This has been a long time coming. Age of Ultron is the latest in a long line of Brian Michael Bendis scripted Marvel events, continuing in a tradition that stretches way back to Avengers Disassembled as the event that sets the direction for the next year or so of the Marvel Universe. He’s taken more of a back seat for the past two, being one of many writers on Avengers Vs X-Men, and being barely involved in Fear Itself, which was Matt Fraction’s rodeo. Now he’s back in the driving seat for a title that we should have gotten a long time ago. Age of Ultron was first previewed, with pages that appear in this very issue, in the Point One one-shot way back in November of 2011. Those pages appear unchanged here, and we finally get the context for them.
Now, the biggest problem with Age of Ultron is the biggest problem with Brian Bendis: It ignores giant chunks of continuity. This book just doesn’t fit in with what’s going on right now. This is, of course, because it’s been finished for well over a year, since way before Marvel NOW, and even before AvX. It’s glaringly obvious that this story takes place before both AvX and Superior Spider-Man. Not only does a mutant character seem to have a power that they no longer have in the current X-Books, but the Spider-Man we get here is apparently not of the Superior variety.
As with many comic book fans, continuity is a bit of a sticking point for me. I do try not to get hung up on continuity (Bendis clearly doesn’t) as it’s a big mess in comics. But some things just bug me, and considering that Marvel is trumpeting that this book will “change the face of the Marvel Universe”, I think the writer and editorial team have a responsibility to make sure it fits in with what’s going on. Okay, I may be paraphrasing that particular piece of Marvel hyperbole, but the fact remains that if you want to play in the sandbox, you have to play with the sand that’s there. Of course, since most of the problems come from the fact that this story should have happened a year ago, there seem to be bigger problems at Marvel then getting their continuity straight.
One of the main reasons that this book is so late (allegedly) is the art of the notoriously slow Bryan Hitch. He’s an incredibly well regarded artist, despite his tardiness, but I have never been a big fan of his work, even on The Ultimates, which is a book I love dearly. Now, there is denying that Hitch is a master of design and layout. The opening pages of a ruined New York in this issue are beautiful, intricately detailed vistas. But then people appear. Now Hitch renders every single line lovingly, showing us every bristle of facial hair and bead of sweat, but the one thing his figures are lacking is life. There’s a serious dearth of expression in their bodies, and his faces are either grimacing or blank.There may be plenty of detail, expertly augmented by Paul Neary’s precise inks, but I found the people here dead behind the eyes. Which is a terrible shame, because on a purely technical level, they’re drawn so well. Well, that’s harsh: there is something going on in these character’s faces, it’s by no means Greg Land levels of doll-like renderings, but it definitely lacks soul.
As I said, the technical aspects of Hitch’s work are admirable. The scope of his panels are expansive, although this also cuts down on the amount of them we have and thus leaves him with less to play with for storytelling purposes. It’s also worth mentioning Paul Mounts’ colour work, which lays an oppressive coldness on the proceedings which fits the artificial nature of the Ultron conquered world beautifully. There’s also the truly impressive panels during an attack by Ultron drones in which Hitch lays a ghost effect over his own art, giving a very effective feel of the earth shaking under the assault of the Ultrons. However, neat trick as it is, we’ve already seen it, as those are the pages the were released back in 2011. The action has a pleasing weight to it, and there’s plenty of it to showcase Hitch’s eye for cinematic visuals. There’s a lot to like about the art here, it’s just a shame the characters aren’t any of those things.
Plotting wise, this falls into the old Bendis trap of being way too slow. The issue takes an admirable opening gambit by throwing us straight into this dark and broken vision of New York City with no explanation as to what happened, picking up on Hawkeye as a one-man rescue team for another of Earth’s Mightiest being held in a derelict New York house. There’s some great action, but the dialogue is glib Bendis-by-numbers, and nowhere near the calibre of his best work. Hawkeye pulls his teammate out of the fire, escapes the Ultron drones… and then it’s over about 5 pages later. Nowhere near enough happens here. Too much time is wasted on the (admittedly beautiful) Bryan Hitch vistas and widescreen shots.
Also, no-one is acting like they usually do. This may be due to the fact that they’re in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, it may be because Bendis is inconsistent. It’s too early to tell. But I really feel like this is an alternate universe story, calling back to Age of Apocalypse and Age of X in more than just name, despite Marvel and Bendis insisting that is a story set in the 616 universe, in continuity and will have lasting repercussions. That’s just hard to swallow when the characters feel so different from how they are currently in Marvel NOW. Spider-Man is the biggest offender in this issue, with no reference being made to the situation that is the status quo in his own book which, to confuse matters further, also has an upcoming Age of Ultron tie-in issue. The delays on this book have caused it to be completely out of touch with the wider Marvel Universe, despite it being, apparently, a major game-changer in terms of things to come for the MU. There are the seeds of a potentially great What If…? tale in here, a spiritual successor to Age of Apocalypse, buried in the first issue of Age of Ultron. They’re just buried so deep under a series of bad decisions and publishing delays, I’m seriously concerned that they might not be given the chance to bloom due to Marvel’s insistence that this is be a big Marvel Universe Event.
When all’s said and done, there just isn’t enough content here. Some people are going to come for Bryan Hitch’s art, and those people will be satisfied. But I came for story, and found it lacking. I’m hoping we get a lot more plot next issue, because as pretty as it is, I think four pages of Hitch’s vision of destroyed New York is space that could have been better devoted to telling some sort of story. Because at the end of the day, regardless of which version of whatever fictional universe these stories are set in, regardless of how it affects what comes after or is affected by what we came before, these are supposed to be stories. And there’s nowhere near enough of a story in this issue.