When Marvel Studios releases "Avengers: Age of Ultron" in the spring, a mega-villian known to generations of comic book fans will take center stage. But for many moviegoers, actor James Spader's portrayal of Ultron will be their first encounter with the automaton hellbent on destroying humanity.
That's part of the reason Marvel is assembling a team of time-traveling Avengers from the past, present and future to fight Ultron in three oversize "Ultron Forever" issues slated for release in April and May, "right in the umbra of the lead-up to the film," says Tom Brevoort, senior vice president of publishing and executive editor at Marvel. "Avengers: Age of Ultron" opens in theaters on May 1.
The "Ultron Forever" story, which will unfold in "Avengers: Ultron Forever" No. 1, "New Avengers: Ultron Forever" No. 1 and "Uncanny Avengers: Ultron Forever" No. 1, aims to introduce casual readers to the robot baddie while appealing to devoted fans' nostalgia. And since many are more familiar with the big-screen incarnations of Marvel's mightiest than the African American Captain America and female Thor currently in the pages of comics, time travel seems a clever way to include more recognizable versions of the superheroes, says Brevoort.
The "Ultron Forever" books, to be written by Al Ewing ("Loki: Agent of Asgard," "Mighty Avengers") and illustrated by comics veteran Alan Davis, will gather the current iterations of Black Widow, the Vision and the female Thor as well as classic versions of Thor and the Hulk, James "Rhodey" Rhodes as Iron Man, and a never-before-seen future Captain America — the daughter of Netflix-bound Marvel heroes Luke Cage and Jessica Jones.
The tale is set some 50 years from now in a dystopian future where Ultron rules. It's "a world in which there are no heroes," Brevoort says, "so the idea [is] that in order to face the threat of Ultron, you'd have to cast into the past and pull the great heroes of history."
Gathering a team of Avengers to face the robotic supervillain was a particular pleasure for Ewing, who had freedom to choose from an expansive roster of larger-than-life characters from all of Marvel's 75-year history.
His introduction to Marvel superheroes was the landmark 1984 "Secret Wars" story line, so he chose the Iron Man and Thor of his childhood. "Growing up, I didn't particularly care who Tony Stark was — it was Jim Rhodes, this guy who was with the rest of the superheroes on this little alien planet fighting each other," Ewing says. "So yeah, I do kind of want to have him back in the red and yellow, because it's a nice nostalgic thing for me, and it'll be good for a bunch of readers who remember that whole era."
Ewing also chose the iteration of Thor popularized by writer-artist Walter "Walt" Simonson in the 1980s, with a big beard and blue and gold armor.
Walt Simonson's Thor will come face to face with the lady Thor from Jason Aaron's current run, though her identity will likely still be a mystery when "UItron Forever" is published, Brevoort says. And there will be at least one other Thor incarnation, Ewing says, joking: "It's a smorgasbord of Thors."
They will be joined by a pre-Avengers, Stan Lee version of the Hulk from the early 1960s — with three toes and a penchant for calling people "palookas," Ewing says.
From the present are current versions of Black Widow and the Vision, two characters that have yet to interact in any meaningful way, Brevoort said.
"That's a mismatched pair. For all that, in the comics, they've both been Avengers for a considerable amount of time. I can't think of a lot of situations, circumstances or adventures that they've experienced together," Brevoort said. "So here, they are sort of a strange, odd couple duo.... They have a common bond that they're both from today, and theoretically, that's the same bond the reader has."
And from the future comes a brand new version of Captain America, Danielle Cage — the grown-up daughter of Luke Cage and Jessica Jones, who is currently an infant in the comics.
"She's very strong, and she's as bulletproof as her mom and dad were," Ewing said. "She has the Captain America shield with an anti-gravity unit in it, which she can sort of control with a unit on her glove. I'm going back to the days of the ‘60s where, for about five minutes, Captain America worked his shield with magnets. She's not throwing the shield so much as flying it out, and then it ricochets off of people and comes back to her. It's pretty cool."
As the team member from the future, Dani possesses knowledge of the Avengers' futures and offers some clues throughout the story.
"She keeps calling the Black Widow ‘Madame Natasha,' and she's just hinting that in the future, the Black Widow's this sort of old-school Nick Fury figure, directing the future Avengers. And the last time we would have seen her from Black Widow's perspective was attending her first birthday."
Brevoort said the new, half-African American, female Captain America could stick around in comics if she is well-received.
"Whether or not that infant will grow up to be that character in the course of our stories is part of the ongoing soap opera that we tell," he said. "What tends to happen is we'll do a story like this, and if the character clicks with people, we tend to do more of them.... She's a good character, and if she bounces off the page in the way that we hope she will, then we'll be able to do more."
And with artist Alan Davis at the helm, she won't lack for opportunity to pop on the page.
"He's a world-renowned comic master," Brevoort said. "He's been in the business long enough to illustrate some of these characters from when they were new characters from the past. He is an excellent fundamental superhero artist who's pretty much done it all and can do it all very, very well."
Working with Davis inspires Ewing to reach for more grandiose moments and ambitious plot elements in planning "Ultron Forever," the writer said.
"I seem to be writing a lot more expansive vistas and big spreads and big action moments — all the things I'd like to read in an Alan Davis comic — whereas usually I'm not thinking quite so epically," Ewing said. "I grew up reading his stuff, so it's a massive honor for me. I'm hoping so far I'm doing all right by him. I send him the plot, and I just get back these wonderful pages of art, which I then have to dialogue in a way that does them some kind of justice, and it's kind of a dream come true, really."
"The tremendous success of these films means far, far more people are aware of and interested in these characters and the stories that go on with them," Brevoort says. "So as people are getting excited and seeing the latest ‘Age of Ultron' trailer, these comics will be coming out to whet their appetite for the film and to feed their hunger for information as to what the big robot guy with the strings is all about."
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