Friday, May 1, 2015

1980s: Ulterior Ultron part II: This Evil Multiplying

By Jef Willemsen (

In the second and final part of our look at Ultron's 1980s appearances, the adamantium assassin is halfway through the decade when he starts to suffer from a complex combination of daddy issues and cybernetic schizophrenia. There may be no strings on the James Spader movie version, but the Marvel Ultron sure was governed by the ties that bind.

                                                       "Torn between two Ultrons!"

"... Feeeeelin' like a fool!"

As we covered last time, Ultron XI went to the Secret Wars, got his head handed to him and was left behind on Battleworld. He would have stayed there if the Thing hadn't decided to bring it back with him in April 1985's Fantastic Four I#277. Whatever happened to the adamantium pumpkin was never revealed, but six months down the road he showed up as Ultron XII in The West Coast Avengers II#1. 

     "Never shall the immortal Ultron rest until he has destroyed all who bear the name of Avenger!"

Heck of a way to start a West Coast franchise, Hawk... But Ultron wasn't working alone, he had joined his old ally the Grim Reaper along with M'Baku the Man Ape, Nekra and Goliath in a complicated scheme of revenge and sibling rivalry focussing on Hank Pym, Wonder Man and the Vision.

Avengers: Age of Ultron
steered clear from the complicated relationship Ultron had with his father/creator Hank Pym, but writer Steve Englehart dedicated the first two issues of West Coast Avengers to this dysfunctional duo... And Pym wasn't even a member!

                                                         "Just watch me, dad! Just watch!" 

This was the first time Englehart started dropping hints this new 'n improved Ultron wasn't his usual, maniacal self. But nothing much came of it, not with so many villains to pound on. In the end, the Avengers and their allies Vision and the Scarlet Witch defeated the Reaper and his allies. Ultron escaped and, as always, vowed revenge. Let's see what his big plan was...

                          "Hello, dad! It's me again... Your loving son, Ultron Mark Twelve!"

Yup, the invincible, adamantium dipped killing machine resorted to prank phone calls. Over the next couple of issues, Pym was repeatedly called by his "son" who did very little but leave ominious, teasing messages. Just before he could ask Pym to ask around for "Amanda Hugenkiss", Henry had enough, cursed his boy out and hung up the phone. That provoked a very unique reaction from Ultron when he called again a little while later.

"You were right to put me in my place!
                          I've been an immature fool and I want to bury the hatchet... Father!"

Well, burying the hatchet is fine, son... But what about those eye lasers, pocket nuke and other deadly weapons you got stuffed in your chassis? Pym was intrigued by Ultron's apology though, and stayed on the phone for a while listening to his robotic seed make amends. He even agreed to meet with Ultron, naturally without even bothering to inform the Avengers one of their most lethal enemies had him on speed dial. Logic systems might be Henry Pym's speciality in the lab, when it comes to rational thinking he's the worst.

          "Father, now that you are divorced, it is likely that the only "son" you'll ever have is me!"

There's something uncomfortably comic about seeing those sappy lines come out of a grinning deathbot with a thermo-nuclear furnace in his throat. But Ultron seemed sincere enough in his intentions, so much so that Pym finally started to believe his story. According to Ultron, after "evolving" through 12 incarnations he'd finally worked out the kinks in his programming. He compared his hatred towards Pym and all mankind to a teenager going through puberty and rebelling against the world in general and his father in particular. All in all not the worst analogy and Englehart really sold the premise, even though most teens first go through puberty before they take (or make) a wife. All Jocastas aside, for a brief moment, Hank Pym felt he had a son.

And the bonding continued...

"My GOD! The face is still so threatening, but... he's hugging me!"

The idea that an artificial intelligence could eventually decide it had outgrown its basic programming (i.e. 'kill all humans') was a fascinating one. and Englehart really sells the premise. For a brief moment, Hank Pym even felt he had a son. Which was a lucky break, because at that point in his life he was pretty much down in the dumps. No purpose in life, no one to love, not even a steady job as either a scientist or a superhero. Having his greatest failure suddenly turn out to be a loving child felt like Hank's first lucky break in quite a while. But of course, we can't have that now, can we?

"You are almost too easy to kill!"

Ah kids, you turn your back for a second and there's two of 'em. West Coast Avengers I#7 revealed how Ultron Mark 12, or "Mark" as he preferred to be called, had come to be. Y'see, Ultron-11 was right in the middle of experimenting with his software when the Beyonder abducted him to go fight in the Secret Wars. The experiments continued unsupervised and ultimately led to the creation of Mark 12, who had been allowed time to outgrow his hatred for mankind.

The Mark 11 still had its sheer distate for all things fleshy. The issue also revealed how he came back to life. After Thing forgot all about him,  he was found by a nurse who didn't realize what the funny looking head was. She took it home and put it on top of her TV, considering it little more than a fancy paper weight... Being near electronics allowed Ultron to take over the set, feed off enough electricity to power his hypnotic encephalo-ray and he was back in business. The enslaved nurse shipped him to computer expert David Menconi on the West Coast who also fell prey to Ultie's hypnotic powers. Menconi was forced to drive Ultron to his old lab...

"Good! Now carry me inside!"

Long story short... With the help of Menconi Ultron-11 soon regained a body. He then realized there was a "successor" of sorts running around, the benevolent Mark. Disgusted by his loving, pacificist tendencies, Ultron-11 pretended to be Mark and lured Hank into the trap we saw before. Fair's fair, it's not like Pym could tell them apart. Luckily, the Mark-11 knew an easy way to make sure anyone could tell the difference.

                                                         "An Ultron that must cease to be!"

That wasn't the end for Mark, who forced his body to come to him and reattach the head as best he could. While Ultron-11 was busy torturing his father/creator, Mark sought out the one person who had a chance of fighting Ultron: the Avenger turned moviestar Wonder Man. In the past, he'd been terribly insecure and mortally afraid of death, even though his ionic form was practically unkillable. His fear of dying had caused him to falter against Ultron in the late 70s, but thanks to his new, Hollywood size ego Simon Williams was ready for a rematch.

"I won't make the same mistake you did!"

Poor Ultron, ripped apart by someone wearing the most 80s pair of shades you'd ever want to see. And as for Mark, he "died" soon afterwards, the faulty reattachment had caused the circuits in his head to fuse together beyond repair. Hank Pym was alone again... But luckily, he's a sane and stable man who'd never let life push him to make rash decisions...

Ultron returned in Fantastic Four, once again courtesy of Steve Englehart who wrote all but two of his 1980s appearances. There's a bit of a disclaimer though: the Ultron appearing in Fantastic Four I#331 was actually "just" part of a bad dream. Click here for the full story, but in a nutshell: Englehart had intended the Ultron encounter as an actual adventure, but pressure from Marvel editorial forced him to make changes to his planned storylines. In order to have his cake and eat it too, he decided to have the FF dream 'm instead. 

Reed dreamed that his new PC, the Ultron anagram"Turino XL", turned into a new version of the killing machine. However, in the dream Ultron was unceremoniously defeated by the She-Thing of all people... Talk about your regular revoltin' developments.

"Don't forget, honey, I'm not just a pretty face!"

Thank heavens it was only a dream. Ultron showed up one last time during the 1980s as part of the company wide Acts of Vengeance crossover. Brought together by a disguised Loki, the Kingpin, Doctor Doom, Mandarin and the Red Skull concocted a plan to rid themselves of their mortal enemies by playing a game of Musical Super Villains. They had their allies attack heroes who'd their never faced before, figuring the element of surprise would win them the day.

The Kingpin wanted Doctor Doom to defeat Daredevil for him. Doom being Doom, he wasn't about to lower himself to a lackey's work. Instead, he reconstructed and reprogrammed Ultron.

                      "Your circuits contain certain information on a Daredevil. Destroy him."

To keep the potentially lethal robot in check, Doom had decided to incorporate all 12 previous personalities into Ultron-13, essentially giving him a case of cybernetic schizophrenia. Ultron heard voices and they were all real and all his. This was of course right up the alley of Ann Nocenti, who wrote Daredevil I#275 and 276. 

In true Nocenti style, the rambling, functionally insane Ultron was sent against Daredevil who happened to be out in the woods with his friends, the mysterious Number Nine and Karnak and Gorgon of all people. You'd think that a glorified, blind acrobat wouldn't last two seconds against even an insane Ultron, but Nocenti managed to get two issues out of it.

"Kill the Daredevil. Why? I don't hate him. None of One through Thirteen hate him any more than the rest of humanity. Why must I commit this unnecessary act?" 

... Why must we read this unnecessary banter? Nocenti often incorporated characters suffering from mental disorders, she created the schizophrenic Typhoid Mary for instance. While she's usually very good at voicing the psychologically stricken, having a robot go through it is just plain silly.

Maybe not as silly ha-ha as the Ultron-11 head with a TV set for a body, but still pretty bad. Ultron's biggest enemy was himself and a surprising, moral dilemma. He is supposed to be perfect, unlike humanity which is inherently flawed. However, since human hands created him, doesn't that make him imperfect as well? After almost 44 pages of quasi-philosophic moral meandering, Ultron (and the readership) had enough. He practically tore its own head off, which saddened Number Nine who he'd decided to take as his bride. She felt he didn't deserve to die, because there was an inherent good hiding behind his voice (Mark-12's influence no doubt).

Daredevil wasn't convinced...


Yup, a robot who knocked out Thor and ripped through entire teams of Avengers like a box of Kleenex during flu season is brought down by a pissed off man in tights carrying a branch. How the mighty have fallen.

                                                                       "That's it."

You said it, DD!

And with that rather depressing story, the 1980s came to a close for Ultron. Luckily for him and Avengers fan everywhere, the 90s were far kinder to everyone's favorite electronic executioner. Roy and Dann Thomas would make him a mainstay during their early 90s Avengers West Coast run that also introduced his new "bride", the sassy Alkhema. Ultron became a threat to be reckoned with and the anticipation for his return was palpable in the late 90s when Kurt Busiek and George Perez relaunched the Avengers.

The two titans were well aware Ultron was in demand and made sure to tease his inevitable appearance. For instance, with this scene from Avengers III#10.

"Enjoy it while you can, my flawed progenitor... My time is dawning!"

Ultron took his time getting ready... And when he finally made his move nine months later, it led to one of Marvel's most beloved, shocking and intense stories. Over the course of four issues, Ultron took over the country of Slorenia, wiped out its entire population and almost got around to repopulating the planet with drones he planned to give personalities based on the memory engrams of his "family", the kidnapped Vision, Scarlet Witch, the Wasp, Wonder Man and Hank Pym.

Busiek was one of the first who got the essence of Ultron right... You should be deathly afraid of him, not because he's "just" an unbeatable robot. No, it's because Ultron is better than you. That's one of the few things Brian Michael Bendis got right during the dreadful and ultimately inconsequential Age of Ultron event. Given enough time, Ultron will overcome us all. And not because he's "just" functionally immortal. Ultron can keep reinventing himself, becoming better and better with each new incarnation... And what's worse, the older, tough as heck versions are always right around the corner should he need them.

Nothing conveyed that sense of knot-in-stomach dread than the ending to Avengers I#21. The Avengers had pretty much expended themselves fighting and destroying what they thought was Ultron. Only for another to show up moments later. And another. And another... Which led Firestar to ask just how many of them there were. The rhetorical query got a sphincter tightening reply.

"Oh, no..."

In conclusion: every decade gets the Ultron it deserves... The 1980s version of the robot wasn't all that concerned with exterminating humanity. Taking a cue from the American political climate, it was all about "me, me, me", or better put: "me and my daddy". Steve Englehart went out of his way to get Ultron to try and form an emotional bond with his "father", a man who as Busiek and Perez would reveal, had used his own engrams as a basis for the robot's personality matrix.

Ultron's unsupervised navel gazing led to the ultra-sensitive Mark who also got his time to shine as part of the "chorus" of previous personalities in Ann Nocenti's Daredevil. "Mark", for all his kindness and uniqueness, was exactly what was wrong with Ultron in the 80s. It's hard to make a robotic villain relatable on a human level without taking away the cold, robotic origins that made it so unique in the first place. 

It's a delicate balance and, of course, entirely dependent on the culture's stance. Remember, the touchy-feely approach was all the rage in the 80s...  Star Trek: The Next Generation launched in 1987 with the ship's psychologist seated on the bridge, right next to the Captain.

Luckily for us, Ultron outgrew his cuddly phase in time for the movies.

Surrender to the Age of Ultron, puny flesh beings!

1 comment:

  1. This was a great retrospective. I admit, though, whenever I see the Daredevil story referenced, I always long for someone to point out that Ultron is defeated while quoting a Beatles' song (Revolution 9). I could never tell if that was supposed to be some sort of weird joke or not, but I've always found it kind of funny...



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