Wednesday, September 13, 2017

This Evil Undying!

For those readers who enjoyed the appearance of Ultron during Jim Shooter's run on The Avengers, where the metal monster seemed to finally meet his end in a staggered four-issue story that culminated in a pitched battle at (of all places) a nunnery, his reappearance in the mag thirty issues later was likely met with anticipation of a similar saga taking place--especially with artist George Perez once more handling the art, while writer David Michelinie would be basing his script on a short story by Shooter. Yet high expectations may be one of the reasons why this story may have been met with disappointment by some, playing as it does on the return of one of the Avengers' deadliest and most persistent enemies but limiting the character's threat to barely over one issue.

Ultron, as most are aware, owes his indestructibility to... well, he certainly owes it in part to his ability to rise again from the ashes, or the shards, or the fragments, or from whatever explosive and devastating fate he suffered in battle with the Avengers. Ironically, though, he has a human scientist to thank for the true reason why he's so formidable a foe. At the early stages of his development, this self-evolved robot's sole weakness could be found in the twin electrodes at each side of his skull; but after seeking out the metal known as adamantium and using it to form a new body for himself, Ultron made himself impervious to any physical force used against him. That and his designs on the human race make him a near-perfect and perpetual enemy for the Avengers, since he can challenge and overcome even their strongest members.

In the past, Ultron's plans have required the Avengers to bring their A-game--not only in their inevitable confrontation with him, but in trying to piece together what he's after and what his ultimate goal is. What will be the key to beating him, they end up asking themselves, yet being forced for the most part to play it by ear--bravely battling him in the face of almost certain death. In their last encounter with Ultron, the Avengers found that one of their own, the Scarlet Witch, held the key to his defeat: her mysterious hex power, known for disrupting probability, caused a malfunction in the device within him that allows him to rearrange the molecular cohesion of his adamantium body, thus making him vulnerable to attack. That precedent virtually ties the hands of any scripter who features Ultron in an Avengers story where Wanda is part of the team lineup, assuming that Ultron hasn't compensated for it in some way (which indeed occurred in a later story, for all the good it did his second bride, Alkhema). Here, however, the fact that Wanda has the ability to stop Ultron practically forms the core of this tale; so the challenge for Michelinie will be how to craft an interesting story, knowing that going in.

Whether he succeeds or not is debatable. But he does have one thing in his favor: Ultron himself, a character whose reputation as one of the Avengers' most daunting foes precedes him.

In the scene above, taken from the prior Shooter story, Ultron speaks of his previous appearance in an Avengers/Fantastic Four crossover story (which probably sounds more like a blockbuster than it actually was). Regardless, the scene sums up the nature of Ultron's threat--a merciless enemy who remains one of the Avengers' deadliest threats. And in this current story, there is at least the gist of a sinister plan at work when the Wasp finds an intruder at the Pym home in Cresskill, one that's come looking for very specific valuables.

Escaping her attacker, she makes it all the way back to Manhattan, and Avengers Mansion, where she collapses and tells her story to the others. But the team then becomes startled from noises in the hallway, and they suspect that the Wasp's attacker has followed her to the mansion.

Fortunately, the true source of their anxiety comes bearing something less deadly, not to mention more palatable.

It's during the informal meeting afterward that Iron Man reveals his suspicions that Ultron has returned--suspicions confirmed by the attack on Hank Pym's lab, where two adamantium resin canisters were stolen from Pym's security vault. And from what he reveals (drawing on events involving Tony Stark in the prior issue), the incident wasn't an isolated one.

So you begin to see the initial problem that noticeably slows the momentum of this story. Now informed of thefts by Ultron that will result in any number of adamantium drones under Ultron's command unless he's stopped, what does the Avengers' plan of action boil down to here? In essence, cooling their heels and relegating themselves to guard duty. And only one guard at that, since everyone but the Vision won't be guarding Wanda and will simply be scattered on the premises.

Meanwhile, Ultron is taking action--the kind of action that the Avengers should be doing their best to prevent, as Hawkeye bluntly makes clear.

You know, Cap, that course of action sounds just as ridiculous now as when you first proposed it.

As for Iron Man, who seemed to have a handle on what was going on before anyone else did, we learn more of his specific involvement in the situation--a lot more.

As we've seen in other instances, Iron Man makes for a credible wolf in the fold (albeit a reluctant one), a canny and resourceful man who can exploit weaknesses and move methodically to both make progress and cover his tracks, even in those times when Ultron isn't asserting his control over him--presumably, that is. After all, if he has the presence of mind to take these precautions, the sensible thing for Iron Man to do would be to alert the Avengers to what he believes Ultron is doing; he could even fashion a story that takes Stark out of the picture and thus protect his dual identity.

Instead, he remains free to take preemptive actions on Ultron's behalf--actions which will both cripple the Avengers' ability to locate their foe, and deprive them of their greatest asset in the fight against him.

But as thorough as Iron Man has been, the Avengers are soon onto him once he's made his move to abduct Wanda. And as it turns out, Jarvis could teach him a thing or two about covering your bases.

Ultron, however, as is usually the case, feels that he's covered all of his bases, though he's as yet unaware of Iron Man's precautions in providing the Avengers with a means of locating him: He's been rebuilt, as powerful as ever; his plan proceeds for manufacturing enough drones to what will in time become an effective, invincible army; he has Tony Stark under his control; and he's now going to eliminate the one Avenger who poses a danger to him. In some ways, this story has played out in much the same way as the prior Ultron tale from 1977. Then, it was Jocasta that the Avengers were attempting to trace to Ultron's hiding place; and previously, in Ultron's lab, it was the Wasp who lay helpless, while it was Ant-Man who was under Ultron's influence. And it was the rest of the Avengers who arrived in the nick of time to stop Ultron's procedure, just as they do so now--but not before Iron Man moves to atone for his involvement in this affair.

With the arrival of the Avengers on the scene, the battle now begins in earnest, with one exception: Michelinie decides to sideline Wanda for the duration, presumably while she still recovers from Iron Man's assault. It's the right call to make; as curtailed as this battle would seem when the dust settles, Wanda stepping in at the last minute to save the day, in the same way as before, would remove whatever wind this story has in its sails. And so Perez is free to provide a different take on the Avengers vs. Ultron, which unfortunately now has only four pages to play out.

As before, Ultron holds all the cards--powered by fusion and impervious to harm, he can afford to wait out the Avengers' attacks on him before picking them off one by one. But there is one last similarity to the Avengers' prior battle with Ultron that again sees Iron Man deciding on a plan that may bring the fight to an end--only this time, thanks to the seed that Michelinie planted earlier, he makes use of the vats of liquid adamantium that he warned of, and the entire team pitches in to bring it to fruition (though the Wasp, like Wanda, also seems to have been benched in this fight).

It's difficult to fathom how Ultron's fusion reactor wouldn't react explosively with his shell suddenly breached like this, but what do I know about physics. Yet how strange that the Avengers chose to shatter the heating conduits for the vats, thereby allowing Ultron's form to survive (if severely deformed)--why not simply allow his body to melt completely? Were they looking for a trophy to take back to the mansion for display?

At any rate, we leave this story with the feeling that it's all been hurriedly wrapped up, with Ultron being put on a shelf for another day: "...Ultron stands frozen, unmoving, unmovable. The threat of the evil undying is over. For now." I.e., Ultron has served his purpose, as far as the book is concerned. Whatever enmity he holds toward the human race, Ultron would probably regard being marginalized as our species' worst affront.

This Evil... Recycled?

The Avengers #202

Script: David Michelinie
Pencils: George Perez
Inks: Mike Esposito
Letterer: John Costanza


dbutler16 said...

I loved this issue. Yes, the George Perez art has a LOT to do with it, but I liked the writing as well.

Jared said...

Great art, not much story. I think the time between the Korvac Saga and the beginning of Roger Stern's run is a pretty dark time for Avengers stories. There are a few great ones from this era, like Witch of Wundagore Mountain and the first appearance of Taskmaster. This one is pretty far from great. I do think however, this is a time across Marvel Comics where alot of classic villains start to feel used up.

Comicsfan said...

Jared, while I found Michelinie's run on Invincible Iron Man to be excellent, I don't feel he was a particularly good fit for Avengers, even though the work he turned in moved things along and made for passable reading. Such a short Ultron story as this one would have been suitable for either Marvel Team-Up or Marvel Two-In-One, since epic stories are hard to come by in those titles--but in this book I think readers have come to expect more, certainly more than having the team cool their heels at the mansion guarding one of their members while one of their greatest enemies is on the loose. Would Cap ever stand for staying put and being guarded?

Jared said...

Agree. Avengers is the only time I can think of Michelinie writing a team book. He appears to have been a much stronger writer for solo tales.

I just find it odd that the Avengers went away from spectacular, multi issue epics that had worked so great for the past decade. Especially at a time that the X-Men were taking off with longer stories.

Iain said...

I enjoyed this story when I first read it years ago, the Perez art is great as always but somehow it looks a bit more cartoony here less of the detail I was used to seeing from him in earlier Avengers tales and the Fantastic Four run he did. Also the Avengers just leave Ultron's body there to be perhaps re-activated in a future Two-In-One story? lol