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Mighty Avengers: Dark Reign (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.”

Read our review of The Avengers here.

Dan Slott’s Mighty Avengers is so distinct from Brian Michael Bendis’ run on the second Avengers flagship book that it might as well have been a different title. Indeed, the name (and, arguably, the use of thought balloons) represent perhaps the only ties to the second major Avengers title. While still defined by it, the status quo has little to do with the aftermath of Civil War, and the lineup is markedly different. In a way, you could argue that Bendis and Slott had similar goals with the title: an attempt to tell more bombastic and traditional Avengers stories, with high stakes and a global focus, in contrast to the relatively “urban” feel of Bendis’ New Avengers. There’s no denying, however, that Slott handles the nostalgia and conventional superheroics with far more aplomb than his predecessor.

Not so Mighty...

I should note that I don’t mean that as an insult to Bendis, just an acknowledgement that different writers have different strengths and weaknesses. Bendis has always done very well with noir-themed street-level (and slightly deconstructionist) books (Ultimate Spider-Man perhaps the exception), while Slott is a far more traditional comic book writer. I think that’s what has allowed the author to make such an impact on Amazing Spider-Man, offering the title a sense of old-fashioned stability that it had really been lacking, and I’d argue that the same approach works here.

One can immediately tell that this is going to be a more nostalgic book by virtue of the cast assembled, and the challenges faced. Bendis consciously attempted to update the Avengers franchise for the twenty-first century by bringing iconic characters like Spider-Man and Wolverine on to the roster, two characters who were never really associated with the team before. In doing so, Bendis generally stayed away from the vast majority of the second- or third-tier characters associated with the title. It’s telling that the only one of Bendis’ New Avengers who seems to have an affection for the misfits Pym has assembled is Hawkeye, arguably the only second-tier “old-school” Avenger on Bendis’ team.

This team isn't all green...

In contrast, Slott doesn’t coopt big names for his team. Stature suggests that Hank considers his team “D-Listers”, and she’s probably not far wrong. Instead, Slott focuses on gathering up the classic smaller-name Avengers forsaken by the franchise in the wake of Avengers Disassembled. The new Vision is on the team. Quicksilver joins, pursuing what he believes to be his sister. Hank Pym, the least successful founding Avenger, manages the team. Hell, even Jarvis is head-hunted for the team by Hercules and Amadeus Cho. If you had any doubt about the classical old-school vibe that Slott was going for, they should be dismissed by the large role played by the team’s faithful butler. Asked by Jarvis why they’d recruit him, Cho responds, “Like Herc said, I did the math. Studied the Avengers dynamic. And you’re the constant.”

It seems to suggest that Jarvis is a more essential part of the Avengers myth than even Captain America or Thor or Iron Man. Although Slott does update the concept a little bit, it’s telling that he also creates “the Infinite Avengers Mansion”, playing off the classical concept of the Avengers Mansion as destroyed in Avengers Disassembled. So you get a nice contrast with the cold and sterile penthouses that Bendis’ teams tend to operate out of, in contrast to Slott’s more traditional mansion. It’s little touches like these that make the book feel like an affectionate look backwards in contrast to Bendis’ boldly confident march forward.

All doors lead to here...

There are other interesting philosophical differences suggested. Slott seems to take aim at the way that Bendis had The Mighty Avengers coldly manufactured as a team, built around particular demographics and filling various personality and power roles on the roster, as opposed to the more traditional approach of assembling the team by chance. Slott’s Iron Man is something of a ridiculous figure, asserting, “One super-soldier. One god. That’s all the Avengers I need.” It’s just an Avenegrs-related algorithm to Stark. He ignores the rest of Pym’s makeshift team, taking the two stand-ins for Thor and Captain America to basically smash the bad guy into oblivion, a plan that doesn’t end well.

In contrast, the Scarlet Witch and Pym seem to view his team as a hastily-assembled spur-of-the-moment united-by-chance sort of deal, built on – for lack of a better word – compromise. Recruiting US Agent, a darker and edgier (and more right-wing) version of Captain America, the Witch concedes that he’s not the first choice, “You’ll have to do.” Pym doesn’t even seem to hold his own team in especially high regard, something that he absent-mindedly lets slip from time to time. Still, Slott seems to treat the randomness of the team as part of the inherent joy of the premise – something lost if you try to hard to organise the chaos.

High and Mighty...

There are more conscious throwbacks in the choice of villains that Slott throws at the team. These are big, end-of-the-world threats that stand in contrast to Bendis’ more street-level conflicts in New Avengers. However, more than that, Slott takes a great deal of pleasure reuniting Pym with Loki, the villain responsible for assembling the classic team of Avengers, as written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby back in the day. Capturing Loki, Pym observes, “This’s just like old times. Remember our first meeting?”

Not that Slott doesn’t work really well with the team, but the entire run is built around Hank Pym. It’s interesting, because I think that it lends the story a narrative focus, effectively choosing one single character to explore through a team book. With the arguable exception of Grant Morrison’s Justice League of America, I’ve found most team books to have a problem with that lack that sort of tight central focus – too many cast members doing too many things in their own books for the writer to keep charge of. Pym’s character arc gives the sixteen-issue run a central pivot point, around which various other characters can be compared or contrasted, and ensuring a strong emotional connection with the action.

Trying to pull a fast one...

It helps that I find Pym himself an absolutely fascinating character, if only because he’s a superhero defined by his failures, and has never really been given the space or the freedom to overcome those. As a character, he’s very much trapped in “never live it down” territory, immortalised as “the superhero who hit his wife”, if only because there’s very little else in the character’s existence that’s especially notable. When you dig a little deeper, into the knowledge of the casual comic book fan, it doesn’t get any better, as he’s responsible for creating the villain Ultron and for being unable to keep the same identity for more than five minutes at a time. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but the point is fair.

Hitting Janet Pym is very much “the” defining moment for Hank Pym. When comic book fans hear the name, they all think of that one moment. And Slott, to his credit, doesn’t ignore it or or downplay it. “It was the worst thing I’ve ever done,” Hank Pym confesses in the first issue, which might seem a bit of an over-statement from an in-universe perspective (Pym designed Ultron, who has killed millions of people), but it makes sense as a character – that’s the image that comes into our collective heads. Even Norman Osborn gets in on the act, asking, “So, still slapping women around?” (Pym scores points with his retort, “You still throwing ’em off bridges?”)

Till circuit degradation do ye part...

In fairness to Slott, he doesn’t try to argue that Pym is a misunderstood paragon of virtue. Indeed, Brian Michael Bendis’ commentary on the character in Secret Invasion, which suggests there’s something inherently noble about the character, actually seems slightly softer in its portrayal. He’s arrogant, he’s conceited and he’s completely unaware of anyone around him, with a huge chip on his shoulder. Indeed, when the very embodiment of the Marvel universe meets him, it proceeds to beat the living snot out of him, offended by his victimisation complex. “If this is how you think the rest of the universe treats you… then that is how you will be treated.”

Slott has Pym attempt to rationalise some of his more suspect decisions, but never in entirely convincing ways. He defends his relationship with Jacosta, his “granddaughter”, arguing, “Although I personally think it’s a preoccupation with labels that makes people so uncomfortable about Jocasta and me.” However, it’s not the label that causes Jarvis to recoil in disgust. It’s the nature of the relationship they share. Nobody could make a technical case, based on language and labels that it is “incestuous”, but it’s Pym sleeping with a woman created by a life form he created. It’s that relationship, rather than the technicality of the language that makes it all unsettling.

Here comes the Herc...

However, Slott argues, this is the era of the flawed hero. Surely Pym deserves a shot at the limelight, in the wake of Civil War, where every character has been horribly morally compromised. Slott spends quite a bit of time complaring Pym to the big heroes of the Marvel Universe, and Pym doesn’t come off quite that bad against “Tony Stark? Mister Fought-Against-Cap-in-the-Civil-War. Shot-Hulk-into-Space-and-Caused-World-War-Hulk. Gave-the-Skrulls-Everything-They-Needed-to-Invade-Earth.” As he argues at one point, convincingly, “I’m not the one who handed the skrulls everything they needed to infiltrate us. I’m not the one who built the clone-cyborg hybrid that murdered Bill Foster. And when the God of Chaos returned to destroy all of reality, I wasn’t the guy trapped inside a TV set.”

And yet all that the other heroes seem to have to throw against him is that fact he’s Hank Pym. As Iron Man usurps his authority, he insists, “Come on, give me one good reason why–“ Tony Stark cuts him off, “Three words. You’re Hank Pym.” Reed Richards refuses him access to his own technology. “I’m sorry, Hank, but I can’t let you have it,” Reed says, not sounding sorry at all. “I think it’s for the best that it remains with the Fantastic Four.” And, for the ultimate low blow, “That may be the case, but we both know… I know more about Pym Particles than you.”

Daddy issues...

Nobody really gives a good reason why they hold the higher moral ground than Pym, and Slott seems to argue that this new, morally compromised Marvel Universe is the perfect time and place for Hank Pym to come into his own. Indeed, Mighty Avengers features any number of truly spectacular victories executed by Pym, and even his crazier ideas (inviting Loki to the team) don’t seem quite so bad in retrospect.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that Slott doesn’t have a bit of fun with the team. In fact, Slott’s team is a lot more “fun” than Bendis’ New Avengers, if only because of the inspired line-up. I love Quicksilver’s prickly attitude (and his “fight or flight instinct” that takes him to Indonesia at the firs sign of trouble). I love Herc because he’s like a drunken Ares, who is like a drunken Thor. “Norman Osborn! Gird your loins for battle!” US Agent is also fun, particularly his somewhat insensitive attitude. It takes Quicksilver to correct him when he insists on using the outdated term China Force, “They’re called the People’s Defense Force now, idiot.”

Reading Quicksilver like a book...

There are other lovely moments, which betray that Slott is really enjoying himself – as if the cow-people weren’t evidence enough. US Agent declares that a foe tearing through the People’s Defense Force “Alpha-Flighted ’em!” in reference to an early arc of Bendis’ New Avengers. Moonstone/Ms. Marvel makes a cheap joke at the expense of DC as she muses, “I’ve been ‘reality-punched’?” Mighty Avengers is just consistently good comic book-y fun.

It might not be quite as important as Bendis’ Avengers books, but I really loved Slott’s Mighty Avengers, and it’s a damn shame that he didn’t get to continue his run after Siege. Still, if only Marvel would put Slott’s Amazing Spider-Man out in over-sized hardback, because I would buy the hell out of that book. It seems like they’re releasing only small sections, like Ends of the Earth or Spider-Island, which is a bit pants.

You might be interested in our coverage of the rest of the Mighty Avengers:

2 Responses

  1. I want to read this now! I hardly even knew this title even existed, but I’ll basically read anything with Hercules and Amadeus Cho, especially written by Dan Slott.

    • It really is a great little book. Possibly my favourite Hank Pym story. I’m just surprised that it didn’t get more press or publicity.

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