If nothing else, “What If? Age of Ultron” #1 by Joe Keatinge and Raffaele Ienco is unique because it has the distinction of being a “What If?” story (Janet Van Dyne’s death occurring before Hank Pym created Ultron) stemming from what largely was already a “What If?” story (Ultron taking over the world in “Age of Ultron”) that contained another nested “What If?” story (Hank Pym being killed before creating Ultron in the first place). This probably isn’t the kind of distinction Keatinge and Ienco were hoping for, but that’s about the biggest accolade that can be given for this comic.
Keatinge succumbs to the same temptations that many writers of alternate storylines have in the past: this isn’t “our” world and these aren’t “our” characters, so there’s no real reason to take care of them, and therefore anything goes. He demonstrates this immediately on the story’s first page, where The Wasp is conveniently dispatched in the span of two panels, when a familiar occurrence inexplicably causes her death. Keatinge takes the shortest path possible to catalyze the story and in doing so generates a scene with almost no logic and absolutely zero emotion.
The rest of the story remains just as emotionless, as a beaten and sorrowful Hank Pym wanders a dead planet twenty five years later, alternating between moping around and ill-fatedly confronting his now-omnipotent creation. Pym’s emotionally drained state makes this literal last-man-on-Earth motif get old quickly, and that’s even before it drones on throughout the latter half of the issue. Keatinge easily destroys a world and the billions of people on it, but making anything interesting from it proves to be a far more difficult task.
Ironically, Keatinge plants some seeds of interest in the brief flashback sequences; Pym as part of the early resistance movement and the conflict that develops within is mentioned, for instance, but is never explored and instead the pages devoted to this part of the story contain a lot of the usual gratuitous deaths of characters who aren’t “ours.” Some actual character interaction and conflict would have been a welcome addition to the solitary dominance of this story as written.
The quarter century that leads up to the bulk of the story is expedited so quickly that even Ienco seems to struggle with it; given almost no page time to frame past events, it’s difficult to tell exactly what’s happening at times. It’s not really clear as to whether Pym and Ultron are allies or foes when facing off against The Avengers, and if they are indeed allies, Keatinge does nothing to explain why. If they’re foes, Ienco seems to have Pym facing the wrong way most of the time; in fact, in the first panel of this all-too-brief confrontation, Ienco makes it unclear whether Pym is standing with Ultron, or attacking him from behind. Oh, and The Avengers are given a very mundane and decidedly non-glorious demise, in typical “What If?” fashion.
Ienco does a lot better with the rest of the issue, although he’s really not given much to work with beyond a grizzled, unshaven Hank Pym and an admittedly imposing and highly-evolved Ultron. Thankfully, despite being part of a five-part mini-series, “What If? Age of Ultron” #1 is a standalone story, so it’s not necessarily representative of what’s to come, but it’s nonetheless a needless, dull and badly executed effort and a poor choice to kick off a series. Fans who enjoyed “Age of Ultron” will find nothing enjoyable here.