on, Peter Parker is rescued from the clutches of Hammerhead and the Owl. Asking what the two criminals did with him, Spider-Man explains, “Drugging me, talking crap, you know…” Sue Richards finishes for him, “Because that’s what they do.” There’s a sense that these sorts of supervillains are all generic and bland, and play into the tropes because that’s what generic and bland supervillains do.)

He's gone Stark raving mad...

He’s gone Stark raving mad…

Reinforcing this idea that Age of Ultron is Bendis’ big epic Avengers story, the opening issue starts with a very Bendis-ian street-level set up. A prostitute wanders through an urban wasteland, and is greeted by henchmen holding down the fort. “Hey, we got a honey deliver out here. Eh… about a seven.” It’s a scene that would not have looked out of place in Bendis’ Daredevil or Alias. Indeed, there’s even a reference to “mutant growth hormone” thrown in.

However, Bendis immediately up-ends this by throwing Hawkeye into the mix, before blowing up the entire operation with no ceremony before the end of the issue. During Bendis’ run on New Avengers, Hawkeye stood in for the most conventional of Avengers characters – the hero who defined his worth by the perks of being an Avenger, with Spider-Man rather beautifully shredding Hawkeye’s privilege and entitlement when the group found themselves laid low.

Eye see you...

Eye see you…

Throughout Bendis’ New Avengers work, there was a sense that Hawkeye was a wannabe hack, the kind of character who coasted through the franchise on entitlement. As such, the contrast with his portrayal in Age of Ultron is astounding. Hawkeye appears on the cover of the first issue, standing alone against Ultron. He’s later portrayed as the most decent of the survivors, returning to help his friend despite the concerns expressed by other members of the group.

“I told you that I am not giving up on what is left of our friends no matter what,” Hawkeye explains. “Shame on the rest of you for giving up.” Suddenly, Hawkeye’s stubbornness and brand loyalty are portrayed as strengths. Being the most Avenger-y Avenger has to stand for something after all, and it sets the tone for the rest of Age of Ultron, which is ultimately a story about how even Hank Pym is important and vital, despite being an absolute mess of a character. Because the classic Avengers matter. They deserve respect and celebration.

The gold coast...

The gold coast…

So Age of Ultron is absolutely packed with Avengers continuity and shout-outs, drawing from the entire history of the franchise. Fury’s top secret end-of-the-world bunker is filled with relics like Doctor Doom’s time platform and Iron Man’s Mark II armour from his “more… cocktailish days.” There aren’t too many nods to current continuity. Spider-Man is clearly written as Peter Parker, despite the status quo in Superior Spider-Man. The Avengers are led by the classic old-school Nick Fury, not any of his more recent counterparts or replacements.

When the world is broken by the death of Hank Pym, it’s the old-school Avengers baddies that assert themselves. The Kree-Skrull War is treated as a major catastrophe, with only a few passing allusions to Secret Invasion. Tony Stark finds himself at war with classic Avengers villainess Morgana Le Fey. There’s no suggestion that anything like Civil War or Dark Reign actually happened in this dystopian alternate timeline.

A straight arrow...

A straight arrow…

In short, Age of Ultron is written as a very nostalgic and old-fashioned Avengers book. Which is the biggest problem with the gigantic crossover. Quite simply, this isn’t where Brian Bendis’ strangths lie. Bendis is an excellent writer for character-driven plots and morally complex narratives. He is less adept at stand superhero fighting conventions. (This is why the build up to Secret Invasion was so much more effective than the event itself.)

Similarly, the decision to pair Bendis with Brian Hitch on the first few issues feels ill-judged. Hitch is easily one of the best comic book artists working today, but his strengths lie in character interactions and expression. It feels like a waste of Hitch to ask him to draw double-page spreads of epic destruction and dead bodies, even if these are a staple of the kind of story that Bendis wants to write here.

Hulk has a smashing time...

Hulk has a smashing time…

There are other problems. Age of Ultron really lacks a tightly-knit cast. It sprawls across time and space with a large ensemble, but there’s never a single character to root the reader firmly in this world. The book opens with Hawkeye, shifts to Moon Knight and Black Widow, then to Fury, then to Wolverine and Sue Storm. There are some nice beats for some of those characters, but the story would feel a lot stronger if any of them were allowed to hold focus. Similarly – despite being the focus of the crossover – Pym and Ultron feel like shadows more than characters.

There’s also a weird sense that Bendis isn’t entirely convinced by the story he’s telling. Age of Ultron is really about validating the importance of The Avengers as a franchise with a rich (and troubled) history. It’s telling that the two characters who travel back in time and break history are associated with two high-profile Marvel teams that aren’t The Avengers. It is implied that Wolverine’s lack of appreciation for Avengers history leads to the dystopian future. “There was a Kree/Skrull War?” he muses at one point. “Must’ve been before my time.”

Piecing it all together...

Piecing it all together…

However, Age of Ultron is also critical of the Avengers as an institution. It opens with the Avengers defeated. “Your society failed,” Ka-Zar accuses, correctly. Tony Stark himself laughs at how entitled and reckless the Avengers had been – remarking on the readiness with which the team accepted a robot member designer by one of their most frequently recurring opponents. “Ha! He builds a robot and we take it in!”

There’s no denying that everything Ultron has done is Hank Pym’s fault, even if murdering Hank Pym in cold blood is not the right answer. Bendis treats the story as having two alternatives – either Hank Pym dies, or the time line will remain the same. The story ends with the ridiculously trite solution of having Pym programme in a “back door” to Ultron’s artificial intelligence that the team can exploit in the relative present. Why can’t they do it in the past? Yes, Hank Pym’s death results in a dystopia, but there’s no reason why stopping Ultron at the earliest opportunity couldn’t lead to an equivalent or better universe.

Everything burns...

Everything burns…

It feels like Bendis is trying to make a point – much like his extended New Avengers run was a meditation on the place of superheroes in the twenty-first century. Here, Bendis is meditating on the importance of history and continuity. A dying Tony Stark explains the situation to Wolverine. “The reason we don’t just do whatever we want whenever things don’t go our way is because we can’t,” he tells the X-Man with the most elastic past. To Tony, the history of the Marvel universe is a living breathing thing. “You tear it. You hurt it. If you keep doing it eventually you will kill it. You’ll break it beyond repair.”

This feels like Bendis trying to justify the decades of back story underpinning the shared Marvel Universe, and it feels particularly pointed since Age of Ultron was published in the wake of Flashpoint. In Flashpoint, DC essentially rebooted their one universe to start from scratch with “the New 52.” There was some small measure of speculation that the time travel antics in Age of Ultron might lead to a similar reboot-type situation for the Marvel universe. It did not. When Marvel attempted a sales-boosting relaunch with Marvel NOW!, the company made a point to keep its history and continuity intact, rather than starting from scratch.

Striking with a Fury...

Striking with a Fury…

(Indeed, Age of Ultron ends with Bendis actively expanding Marvel’s continuity – rather than restricting it. The series ends with the one-page introduction of Neil Gaiman’s Angela, a character created in the mid-nineties at the publisher Image. As such, Angela is folded into the wider Marvel universe, bringing her own narrative weight and back story with her. The Marvel universe becomes bigger, rather than smaller.)

To be fair, Bendis does have a point here. There is something intriguing about watching characters grow and develop over decades. “Ultron wasn’t the only one evolving,” Hank Pym reflects towards the end of the crossover, and it’s nice to have all this weight that can be used to leverage character arcs and forward momentum. On the other hand, continuity can also become heavy and burdensome – a collection of items referenced and used because of their familiarity, rather than their intrinsic worth. Far too often, Bendis’ Age of Ultron seems to be laden with that sort of burden.

Things get a bit shaken up...

Things get a bit shaken up…

Age of Ultron should be one last triumphant hurrah for Brian Michael Bendis before the author migrates to the X-Men or Guardians of the Galaxy books. Sadly, it feels more like a dull footnote than a grand epilogue.

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2 Responses

  1. Very happy you brought back some comic reviews! Not being a fan of Star Trek, I was just about to give up checking back in.

    A quick note: Flashpoint was published alongside Fear Itself in 2011. Age of Ultron came out in early 2013.

    • Good spot. Will correct promptly! Forgot how recent AoU was.

      Thanks for the kind words. There should be a new comic review every week day in March, and – I’m hoping – April and May to boot.

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