Today, Patrick and Ethan are discussing Age of Ultron 4, originally released April 3rd, 2013. This issue is part of the Age of Ultron crossover event. Click here for complete AU coverage.
Patrick: One of the things I’ve absolutely loved about picking up monthly comics is that I’ve had the opportunity to get know the work of a ton of great writers and artists. It pains me a little to think of how few people will ever read a funny exchange written by Jeff Lemire, and how few people will never see Adam Hughes masterful acting simply because they don’t read comics. Drew, Shelby and myself have been at this for over a year — I like to think we’re in the club now — and I have this brand new skill of identifying someone by their work. Brian Michael Bendis, the writer behind Age of Ultron is notorious for his massively decompressed stories, and between this series, Guardians of the Galaxy, and his X-Men books, I feel like I can spot his handiwork a mile away. But Age of Ultron is a special case, and its glacial pace allows almost every issue to be a Bryan Hitch vanity project. This makes it kind of tough to discuss in the same way we discuss other comics, but it’s clear now that this is the series’ identity – the problematic obsessions with character development and plot and theme are mine and not Ultron’s. Retcon Punch needs a new way to talk about comics. Alright, let’s see what we got.
The issue opens on Luke Cage and She-Hulk realizing their plan is totally fucked – trading a hero for access to Ultron won’t work because the heart of this operation is Vision, and the Ultron A.I. is somewhere else entirely. They bail, but not nearly quickly enough: the Ultron-bots blast She-Hulk in the head (killing her) and chase Cage through the streets, eventually detonating an ATOMIC BOMB in New York. Luckily, the New York contingent of the survivors are high above the city when the bomb goes off, protected in equal parts by Storm and Sue Storm. Eight days pass and our three discrete survivor “groups” arrive at Ka-Zar’s village in the Savage Lands. I throw up those sarcastic little quotes around “groups” because the Chicago contingent has been slimmed down to just Red Hulk.
That Red Hulk thing is pretty fucked up, so let’s start there. Taskmaster was rummaging around in the rubble (which is the best possible place to rummage), when Red Hulk materializes and asks him what he’s doing. Taskmaster says that he’s just adhering to their plan – scavenge Ultron tech and get the fuck out of the windy city. Without any warning, Red Hulk straight-up smashes Taskmaster.
I can’t totally make out what’s happening in that image, but my best guess says Tasky is dead now. And save the explanation of “I don’t trust you,” there’s not any reason for it. I thought Red Hulk was supposed to be a civilized version of the Hulk – maybe not so civil that he’d sit down for tea, but at least civil enough not to obliterate his friend’s torso. It’s an odd bit of character work, and it seems almost completely unmotivated. But that’s not the only bizarre piece of storytelling in this issue.
When our heroes arrive in the Savage Lands, Ka-Zar informs them that Cage is a) still alive; b) in the village; and c) hanging on until he can impart his intel about Vision. This scene plays out, not because we see Cage interacting with Spider-Man or Tony Stark or whatever, but because Emma Frost reads his mind and Wolverine smells him. It’s a wacky way to convey this information, and I sorta hate not seeing Cage in this moment. Emma details that he’s hanging on by a thread, and that he somehow piloted a jet (which he doesn’t know how to fly) in order to make it to the Savage Lands. Why would we not get a satisfying moment with Cage after he went to such heroic lengths to get there? It’s also frustrating that this surprise reveal is so rushed and mostly happens off-screen. There’s so much page real estate given over to establishing Ultron’s signature tone that i have to wonder if a few of those pages couldn’t have been devoted to making either this moment, or that scene with Taskmaster, emotionally resonant pieces of fiction.
But there I go again, trying to evaluate this series by what it so decidedly isn’t. This series is a moody exercise in devastation. Bryan Hitch delivers page after page of horrifyingly detailed destruction to the point that it seems hopeless for our heroes. That’s what this is about: utter hopelessness. So even when the issue ends with Black Widow, Moon Knight and Red Hulk teaming up with the rest of the heroes, it does little to nullify the oppressive bummer caused by pages and pages of this:
I don’t feel particularly satisfied as I read this issue, but then again, I don’t believe I’m meant to. It may be counter-intuitive, but this comic book cross over event isn’t about bombastically moving the plot forward and it’s not about developing these characters. This is a meditation on the end of the world, and in that sense, the story indulges the spectacle of the end of the world exclusively and exhaustively. Ethan, you called issue 2 “ruin porn” — a phrase I’ve borrowed a couple times since that write up — I’m going to ask the follow-up question: what is the point of it? There’s something undeniably appealing about seeing cities in ruin, but at this point, Hitch is rubbing our noses in it. Are we being punished? Hell, the term “post-apocalypse” is common place in modern storytelling, but we usually mean it in an Oblivion kind of way. Or an After Earth kind of way. Or a World War Z kind of way. Yikes, man – we might have a problem. Maybe we’re just getting what we’ve been asking for and this is Bendis’ way of telling us how much fun the end of the world isn’t.
Ethan: Oh man oh man, this was a crazy one. There are definitely some odd parts, but at least the pace is picking up a bit. Though, as you point out, not always in ways that one likes. Starting with this episode, I really do think that Joss Whedon is secretly writing this series, or at least whispering into Bendis’ ear. “Kill them,” he rasps, “kill them aaaaaall.” I’m sorry to revisit some of the scenes you already went over, but what the heck did that Ultron sentinel shoot She-Hulk with that it blew right through her skull? I was under the impression that the Hulk variety of skin was up there with Luke Cage, and a dime-a-dozen sentinel just takes her out? A little underwhelming (though at least she didn’t just fall down the stairs like Panther). And then poor old Taskmaster. I love Taskmaster. I was really looking forward to the injection of some pep into this series from him. My theory on the image you included is that Red Hulk’s fist entered the panel from the left and is about to exit – decorated with a ribcage – to the right. All because Red Hulk started getting separation anxiety. I’d halfway believe that Taskmaster was introduced and subsequently killed just to give the reader a glimmer of hope at seeing a one-liner specifically to dash said hope.
To pause from griping for a moment, I did find the implications of the big Vision reveal a bit interesting.
First, Bendis has a time-travel addiction and we should really stage an intervention for the poor guy. Second, full disclosure, I mentally inserted a little pause after the phrase “He controls,” a la when Doc says “We have to go back… to the future!” But joking aside, I am trying to wrap my head around this thing. Kang the Conqueror or Doctor Doom indulge in a lot of temporal mischief, but at least they’re always physically present. If what Vision says is true, Ultron is somehow transmitting commands back through time the way a radio sends data through space. While inconvenient for the survivors AND a cop-out-ish plot point that hopefully will get more explanation, this is a really neat idea. Almost every time-travel narrative involves changing the past the old-fashioned way – going there (your past) and doing stuff. If you instead just plugged in your C band time-radio and started telling your operatives in the Past to start doing that stuff for you, does the world incrementally change around you as your meddling cascades forward to your Present? If Ultron has the power to screw with its own past in this way, why isn’t it just wrecking house in it’s own Present?
All of this kind of skirts something that I have been curious about from issue #1. Ultron is an artificial intelligence, and like most A.I. in fiction, it’s the self-improving variety. The first instance of it was Ultron-5 back in the 60s (Ultron-1 was a stick tied to a water-wheel), and we’ve seen subsequent, more advanced models up through Ultron-18 (plus an unnumbered one). So, given that Ultron A) always survives and B) always learns from its mistakes, it was pretty much a given that it would eventually hit the Ultron Singularity and completely transcend our ability to understand and/or deal with it at some point. Even if Ultron’s central consciousness was physically/temporally present, it seems crazy to assume that it would aggregate itself into one place and time to the point that it could be wiped out – why should we assume that Ultron’s tech isn’t even at par with Amazon.com’s Cloud hosting service (as Otto points out in Superior Spider-Man #6AU)?
The only prayer the heroes have is the one that Tony Stark brings up in this scene:
Ultron has one, fatal flaw that it’s never able to shake: it was designed and developed by a human. Some echo, some distillation, some corruption of what it means to be human has worked its way into Ultron’s definition of itself and its expression of itself to the world. It exhibits “needs and desires.” It is subject to illogical motivations (and no, you don’t need to say “quote-unquote” to describe human emotion as illogical, Tony). Ultron has been defined as a quintessential copy of the Oedipus cycle – Ultron even created a mother-figure which it named Jocasta. So here, at the end of the world, with nukes being scattered like seeds in the field, I am wondering: Is this illogical behavior just a scheme to make the heroes underestimate Ultron? Has this entity finally learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Non-Human Existence? I feel like the answer should be “yes,” but I’m guessing that the storyline will end up saying “no.”
For the record, though, I am putting 20 bucks on the table to say that Brian Michael Whedon figures out a way to kill off Wolverine before we’re through.
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