Sunday, July 11, 2010

Cruel Summer: Ultron

Most killer robots that populate the ranks of villainy in comics and just about every other form of action fiction come across their creepiness by being cold and emotionless; terrifying because there’s no way you can hope to reason with them.

Ultron goes the other way.

While he may come across visually with the best of science fiction’s malevolent automatons thanks in large part to his simple but sinister design by the great John Buscema, Ultron is brimming over with emotion. This is a case where the book not even remotely matching its cover defies your expectations and makes for a great villain.

Ultron is Oedipus in the Greek tragedy that is the life of Hank Pym (aka Ant-Man, aka Giant-Man, aka Goliath, aka Yellowjacket, aka The Wasp). Created as a stab at artificial life by Pym using his own brain patterns, Ultron would rebel beyond the control of his “father” and spend the rest of his “life” hating him in a slightly more extreme fashion than most angsty teenagers do their parents. Ultron would go on to try and create progeny of his own in The Vision as well as two would-be brides in the forms of Jocasta (whose brain patterns he based on Pym’s wife, the original Wasp, thus going back to the whole Oedipal thing) and Alkhema; all three would turn against him, with Vision and Jocasta both becoming part of daddy’s team, the Avengers.

Every time Ultron shows up, he’s seething with rage; anger towards Pym, toward the Avengers, towards his “children” and against humanity and general. He really is the classic adolescent dressing in all black and listening to Nine Inch Nails except he’s got adamantium skin and several death rays in place of Hot Topic accessories.

The artists who best portray Ultron—Buscema, George Perez, etc.—have gotten a lot of mileage out of the fact that his expression never changes and holds the same Jack o’ Lantern shape as he screeches “Die Avengers!” or cries out in agony because The Scarlet Witch is hexing him to “death”; it’s quite haunting.

As I’ve mentioned more than a couple hundred times on this very blog, I grew up reading comics in the early 90’s, and for me, that meant not too much Ultron to be seen. The Avengers comics I read had them battling Proctor and only Proctor pretty much every issue with occasional respites to team with the X-Men against Fabian Cortez or battle pissed off Kree and Shi’Ar expatriates. Ultron may have appeared in Avengers West Coast, but I didn’t buy that book until the last issue; I also know he played some role in a Vision series that came out at around this time, but again, I didn’t read it.

So I more or less had no idea who Ultron was outside of the passing mention in a Wizard article or Official Index to the Avengers. Sure, I fought him in the Captain America & The Avengers video game, but I didn’t know him as Ultron, just a weird-looking robot who had a strange laugh. I was also out of the comics game by the time Avengers: United We Stand—currently airing on—where he was the main villain took the airwaves, so no dice there either.

My first genuine exposure to Ultron was Kurt Busiek and George Perez’s “Ultron Unlimited” which was one of the bigger epics from their golden period on Avengers in the late 90’s. The story unfolded in 1999, though I wouldn’t read it until a few years later, picking up the trade as I was trying to assemble the whole run.

The entire first issue of the arc is the Avengers and special guests Black Panther and The Wasp running around chasing leads after Hank Pym gets kidnapped by a robot army. One of the cooler things about the first chapter is how hesitant the Avengers—a group that is at full power and includes Thor, Iron Man and Captain America at this point in time—are to even mention Ultron by name, because they’re that scared of him and you can really feel these fictional characters clinging to some hope against hope that he’s not the guy they’re up against; the anxiety crosses the line and even makes you pretty tense with anticipation.

The Avengers actually end up finding Alkhema first and for a second almost breathe a sigh of relief because maybe she’s behind it all (and she’s not so tough)—then they turn on the TV and see Ultron massacring the entire nation of Slorenia, lighting fires across the country in the shape of his face. The whole story is full of powerful imagery like that, and of course nobody does it any better than Mr. Perez.

As we learn, Ultron has kidnapped Pym, as well as The Vision (his “son”), The Scarlet Witch (Vizh’s ex-wife), Wonder Man and The Grim Reaper (Vision’s “brothers” and thus family in some weird way to Ultron). He also grabs The Wasp for good measure and we’ve got a family reunion. The endgame for the bad guy is that he’s going to swipe the brain patterns of his “relatives” to program a new species of self-aware robots that he’ll use to replace humanity. It actually sounds like a standard super villain plan except that fitting with our theme it’s more akin to a kid who feels neglected wanting to run away from home and finding refuge with replacement family figures be they rock stars, movie idols or just like-minded teens.

Also, Ultron committed genocide just to provide a distraction, so there’s that.

As you’d expect, the Avengers end up spoiling Ultron’s fun, battling through a literal army made up of his previous models in a great action scene then busting down the wall so Thor can get the great line, “Ultron, we would have words with thee…” off. In the end, Pym himself gets to score the much-needed kill shot with an assist from Justice, who figures out Ultron has a weakness to vibranium and tosses the good doctor a pair of knucks made from the stuff so he can pound the crap out of his “son” and vent about how he’s not a failure in a most cathartic manner.

“Ultron Unlimited” is certainly Ultron at his best: Shell of a killer robot, insides of a disenfranchised youth and power of a small army, not to mention a well of resentfulness and ruthlessness that can never run dry.

But while Ultron has traditionally been an Avengers heavy through the years given his close ties, he has branched out elsewhere in the Marvel Universe as well pretty successfully. I loved his run as a cosmic big bad during Annihilation Conquest where he took over the Phalanx and led them on a campaign to assimilate the cosmos; the motivation from “Unlimited” remains the same, as he’s still searching for that surrogate family, he’s just widened his scope on a massive level.

It’s fitting that Ultron has expanded beyond the Avengers in terms of who he’s willing to fight, as he’s a unique take on a common theme whose look has become fairly iconic and whose anger towards his “dad” can pretty easily be redirected at whoever is standing in his way as easily as the kids I’ve been referring to this whole entry seem to be fairly pissed at the entire world.

Of course in most cases, disgruntled young adults grow out of that phase and move on into either grown up happiness or dissatisfaction depending on the situation, but Ultron being a robot—and a comic book character—will never get over it, which is just another way he’s one of a kind.


Alexander Lorenzen said...

Did you read the last issues of the newest Mighty Avengers series? Usually having Ultron in a story arc is a good thing, but Somehow Slott managed to make it boring.

muebles en madrid said...

This can't work as a matter of fact, that is exactly what I believe.