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Brian Michael Bendis’ Avengers – Prime (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.”

Avengers Prime feels more like an epilogue than a new chapter. It’s a very clear attempt by writer Brian Michael Bendis to draw a line under the past five years of Marvel continuity, the direction of the Avengers franchise from Avengers: Disassembled through to Siege. It’s an attempt to sum up everything that had happened thematically, and to all his characters to move forward, hopefully stronger for the experience – a genuine attempt at character development inside the relatively static genre of superhero comics. While it feels, at times, a little bit too simplistic, it does feel like Bendis is tying up all his loose ends and ready to push forward on to new ground.

From the wreckage...

Marvel christened the period after Siege as “The Heroic Age.” It might be a rather grandiose title, but it’s also one with the right aims at heart. After all, Bendis and the other writers at Marvel had spent the bones of the past decade deconstructing and disassembling their iconic heroes, moving them well outside their comfort zones and attempting to re-evaluate what it meant to be a hero in twenty-first century American. Captain America died. Thor died. Iron Man had his brain wiped. The New Avengers became outlaws, and a psychotic super-criminal was placed in charge of national security.

However, this shift in the status quo – Dark Reign – was more than just an excuse to stage “events” and to hold massive “crossovers” – though they definitely served a part. It allowed Bendis to critically examine and to deconstruct the iconic Marvel heroes, to explore what might happen if they weren’t all flawless good guys, if they didn’t make the right decisions, if the implicit trust in the metaphysical fabric of the Marvel universe broke down. What would happen if the government didn’t trust heroes to act independently? What would happen if these massive egos weren’t able to put it all aside for the greater good? If you can’t make those concessions, the superhero genre falls flat, and that’s the meta-textual narrative of Brian Michael Bendis’ New Avengers run.

Stark naked...

Prime is about resolving all that. The first page features the three great Avengers – Cap, Thor and Iron Man – standing side-by-side. The final page features the three holding each other like old friends. We get an apology for all that transpired, and a desire to put the band back together, so to speak. It’s telling that these three core Avengers were never part of the same Avengers roster from the time of Avengers: Disassembled. There’s an almost mythic quality to the three characters, and keeping them apart was one way Bendis let us know there was something fundamentally wrong.

Throughout Bendis’ tenure on New Avengers, the writer has combined the magic and mysticism of the Marvel universe with more gritty street-level “realism”, for lack of a better word. He stripped away the trappings of the team – the jets and the skyscrapers – and placed them in a more mundane and urban reality. Bendis would acknowledge the magical and mystical elements of the Marvel universe, but he made a conscious attempt to filter them through the more “grounded” superhero mold. The Hood, for example, channeled the mystical energies of Dormannu in order to become a glorified Kingpin. Stephen Strange used his awesome power simply to hide his team mates from the authorities. The result was a comic that felt intentionally surreal, with many characters pointing out that this wasn’t really the Avengers.

Captain America, Agent of Shield...

It’s telling that Siege placed these more grim and gritty superhero archetypes in direct opposition to the fanciful magic of Asgard, with Norman Osborn scheming to wipe that place of legend out of existence, once and for all. Bendis seemed to be consciously rejecting the idea that Marvel’s heroes needed to be grim and gritty, or that such grounded superheroics could only exist in competition with the more colourful and mystical parts of the shared universe. Osborn was literally trying to kill the magic in the Marvel universe.

I mention this because Prime embraces that magical and mystical part of this gigantic shared universe and just runs with it. Bendis’ New Avengers seemed to rarely depart from New York or other urban environments, so it feels like a change of pace to suddenly dump Iron Man, Captain America and Thor into a mystical realm full of magic and mischief and trolls and other conventions. Some would suggest that Bendis’ plotting is slight, and they’d be right. This isn’t an epic adventure, it’s simply an extended coda to a long-form story. This isn’t the story of Thor bringing peace to the nine realms, but the story of how three people learned to trust one another again. It’s Bendis trying to inject the magic back into the Marvel universe.

Not-so-distant thunder...

The series opens with Thor studying the ruins of Asgard. The magic kingdom has been destroyed. Many commentators would argue that the fabric of the Marvel universe has also been brutally attacked, and that Bendis’ wry deconstruction and critical examinations have left it in bits and pieces. “Asgard has fallen,” Thor laments. “Just seeing it like this… my father’s kingdom.” Odin gets quite a few mentions in this book, although rarely by name. Instead, he’s mainly described as”father”, and the relationship between himself and Thor is stressed. Thor inherited this world from his father, just as many comic book fans would have inherited it from an older generation.

I’ve always found that fascinating about comic book fans, the nostalgia for an earlier time. Even if most of us are relatively old these days, we seem to yearn for a mythical ideal that – if it existed at all – came long before our time. Comic book fans seem to want the fictional world to remain how it always was, to be the same world that their parents read about. I never understood that logic, as even the most fascinating core ideas must get stagnant after forty or fifty years. Indeed, over the course of Prime, Bendis plays out the themes and ideas of his run in miniature, as if to offer one final footnote on the epic that came before.

He came, he Thor, he conquered...

For better or worse, Bendis did try to do something new with the characters and settings, and I respect him deeply for that. Here, he has Thor and his colleagues confront Hela, the embodiment of death who has gained dominion over far more than she should rightfully claim. Like much of Bendis’ run, we see evil usurping good, but challenging it as well. “Where there was hope,” Hela warns Thor, “there is now fear. Where there was birth, there is now blood. And where your father stood, that is where I am.” She could just as easily be Norman Osborn, standing where Nick Fury used to stand. “You will not prevail,” Thor vows in response, like any good hero.

Bendis chipped away at the core attributes of Marvel’s superheroes, and dared to examine the consequences. “Without Asgard where it belongs,” Hela explains, “the nine realms have no choice but to fall into chaos. And that means truths must now be reinvented. The was the way things were, and now there is… the way things are.” I don’t think anybody could argue that Bendis certainly “reinvented” quite a few core truths of the Marvel universe.

Ironing out their differences...

However, I think that Bendis only intended to show how things couldn’t work – to illustrate that there was only so far you could bend the conventional superhero before it broke. Siege was that point, and Bendis has finished his deconstruction. It’s now time to restore and to rebuild. “You must put everything right,” Lady Elvin remarks. “Put everything back the way it was.” It’s telling that Bendis’ heroes here have no doubts and no lack of faith. There’s relatively little angst. Even when Thor loses his hammer, he doesn’t worry – the mystical meta-physical rules of the Marvel universe will keep it safe for him. “Aren’t you worried that you don’t have your hammer?” Tony asks. “The enchantment says no one can lift it but myself,” Thor replies. “It is a deep concern, but we must have faith.”

Towards the end of the story, Bendis even literally gives Thor a giant reset button. Using the twilight Sword, Thor can rebuild the universe to be anything he wants it to be. Presumably he could wipe out all the pain and suffering that has happened to him and his friends. “Do it, Thor,” the Enchantress pleads. “Put it all back.” Thor rejects the easy option. Recalling Bendis’ work on Ultimate Spider-Man, he suggests the to use his power to ease his own suffering would morally compromise him. “To use this unholy power for my own ends would make me the same demon she is.”

This torture does Dragon...

What’s done is done, Bendis seems to insist. These events have happened, and they provide the opportunity for character growth and development. Tony, Steve and Thor are all in very different places than they were when the journey began, and it would seem trite to simply re-write history so that none of it ever occurred – as tempting as that idea might be for fans or writers. Bendis makes a compelling case – the characters have to come to terms with what happened, they have to apologise, and they have to develop. They have to move forward, or else they risk becoming stagnant.

There’s something optimistic about that opening page with the three iconic heroes back together after all those years. Captain America’s first line is one seeking to help. “Thor, Tell us what you need and you will have it.” Iron Man’s first line is one of comfort. “Hey, anything can be rebuilt. Anything.” Confused and outnumbered, Tony seems sincere when he suggests, “At least we’re all together.”

Kick-starting the party...

I’m fonder of Bendis’ character work than most, even if I will concede he seems to have a bit of bother writing Steve Rogers. on the other hand, I do like his Tony Stark as an arrogant conceited jerk. Bendis paints Tony as more than a little sexist. “A woman flip-flopping on a man?” Tony asks after hearing Thor’s story. “I don’t know — that’s the only part of the story that rings true.” Captain America immediately calls him on that, which is a nice moment. “I don’t appreciate comments like that,” Steve Rogers states, ever the gentleman, “I never have.” Tony insists, “I was joking.” Steve corrects him, “You were half joking.” It’s a nice moment, and one that captures the differences between the two men in a way that the class warfare element of Civil War never really could.

On the other hand, the wonderful image of Steve calling Tony on his implicit sexism is somewhat undermined by another scene shortly thereafter, one that feels incredibly awkward and more than slightly sexist. There’s a moment where the three sit around the campfire, joking about “hooking up” with Hellcat. It is the most stereotypically sexist “macho” man-talk imaginable, as the three make crass remarks about Hellcat, an old romantic humour comedy character who developed into a superhero during the seventies.

Staying sharp...

It’s uncomfortable to watch these three heroes crudely joke about her as nothing more than a sexual conquest, and it does fee a bit strange coming from the writer who gave us Alias and other works. Indeed, given how similar it is to the opening scene of Avengers: Disassembled , which saw Hawkeye arrogantly objectifying friends and foes, I can’t help but feel a little uncomfortable. I always thought that scene was an attempt by Bendis to criticise some of the flaws we too often find in superhero stories, but now I am not so sure.

Although the story itself isn’t up to much, it does benefit from the artwork of Alan Davies. Davies is a legendary comic book artist, and it’s honestly great to see him still working on these books. After this he had a stint onCaptain America with Ed Brubaker that I am dying to read. Davies captures the fantastical elements of the story remarkably well and even though the plotting might be a generic passing-through-the-hoops superhero story, it still looks lovely. Coupled with Bendis’ fascinating thematic work, it is well worth a look.

Um, Thor? You can get in on the next one...

Prime draws a line under the past few years of Avengers comics. The future is an open book. Although Bendis will be departing the Avengers franchise soon, I am glad that the writer did get a chance to put the team back together after prying it apart. I’m curious to see what a conventional Avengers story might look like from Brian Michael Bendis, and I’m dying to try his tenure on Avengers with John Romita.

Aw.

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