Rage of Ultron and the True Origins of the Avengers Villain – IGN

The last two episodes of What If…? Season 1 (read our What If…? season finale review) saw Ultron, or at least a variant thereof, return to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Of course, the Avengers villain made his big-screen debut in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, a debut that was greeted with mixed reviews.

Still, if the second Avengers film didn’t quite do the robotic baddie justice, the graphic novel Avengers: Rage of Ultron – which was published to promote the then-forthcoming film – managed to surpass it, while also reminding us not just why Ultron is such a great character in the first place, but also how the robot’s origins lie even deeper than the Marvel comics in which he first debuted. Scripted by Rick Remender, with art by Jerome Opeña, Pepe Larraz, and Mark Morales, Rage stands as one of the definitive Ultron stories. Let’s examine why.

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The True Origins of Ultron

Springing forth from the minds of Roy Thomas and John Buscema, Ultron debuted in Avengers #54, but it wasn’t until his fourth appearance – Avengers #58 – that his origin was revealed. He turned out to be a rogue creation of the Avengers’ own Hank Pym, aka Ant-Man/Giant-Man. After trying to murder his father, Ultron settled for wiping his memory.

Though Ultron is destroyed by his own creation the Vision shortly after this revelation, he has returned countless times, becoming the bitterest foe of the Avengers and Pym in particular. The android’s relationship with his creator is often depicted as Oedipal – the desire to murder one’s father and wed their mother. The first story to call attention to this was The Bride of Ultron (Avengers #162, script by Jim Shooter, art by George Pérez), wherein the villainous android abducts his “mother,” Janet Van Dyne, aka the Wasp. His intention? To use Janet as the basis for a mate, one named after Oedipus’ mother Jocasta, no less.

Ultron’s desire for companionship overlaps with another story of creation gone wrong – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. It’s a common joke to say, “Actually, Frankenstein was the scientist, not the monster.” This joke misses the forest for the trees, though. Victor Frankenstein is both the scientist and the story’s monster. He deserted Adam, his son by intent if not blood, at the creature’s birth because Adam didn’t conform to Victor’s expectations; Adam’s rage against his father is the rage of an abandoned child. It is this same rage that burns within Ultron.

Rage of Ultron

Rage of Ultron

We Need to Talk About Ultron

Rage of Ultron begins in the Bronze Age of comics, when the Avengers of yesteryear face off with Ultron’s latest iteration. To save the world from nuclear armageddon, the Avengers seal the android in a Quinjet that’s blasting off into space, and Hank laments that to save the world he had to betray his son. Years later, Ultron’s prison crashlands on Titan, moon of Saturn and home of the Eternals. Infecting the moon’s computer core, Ultron reshapes Titan into a singularity of his will and then returns to Earth to do the same there.

Rage of Ultron pushes many Avengers into supporting roles because it knows which characters it wants to focus on – naturally, Ultron and Hank. By centering and juxtaposing the two, Rage asks what, if any, difference exists between them, and if alternate choices from Hank could have resulted in a better path for Ultron.

Ultron’s desire for companionship overlaps with another story of creation gone wrong – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Remender writes Ultron much like Shelley’s Adam: determined to avenge himself on a parent who would not love him. The comic even rewrites Ultron’s birth and the original falling out with Hank. In a flashback from Avengers #58, Ultron tried to kill Hank seconds after being born for no reason at all. In Rage’s version, however, Hank – convinced by the robot’s cold cynicism that he made a mistake with its programming – tries to destroy Ultron first. Ultron resents his father for this and it’s why, even in his general misanthropy, he reserves a special hatred for Hank Pym. By making Ultron’s legacy of violence the fault of not just the android himself, but Hank as well, the comic in turn explores Hank’s own simmering resentments and how those bled into his creation – with Hank as his creator, Ultron’s rage was predestined.

While coated with superhero pomp and spectacle, Rage of Ultron is at its core a somber story about the blend of love and resentment which fills the relationship between a parent and their child. Indeed, it has less in common with any MCU movie, and more with Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. In Rage, Hank assumes the role filled by Tilda Swinton’s character Eva Khatchadourian: a parent wrestling with having brought a monster into the world. In turn, both stories ask if a parent’s love is truly unconditional – if someone can love a being determined only to hate.

This begins with the cover of the book. Ultron’s visage casts a shadow which engulfs all the Avengers, but it’s Hank whose image aligns with, and is dwarfed by, Ultron. The meaning of this composition is two-fold. For one, Ultron and his father are the same – two manifestations of the same being, with only one unburdened by humanity. Second, Ultron is the shadow which Hank will forever cast. The achievement for which he’ll be remembered is not one of his scientific or superheroic feats, but having created his own greatest enemy.

Kurt Busiek, author of both Ultron Unlimited and Rage’s preamble, introduced the idea that Ultron’s programming had been modeled from his creator’s personality. Busiek used this to deepen Hank’s guilt but it’s Remender who takes the idea to its fullest potential by exploring what this genesis means not just for creator, but creation. Children are extensions of their parents after all – our progeny perpetuate our legacy, yet reveal our failings all the same.

Creator and Creation

In the book’s third act, Hank decides it’s time for him to understand why his son is evil. To ask why, instead of experiencing “stolen moments basking in [his] child’s success, vibrancy, and joy,” Hank’s relationship with Ultron has brought only pain.

To answer, Ultron pulls from Hank’s own memories and argues that his father has never been respected, disparaging Hank as “a formless man constantly changing his identity in search of validation.” And he’s right. Hank’s genius is overshadowed by that of others like Reed Richards and Tony Stark, and all he’s remembered for are his mistakes. Even in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, his comic claims to fame, from the creation of Ultron to being a founding Avenger to his identity as Ant-Man, have all been usurped.

Ultron rants at his father that he is nothing more than Hank Pym’s Id unfurled, a murderous inferiority complex given life in a metal shell: “We are Ultron! You could never find your place in this world, so you built me to destroy it. You never truly stop me because you want me to succeed!”

Father and son

Father and son

The robot’s declaration soon proves truer than he’d intended. The Vision uses his phasing powers to merge with Ultron, hoping to shut his own father down from the inside. Hank, moved by the sight of his son in agony, pleads with Vision to release Ultron. The resulting scuffle sees Hank and Ultron merged. As one, the two finally know harmony.

Neither Vision nor Captain America can defeat this new being, and their appeals to Hank’s now non-existent humanity fall on deaf ears. The more the fused Pym-Ultron speaks, the harder it becomes to know which words come from which half, especially when Pym-Ultron declares “I was born hollow into a world I didn’t belong to!”

Hearing these words, Eros of Titan uses emotion-swaying powers on Ultron, attempting to turn anger into love. He fails, replacing rage not with self-acceptance, but with guilt, and a repentant Ultron flees. The tragedy of father and son is intertwined; Hank could never move past his mistakes, while Ultron can’t believe his father’s love for him. Both would mean Hank Pym doing the one thing he was never able to do: love himself.

A funeral is held for Hank as the merged Ultron drifts alone through space – Hank’s heart is the one organic part of his body which survived the melding. It’s an ending on par with The Killing Joke, the last word that needs to be written about a rivalry between a superhero and their archenemy. Just as that story ended with Batman and the Joker holding each other in the rain, sharing a laugh at their mutual madness, Hank and Ultron’s rage has subsided, but is intertwined always and forever.

For more on What If…?, check out our ending explained for What If…? Season 1, dig in on the most shocking moments from the show, hit up our guide to which MCU actors came back for the show (and which didn’t), or read up on the craziest What If…? comics stories!

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