Marvel Comics released an original graphic novel this week, Avengers: Rage of Ultron, written by Rick Remender and illustrated by Jerome Opena, with Pepe Larraz, and additional inks by Mark Morales. Supposedly in continuity the story pits the Avengers of today and yesterday against the threat of Ultron, ending with mind-boggling circumstances and an insubstantial cliffhanger. The title nails it – rage, which is what I felt while reading it. Be prepared for spoilers, and meet me after the time jump for my angry thoughts about Rage of Ultron.
The original graphic novel proposes that a battle took place at some point in the past, where the Avengers defeated Ultron and launched him into space. Based on the line-up of the team, it is strongly suggested that this lost tale of the Avengers took place some time in the late 1970s, one might presume during the Jim Shooter/David Michelinie era. I was reminded of the long ago battle the Avengers had with the combined forces of the Grim Reaper, the Space Phantom, and the hordes of Hydra. Captain America had flashbacks, memories of a fight that he could not remember, a conflict that could not have actually occurred. Something was not right about this adventure from the past.
First, this was the modern interpretation of Captain America, based more on his Ultimate version rather than the superhero of the Bronze Age this was supposed to be. I dismissed this at first to the artist not doing his homework, much like I would soon dismiss this odd roster of Avengers that never really existed. This team did not exist. During the time this may have happened we saw the Avengers on a nearly day to day basis in their comic pages. There were no sudden drop-ins or drop-outs in membership. If this was the team of a certain time, I have to ask, where is the Black Panther? Where is Wonder Man? And why is Thor here? This would have been during the time he was absent and being pulled from time to save the Avengers at the last minute, right?
It gets worse when we look at wardrobe. Captain America is only the tip of the iceberg. For some reason, Wanda apparently decided to wear her long gloves that she hadn’t worn in years that morning. Hawkeye is wearing his twenty-first century duds and riding a skycycle he wouldn’t have until his West Coast Avengers days. The Wasp, who had long before this abandoned headgear and her ‘secret’ identity is wearing a costume with a mask! And then there’s Ultron, in his disappointing current form as opposed to the infinitely more frightening George Perez design.
I was thankful to see Iron Man and Thor done right for the time, as well as the real quinjet. The quinjet indicates that Jerome Opena did in fact do some research, but apparently not enough. I’m not just going to pick on the artist, because writer Rick Remender, whose work on Uncanny Avengers I have enjoyed, didn’t get everything right either. Avengers Beast is happy go lucky but intelligent Beast, he gets that right, but other dynamics go awry. Hawkeye would refer to his friend as Hank, not Pym, and he would similarly trust the Vision, both of them longtime teammates. And the Scarlet Witch wouldn’t know about her chaos magic yet.
There’s more. Even as a deceit in a trap, I doubt Yellowjacket would have had such an intimate conversation with Ultron. I believe that before he met Ultron Mark 12, Pym had nothing but hate for his creation. And for Ultron, of which this should be 8, 9, or 10, would never rush to save his ‘father.’ This all struck me as more than just out of character writing and badly researched design, I honestly thought something else was going on here. Remember when the Avengers first encountered the Council of Kangs? We saw many different versions of the Avengers that were merely divergent teams created by temporal anomolies. I like Remender, so I was holding out hope that perhaps Kang was involved here as well.
No such luck however. This lost adventure with an odd teaming of Avengers who defeat Ultron by shooting him into space is indeed meant to be in continuity. It ignores that fact that there have been other Ultrons since this time. But that said, there are things that Remender gets right in this lost adventure. The Avengers as a well-oiled team, Captain America’s leadership, the Beast’s post-X-Men pre-Defenders personality – these are all good. And Opena’s art, however out of sync with how it should be, is gorgeous.
I even liked the interchange between Pym and Ultron. The machine knowing he was programmed after Pym himself, something I don’t think he was ever aware of before, is chilling, and his acknowledgement that he has affected how the world perceives his ‘father,’ are all excellent observations. But Hank saying he loves Ultron? I can’t go there, not based on their history. Hank had such a hard time accepting the aforementioned Mark 12 that I find this exchange hard to believe.
We move to the present day and I’m in for a bit of future shock as I haven’t really picked up an Avengers comic since Infinity. These are the Avengers?? I know about female Thor and the Falcon taking over as Captain America, and I’m okay with Vision, Scarlet Witch (no matter how different they both are from the versions I grew up with), and Spider-Man. The problem is here’s the Wasp in a mask again. Did she reinstate her secret identity while I wasn’t looking? And Quicksilver is also masked and talking about his underwear… this can’t possibly be Pietro, can it? And Sabretooth? Well, I guess it’s a step up from Wolverine.
They are fighting Father and the Descendents, foes from previous Remender work, and it’s not the battle that counts so much as the resolution. Pym, now Giant-Man, turns off these machine foes, and he does it without remorse, without any feeling at all – completely out of character. This causes immediate friction with the Vision, he himself a machine. There could be some precedent here. There’s never been any talk of Pym being the ‘grandfather’ of the Vision. I might even bring up that my favorite Pym moment, during the classic Jim Shooter/John Byrne Nefaria trilogy, where Pym literally treats and uses the Vision as a weapon. What does Pym really think of the Vision? This would have been brilliant had Pym actually been behaving in character.
Hank’s explanation to the Wasp after the confrontation is even more troubling. Yes, he’s had some rough times after and during the Avengers A.I. series, but he shouldn’t have this mindset. For years, since escaping the grasp of Brian Michael Bendis, Hank has been a character of hope, of looking forward, of being positive. I was crushed, and completely non-believing, when Hank, the original Ant-Man referred to ants as ‘inferior.’ Who is this person? It’s most certainly not Hank Pym.
Scenes switch to a remarkably Thanos-free Titan. When was the last time we saw Titan without Thanos in a Marvel Comic? In more than four decades of reading comics I can’t say it’s ever happened until now, and the mad god still gets a mention. Regardless, I liked the interlude with former Avenger Starfox, hey, at least some of the past is still intact. It was good to see Mentor again, only to see him apparently die, but of course this won’t be the only death we see in these hundred-plus pages.
Ultron lands on Titan obviously, rather than speeding off to deep space. This intriguing parallel to Planet Hulk makes me wonder why editorial would allow the same plot. Titan is overrun almost immediately, Ultron taking over Isaac the computer that runs Titan. This creates a fearsome image as the planet takes the form of Ultron’s visage, much like Darkseid did to Daxam in The Great Darkness Saga, or any appearance of Ego the Living Planet. It’s old school, and clichéd, but still scary.
Starfox runs for help, naturally to his former allies in the Avengers, only to find them locked in bitter discussion over Pym’s actions against the Descendents. The facts of what’s coming seem to change a few minds. Ultron must also be ‘turned off.’ The Vision, apparently more machine than human in this incarnation is still the declining force. Unfortunately the discussion is cut off by Ultron’s attack. His weapons of choice are robotic Avengers, designed after the last version he knew – again ignoring any Ultrons that have existed since.
The problem is that Ultron has become more like an infection and is infecting living beings. So if Pym were to ‘turn off’ Titan for instance, every living being on Titan would die. Same thing goes for the Avengers that Ultron has infected in his attack on Earth. Remender has shaped an interesting dilemma here, up there with other major decisions the team has had to make as in Galactic Storm, Civil War, and even Secret Invasion. Who lives, who dies, and who decides?
The Vision makes a decision, and devises a plan. He will merge with Ultron, releasing those infected, and then activate Pym’s turn off device, killing Ultron – and sacrificing himself in the process. As the original Vision I grew up with might observe, it would be the only logical choice. Of course, something goes wrong…
What do you do with a character when you no longer know what to do with them? One major example of this kind of thinking is the Silver Age Flash over at DC Comics. When their Crisis on Infinite Earths was coming up and editors were looking for hero deaths to make the story more dramatic, series writer Cary Bates offered up his title character Barry Allen. It wasn’t that the Flash should die, it was that Bates couldn’t figure out anything else to do with him. They had married him off, killed his wife, put him on trial – Bates had simply run out of ideas. Sooo… let’s just kill him.
Hank Pym has been there. How many times has he changed his identity? How many times has he lost his mind? And then there are the two gigantic black marks against him – he created Ultron, the Avengers’ greatest enemy, and he slapped his wife, once. Which evil is worse, that is an argument for internet trolls to battle over, but these two events have served as the basis for the character, for good or bad, for decades.
The creation of Ultron and the split personality of Yellowjacket were written off as being caused by outside sources, but forgotten. The slap was actually a miscommunication between writer Jim Shooter and artist Bob Hall, but still the stigma remains. Hank Pym will always be cursed by these two events, especially in the eyes of writers who don’t do their research.
Various times he has been redeemed, by Steve Englehart and by John Byrne in West Coast Avengers, by the master Kurt Busiek in the main title, and by Dan Slott in Mighty Avengers. He was even redeemed by Bendis of all people in the Age of Ultron maxi-series. If you can’t make a redemption stick by any one of these comics legends, you have a serious problem. Hank Pym has had it rough, and writers have had it rougher trying to write him. What to do? Let’s kill him.
We Are Ultron
I should have known it by the way the narrative worked. Throughout the graphic novel, we are in Pym’s mind. No one likes Pym, other than myself and a handful of fans from the old days, from before the character’s two giant black marks, no writer would use him to tell a story… unless it was the last story. There is some brilliant dialogue between Pym and Ultron about how the robot knows he is actually Pym – well, to be precise, built on Pym’s brain patterns just as the Vision was on Wonder Man’s and Jocasta on the Wasp’s. It by no means indicates they are the same, but it does here.
The Vision’s plan goes awry, and Pym merges with Ultron, becoming one. This is of course the merging and ‘death’ of Pym I had predicted a couple years back in Bendis’ Age of Ultron. Together they smash through the Vision and Captain America. Then Starfox unleashes his power on Ultron, the power of love. The composite beast freaks out, and retreats to space, and we leave him floating there in the fetal position, human heart beating…
And then the funeral, the funeral of Dr. Henry Pym. Where are we left with this story? What kind of end is this? And how will Secret Wars and the sweeping continuity changes we suspect affect this ending? My favorite Avenger is dead, or at the very least, changed irrevocably. I still wonder if the continuity errors seen in the lost adventure are perhaps the manipulations of Kang the Conquerer. Yes, I have hope, I must.
Rage of Ultron? No, it’s my rage. Hank Pym is dead. Long live Hank Pym. Think about it, death means nothing in the Marvel Universe, and Hank’s been through worse than this…