Discussion – Marvel NOW! Part 2: Avengers

The Avengers are getting pretty epic these days.

The Avengers are getting pretty epic these days.

In a previous article of mine, I discussed the recent changes in the Marvel Comics format with “Marvel NOW!“. If you were kind enough to read that article(or have clicked the link to do so now, as I would recommend), you are permitted to skip the following introduction, and get to the fun part.

For the big 2, Marvel and DC, it’s been the standard to resort to reboots and retcons to freshen up long-running comics for new and more modern audiences. Between sloppy writers for said reboots/retcons and nerd rage from the pre-established fanbase, these actions tend to meet with mixed buzz. With the passage of time, these universe alterations no longer serve their original purpose as now the comics must yet again be renewed for the new modern audience. If reboots anger fans, create confusing continuity in the comic universe, and can’t even serve as long-term solutions, then what can be done to make comics more appealing to new audiences?

Marvel had the bright idea of keeping the current continuity, bringing in new creative teams to write in elements to offer a rethinking of the structure and approach of each series, and re-numbering/re-titling each series to give people a new starting point. The philosophy of Marvel NOW! is that new fans don’t need comics to start over from the beginning for them. What new fans want are fun  concepts, and a starting point that’s easy to jump into. What old fans want is new ideas and creativity(that they can buy and talk about how much they hate) with respect being paid to the great stories we invested our money in for all these years. Marvel is promising to deliver for both parties.

Marvel's line of reasoning.

Pictured: Marvel’s line of reasoning.

The Fun Part: Avengers Introduction

There was a time when the Avengers weren’t that big of a deal. Sure, they were Marvel’s premiere super-team, but they weren’t as relevant to most fans as, say, the X-Men. Despite a broad and relatively diverse cast spanning the Marvel Universe, the Avengers comic was just one title among many, not a pillar of the company. It always seemed to strive to be, and fail to be, what the Justice League has been for so long, a company-defining super-team.

The Avengers finally came together in 2004 with, ironically, “Avengers Disassembled“, an event in which the team falls apart following disastrous events which cost the lives of a couple of members, challenged their trust in one another, and shattered their means of continuation. Following Disassembled, we were given a new beginning for the team with “The New Avengers”, a team with even greater diversity, a new status quo, and a greater sense of purpose in the Marvel Universe. The next several years saw this new Avengers team take different forms with changing leadership, but always at the forefront of the major Marvel events.

Now, following the mind-blowing success of the Avengers film franchise, the Avengers have come a long way towards now being the cornerstone of the Marvel Universe. In comics, the Avengers have gone from their one lonely title back in the 60s to having 8 titles and a prominent role in many of the other Marvel titles.

Here’s a look at a few of the Avengers and Avengers-related titles.

Avengers, Volume 5:

Avengers. Avengers everywhere.

Avengers. Avengers everywhere.

With your main flagship Avengers title, conventional thought dictates you devote your attention to your stars, Captain America, Thor, Iron Man. But that line of thinking may have been what made Avengers titles of previous decades so thrill-less. This new volume of the Avengers doesn’t ignore the relevance of it’s great legends, leaders, and heavy hitters, but broadens its scope beyond them to a bigger team and greater issues. Avengers vol. 5 should be considered the Avengers on a universal scale.

To explain the premise, I’ll first set the context. With the rise of the Avengers in the past decade, each conflict has escalated in scale and frequency. In response, a conversation takes place between Steve Rogers(Captain America) and Tony Stark (Iron Man), in which Rogers states, “We have to get bigger”. Taking to this idea, Stark pooled together all resources. The idea was to start with the base group, Cap, Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and the Hulk (nod to the movie lineup, anyone?). As problems presented themselves, the greater roster could be called upon to meet the task, with members including, but being nowhere near limited to Spider-Man, Captain Marvel(Ms. Marvel’s new gender-neutral identity), Hyperion, Wolverine, and Captain Universe.

The strength of this series is in the intelligent decision to juggle the fluctuating, over-sized cast by making the comic not a character-driven plot, but a story-driven plot. Sure, we get to explore the backgrounds and interactions between the characters, but compared to your average Spider-Man or X-Men book, Avengers is almost drama free. Every issue is more concerned with the tasks they face, the big planetary threats, the universe-altering new concepts. Instead of having to read the epic crossover events, we get our big missions and adventures all within the pages of a single series. Like the old days.

I can’t help but feel like the Avengers has a bit of a retro feel to it. Remember when comics were kind of shallow in the character development and social commentary, and instead concerned themselves with the sci-fi/fantasy/adventure themes? We get some of that back with this series, and yet it’s written as though it’s not trying to have a nostalgic feel. It’s definitely progressive, but progressing past the years of pretentious writing that tried to establish some greater meaning or reach into the meta. It’s a superteam venturing out into an ever-expanding environment, treading the new grounds they find, and punching things in the damn face. It’s high action, high adventure, and only as much philosophy as you would find in the classics by Stan Lee in the 60s and 70s, or the Chris Claremont work of the 70s and 80s.

I don’t want to describe the plot any further than that. The adventures need to be experienced issue to issue. The Avenger franchise is the new cornerstone of Marvel, and this Avengers comic charts the map for all that it could be.

Grade: A+

Uncanny Avengers:

UncannyAvengersAcuna

Following Avengers vs. X-Men, the crossover event that ushered in the Marvel NOW! era, the Marvel universe is seeing anti-mutant sentiment at an all-time high, with the Avengers carrying some of the guilt. To counteract the hate-violence and seek a long-term peace, Captain America tries to deal with what Cyclops said to him before he went off the deep end of anti-human insanity, that the Avengers never did enough for mutants. The premise of Uncanny Avengers is that with mutants and human so harshly divided, the best course of actions for the Avengers is the inclusion of a “unity division”, an Avengers team led by a mutant and featuring both mutant and human members.

Uncanny Avengers covers the first super hero civil rights group. Aside from the usual Avengers duties of protecting and serving, the “Unity Division” addresses the media, attempting to break down the tensions and ease the world into co-existence. The theme of their battles seems to follow a battling of past demons for both the Avengers and the X-Men. We get a strong opening with the Red Skull, who unleashes a wrath that gruesomely illustrates the damage that hate and bigotry inflict. From there, we delve into the aftermath of Apocalypse-related business.

The mutant leader of the team is Alex Summers, Havoc, a choice made to confront the controversy head on, as Havoc is the brother of Scott Summers, Cyclops, the current symbol of mutant violence and the fear of humans everywhere. The unwarranted discomfort Havoc’s presence brings is reason enough to justify his place on the team, but Alex only occasionally has his moments.

One of his moments is one very much criticized among socially-concerned comic readers. In a speech that Havoc gives, he makes the following statement,

“I don’t see myself as born into a mutant cult or religion. Having an X-Gene doesn’t bond me to anyone. It doesn’t define me. In fact, I see the very word ‘mutant’ as divisive. Old thinking that serves to further separate us from our fellow man. We are all humans. Of one tribe. We are defined by our choices, not the makeup of our genes. So, please don’t call us mutants. The ‘M’ word represents everything I hate.”

With mutants often connected to racial minorities, the LGBT community, and the other various persecuted few, this statement was taken by many to mean that Alex is proposing an elimination of racial identity. Everyone should all blend together. I disagree very much with this interpretation. I see it as a rejection of stereotyping and the forcing of people into contrived roles based off of physical characteristics and other small aspects of our lives. We often see cases where a man is expected to dress a certain way, talk a certain way, and behave a certain way either because he’s black, white, hispanic, gay, or any other title people use to justify the establishment of a uniform for an entire group of people.

This is indeed relevant towards Marvel’s mutants, as even we, the readers get into the habit of assuming that the appearance of a new mutant means we will be seeing said mutant either become a hero or a villain soon. There is no question, regardless of the mutant’s power and personality, they will use their abilities in dangerous, often violent ways. In Uncanny X-Men, Scott Summers recruits mutant teenagers to train into soldiers, paying no mind to one of his recruits, a peaceful coward who’s only power is making harmless golden spheres appear out of thin air. In contrast to this, Alex Summers makes a point in saying don’t judge or make any assumptions about anyone, mutant or human, by their perceived ability, but by the actions they actually take, and the true content of their character. I’ll drink to that.

Alright, that was a long tangent, but I felt it was important to defend the writers conceptual choices. They are well thought-out, and appropriate for the series.

The rest of the team is a little weak, in my opinion. You’ve got Captain America to lend credibility, but he’s bland and lacks a challenging dynamic and greater purpose. Thor and Wolverine seems to stick around only to be tough guys, and otherwise make little input. Wonder Man and the Wasp are new arrivals, but Wonder Man may be promising as an opposing voice from a perspective separate from both the X-Men and the Avengers.

The best interactions take place between Rogue and Scarlet Witch. Rogue is the most hate-able character in the series. All she does is bitch and moan, criticize and antagonize, and generally hate everyone. She seems to be quite bitter towards the Avengers following the war, and the death of Charles Xavier, as well as towards the mutants she felt didn’t do enough. While this could be a necessary and helpful voice on the team, Rogue chooses to use her point of view as a jump off point to be a brat and pick a fight with everyone. Rogue is the team’s Draco Malfoy, she’s not evil, but her sole purpose is to be a pain in the ass, and rub everyone the wrong way.

That’s what makes Scarlet Witch my favorite character of the series so far. As the mutant that lost control of her sanity and inadvertently brought mutants to the brink of extinction, Wanda Maximoff carries much of the guilt for the desperate actions of Cyclops’s faction. Despite this, she doesn’t live in the melodrama, lashing out in frustration like Rogue. Wanda instead pursues solutions for the current problems of the world. She may be erratic at times, but for the most part, Wanda is a badass. The best moment so far for her was when Rogue copped out on accepting responsibility for the events of Avengers vs. X-Men, and instead placed all the blame on the Avengers, and specifically Wanda. Wanda defends herself , delivering a poignant critique of the X-Men as a whole. “I accept responsibility for what I did. Will Cyclops?…Why was it so important more mutants be born?…But why look too close when it’s so much easier to blame me. I’m so bored with the martyrdom routine. This halo you X-Men all love to polish. Self-described soldiers adorned with ‘X’ with no dedication to what it actually stands for.” Burn.

The Scarlet Witch waited until the most opportune moment to whip this card out on Rogue

The Scarlet Witch waited until the right moment to whip this coupon out on Rogue

I wish I could say the rest of the series was this awesome, but following the amazing Red Skull story, the story took a slow, dreary turn. It’s been about 4 to five issues of unsatisfying build-up to this story related to the “Apocalypse twins”, and some greater battle that feels overblown. Still, the start was so strong, and the last few issues have held up well enough, that I feel this is a series to look out for.

Grade: B

Avengers Arena:

Even the covers are unoriginal "homages" to the work of others.

Even the covers are unoriginal “homages” to the work of others.

I couldn’t tell you what the bright idea of this series is without sounding very cynical. It seems as though Avengers Arena is nothing but cheap exploitation, cashing in on the successes of teen novels like Battle Royale, and clones like Hunger Games. The concept is Arcade, the wacky joke villain that locked heroes in giant killer pinball machines, got a hold of some advanced tech and an island in the Savage Land. He decides to resume his old games, but instead capturing teenage superheroes, and putting them in a position that pits them against each other rather than allow them to work together. So you have teenagers(albeit superpowered ones) stranded in an abandoned and enclosed area, forced to fight to the death for someone’s amusement. The writers dodge the accusations of ripping off Battle Royale and Hunger Games by quickly identifying that the whole idea came from said novels. There is a fine line between homage and plagiarism, and Avengers Arena teeters on that line far more than should be acceptable.

Setting aside the lack of originality, the material itself is still lacking. Each issue focuses on the perspective of one character in the story, an interesting approach that attempts to sell every characters as understandable and relate-able, but unfortunately slows the progression of the shallow plot to a crawl. While this approach at least gives us insight into the each of the teens, and even the overlord, Arcade, it’s burdensome and lacking in elegance. The back stories are intriguing, but the flashbacks are too often and for too long. This isn’t Naruto.

The series manages to be truly entertaining in the way ultra-violence is. There’s plenty of fighting, and plenty of dying. The problem comes from the poor taste of providing the reader with entertainment through the steady killing of children. Opinions I’ve gathered from other readers gives me the idea that readers are split. The character progressions are intriguing, and violence is fun, but building an entire series around watching kids kill each other in gruesome ways is disgusting and shameful. I can’t fail this series due to it’s ability to provide consistent entertainment, but I can’t give it a good grade due to the sloppy, lazy, amoral writing.

Grade: C-

Age of Ultron:

OMG, look at how triumphant he is over all of those super-strong people. What ever are our heroes to do?

OMG, look at how triumphant Ultron is over all of those super-strong people. What ever are our heroes to do?

Wow, these articles were meant to point out the good stuff Marvel puts out, but here’s another series I feel the need to give a bad review to.

Age of Ultron is Marvel’s newest crossover epic, which mainly focuses on members of the Avengers. The series takes place in the not so distant future, where the robot Ultron has taken over Earth, and killed off most of humanity, heroes included. The remaining heroes regroup and plan a resistance. When a means of time travel is found, Wolverine and the Invisible Woman break apart from the rest of the resistance to travel back in time to when Ultron was first created and stop it’s creator, hero Hank Pym, by any means necessary(which means they kill him). Then Wolverine and Invisible Woman see the consequences of screwing with history, and blah, blah, blah.

Age of Ultron has no poetry to it, just standard apocalypse and time travel parts mashed together. Every event follows a typical progression, everything sucks, people die, there’s no hope, now there is, but wait, things didn’t work out like we expected, “now what do we do?”(an accurate one sentence summary of the series so far). If you ever get tired of seeing how bad things can get for our heroes, all possible entertainment value is now gone. There is nothing else to read.

So how is it that such a series could sell as well as it does? Good advertising. Marvel has consistently pushed Age of Ultron since before the first issue came out, touting it as the biggest event since ever. They were so desperate to sell this series that they teased the last issue of this miniseries from the beginning. Every month, Marvel reminds us, “keep reading, we swear, it’ll change the Marvel Universe forever!”. Keeping up with the series has become like reading a Wikipedia page, you’re not doing this for entertainment, you’re just trying to absorb the information. In fact, here: All You Need From Age of Ultron

I would brush off this series entirely if it weren’t for the things we’ve seen recently in comics. The last time a company introduced a time-altering crossover epic was Flashpoint, which reset the whole damn universe with The New 52. With all the great changes Marvel has made with Marvel NOW! I’m afraid they might garbage it all up with a reboot. It’s unlikely, sales following Marvel NOW! have been the best that they have been in years, so it’s incomprehensible why they would want to throw it all away for something as dumb as this Avengers A.I. series Marvel’s been hyping. My fingers are crossed for now.

Grade: F, for bad story, bad concept, and threatening promises

Afterword:

God damn, this article was long as hell! I may start doing these reviews one series at a time, and just release these Marvel NOW! articles more often. Please let me know if you would prefer that, or if you like the way I’m doing things.

And please offer up any Marvel comics you’ve been enjoying lately! I have neither the money nor the time to cover the whole company, so help me out! I like to believe that the best wins out overall, and it’s important that we, the readers support all the great comics being put out while avoiding the awful ones like the plague. Cheers!

Porn star Stan Lee would approve.

I think 70s Pornstar Stan Lee should appear in every article.

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