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Comic Book Movies 101: Avengers: Age of Ultron

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So what the hell is an "Ultron," anyway?

With comic book movies, it’s not always easy keeping up with all the influences and references that the filmmakers draw upon from the wealth of source material. Comic Movies 101 serves as a primer for newcomers to the movies and a refresher for fans. 

For those of us living in the States, Avengers: Age of Ultron hits theaters this week and it's one of the most anticipated movies of the year (and perhaps the biggest one until Christmas). The sequel to one of the biggest films ever will add a whole bunch of new characters not seen the first time around, and a good deal of them haven't yet had a debut in a standalone Marvel Cinematic Universe feature. These characters have a great deal of history in the print-and-ink Marvel Universe, however, and we're going to do our best to give you the highlights so you go into Age of Ultron with a solid background. 

 

Ultron

First appearance: The Avengers #55, July 1968; created by Roy Thomas and John Buscema

Who is he? As anyone who’s seen any promotional material for Avengers: Age of Ultron is sure to have gathered, Ultron is a genocidal robot hellbent on world domination or destruction. The character debuted in issues of The Avengers originally published in the late 1960s, where it was revealed that the automaton was first created by Hank Pym, then known as Goliath, based on his own brain patterns. Because of this, Ultron has always had an unusual fixation with Janet van Dyne, aka The Wasp, a super-heroine who has at various points in time been Pym’s lover. This makes Ultron a kind of Oedipal character – he hates his “father” Pym and wants to destroy him, but has something resembling affection for the Wasp.

Ultron has a tendency to create robots of his own; sometimes those are random Ultron automatons perfect for big-screen fight sequences, but there are some exceptions. The most notable of those is Vision (more on him later), but there’s also Jocasta – a robot woman Ultron created as a partner for himself. Jocasta’s brain patterns are based on Janet’s (there’s that Oedipus complex again). Jocasta can’t really be pegged strictly as a hero or a villain – she’s programmed to love Ultron, so she’s often allied herself with him, but she hates his evil ways, so she often aligns herself with the Avengers as well.

Ultron often iterates as he upgrades – in his first appearance, he was known as Ultron-5. In his following appearance, after he'd upgraded himself with an adamantium exoskeleton, he became Ultron-6, and so on and so forth. Generally, these various forms don’t look terribly different from one another, but in one recent and best-left-unread story, Ultron reimagined himself in the form of a human-looking woman that eerily resembled Janet (did we mention “Oedipus”?).

Like many Marvel villains, Ultron battles more than just the Avengers – although he’s considered a big enough threat that he rarely takes on a single hero at a time. In 2007 he took his talents to space for the Annihilation: Conquest crossover, where he led an army of robots called the Phalanx and nearly took over the universe, battling against Marvel’s cosmic heroes (that event is also notable for being the jumping off point for the modern Guardians of the Galaxy on which the 2014 movie was largely based).

The Vision

First appearance: The Avengers #57; created by Roy Thomas, Stan Lee and John Buscema

Who is he? As mentioned above, the Vision was created by Ultron. He was sent to lead the Avengers into a trap, but they convinced him to turn on his master. Vision’s brain patterns are based on Simon Williams, a superhero known as Wonder Man, who was deceased at the time. The best way to describe vision is that he’s a robot with the emotions of a man – he can cry, he can love, he can feel anything a human can. He was even married, for a time, to the Scarlet Witch (more on her later).

Actually, to call Vision a robot isn’t quite accurate. He’s often referred to as a “synthezoid” – he’s an artificial intelligence created by Ultron, but he has what amount to flesh and blood and organs (they just happen to be made out of synthetic material, not organic). He’s still got a fair amount of superpowers besides the ability to cry, though. Vision can control his density, which allows him to fly or become intangible when lowered enough, or allow him superhuman strength and invulnerability when increased enough. He also has what's called a Soul Jewel embedded in his forehead – the primary purpose of which is to absorb the solar energy that powers Vision, but can also be used to funnel that same energy into destructive energy beams. He's also basically a supercomputer and can process information and make calculations at superhuman speeds.

Like Ultron, there have been a few iterations of the Vision over the years, though he tends to be a little more consistent – mostly he just gets built after blowing up. The major exception was “Young Vision,” who came into being when the original was destroyed, the Avengers disbanded and a program was enacted to locate and assemble young superpowered people with connections to the original heroes (who became known as the Young Avengers). This version of the character is technically a combination of the original Vision's programming and the Iron Man-like armor of a younger version of Kang the Conquerer, a time-traveling Avengers villain (comics are weird, y'all). In the course of his adventures with the Young Avengers, this version of the character is killed and the original is rebuilt and restored. Currently, Vision is a member of the Avengers Unity Squad in Uncanny Avengers, alongside Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and several other characters. 

Wanda Maximoff, aka The Scarlet Witch

First appearance: The X-Men #4; created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

Who is she? Wanda, like her brother Pietro (more on him later) has connections to several corners of the Marvel Universe; she first popped up as a member of Magneto's Brotherhood of Evil Mutants over in X-Men, but joined up with the Avengers after a handful of encounters with Charles Xavier's moody students. (See, a bunch of the original Avengers left the team, forcing Captain America to recruit a cadre of former villains to rebuild the team, including Hawkeye. Comics are weird, y'all.) Though Wanda has always had a connection to the X-Men, she's arguably best known for her tenure on the Avengers and her marriage to Vision.

Scarlet Witch is a mutant with the ability to control probability. At first this was interpreted on a relatively small scale, often manifesting generic "bad luck" effects at her target and looking like your standard-issue energy blasts (called "hex bolts"). However, her powers have also been reinterpreted as an ability to control something called chaos magic, which allows her to alter reality on a more universal scale, which has been central to several major Avengers stories in the last decade or so.  

Speaking of which, these days Wanda is best known for going temporarily insane and basically destroying the Avengers. Okay, this is where it gets complicated, so strap in – we're going to try and make this as painless and streamlined as possible. See, for a while Scarlet Witch was married to the Vision, and at one point in her history she became pregnant (she used magic, since Vision is an android. Comics are weird, y'all). She gave birth to twins who were later revealed to be shards of the soul of Mephisto (think Marvel's answer to Satan). Long story short, the kids were reabsorbed and Wanda forgot about them...for a time. This later drove her insane, and she used her chaos magic powers to disassemble the Avengers, killing several in the process, including Hawkeye and Vision (they got better). Also, she used her magic to depower most of the world's mutants and it turns out her children were reincarnated as superpowered teenagers who are on the Young Avengers (comics are weird, y'all). She's acting a little less villainous these days, though, leading the Avengers Unity Squad over in Uncanny Avengers and investigating the mystery of her true parentage with Quicksilver.

Pietro Maximoff, aka Quicksilver

First appearance: The X-Men #4, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

Who is he? In a nutshell, Quicksilver is Marvel's equivalent to DC's Flash – he's a guy whose primary powerset involves running really fast. Raised by Romani parents with his twin sister Wanda, Pietro also made his Marvel Universe debut going up against the X-Men as a member of Magneto's Brotherhood, and joined the Avengers at the same time as his sister. Pietro is hot-tempered and combative but fiercely loyal, primarily to Wanda. 

Again, Quicksilver's powers are all speed-based. He can run and think at supersonic speeds, and can use that speed to create cyclone-level winds as well as on water and up walls – again, think the Flash, but more abrasive and occasionally villainous. There's been some explanation that this is, in effect, why he's so impatient and cranky all the time – to him, the rest of the world always looks like it's standing still or moving at a snails' pace. For a time, he was a victim of Wanda's mass-depowering of mutants, but he regained his powers when he decided he still wanted to be a hero (no, seriously. Comics, y'all). 

Quicksilver is most often connected to the X-Men and Avengers, but he's also been connected to the Inhumans as well – for a long time he was married to Inhuman princess Crystal, and used their superpower-granting Terrigen crystals in an attempt to regain his powers after they were lost. These days he's adventuring about with Wanda as part of the Avengers Unity Squad in Uncanny Avengers.

SOME OTHER STUFF YOU SHOLD PROBABLY KNOW

Don’t read “Age of Ultron” for hints about the movie – or at all. Marvel’s biggest movie yet shares a name with a high-profile comics event, and both involve the Avengers and Ultron, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Age of Ultron – a 10-issue miniseries published in 2013 – was an alternate universe tale in which Ultron takes over the planet and destroys civilization, leaving the Avengers disassembled and in hiding. The story veers off when Wolverine and the Invisible Woman decide the best way to deal with this apocalypse is to travel back in time to murder Hank Pym before he can create Ultron to begin with, which of course just creates a different alternate universe that's alternatively different (heh), so then Wolverine has to go back in time again to stop himself before he can kill Pym. It’s…weird (not in a good way) and too long by at least three issues, and there’s no reason to check it out unless you’re into overwritten dialogue and wildly inconsistent art. 

Ultron has a different “father” in the MCU. As noted, the original version of Ultron was created by Hank Pym, who has gone by many superhero names over the years, including Ant-Man and Yellowjacket. That’s one of Pym’s defining moments in the original Marvel Universe, and it’s kind of cast him as a constant failure – after all, how can you make up for accidentally creating a homicidal artificial intelligence responsible for the death of thousands? That won’t be the case with MCU Ultron – by all appearances, he’ll have been created by none other than Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, in a bid to protect the world. While this does keep the emotional burden on the shoulders of characters we already have a significant investment in, it is a significant change from the comics – and not one all fans are entirely happy about. Hank Pym will make his MCU debut in July’s Ant-Man (portrayed by Michael Dogulas), though it remains to be seen what role he’ll play outside of hooking up Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang with his powers and tech.

The twins get their powers from a different source in the MCU – they aren't mutants. Basically, none of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies can use any characters from the X-Men franchise, or even "mutants" as a concept – that is, a word to describe people with a special X-gene that results in a manifestation of superpowers around puberty. All of those film rights are tied up at Fox, so Marvel has had to come up with another way to explain the twins. We'll have to wait until this weekend to find out exactly how (no spoilers from our international readers, please), but there are a couple of options. Wanda and Pietro's very brief introduction in the mid-credits scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier featured them as two surviving members of Hydra experiments, where they were described as "miracles" – the scene seems to indicate that those experiments were what granted them their power. However, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has recently begun to establish the Inhumans as a passable stand-in for mutants, and there's been a good deal of speculation that this will be the justification in Age of Ultron (or perhaps it will be a mixture of the two). This speculation has been helped by the fact that, recently, it was revealed that major X-Men villain Magneto is not, in fact, the twins' biological father, in the pages of the crossover event Axis. This has served as a jumping off point for the newest volume of Uncanny Avengers, which in part sees Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch seeking out their true origins, which some fans speculate will lie in the Inhuman realm.

Afterword

Hopefully this has given you some general knowledge for when you head to the theater this weekend. As always, take this piece as a general primer and not a step-by-step guide – we've done our best to generalize and streamline to make convoluted comic continuity understandable and palatable to the non-reader; for all of these characters there exists a vast, rich and oft-confusing history that we've barely been able to touch on here. In addition, the MCU is a different beast than the world of the comics, so naturally characters and their relationships are different. Don't get too stressed when they make adjustments. Have fun with it!

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Matt Liparota
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