“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”
— Albert Einstein
If Albert Einstein were alive in today’s world and an avid reader of comicbooks—he may have very well been if it weren’t for the Manhattan Project devouring nearly all of his downtime—there is no doubt in my mind that he would have made an addendum to that statement, being sure to include Marvel’s propensity for releasing a new company-wide crossover event that kicks off in the spring of every new year since 2005.
Back When the waning Bronze Age was close to ushering in the arrival of this generation’s Modern Age of Comics, Marvel had released its first crossover in the form of 1982’s Contest of Champions, only to be followed—albeit sporadically—by the likes of Secret Wars (a promotional vehicle for the titular line of action figures) and The Infinity Gauntlet among others. Due to the infrequency of their respective releases, the concept of an eclectic who’s who of the Marvel Universe uniting against a common foe was novel and a real treat for readers, with the Marvel of today vying to capitalize on this nostalgic sense of fan fervor being a forgone conclusion. Though there are some detracting purists that aren’t coy to say otherwise, House of M and Civil War were momentous as the underlying circumstances behind the crossovers gave them plausible reasons for occurring and weren’t done for the sake of doing so. Additionally, they injected the then languid status quo with a sorely needed redefinition that reverberates even today.
Regrettably, what was once welcomed with open arms has become a source of jaded critique and ennui from the fanbase, embittered by rushed pacing, scant details and an ultimate resolve that tends to fall flat. While it has its highlights, there are indications that Age of Ultron can fall into this same trap if its faults aren’t addressed early on.
It’s coming to a point where readers are hesitant to invest even the slightest shred of attachment to the Marvel Universe’s existing condition following an event, as the wrecking ball of its groundbreaking successor will only demolish what the publisher’s team of writers and editors have built up in sometimes a little less than a year’s time. The fallout of last year’s Avengers vs X-Men is relatively fresh as many of the characters pertinent to the event are still coming to terms with the increased anti-mutant sentiment, Cyclops’ more militant stance on the aforementioned issue, and the newly assembled Avengers having to work alongside the X-Men as a sterling example of goodwill in such fractious times. Based on Marvel’s track record, it would be asking far too much to allow these things to mellow and give the new status quo a chance to stretch its legs, allowing any subsequent events to unfold at a reasonable pace. Age of Ultron is guilty of, metaphorically speaking, flipping the table on this intricate game of chess, ruining the methodological progression to the checkmate, the next event. Essentially, we’re discovering ahead of time that everything, as always, will end in disaster with previous strides made having been for nothing.
The writing regarding this has, literally, been on the wall since Marvel’s “Heroic Age” branding campaign, precisely back in The Avengers #5 when the team travels to a war torn future ruled by Ultron. Meeting a wizened Tony Stark, he presents them with a partially vague timeline foreshadowing ill portents to come, of which make the gradual march to Age of Ultron. Closer examination of Stark’s chronological chain does include references to X-Men: Schism and the return of “yesterday’s X-Men”—a.k.a. Charles Xavier’s inaugural class of neophyte mutants—in All-New X-Men. Residing between these points is a cryptic annotation that reads “Steve’s vision,” likely pertaining to Captain America’s civilian identity, Steven Rogers. Throughout the span of the first and second issues of Age of Ultron, Captain America appears in less than five panels as a shattered reflection of himself pondering a desperate course of action to combat the reign of the Avengers’ nemesis. If past experience is anything to go by, a majority, if not all, of Marvel’s prior crossovers reached their events proper by planting seeds and eventually dovetailing seemingly disparate stories. Age of Ultron has been planting these very seeds since The Avengers #1 into #12.1, but it still does not explain the jump from a post-Avengers vs X-Men landscape to the dystopian future that’s been abruptly thrust into our faces.
If Age of Ultron hopes to pique the interest of its discerning readership on a weekly basis, the event sorely needs to fill in this gap of ambiguity, shedding light on how the galvanized mutant race and Captain America’s vision—whatever it may be and assuming that it is indeed relevant to Ultron’s triumphant return—coalesce to form the bridge that spans this gaping divide. And while we’re on the subject of what has already transpired in the fourth volume of The Avengers, one of the most crucial plot devices handed to Stark by his older self has all but been swept under the rug and not even given a mention in Age of Ultron: the dark matter accelerator.
Designed, but never manufactured by Stark for obvious reasons, the dark matter accelerator is an egg-shaped device with a staggeringly destructive output, capable of even destroying Ultron… as well as everyone and everything to have the misfortune of being within its vicinity upon detonation. The elder Stark entrusts his younger—and reluctant—counterpart with the weaponized deus ex machina, urging that he use it to defeat Ultron once for all, damn the consequences. Now that this future teased for the past three years has finally come to pass, it’s bizarre to see Age of Ultron occur with the knowledge that Stark had the means to prevent it from ever happening. A multitude of questions are raised in light of this that serve only to obfuscate this event even further. Did the lives of his closest friends outweigh the use of the dark matter accelerator? Was Ultron able to disable the weapon? Or, which is perhaps the most simple question of them all, was it ineffective in eradicating the genocidal artificial intelligence?
Whether this is a story element that has yet to be explored or one omitted entirely due to oversight remains to be seen as Age of Ultron is still in its early stages at this point. But given what we have so far, we have room to posit the assumption that this is the reality prior to elder Stark meeting with the Avengers of the past—a time when he and his comrades failed to stop Ultron, inspiring Stark to unshackle himself from his moral convictions and craft the dark matter accelerator in the vain hope a solution should present itself. If this is indeed the case, then this would make Age of Ultron all the more riveting and actually bring all these interconnected events full circle, rather than leaving unresolved plot threads ripe for message board ridicule. Regardless, we would still need to see that pivotal moment when the present Stark uses the device on Ultron, sparing mankind and the entirety of Earth-616 from the machine’s reign of terror.
Aside from these ambiguities and continuity inconsistencies that will hopefully have some manner of resolution, Age of Ultron excels in capturing the human drama in a post-apocalyptic landscape that we all dread, a side effect of living in a post-9/11 world where our glass dome of security has broken and even the most farfetched of doomsday prophecies are far more believable. Take notice that I did not make the distinction between human and superhero, as the heroes of the Marvel Universe—for all their powers and celebrity—have been stripped of this demigod status and rendered every bit as fallible and helpless as the people they’ve committed themselves to protecting by a now seemingly indomitable Ultron. What use are super strength or a command over the forces of nature when one’s self-worth and hope for a better tomorrow have been crushed underfoot? When you’re no longer an exemplar of courage in the face of the impossible, not much.
Ultron not have the same level of prestige and acclaim as more prominent Marvel villains such as Dr. Doom or Magneto, but if his titular crossover manages to avoid the errors made in the first and second issues whilst maintaining this spiritual dismantling of the Avengers and their allies, this may just very well change our perception of the the little adamantium robot that could—and possibly get Joss Whedon’s attention as a villainous shoe-in for future installments of The Avengers film franchise.