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Brian Michael Bendis’ Avengers – Siege (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.

Please, father… Let these heroes rise. Both Asgardian and mortal. Together. Empowered. Let them fight. Let them save us.

– Loki, Siege #4

And so, here we are. The culmination of more than five years of plotting in the Marvel Universe. Brian Michael Bendis has directed the Avengers franchise from Avengers Disassembled to Siege, crafting a post-modern exploration of what it is to be a superhero in a politically complex and morally ambiguous world. In doing so, for better or worse, Bendis has redefined the Avengers, with New Avengers just as “new” as the title promises. It’s somewhat fitting, then, that after years of introspection and exploration about when and how the characters in the Marvel Universe might be considered heroes, that it ends with an almost proto-typical superhero knock-down smash-up brawl fest.

Capping it all off...

To be honest, there are very serious flaws with Siege. It is, in effect, a story that can’t be read in isolation. It’s not a story that you can give to a new reader, serving as the final chapter in an epic saga years in the making. Siege doesn’t really stand on its own two feet at all. Even packaged with the Dark Avengers and New Avengers tie-in issues also written by Bendis, there’s never a sense that this is its own story. Instead, it’s tying a knot out of various threads that have been woven through New Avengers, Mighty Avengers and Dark Avengers, crossovers like Civil War and Secret Invasion and even the books of individual characters like Ed Brubaker’s Captain America, Straczynski’s Thor and Matt Fractions’ Invincible Iron Man.

The relationship is sometimes tough – Bendis ties into different books to differing degrees, lending the book a disjointed feel. Of course, Straczynski managed to maintain the independence of his work on Thor, with his departure stemming from Marvel’s insistence that he write a major event. (Possibly this one.) After Civil War arguably killed the momentum of his Captain America run, Brubaker was lucky enough to keep his Death of Captain America and Captain America Lives! relatively self-contained, to their strengths. In contrast, Matt Franction’s Invincible Iron Man is somewhat hijacked by this story, with a major storybeat in Stark’s personal arc playing out in the massive crossover rather than in his own book.

Enter the Void...

However, for the most part, Bendis manages the line pretty well. Siege is perhaps the most fluid of the massive crossovers. It helps that it feels relatively brief and compressed, with four issues essentially devoted to one massive final conflict between the forces of good and evil in the Marvel Universe, with the Avengers reclaiming their moral authority from their evil doppelgangers. Siege is a simple and straight-forward story, and that’s arguably to its strength – there’s no need to balance too much characterisation or too much individual continuity into the events unfolding.

The flipside is that it feels… rather sudden, for lack of a better word. Bendis does a great job conceptually grounding Norman Osborn’s reasons for attacking Asgard, and sets up the character’s failing sanity remarkably well, but Osborn’s invasion of Asgard seems to come almost out of nowhere. There’s no indication that the presence of the city-state has been bothering him, and there’s no sense of a gradual build-up. Bendis characterises Osborn remarkably well, but the invasion of Asgard still feels like something that was inserted purely because editorial had decided it was time to wrap up the Dark Reign status quo and position the Avengers franchise for the upcoming major motion picture. While Bendis explains why Osborn wants Asgard gone, he never explains why it is time-critical, or why Osborn doesn’t prioritise dealing with Doctor Doom or anything else on his “to do” list.

Catching Asgard off guard...

In fairness, Bendis lends a nice meta-fictional element to Osborn’s motivation. After all, Bendis’ Avengers stories have really explored the comic book team’s relevence in the modern era, trying to determine what makes them work and pushing them outside their comfort zone. It was an attempt to pick apart the trappings of the Marvel superheroes, if only to put them back together. In a way, it seeks to ultimately vindicate the silly trappings of the Marvel Universe, those little bits of the mythology that fly in the face of cold logic, by suggesting they’re necessary to hold the shared universe together.

You need to believe that characters like Steve Rogers and Tony Stark can work together, because it’s necessary for the stories to work. You need to believe that vigilantes can operate without government regulation, because the universe falls apart if they don’t. You need to trust that these characters can handle the power placed in their hands, despite the cynicism of the day, because it’s required for the universe to work at all. Over the past few years, Bendis and other writers have challenged these leaps in logic, and picked them apart, demonstrating that these smaller gaps in logic are required if the universe is to function as a whole.

Cry havok! And let slip the god of war!

Bendis has used Norman Osborn as a cypher before, allowing the character to articulate questions about the nature of Marvel’s surreal world of sci-fi technology and magical mysticism. After all, this is a shared universe that asks us to accept both Iron Man and Thor on the same team. Osborn, ever the grounded and cynical leader, is uncomfortable with the idea of Asgard, the mythical Norse city. “It’s a little out of my… wheelhouse,” he confesses.

While Norman Osborn has been used by Bendis to launch an ideological attack on the heart of the Marvel Universe, branding his villains as more practical alternatives to ineffectual heroes, here the author uses the character to attack the conceptual fabric of the shared fictional world. “God is not supposed to live among man,” the Goblin suggests. “Immortals are not supposed to live with mortals.”That’s an attack on the very basis of the Marvel Universe. If one accepts that logic, refusing to accept that magic and gods have a place in comic books, you might as well give up and stop reading comics.

Has Loki got the stones to pull this off?

Indeed, the villains seem to embody cynicism about the bright and cheerful fantasy of the Marvel Universe. Indeed, the Void attacks Loki, using the Norn Stones to empower the heroes. His commentary is remarkably bitter, as if insulted that such cheesy plot devices are being used in a fight like this. “Magic Rocks?” he asks, dismissively. “No. We won’t be having any of that.” The Void would much rather graphically rip open his opponents in gory and gratuitous splash pages. Bendis rejects that approach, casting the Void into the sun itself. Such gratuitous cynicism and violence can’t be allowed to dominate comics. If that means resorting to cheerfully silly plot tokens and cheesy story logic, so be it.

Despite pushing the Marvel Universe through some of its darkest days, there’s something quite optimistic about Bendis’ storytelling. It seems that, after more than half-a-decade, his story has a somewhat happy ending. He suggests that, no matter how dark it appears, the supervillains can never win, if only because of their nature. It’s interesting to compare and contrast Norman Osborn to his successor, Steve Rogers. Osborn actually seems quite reasonable to his allies, and doesn’t fall into the conventional trap of plotting against them. “As long as you play fair with me I play more than fair with you,” he suggests, and the evidence supports his position. However, his colleagues cannot “play fair.” Whether it’s Doom’s megalomania or Loki’s pathological deception, villains are villains because they can’t work together.

One to a-void?

In contrast, heroes work together regardless of circumstance or personal feeling. Norman Osborn’s psychological break comes around because there’s nobody to support him. In contrast, Jarvis convinces Captain America to comfort Iron Man in his hour of need. Despite their ideological differences, and the massive fallout caused by their disagreement, Jarvis knows that Captain America will do the right thing for his old friend. “Be a good man and help him, won’t you?” Jarvis asks, and it’s a perfect illustration of a fundamental decency that these heroes have that others lack.

Bendis is conscious to draw parallels to the real world. This includes an uncomfortable September 11th analogue with an attack on Soldier Field in Chicago. However, he also anchors the story in the modern realpolitik. “How many unwinnable fights can you fight at once?” Doom goads when his own tiny country is threatened with Osborn’s American military might. Indeed, the former supervillain insists that he needs “just cause” to invade Asgard – stopping just short of a “smoking gun”metaphor. It’s hard not to read this as a fairly explicit commentary on the Bush government and their attitude towards the War on Terror.

Packing a punch...

In contrast, Bendis pitches the resurgance of the superheroes as akin to rise of Obama and his promise of hope. “It’s time to take this country back,” Steve Rogers vows, and his very presence seems to energise the masses who had confined themselves to apathy over the sad state of affairs. Of course, I’ve argued that Osborn has also been shrewdly written as a parody of the somewhat empty rhetoric that Obama rode to power, but there’s no denying that the last U.S. election was framed as one around “hope against cynicism.” To Bendis, at least, the Avengers must stand as the forces of optimistic hope, even against the overwhelming forces of global cynicism.

Siege reaffirms the importance of the Avengers as a concept. Even if this sort of heroism isn’t necessarily realistic, Bendis seeks to affirm the importance of these iconic symbols to the modern world. As the President states to Steve Rogers, “And I am saying, right now, the world needs you.” Bendis’ entire arc has been about exploring the notion that these heroes should be grounded or gritty or realistic, instead pitching the idea that these symbols have even greater relevance in an increasingly uncertain era. Tellingly, the story ends with the “big three” Avengers reunited for the first time in years. One of the final panels has Thor effectively rejoining the Avengers, after an extended absence. “And let it be known,” he declares, “Avengers, one and all, if the call is given, I will join your ranks once more.”

A time for reflection?

I remarked above that this is most likely the event that Marvel wanted Straczynski to write, tying his Thor run into the wider Marvel Universe once again. This is, of course, affirmed by the title (Marvel wanted him on “the Siege of Asgard”), the use of Thor and his supporting cast, and the artwork from Olivier Copiel. Copiel is a superb artist, and it’s great to see him working on the characters he brought to life with Straczynski. Whatever flaws Siege might have, the artwork is beautiful. And, for a miniseries that is pretty much a four-issue superhero brawl, that’s quite a good thing.

Siege isn’t perfect, but it’s a fitting closing chapter to Bendis’ larger arc. He took the team apart in more ways than one, and Siege finally allows him to put them back together again.

You might be interested in our reviews of Brian Michael Bendis’ other Avengers work:

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