Marvel Entertainment's renowned heroes find themselves in an unfamiliar and unsettling position in the pages of the just-released "Age of Ultron" series: defeated, demoralized and desperate.

After years of well-placed warnings that have gone unheeded, the ever-adaptive artificial intelligence that is Ultron — a creation of Avengers co-founder Henry Pym — has finally realized his potential as conquering villain. He has turned the planet into a dystopian landscape that is wrecked beyond compare with technology at the top of the food chain and humanity on the extinction trail.

In short, said Brian Michael Bendis, who wrote the series that debuted Wednesday, Ultron has lived up to his promise.

"Ultron is one of the big villains of the Marvel universe, up there with Dr. Doom and Magneto," he said this week. "He's been a threat — a constant threat — and they've never been able to defeat him because of the nature of his being."

Now, with Ultron's ability to adapt, react and learn, his promise has gone global and what was once a vibrant planet is nothing more than piles of debris with androids and mechanized robots running roughshod across the surface and heroes like Iron Man, the Sensational Spider-Man, Moon Knight, Invisible Woman and Hawkeye in the shadows.

It is, Bendis said, a reckoning of sorts with the Marvel universe "destroyed" and "half the heroes dead and half the world is dead."

Those that are left — remnants of the Avengers, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, the Hulks — are living in the shadows, fighting back, Bendis said, and they aim to stop what happened from ever happening again.

"It's not an imaginary story. It's happening in Marvel continuity," he said of the tale, which has the first three issues out this month, followed by issues 4,5 and 6 in April, all illustrated by Bryan Hitch. The heroes "are going to break some rules with the space-time continuum."

The 10-issue story is illustrated by Bryan Hitch, Brandon Petersen and Carlos Pacheco, with a fourth artist that Marvel is keeping secret.

Tom Brevoort, senior vice president for publishing at Marvel and editor for "Age of Ultron," called the series one that will leave readers confused and, possibly, upset, too.

"Part of the ethos we're trying to adopt, as part of Marvel Now, is the idea that really, anything can happen and the sky is the limit," he said. "'Age of Ultron' is the exemplar of that. It's supposed to make people feel edgy and uncomfortable."

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Moore reported from Philadelphia. Follow him at www.twitter.com/mattmooreap.

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Marvel Entertainment is owned by The Walt Disney Co.

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Online:

http://www.marvel.com

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