Iron Man's heroics have always been a blend of man and machine, but in recent years that line has started to blur thanks to two separate catastrophic events forcing Tony Stark to rebuild both his mind and his body. Now he's wondering if he's a man, machine... or both. Now, he'll be forced to answer those questions head on. His romantic relationship with Janet van Dyne and his actions towards artificial intelligence have put him in the crosshairs of another being that is a unique hybrid of man and machine, the villainous Ultron, who became a new being when its mind and body were fused with its creator, Hank Pym.
In Tony Stark: Iron Man #16, Dan Slott and Francesco Manna kick off “The Ultron Agenda,” an arc that finds the titular villain enacting machinations that will impact Iron Man, the Pym family, and the larger Marvel Universe. CBR spoke with Slott about Ultron's agenda, the characters caught up in it, and how they set the stage for next year, 2020; which as long time Iron Man fans know is a pivotal year in the Armored Avenger's lore.
CBR: In “The Ultron Agenda” a story that's slowly been building in Tony Stark: Iron Man comes to a head. What inspired this story? And what made you want to tell it in an Iron Man book
Tom Brevoort: Ever since the series began, we knew that we’d be getting to Ultron at around this point—it just made all the sense in the world. Not only is Ultron on the scale of villain that Iron Man should be facing, but he’s these days almost the opposite of Tony; where Tony is a man wrapped in technology, Ultron is technology wrapped in a man, Hank Pym. Add to that Tony’s ongoing relationship with Janet Van Dyne and Jocasta’s role in the series since the beginning, and there’s a potent stew of elements to draw upon for a killer story.
Dan Slott: Recent developments have made Tony aware that he might not be Tony Stark. Because during the Matt Fraction run on Iron Man Tony downloaded his brain onto computers. He then reuploaded it. Then during Brian Bendis' run Captain Marvel “killed” Tony in Civil War II. So he had to rebuild his body in a pod.
So now that he's got a rebuilt brain and body the question is, “Is he still Tony Stark?” What makes him different from an artificial intelligence? And now we have Ultron, who is an artificial intelligence who has been mashed together with Hank Pym. He's now Ultron Pym and he's back . . . And, oh my God, Tony is an A.I. And he's dating JANET? WHAT? That's going to cause some problems.
So is part of Ultron's Agenda for Tony, "Who are you and why are you dating my mom?"
Slott: Mom? That's Pym's ex-wife! Because he's Ultron Pym. We also have Jocasta involved in things and she is the bride of Ultron and he based her brain patterns on Jan. And at the end of issue #15 we saw that Jan had been captured by Ultron. Hmm . . .
In previous appearances. Pym's flesh was part of Ultron's body, but it wasn't quite clear how much of his consciousness was left. What you're saying here begs the question of how much of this version of Ultron is the killer robot, and how much is Hank...
Slott: That is a very good question, which I will not answer in a CBR interview. [Laughs]
You had written some about Hank Pym and his interactions with Tony Stark during your Mighty Avengers run. What's it like revisiting the history of Tony and Hank in this story?
Slott: It's very interesting, because Hank Pym is one of the Marvel Universe's most flawed heroes. I like that about him. I also like that there aren't easy outs in the Marvel Universe, and he's a character with a troubled past. When I was writing Mighty Avengers, I didn't try to soften any of that. I leaned into it. He was a character who had done irredeemable things but was trying to do good.
While Janet has been with Tony she's tried to get him to look at what's happened to him with this “reboot” of his brain and body as being a second chance. But as cocky as Tony Stark is, all these new revelations have really put him in an uncomfortable place where he's unsure of himself and his place in the universe. We're used to him being cocksure of everything, so this is a very strange place for Tony to be in. It would be a real shame if something shook his foundations even more.
How does the larger A.I. community of the Marvel Universe view Ultron?
Slott: That's a good question, too. Every now and then in the pages of Tony Stark: Iron Man, we drop into a robot bar called the Uncanny Valley and we see what the A.I.s are thinking about what's going on. And in issue #15, Tony killed off an A.I. and wiped the minds of a lot of robots. So they're not too happy with Tony Stark. Humans are also wary of Tony since he admitted to the world that he might be an A.I. So, Tony is trapped between two worlds, and both distrust him.
We know one of the A.I. facilitators of Ultron's Agenda will be Machine Man. He's had some history with Ultron and not all of it is good. Can you talk about X-51's motivations in this story and what drives him?
Brevoort: As we’ve seen, Aaron Stack has become a bit more militant in his stance on the rights of artificial intelligences like himself, to the point where he’s eschewed the faux-fleshy epidermis he once wore, choosing instead to reveal all of his robotic goodness to the world. He’s a loud and proud automation, so on a certain level, he’s not all that far off from what Ultron has professed as his goals in the past. Unfortunately for Aaron, the current Ultron has something far different in mind these days.
Slott: All I'll say is, something big happens in the opening sequence of Tony Stark: Iron Man #16. That will really kick off “The Ultron Agenda.”
What kind of roles do Jocasta and Janet Van Dyne play in this story?
Brevoort: Both Jocasta and Janet are pretty central to what is going on, but this is an Iron Man story first and foremost, so it’s a Tony Stark story. Which isn’t to say that Janet and Jocasta won’t have meaty roles to play—but this isn’t Avengers. They are supporting players in Iron Man’s world, in our series.
Slott: The big players in this are Tony, Janet, Jocasta, Machine Man and, of course, Ultron!
Tony Stark: Iron Man #15 featured two members of the extended Ultron Pym family Vision and Wonder Man who were fused together and attacked Tony. They were defeated by the end of the issue, but does that mean they're out of the story?
Slott: You will find that out in the second sequence of Tony Stark: Iron Man #16. So, you'll see the fate of WonderVision!
Right now both Vision and Wonder Man don't exist. They are a new being smushed together . . . kind of like ULTRON PYM!
As “The Ultron Agenda” progresses, are you bringing in more members of the Ultron Pym extended family like Viv, Victor Mancha and Nadia Pym?
Slott: We already have a large cast at work here, because we also have the Tony Stark: Iron Man cast like Andy Bhang, Dr. Shapiro, Rhodey and Bethany Cabe. We also have JARVIS! And of course always lurking in the background are Sunset Bain, a classic Machine Man villain and current Tony Stark foil, and Arno Stark, Tony Stark's smarter brother.
The Ultron Agenda” is unfolding just a few months before 2020, which is, of course, a significant year in Iron Man lore because in 1984 readers were introduced to the Iron Man of a distant, dark future world; the Iron Man of 2020.
Slott: “The Ultron Agenda” goes all the way up to the end of 2019, and it will have DIRE repercussions for the Marvel Universe of the year 2020. It's almost like it's a major catalyst! [Laughs] Perhaps something major is going happen? Maybe these are books you should really be following now?
You only get one 2020! We can do 2099 books whenever we want! We could do one, today, tomorrow, and even a few years from now. But you know what 2020 is . . . THE PRESENT! And that present is tense! [Laughs] 2020 is no longer a future world. It's now! Something is about to happen.
Did you give us a glimpse of that future earlier in the year with the appearance of the “God-Killer” armor in Tony Stark Iron Man #11?
Slott: When Tony's mind was free to do whatever it wanted in the virtual E-scape we saw him create the ultimate armor, the God-Killer. That armor had clockwork style cogs on the shoulders. How interesting?
Plus, Arno Stark had broken into the system and seen all of this. It's almost like month after month in 2019 we've been setting up this chain of dominoes.