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Age of Ultron #1 Review

AGE OF ULTRON #1

By: Brian Michael Bendis (Writer), Bryan Hitch (Penciler), Paul Neary (Inker), Paul Mounts (Colorist), VC’s Cory Petit (Letterer)

The Review: Bleak: that is my one-word review of Age of Ultron’s opening salvo. Not in terms of quality, but certainly in terms of tone. Sure, from the hype and the previews I knew it wasn’t going to be a Short Circuit-style Rom-Com but I didn’t know it would get so dark so fast. By the end of the issue some or all of your favourite Marvel heroes are either beaten, broken or dead, and if not they’ve apparently been compromised to the core. Not even Squirrel Girl could magic them outta this mess.

Let me first make the case that I doubt the horror and dread of the story could have been captured with anywhere near the same levels of precision by anyone other than Bryan Hitch. It’s career-defining work. There are moments of shocking violence among landscapes wrought with devastation and ruin which are portrayed with such unflinching clarity that it’s almost too big an ask to reconcile this book with the Marvel Universe proper;  if you squint, you could easily mistake this for a long-lost first draft of Ultimates 3.

A lame comparison perhaps (this is the same widescreen art that made Millar and Hitch’s Ultimates 1 & 2 so rich after all) but it’s not just based on the visuals. Hawkeye, the book’s main focus, is a hundred times more violent here than you’ll have seen him in any 616-iteration of the Avengers. He’s taking no prisoners; shooting dudes through the chest, neck and head, racking up a body count that would make the Marvel MAX line blush. When we meet Spidey he’s stripped to the waist, tied to a chair, and has evidently been being tortured by a trio of ‘roided up goons, one of whom menacingly wields a vicious-looking knife. There’s a strongly suggested air of sexual violence and servitude towards the female members of the book’s background cast. Joe Quesada once said of Marvel’s readership that “The 8-year-old comic reader is a myth”; on this evidence I hope he’s right. I’m no prude but I’d balk at the idea of any pre-teens getting their hands on this.

Still, as an older and (dare I say) well-adjusted reader, it at least keeps you on your toes, as does the plot-structure Bendis has employed. We don’t so much start at the beginning of the story but rather the middle. At this stage Ultron appears to have achieved a near-complete victory. It’s strongly implied that at this point the heroes went up against Ultron but were roundly beaten, sent running with their tails between their legs. Now we’re witnessing the fall-out.

A robotic, Skynet-inspired structure looms over New York, and what all that remains of the City are bombed-out derelicts of buildings housing criminal elements who are thriving as best they can in a post-apocalyptic landscape devoid of law, order and heroics. Nestled in the wreckage of a downed Helicarrier the remains of the Avengers are left to lick their wounds, having succumbed to paranoia and in-fighting. The old guard, the heroes who would otherwise rally the troops, are left sobbing in the corner, figuratively and literally. As a life-long Cap fan the book’s final page will stay with me for a good long while.

The oppressive atmosphere is, as previously mentioned, captured perfectly by Bryan Hitch. Highly detailed wide-angle shots of the broken City fill double-page spreads with horrific majesty, and the cinematic action streams perfectly over frenzied panels crammed with detail. Paul Mounts’ squalid color pallete is a perfect match for Hitch’s corrosive imagery with its muddied and subdued tones, and Neary’s inks add an all-round HD precision. All in all the effect is nothing if not harrowing. If Bendis’ original script called for an all-pervasive sense of despair to be etched into every page, the art team were fully commited to delivering all that and more.

And really, if I applaud this book for nothing else it’s its success in iliciting no less than that powerful emotion: despair. I finished the book, sealed it back in its Polyethylene bag and felt a little shell-shocked; what the hell has happened to these, the heroes of our childhood? No pithy quips, no smiles, no haymaker punches putting evil in its place. Instead it’s is blood and arrows and tears and torture and loss and tragedy. One issue in and Age of Ultron makes Marvel’s Heroic Age feel like a distant memory – a forgotten relic, a failed experiment. Make of that what you will.

If I have one gripe (other than, y’know, DESPAIR!!!) it’s that the well-documented issues surrounding the book’s production do hamper its efforts continuity-wise. The main problem? Spider-Man. To me, there’s no doubt this book was written with Peter Parker, not Otto Octavius, behind the wheel. I guess this problem will be confronted in Superior Spider-Man’s tie-in issue, but for the moment it’s a little odd. I guess we’re quite a ways into the future here, so hey, I won’t get too hung up on it. Luke Cage back as an Avenger? Well I guess in times of such dire need it makes sense he’d re-join his compatriots. Minor problems all, and if you can willingly suspend you sense of disbelief enough to accept Hawkeye ruthlessly killing his way through the entire issue this kinda stuff is hardly a deal-breaker.

Conclusion:  If you equate a more realistic depiction of villainy and violence with a move towards conceptual maturity then this is something of an unqualified success. It may not be what you’ve come to expect from Marvel but there it is: take it or leave it. It’s early days for Age of Ultron but darkly impressive ones, and while we’ve all seen our fair share of Marvel crossover events nosedive into mediocrity following strong opening issues, as far as introductions go this one’s a doozy. Just don’t expect your favourite hero to pop up and save the day. Chances are they’ve already tried – and failed.

Grade: A

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