Today, Ethan and Drew are discussing Age of Ultron 2, originally released March 13th, 2013. This issue is part of the Age of Ultron crossover event. Click here for complete AU coverage.
Ethan: In recent years, after the financial markets fell screaming into their perennial nosedive, the city of Detroit hasn’t done so well. Workers who had spent their lives with a company were laid off, branches were closed, businesses died, buildings were abandoned. Over time, the violence of the changes and departures faded as the temperatures, wind, and microorganisms went to work. Materials that we associate with longevity — brick, stone, even plastics — took on a distinctly alien appearance of decay. The effect even got a name — “ruin porn” — and photographers from across the country flocked to capture the scenes. Reading through the second issue of Age of Ultron evokes the same mix of wonder and horror, albeit the decay is in much fresher stage, and the characters are fictional. Bryan Hitch continues to deliver impressive vistas of metropolis in its death throes, and writer Brian Michael Bendis fills these images with sparks of life as the heroes try to find their place in the new world.
We’ve left New York for San Francisco, but you’d be forgiven for not noticing the change in scene; everything is just as bad here as in the Big Apple. A woman in a cloak makes her way through the rubble, over stacks of corpses. She pauses as a trio of Ultron drones fly by in gold-glinting formation. The machines either don’t see her as she stands behind a pillar, or the don’t care. The uneasy peace ends when a man with a gun confronts her in a haphazard mugging. As he stammers his way through, the woman voices her contempt at the half-hearted crime and throws off her hood, revealing herself as the Black Widow. The incident ends with a sniper’s bullet dropping the would-be robber, and Natasha bantering via sign language with her rescuer — Moon Knight on an adjacent rooftop, hefting a rifle. They meet back up at their safe house, which turns out to be one of Nick Fury’s hideouts from the Skrull Invasion. Back in New York (“Central Park, Under It”) Spider-Man pulls himself together and tells the other superheroes that his kidnappers were trying to sell him to Ultron. As everyone voices their doubts and questions as to whether or why a superpowerful AI menace is purchasing their kind, Captain America cuts the chatter, finally standing up and stating that he has a plan.
This issue is less about action and more about deepening the sense of gravity and despair. Last time, Hawkeye shot so many people through the throat it almost started to be funny; Bendis spends most of this issue either contemplative or silent, letting Hitch do the heavy lifting. As we watch Natasha carry out her recon of the city, panels like the ones here defeat our ability to gauge the passage of time — it’s hard to know whether they cover 5 minutes or 2 hours:
All of that deafening quiet gets the point across: Things Are Different Now. We’re beyond the flashy, mid-air fights with a goofy supervillain; we’re past hordes of green-skinned aliens staging a coup; we’re not even caught up in the terrific inferno of the Phoenix Force killing off iconic, bald, psychic professors. We’re at the end. There is no clear path forward. We have reached the blank “Notes:” pages thoughtfully included in the back of the superhero playbook.
As beautiful and as different as it is, too much of this — even punctuated by the scene of Ultron drones immolating a few people — and we would all start to get very depressed or very bored. Thankfully, our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man is there to remind us that even when killer robots are taking over the planet, all is not lost. Even though he’s still clearly processing the disaster, and his quips are a little thinner on the ground than last issue, he’s got some shreds of the spunk that everyone else seems to have lost. While his fellows are doing a lot of in-fighting and eyebrow furrowing, Peter Parker (slash Doc Ock… that’s still so weird) manages to keep up the Good Guy narrative. Maybe they can’t win as easily as they usually do — maybe they can’t even win — but gosh darn it they’re going to keep moving forward.
I’m really enjoying the concept of this arc, and I’m wondering where it fits in. Ok, Emma Frost is working with some good guys, so… it’s after the current volume of Uncanny X-Men? But with so much destruction and so many dead, could this storyline really take place in the standard universe/timeline? For now it looks like we’ll have to wait and see. How about you, Drew? Any theories of how this fits in with anything else, or where it’s going? Which obliterated urban center will we get to see next?
Drew: Allow me to tackle that last question first: thanks to our handy dandy preview of issue 3, I can say with some authority that Chicago is next. That new location will be key in establishing how yet another group of heroes are coping with the invasion (hint: their plan involves a lot more SMASHING), in much the same way this issue’s peek at San Francisco gave us a ground-level view of how Natasha and Marc are surviving. I loved the details about life in the Age of Ultron, but I was a little distracted by their conversation, which felt a bit like Checkov’s plan-to-kill-Ultron-with-a-nuke. Their situation sinks beneath the sub-heroism of Tony’s “survive” comment — they’re not just a neutral force that fails to fight off Ultron; they’re a destructive force that is killing civilians (and stealing their candy bars) — which makes them extremely unlikely heroes in this story.
I’m still very new to Bendis, and while I’ve been a staunch defender of All-New X-Men, this issue bore out all of the negative criticisms I’ve ever heard leveled against him. This issue felt padded to the point of wheel-spinning. Frankly, I’m not convinced any of the information here was necessary. We already knew that we were living in a post-apocalyptic dystopia, and Peter’s flashback hardly carries any information that we couldn’t have gleaned from the last issue (it really boils down to “I was captured. Also, I can’t tell you anything about Ultron’s invasion.”) To me, the only point of resolution or change from the previous issue was Cap’s newfound hope, but honestly, if the first issue had simply ended with the final page of this issue, I don’t think we would have lost anything valuable (you know, besides the foreshadowing that Natasha and Marc will, in fact, shove a nuclear warhead up Ultron’s ass).
It’s disappointing — I so enjoyed that the first issue started after the invasion, I was really hoping we would just build towards a huge climax, but this issue slowed the story to an absolute standstill. I’m with you, Ethan, on the effectiveness of the dialogue-free passages as Natasha explores the ruins of San Francisco, but Bendis and Hitch return to that well a few to many times, and with diminishing returns. Take this page showing how Natasha gets from the surface to Fury’s hideout:
Unless we’re meant to understand that the chair lowers i m p o s s i b l y slowly, most of those panels seem superfluous to me. “Chair descends into secret lair” isn’t a complicated concept, and could have easily been conveyed in two panels. It’s flabby, and feels distinctly like Bendis is drawing out the story so he can end the issue yet again on a surprise splash of Captain America.
I feel silly asking for fewer of Hitch’s panels, though. The guy is cramming an insane amount of details into these panels. His dystopian wastelands are a wonder to behold, but I can’t get over his panorama of New York as Ultron descends.
No joke, that’s more detailed than many photographs. Hitch is putting so much work into these pages, it’s hard to fault him for taking his time with some of these scenes. Still, some judicious editing could have served to tighten this issue (and likely the issue count of this miniseries).
It’s fitting that you should mention Detroit, Ethan, since much of the talk of the city currently revolves around the appointment of an emergency manager — the city has been so sluggish to address its problems for so long, that the state needed to step in to accelerate the process. Age of Ultron is by no means in such dire straights, but this issue felt like a bit of a misstep for me. It’s a bummer, but that preview promises a bit more superhero action, and the promise of a motivated Cap should right this ship in no time. Color me cautiously optimistic.
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