A friend recently loaned me a few handfuls worth of DC animated movie DVDs; among them Justice League: Crisis On Two Earths. The movie (partly based on Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s excellent graphic novel JLA: Earth 2) features an alternate Earth with evil versions of the Justice League. Batman’s counterpart, Owlman, proves the most dangerous of the bunch. Struck with a crushing, cosmic nihilism, Owlman convinces himself that nothing anyone does could possibly matter. Because every action we take creates alternate realities in which we take different actions and affect different outcomes, Owlman reasons, the only meaningful act anyone could take is one that destroys all realities. Having just watched the flick, it’s difficult to not feel a little sympathy toward Owlman’s bleakly cataclysmic point of view when reading the most recent issues of Brian Michael Bendis and Bryan Hitch’s Age of Ultron.
Age of Ultron opened with few specifics. There was a massive supervillain base straddling a charred and devastated New York City. There were battered, defeated heroes hiding in the guts of a downed helicarrier. There were desperate remnants of humanity bickering over what little remained of Ultron’s onslaught. There was apocalypse and there were robots. But as to the questions of how Ultron accomplished it all, how the heroes failed so utterly to stop it, and which heroes had already died, there were no answers.
With Age of Ultron #3, more details come to light. We learn of at least four super-heroes who died (most, if not all of them, presumably before the events of Age of Ultron #1). And from there, the body count escalates. We see the mismatched trio of Red Hulk, Taskmaster, and Black Panther in Chicago conspiring to capture Ultron tech, and one of them falls before the scene ends. Another of the Chicago trio buys it in Age of Ultron #4 and two of the New York heroes stage dramatic last stands. And though we don’t see them get killed, by the time the New York, Chicago, and San Francisco heroes unite in the Savage Land (because apparently when the entire world is patrolled by ridiculously lethal robots, going all the way to the South Pole is strategically sound), three of the New York heroes inexplicably disappear from the roster.
The notion of superheroes featured in alternate realities and possible futures was fairly novel back when Chris Claremont wrote the well-remembered “Days of Future Past” storyline in 1981. Now, Marvel is thick with the stories. Jeff Parker’s Dark Avengers team is currently trapped on an alternate Earth where New York City is carved up by gang lords who were once superheroes. X-Treme X-Men’s roster not only travels to alternate timelines but is made up of heroes from different worlds like its conceptual predecessor Exiles. The burgeoning X-Termination event is based on parallel realities as well. Though they’re commonplace now, these types of stories remain popular and the reason isn’t mysterious. In a cooperative universe filled with characters who never die for good, age like Steve Rogers in a freezer, and hardly even manage a costume change for too long, stories like “Days of Future Past” are the only chance for any meaningful change. Heroes and villains die, the good become bad, the bad become good, and consequences are actually consequential.
As soon as the New York heroes mention that Hulk and Thor are gone, we know we’re dealing with something alternate because Marvel isn’t going to end two big, movie-spawning franchises for the sake of one limited series, no matter how many copies it sells or what talent is attached. We were already pretty sure of it when the comicbook Hawkeye acted much more like the movie Hawkeye and killed the hell out of Spider-Man’s captors in Age of Ultron #1, and of course the devastation itself was a pretty big hint, but the news of the off-panel deaths of Marvel’s big guns seals the deal. Either this is an alternate reality, a “possible” future whose potential will go unrealized, or something cosmic and powerful will otherwise intervene at the end to wipe away most – if not all – of all the finality.
It’s at this point when, just like Owlman in Justice League: Crisis On Two Earths right before his defeat, we smile and say “It doesn’t matter.”
It doesn’t, does it? I mean, sure, we all read these comics knowing that the good guys are going to win and there isn’t a whole lot genuinely at stake. And there’s nothing that says a writer can’t kill off a bunch of heroes, resurrect them en masse at the end, and still deliver a compelling story. Look at Infinity Gauntlet. In spite of all the heroes Thanos blinked out of existence with a snap of his fingers, in spite of the terrible and bizarre deaths the other heroes suffered when they finally mustered and assaulted the alien tyrant, and in spite of the fact that it was all predictably “made right” in the end, Infinity Gauntlet remains a well-loved series held up as a standard by which other company-wide events are measured.
But Infinity Gauntlet was about more than one bloody battle. Thanos is a grand and tragic figure and the inevitability of his fall is absolutely Shakespearean. He wrestles heroes and space gods in the kind of epic battles we just don’t see anymore in Marvel’s comics. Even the more powerful heroes like Thor, Silver Surfer, and Adam Warlock seemed small not only in comparison to the villain’s power, but to the magnitude of the events.
Age of Ultron has none of that, and nothing equally compelling. The only thing that threatens to make the series about more than its particular brand of post-apocalypse is the question of how the superheroes will react now that everything seems lost, but we don’t get any interesting answers. Heroes are more willing to kill. Well they’ve been more willing to kill for years now. Wolverine’s killed more people than smallpox and he’s now more integral to the Avengers than Jarvis or Quinjets. In a scene that’s practically slapstick, Shanna the She-Devil accidentally spears a Savage Land tribesmen through the throat in Savage Wolverine #3, and a few weeks ago Spider-Man shot a kneeling man in the head and walked away without anyone minding all that much. So the thought of super-heroes resorting to more extreme violence in the face of apocalypse doesn’t really stir a ripple.
Certainly we see the heroes demoralized and bickering amongst each other but, again, so? It’s alternate, and everything alternate is horrible. You never get alternate Earths that are doing okay. You never get an alternate Earth where the only difference is they don’t have peaches, or maybe they just got more seasons of Twin Peaks than we did. Alternate Earths are always horrible Earths, and the heroes there are always demoralized, or ultraviolent, or evil, or dead. I still regret that I couldn’t stand the second person narrative of Tom Defalco and Ron Frenz’s Spider-Girl, because it offered the only alternate or possible future Marvel setting of which I’d heard in which everything didn’t go wrong. It just went different.
Age of Ultron is a shooting gallery. Superheroes die. They die abruptly and horribly or in heroic last stands and the only reason they die is because every single one of us knows that, in the end, they can’t die. Hulk and Thor and the rest can’t be dead and humanity can’t be wiped out. Nothing in this series matters or ever could, because Age of Ultron isn’t about anything other than Age of Ultron. All this series seems to offer is Bryan Hitch’s wonderful art, and hype.