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Another View: Age of Ultron #10 Part 19

Hank Pym is a weird superhero. A founding Avenger, ex-husband/sometimes boyfriend of another founding Avenger who he also smacked in the face, he’s been on a ton of iterations of the Avengers, he’s had a ton of costumes and codenames, he’s had a nervous breakdown or seven, and he created an artificial lifeform that has killed a lot of people. It never seems like Marvel knows what they want to do with him. For every story where he’s ‘redeemed,’ there seems to be one that adds more fuel to the ‘Hank Pym is a douchebag’ fire. One step forward, two steps back. Mostly because of Ultron and, no matter what he does, he will never get past creating that homicidal robot. So, what kind of story of Age of Ultron #10? Redemption or condemnation?

I ask the question, because Age of Ultron as a series seems to condemn Pym. It is pointed out numerous times that, if he were told of Ultron’s homicidal future, he would probably still invent him, because he’s a super-genius who would take that knowledge as a challenge to somehow invent an Ultron that doesn’t turn evil. He’s basically an unreasonable prick who, faced with the limitations of his genius, would deny those limitations and actively make the choice to kill millions of people. That’s who Hank Pym is we’re told. That’s why Wolverine sees killing him as the only option. Hank Pym is an ego-driven murderer (or, at the very least, accessory to genocide).

Except, that doesn’t happen, because Wolverine realises that he must alter the past as close to his present as possible to avoid an even worse world. That means Ultron has to be invented and stopped in the last possible moment before the events of Age of Ultron. Hank Pym has to invent Ultron and allow him to do everything we saw the robot do prior to this story – and it’s for the good of the world! And he manages to help create a plan that does stop Ultron at the best possible moment. He not only stops his killer robot, he ensures that history happens the way it’s supposed to… before humanity is enslaved and driven to near-extinction. That seems like it should be a redemptive moment, right?

Brian Michael Bendis constructs a situation that justifies Hank Pym’s ego-driven mistakes and turns them into something heroic that happen for the greater good. He doesn’t have the option of not inventing Ultron. In a sense, Pym is put in a position where he knows that he has to invent a genocidal robot and be forever defined as the man who did that. He must make a tremendous sacrifice and never know that he’s doing it. It’s rather selfless in a way. It’s probably the most heroic thing that Pym has ever done.

Except we know that he would invent Ultron anyway. He would do it to try and prove that he can make a non-evil version. He would do it to prove that he’s smart enough. He only goes along with this other plan, because it’s a chance for him to play hero and prove his genius in another way. It’s still an ego-driven exercise. The real proof comes on the epilogue page where he’s talking with Tony Stark and is still trying to get it right. The problem with Ultron for Hank Pym isn’t that he killed all of those people – it’s that Pym’s invention didn’t work right! It’s still a problem to be solved to recover his ego and prove that he’s actually as smart as he thinks he is. There is no redemption, because there’s no real sacrifice. Pym created Ultron, so allowing that to happen changes nothing; installing a means of defeating the robot is simply solving the problem and showing that he can. That’s all it is for Pym: ego-driven problem solving. What looks like an issue that redeems him once and for all is really a subtle bit of character work that shows how far gone he really is. He wants to be a hero to satisfy his own ego. That’s what it all comes down to.

There is no redemption. No steps forward, only step back.

10 Comments

Next up, I want to see Chad spend 30 days deconstructing the 2006 “Ultimate Spider-Ham Special.”

It’s rather interesting that Hank Pym is held responsible for Ultron’s actions to the extent that he is; if Ultron were his child and grew up to be a serial killer, say, neither we nor the characters would react the same way. That’s an interesting paradox here: Ultron certainly exists because Pym constructed him, but if Ultron is truly sapient, then his behavior not simply the outcome of some initial directive Pym implanted in him. Rather, Ultron is a mass murderer because the invention *did* work: Pym created a machine that could make its own decisions and develop independently of his input, and that always included the possibility of developing into a monster and making the worst decisions imaginable. That Bendisian fascination with the Law of Unintended Consequences strikes again!

It’s hardly an accident that the two characters who go back to Ultron’s point of origin are both characters whose agency is sometimes called into question. Sue Richards took a long time to really become an equal partner in the Fantastic Four; of all of them, she’s had the least solo exposure and the least independent existence outside the team itself, both in-story and on the meta-level. Wolverine is of course a character who has repeatedly been retconned into someone with less and less control of his own life, whether it’s berserker rages , various bouts of brainwashing and false memories, or even being the subject of human experimentation on multiple occasions. In blaming Pym for everything Ultron does, are they responding as people who themselves feel as if others are always trying to construct and program them? Certainly Wolverine might like to believe he’s not responsible for much of what he’s done, that there’s an egomaniac Hank Pym who just did a bad job making him what he is. That’s the other side of the coin in calling Pym a deluded egotist who just goes ahead and builds Ultron anyway.

Because Pym isn’t going forth to murder millions; he’s not choosing to kill anyone. He’s choosing to create a being who will, in turn, choose to kill millions, and that’s an important distinction. It’s like the old bit about going back in time and telling Hitler’s father to get a vasectomy; if he refused, would would we really say that Alois Hitler chose to kill millions of people? For that matter, Ultron’s original motive was to kill Pym himself, and I doubt we’d say the egomaniac who refuses to recognize his own limitations, as you’re framing him, intended to invent an esoteric form of suicide.

It’s a Catch-22, really: how can Pym understand the limits of his own genius without reaching them first? How can Ultron be defined as a fully-functioning A.I. and yet still have the full responsibility of its actions fall on its creator? If there’s one lesson to come through in Age of Ultron, it’s that trying to engineer the future breaks it; it does that if you’re Hank Pym building a thinking machine, and it does that if you’re Logan and the Invisible Woman trying to literally engineer the future by altering the past. *Everyone* in this story is limited in the same way Hank Pym is, and that’s both the hope and the tragedy.

My critique of the story, and to a lesser extent of Bendis’s work as a whole, is that this raises a big question about whether the whole idea of “doing good” is even plausible except in incredibly limited forms. And once you accept how conditional and limited “doing good” is, then the whole superhero fantasy kind of stops working and probably deserves to be abandoned; even deconstructing it at that point is just keeping it around when it doesn’t work. And let’s not even get into what happens to ethics and real-world problem-solving if we accept that “doing good” is deeply limited and entirely contingent. It’s interesting and worth working through, but not ultimately something I can agree with.

This is a comic book: I think applying logic will ultimately fail. If you think Bendis thinks this is a reemption then, for the purposes of figuring out where Pym is in the MU, this is a redemption. If you read the Shooter-Michelinie Avengers of the late ’70, early ’80s, pretty much EVERYONE is a giant a-hole. I don’t think that was the intent, just the result of comic book writers trying to keep it interesting. Ditto Batman, ditto different takes on Reed Richards.

This is a comic book: I think applying logic will ultimately fail.

Well, it depends on what you’re trying to do. If all we’re trying to do is recapture some pure, original authorial intent, then you’re going to fail 99% of the time you think about anything in depth. You’re not the author, so you will almost always bring something the author couldn’t have intended.

If you are trying to develop a line of thought that might be inherently interesting or point the way towards something inherently interesting, though, you can certainly succeed in a variety of ways.

It’s interesting, but there’s gonna be a lot of cognitive dissonance if you insist on applying “logic” to a long-running comic book character, and the logical interpretation of the character deviates from the author’s intent. In this case, if you think the textual evidence demonstrates Hank Pym is, at best, a sociopath, but Marvel believes it’s presenting him as a hero then you’re gonna be … vexed.

Or you can conclude that Marvel’s idea of a hero and your own don’t mesh, that “hero” sometimes just means “Lucky sociopath,” or any of a thousand other more interesting things than “being vexed.”

Well, one of the weird things about the altered timeline is that Hank created Ultron knowing what the results would be, then erased his memory of doing so. At least in the original timeline, Hank created Ultron and, well, oops–it went psycho. Of course, thanks to the memory wipe, Hank doesn’t remember doing any of this, so it’s hard to blame him since the wipe effectively turned him back into pre-alteration Hank. Still, he did it.

Oddly, there’s a weird parallel to this way back in Ron Marz’ Green Lantern run. In Green Lantern #100-106, Kyle Rayner accidentally brings a young Hal Jordan to the future (shades of Bendis’ current X-Men run!) and Hal learns that he went evil and became Parallax, killing loads of people. Hal eventually has to go back in time–with a mindwipe–to live out the rest of his life. It’s one of those weird foibles of time-travel questions: do you allow a bad act to proceed so that millions more can live?

The 1960s Ultron origin story has Ultron itself erase Hank’s memory of creating it, which is why he doesnt recognize it when it turns up leading the Masters of Evil in its first appearance. perhaps Bendis is partly riffing on that.

Can we get a 104 part review of DC’s 1997 Holiday Spectacular?

Omar, while I mostly agree with your read of Bendis and the question of “doing good”, my attitude towards its merits perhaps is slightly different, seeing it as being less a question of the limits and conditions rendering the effort to do good virtually futile than emphasizing the difficulties involved, especially contrasted against forces intent on destruction or selfish gain.

That sort of negative capability is not only easier to accomplish than “good” in a sense, since good in the sense of superherodom is usually good by a greater measure than individual effort alone, something which I don’t see as really being questioned. Instead I think it is more a matter of how attempts at larger pro-active “good” can ted to be perverted to the kind of negative capability that becomes hard to, in the end, distinguish from those more destructive behaviors as it becomes tied to issues of control and narrowly focused visions of what “good” should entail. The attitude that would enforce a larger good then grows close to that which would impose any other selfish desire as it seeks to eliminate or greatly curtail divergent sets of values of points of view.

Seeking to impose “good” on a large scale also then falls prey to the same problem that seems to limit the attempts to otherwise impose selfish or “evil” control over society, something which also seems doomed to limited success in Bendis worlds. (Which is something I think you yourself may have mentioned in another thread somewhere if memory serves.) So one might suggest that neither good nor evil can get much traction beyond certain limits within Bendis worlds, which in term suggests a kind of built in equilibrium to the social order. The question of doing good under these conditions given the concept of scale associated with super powers is more in how to thwart destruction or how to positively react more than anything else since anything more proactive on the same scale is both inherently difficult and ultimately morally questionable, though questionable in that sense isn’t the same as evil, which may be why attempts along those lines cannot or are not wholly able to be discarded even if they so often seem to fall far short of the mark.

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