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Brian Michael Bendis’ Avengers – Disassembled (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.” Today and tomorrow we’ll be taking a look at the two Brian Michael Bendis events that kick-started the writer’s work on the franchise.

Avengers: Disassembled welcomed Brian Michael Bendis to the Avengers franchise. The super-star writer had enjoyed long and well-received runs on Ultimate Spider-Man and Daredevil, but his tenure on the Avengers franchise proved much more divisive. Taking over for a three issue arc on the main Avengers title, Bendis literally destroyed the team. Not only did he demolish a lot of the iconography associated with the bunch of superheroes, he also launched a fairly scathing deconstruction of the stalwart superhero team. Bendis wasn’t just going to adopt a caretaker position on the series, he clearly planned some very serious remodelling. That meant that some walls had to get knocked down. In many ways, Disassembled feels like a brutal demolition.

Things come apart…

In fairness, it’s hardly unprecedented in mainstream comic books. A lot of key writers taking over old and struggling franchises have launched rather brutal attacks on the fundamentals of the series in question. Alan Moore famously revealed in his second Swamp Thing issue that everything we thought we knew about Alec Holland was wrong – he wasn’t a man transformed into a plant, he was a plant pretending to be a man. It was a radical approach, but it allowed Moore to write one of the most well-received comic book runs ever.

Obviously very few runs can be measured against Alan Moore’s work, and I imagine many would scoff at a comparison between Bendis’ Avengers and Moore’s Swamp Thing. Still, I believe the same principle was at play. To use what might be a less controversial example, Bendis’ work here almost evokes Grant Morrison’s introduction to his New X-Men run. I’m practically alone in considering that run to be Morrison’s best work, and one of the best comic book runs ever (albeit it significantly and fundamentally flawed), so what do I know?

Starnge goings-on…

Morrison opened his first issue with a revelation that the fundamental premise of the X-Men was outdated. Mutants weren’t fighting for survival anymore. In a few generations, mankind would be extinct, replaced by mutants. Morrison laid waste to the outdated South Africa metaphor that was Genosha, and instead focused on the complex social realities of racial integration instead of the tried-and-tested Civil-Rights-era metaphor. At the heart of Morrison’s New X-Men run was the bold (and I’d argue accurate) assertion that the world had changed, and that the mutants needed to change with it.

That’s pretty much precisely what Bendis’ Avengers: Disassembled is about. It’s a short arc with the traditional Avengers team illustrating how desperately out-of-touch they are with the modern world. In particular, Bendis’ touchstone is the September 11th attacks, which cast a pretty large shadow over affairs even if never explicitly mentioned. The first issue sees a plane (a quinjet) colliding with an iconic landmark (the Avengers Mansion), demolishing it. Indeed, most of Bendis’ New Avengers can be read as a commentary on the moral uncertainty that existed in the wake of the attacks, with debates over liberty and security adding ambiguity and leading people to question their authority figures. New Avengers is very much an attempt by Bendis to reconstruct the Avengers franchise in the wake of such skepticism, to explore how superheroes are relevent to an increasingly pragmatic and cynical world.

Blown to hell…

Indeed, the rest of the storyline is viewed through the lens of post-9/11 America. When Wanda is accused of some involvement, her past comes back to haunt her in a way that could easily have been brushed over a few years earlier. “And before she was an Avenger,” Nick Fury reminds the group, “she was a mutant terrorist.” That’s a loaded term, but Wanda’s terrorist past – as part of Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants – had been a non-issue for decades. There was never anything ambiguous about the Scarlet Witch. Suddenly her terrorist past is a very charged point of discussion. Hell, even Tony Stark seems to have become especially politically-charged, addressing the United Nations on the subject of rogue states and terrorist leaders. Sure, he had served in the government, but Bendis makes a point to have him engage with very real-world concerns.

The opening pages make it abundantly clear that the Avengers – the team or the franchise – are not at all suited to this brave new world. We’re introduced to the characters in their lavish mansion, being served tea by their butler, and making snide sexist in-jokes to each other. “You’re a pig,” She-Hulk comments as she walks into the room, and she’s not wrong. Later on, a flashback to the past (an ambiguous “then”) sees Janet and Wanda lounging by the pool, idly gossiping while Hawkeye provides beefcake eye candy. It seems that these superheroes have been living in opulence.

It still splits fans down the middle…

Fans will remain divided on what Bendis did to the franchise for decades to come. The more cynical-minded people out there will suggest that he “destroyed” the spirit of franchise, “selling out” in order to move the series to the heart of the Marvel Universe, sacrificing its distinctive voice for so-called “importance.” They’ll argue that sales on the title have steadily dropped since Bendis came on board, although any rational-minded individual would counter that its relative position has soared inside a rapidly-declining market, and Bendis has done an amazing job slowing the departure of readers fleeing the medium.

However, I think it’s also possible to argue that Bendis boldly reconfigured a franchise that was struggling to be relevent. After all, the Avengers lived in their own mansion, typically enjoyed little or no administrative friction and seemed to indulge in their own soap opera antics. They never had a hook like Claremont’s X-Men (“feared and hated by a world…”) or Spider-Man (“with great power comes…”). It seems the Avengers just sorta… were.

Assembled…

“I appreciate your dedication to the institution,” Cap tells the recruits assembled to help the team. It’s an interesting choice of word. “Institution”? Not “team” or “dream”? It seems to paint the Avengers as a part of the Marvel Universe that really just exists for the sake of existing, without any clearly defined niche or role. It seems like a group that has simply been around for so long that nobody’s really asked what its purpose might be, or whether it has drifted out of touch.

I admire Bendis for having the courage of his convictions and completely demolishing and reconfiguring the franchise. A lot of people would argue that Bendis’ New Avengers didn’t necessarily “feel” like and Avengers title, but that was entirely the point. It takes a great deal of risk to try to dramatically reshape an established franchise, and Bendis’ meta-arc, sweeping from Disassembled through to Siege, asks some pretty tough questions about the Avengers as a franchise and as a team.

Any witch way but loose…

“And today,” Tony Stark vows, “the United Nations will start the process of redefining the role of the costumed Avenger as a — ugh… achem… I–“ He loses his way, but the Vision arrives at the Mansion to more clearly outline his point, “And that you are no longer in control of anything that we, as a group, hold dear. Or what we, as individuals, held as important… our time is over. I cannot explain to you in terms that any of you would understand why and how this has happened to us… for I am only now beginning to comprehend where it is that we, as a group, have failed…”

“I’m telling you,” Hawkeye explains to his team mates in the wake of the attack, “listen — I’m not happy about any of this… but I’m saying, the way we live — we sort of had a day like this coming.” Bendis seems to accuse the team of something close to hubris, of arrogance. They live isolated from the world around them, insulated from the real world. They typically breeze from one mission to the next, without any real thought of the consequences to the world around them, and without any sense of relevance. “We’re all about the short-term. We’re all about whatever is in front of us that second and then we’re on to the next thing.”

Just when things look Stark…

Avengers: Disassembled sees a wave of attacks on the Avengers as an institution by a variety of past problems. It’s telling that the foes who appear here would be largely absent from Bendis’ New Avengers run. Ultron makes a climactic assault on the team, and then the entire Kree armada appears. Tony Stark is suddenly drunk again, reliving his struggle with alcohol. It seems almost like the team’s continuity is strangling it, like the constant nostalgia and desire to look backwards is actually suffocating the franchise.

It is telling that the threat ultimately comes from within the team. It’s a personal problem that they never should have dealt with in the way that they did. In fact, the rest of the Marvel Universe seems to call them on the arrogance with which they handled Wanda’s breakdown. “Why didn’t you people come to me when this happened?” Strange demands, when the problem is revealed to be mystical in nature. Nick Fury objects to the team infringing on his investigation. Magneto even arrives, directed by Professor X, to save the day, cutting the Avengers out of the picture. “Magneto, where are you taking her?” Nick Fury demands. He gets no answer.

Smash!

All this began with the decision to wipe Wanda’s memory, interestingly enough. As we saw in Identity Crisis, tampering with memories is the first sign of a superhero slippery slope, and Ed Brubaker would use it to undermine Charles Xavier in Deadly Genesis. As if that weren’t even enough, Bendis is sure to point out this isn’t the only time that the team has failed one of its own while acting in a smug and self-congratulatory manner.

Along the way, Bendis smashes a lot of the more established elements of the franchise, as if trying to shake the reader out of their comfort zone. It’s a bold move to try to remove those much-loved parts of the equation, but I think its to Bendis’ credit. After all, it’s hard to really reconfigure a franchise if it is still within its comfort zone. So the Avengers Mansion is demolished. A lot of the old Avengers cast are gone – Hank and Janet are gone overseas, the Falcon has moved on, Hawkeye is (for a little while) dead, the Vision is destroyed. However, Bendis is very clearly sweeping the board to make room for the big sweeping changes coming.

Ripping her up inside…

And it seems like it would be easy to argue that Bendis “hates” the team or the old comics or some such nonsense. That seems like absolute rubbish. After all, the final splash page affirms the team’s worth to the citizens of the Marvel Universe. In fact, this is a comic book steeped in Avengers history, right up to using old artwork and old comic book pages to present flashbacks towards simpler and easier-to-understand times.

Hell, Bendis even writes the book in a way that concedes he’s really only picking the team apart because he needs to pull it apart to put it back together. In a comic that actually uses old panels, it draws attention to the nature of the book as a comic book. Wanda had to warp reality itself in order to finally divide the team. Bendis, as writer, could have used any plot device he wanted, and yet he chose one that drew attention to the fictional nature of the universe and its inhabitation.

Ultron is limited…

Bendis all but concedes that he – as author – is warping reality achieve the result that he needs. It seems like quite a romantic gesture from Bendis – as if to acknowledge that any other way of breaking up the team would seem cheap or dishonest. In fact, the final issue even ends with sets of splash pages celebrating the biggest and the best adventures, while the characters contemplate the appeal of the franchise. It almost seems like Bendis is speaking from his own perspective.

“What do you think it means that half of us picked adventures we weren’t even part of?” the Falcon asks, even though the answer seems obvious. They’re fans. Their love of the team doesn’t stem from their involvement in it, but from the outside looking in. Carol herself describes it in terms that any fan of fantasy will find familiar. “And try describing a situation that fantastic to one of your civilian friends… they have no idea what you are talking about. They have no frame of reference.” That sounds like it was written by a man who loves his comics.

Poitned criticism…

David Finch provides art for the collection, and it looks quite impressive, I must say. I am quite partial to Finch’s work, especially his New Avengers work with Bendis. I think the artist does a great job doing both action sequences and those sorts of powerful iconic “superhero-y” images that people associate with the genre.

Avengers: Disassembled is controversial, even years after it was originally published. Truth be told, it probably will remain divisive for years to come. Still, I think it represents a turning point for the franchise, and it’s a bold ambitious and daring piece of work. Any comic that celebrates its five hundredth issue by mercilessly deconstructing its central team deserves a large amount of respect. Bendis’ work on Avengers might have its share of detractors, and I’m hard-pressed to argue it’s his best work, but I still think it’s a very challenging and breathtaking attempt to help rework a franchise that struggled to find its footing.

A flying finish?

And it all started here.

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

You might also be interested in our look at the Avengers: Disassembled tie-ins:

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