And so it begins. Age of Ultron starts off with the world in ruins: cities are decimated, heroes are dead or missing, and nefarious Ultron robots patrol the skies. While reminiscent of Age of Apocalypse -- both in name and similar setting -- Brian Michael Bendis and Bryan Hitch's terrifying look at world ravaged by a vengeful android consciousness feels extraordinarily more palpable and frightening. A big part of that is due to Hitch's stellar artwork. Coupled with a surprisingly focused narrative from Bendis, Age of Ultron #1 succeeds as an opening salvo that sets up the framework for the entire series.
Longtime Marvel fans will immediately know what's going on. Besides the months of previews floating around online, anyone who knows Ultron understands the implications of the title "Age of Ultron" and scenes of a devastated New York City, complete with a crashed S.H.I.E.L.D. Hellicarrier in Central Park -- the robot won. After decades of anticipation, Hank Pym's android-gone-crazy-villain, Ultron, finally brought his reckoning upon Earth, and it's bad. Bendis has been using Ultron in various capacities for a number of years now in different Avengers titles, and interviews with both Bendis and Hitch revealed that Age of Ultron was planned and drawn a few years back, only to be delayed a numerous times. Bendis has been building to this for years, and it's no wonder executives wanted to wait for just the right time to publish the story: it's devastatingly, apocalyptically, hopelessly beautiful.
A big part of that beauty comes from how Age of Ultron is situated within Marvel continuity. Ultron as already won, which means we'll be getting the whole backstory as to how that happened on top of the plot line that follows the surviving heroes to victory over their robot opressor. Additionally, Peter Parker is still Spider-Man -- as opposed to the web slinger's current mental state as Otto Octavius -- Captain America is still wearing his old uniform as opposed to the 'Marvel NOW!' update, She-Hulk got her hair cut, and Luke Cage is still in the mix with the Avengers. All of these little details point to Age of Ultron being set either very early in the 'Marvel NOW!' timeline, or in the future. It's fun to speculate, and Bendis' open narrative allows for a lot of ideas and hypotheses about future issues.
Though, if a casual comic book fan not incredibly versed in the history of Ultron or the Avengers were to pick up Age of Ultron #1, the issue's events could be dauntingly difficult to understand. Bendis' decompressed style means information comes in slowly, which is good for fans, but bad for those who are not "in the know". There's no formal introduction to Ultron, the dialogue between characters is so fluid and reliant on previous knowledge that new readers might have to read it two or three times to really understand what happened, and since this story hasn't sprung out of any immediately recent events, there's no context outside online previews from which to gather any preconceptions about the narrative.
By the end of Age of Ultron #1, I was sold. Bendis has mentioned in more than one interview how this crossover event was his swan song to the Avengers, a franchise he helmed for over eight years. It shows throughout this issue, and Bryan Hitch's superb artwork was the perfect choice for a story with this level of emotional and narrative bearing. It seems as though Bendis also foresaw Clint Barton's recent meteoric rise of popularity from his solo series by Matt Fraction enough to make him the main player throughout this issue. While not a whole lot is revealed, Age of Ultron #1 paves the way for an epic tale that's sure to have lasting effects on the Marvel universe.