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The Thanos Imperative (Review/Retrospective)

April (and a little bit of May) are “Avengers month” at the m0vie blog. In anticipation of Joss Whedon’s superhero epic, we’ll have a variety of articles and reviews published looking at various aspects of “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.” This doesn’t exactly feature the Avengers, but a similarly all-star cast of cosmic Marvel superheroes…

Read our review of The Avengers here.

I have to admit, I have really enjoyed the “cosmic” Marvel crossovers in the past few years, perhaps more than I’ve enjoyed the big Avengers-themed events that they’ve been churning out consistently. Being honest, I think part of the reason that the cosmic line balanced these events so well was because it was smaller, and thus easier to handle. You didn’t have to worry about splitting character beats between the main miniseries and the supporting titles, nor did you have to worry about a dozen other comics feeding into (and flowing out of) your miniseries. At its peak, the line – as helmed by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning – consisted of two titles (Nova and Guardians of the Galaxy), and nobody else was playing in the sandbox. Maybe I’m just a little bit selfish, but it’s always fun to watch a writer play with toys that he’s not being asked to share.

Five cosmic powerhouses walk into a bar...

It’s a little sad to see the “cosmic” series come to sort of an end. Although the final page of the hardcover teases us with the promise that this is “to be continued in the Annihilators”, a team of “cosmic heavy hitters” that seem to be designed as a sort of “Galactic Avengers”, it seems that Marvel is moving slowly away from Abnett and Lanning. The proposed Rocket and Groot miniseries was eventually cut, reduced to a back-up feature in The Annihilators. Greg Pak, who did solid work with Planet Hulk, has given us a miniseries based around The Silver Surfer. There are rumours Brian Michael Bendis may be moving to this side of the Marvel Universe. Just as Abnett and Lanning (and Keith Giffen, who wrote the Annihilation event which sparked this current cycle) inherited the cosmic universe from writers like Jim Starlin (who wrote classics like The Infinity Gauntlet, The Infinity War and Infinity Crusade), perhaps they are handing over the reigns to a new generation.

There’s a sense of finality to the story. A notion of how the pair are wrapping up a host of things that they began years ago. Indeed, The Thanos Imperative‘s first issue opens with a flashback to a conversation between Nova and Star Lord during Annihilation. We’re given a sense at how we’ve watched the two characters grow and evolve over the years – and they’ve both served as the headliners of the two cosmic-related series that Abnett and Lanning have been working on. Richard Ryder obviously starred in Nova, while Star Lord headlined the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Mar-Vehl-ous...

It’s no coincidence that we’ve come a full circle. Annihilation followed the invasion of our universe from another dimension, as the galactic powers were easily and casually brushed aside. It was a war of attrition, where the galactic superpowers were pushed back and humbled, as it became something of a longterm siege. In contrast, The Thanos Imperative seems to unfold over a matter of hours, with a galactic alliance struggling to hold back the invasion at the threshold of our universe. My, how we’ve grown and changed. By playing out the original scenario, but emphasising how things have changed, Abnett and Lanning draw attention to how carefully they’ve cultivated this aspect of the Marvel publishing line.

Richard Ryder and Peter Quill perhaps exemplify this growth and evolution. Over the course of the events we’ve seen over the past number of years, and through their own monthly series, the two characters have grown immensely. “Ain’t nobody gonna be calling Nova a lightweight Earth boy by the end of it,” Star Lord observes at one point, reflecting on the horrors the pair have faced. Remarking on how Nova’s leadership skills have evolved since the first time he faced an invasion of this magnitude, Star Lord assures him, “You’ve come a long way, Richard Ryder.” He certainly has.

Thanos knows only death...

More than that, Peter Quill almost seems aware of the nature of his existence as a comic book character. Explaining why he knew that Thanos needed to be the one to stop the invasion of the Cancerverse, Star Lord tells the Mad Titan, “the whole life and death riff kinda tipped me off this would be your sort of show.” Effectively, he spotted the themes in the story and reacted in kind. He compares his journey to the Cancerverse explicitly to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The Annihilators, a sort of “Space Avengers” team, are also Quill’s idea, the bunch of “the biggest guns” as a way to save the universe. Similarly, perhaps he’s spotting the danger that the “cosmic” publishing line faces of cancellation, and realises that he needs the big names to stand a chance. Or perhaps I’m reaching. Still, even Thanos acknowledges, “You pretend to be superficial and glib, but you understand.”

The fact that the story is about death certainly helps give it a nice big epic ring to it. It’s fascinating how preoccupied mainstream comic books seem to be with death at the moment. DC recently had Blackest Night, the X-Men faced Necrosha… one wonders if comic books really are growing up. Perhaps the medium has moved quickly past the adolescence we saw in the nineties and straight through to middle-aged existential angst, a morbid fascination with the inevitable outcome of any existence, the solemn realisation that everything dies. Of course, that’s not necessarily the case in comic books, but recent crossovers seem to suggest that maybe these sorts of light-hearted resurrections are not for the best.

Of gods and men...

Perhaps, these stories suggest, we need to stop thinking about death in purely black and white terms. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with the end, as long as we can face it with our dignity and pride intact – it’s childish and silly to presume that everything is going to live forever. It’s quite depressing, this fascination with the superhero resurrection gone horrible wrong – removing a lot of the emotional impact of these deaths. Over at DC, it was emotionally manipulative Black Lanterns, in X-Men it was old enemies and here it’s corrupting the heroic Mar-Vehl into something foreign and sinister.

On the other hand – if this is a mid-life crisis for superhero comics – one might forgive the radically shifting mood. For each of the above examples, there’s countless attempts to reverse or undo notable comic book deaths. Bucky never dies in an explosion, Captain America ultimately had a chance to save his sidekick! Hal Jordan didn’t go berserk and try to kill everyone, he was controlled by a yellow fear bug! Look kids, Barry Allen’s back! For every cautionary tale about how inevitable death is, and how trying to cheat it may come at too high a price, there’s a fantasy about never-ending youth and vitality just around the corner. An assurance that death and change aren’t inevitable, and they can be held at bay.

Perhaps I am over-thinking it.

It just flew by...

Anyway, as I remarked in my review of Realm of Kings, the core concept of the Cancerverse is a clever one. Imagine a world where our heroes have conquered death. Imagine that universe, bursting at the seams with life, ready to spill over into ours at the drop of a hat. It’s fascinating to see our traditional heroes reimagined in gothic imagery, decorated in pentagrams. This is a world populated with abstract horrors that would give H.P. Lovecraft nightmares, going by the titles of “the many-angled ones” or “the cthonic gods” or even “the elder gods.”

We we see these things, they’re all tentacles and gnashing sets of teeth, seemingly impossible to define. Not matter how you twist or bend or break or snap or burn or tear it, it still keeps coming. And it seems to get larger, and stronger. This might take place in outer space and occasionally feature the odd ray gun or two (or even a loader from Aliens piloted by a wise-cracking racoon), but it’s more dark fantasy than science fiction – and I’d argue that it’s stronger because of it.

Rocket rocks it...

It’s interesting how Lanning and Abnett use the Vision and Captain Mahr-Vell as two major characters in this alternate universe. Mahr-Vell is one of the very few characters in comic books to actually remain dead – if only because resurrecting a cancer victim might seem a bit cold. The only other character who could really have had a similar impact might have been Uncle Ben, as it seems almost every other major death has been reversed over the years. Mahr-Vell is the hero who stayed dead, and who is sorely missed.

Similarly, the Vision was destroyed in Avengers Disassembled, and had not yest been resurrected. So it’s oddly poignant to see the old avenger here in this universe, fighting the good fight against ever-lasting life – despite the fact that death claimed him in the mainstream universe. Indeed, it’s interesting how Lanning and Abnett slip in a none-too-subtle criticism of the way that the Scarlet Witch has been treated. In the main Marvel Universe, driven insane by the loss of her family, Wanda nearly destroys the world (and effectively attempts genocide) in House of M. Here, rather than the loss of her family twisting and breaking her, it makes her a more resolute hero. It reminds me of the similar criticisms that Annihilation made of Civil War.

Clash of the Titans...

And so, it seems, it’s over. But it’s been a hell of a ride. The Thanos Imperative isn’t the best written comic book ever, but it is entertaining – and it is epic. It’s a grand space opera, with hints of Lovecraftian horror thrown in, while allowing Abnett and Lanning to play with their toys one last time. The fact that they are the only two in that particular sandbox seems to mean that they can simply throw the stuff around without worrying where it all lands.

And that’s a good thing.

You might be interested in our reviews and discussions of this cycle of Marvel cosmic events:

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