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Acts of Vengeance: Daredevil vs. Ultron (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.”

In celebration of the release of The Avengers, this weekend we’re taking a look at the massive 1989-90 crossover “Acts of Vengeance”, which pitted various villains against some unlikely heroes. I’ll be looking at some of the most fun match-ups. This arc is collected in the companion omnibus.

I’ll confess that I haven’t read all of Ann Nocenti’s Daredevil run. I’ve just read the issues contained in various crossover collections like Inferno, Mutant Massacre or even Fall of the Mutants. While any run on Daredevil is going to rest in the shadow of Frank Miller’s character-defining work, I find it interesting that Nocenti managed to so effectively tie the book back into the heart of the Marvel Universe. Miller defined the book as a noir adventure, and the tendency has been to follow that approach. While Nocenti writes the same Matt Murdock that Miller defined, she cleverly tends to put him in a different context, producing rather interesting and engaging results. Nocenti’s Daredevil is very much a superhero book, even though it follows Miller’s characterisation, and that gives it a unique flavour.

Stickin’ it to the man…

I know that I’m making a habit of wondering when Marvel will get around to properly packaging various classic runs, but I would be all over an Ann Nocenti Daredevil omnibus collection. The character has, after all, proven quite popular in the format. And Nocenti’s run covers an exciting chunk of Marvel history. She was also working with the respected artist John Romita Jr., who hasn’t really been featured too heavily in Marvel’s omnibus release strategy – which feels strange given the prestige in which he is held. I know that this run is unlikely to be the next Daredevil run collected in the oversized hardcover format (as I believe we’ll see a Mark Waid and a classic Stan Lee collection first), but I would love to see it collected in one place.

What’s interesting reading the Nocenti issues, is how tied in Daredevil is to Marvel continuity. Strangely enough, Nocenti’s Daredevil almost seems like a satellite X-Men title. Normally, I’m not a big fan of tying into events all over the place, believing that it tends to throw off a writer’s work on a title. I haven’t read any of Nocenti’s work outside these crossovers, so that isn’t an issue. Still, I think there’s a more compelling reason that Nocenti’s tie-in issues work so well. Quite simply, she tends to write from the perspective of her character. And that means that all the attributes that normally drag down a crossover tie-in – the randomness, the disjointedness, the confusion – all play as strengths.

Doing the robot…

Matt Murdock is, despite his radar, a relatively grounded character. He’s almost a less fantastic version of Spider-Man. Frank Miller’s definitive work on the character went even further and broke him down to become the most human of Marvel heroes. One of my favourite moments of Miller’s Born Again comes towards the end, as the Avengers show up. Miller perfectly captures just how alien they must seem to Matt. They mess with gods and aliens, while he fights with mob bosses and enforcers. It’s a whole different world. Nocenti seems to take this idea and run with it.

Her Matt seems just as reflective and insular as Miller’s, trying to make sense of the world around him. Hell, Romita even draws Matt with a healthy amount of stubble, creating the impression that the character is a little worn out or disconnected. While Miller’s world didn’t make sense because of the people in it, Nocenti suggests that the Marvel Universe is a far more surreal place, and grows Matt’s existential questions from there. Here, he’s living in the country rather than Hell’s Kitchen, with the Inhumans hanging out downstairs. He wonders, “How did things get so absurd? The king of the moon took the queen’s evil child? A giant dog is teleporting home to the moon?”

Heading off a problem..

Murdock seems almost depressive. It’s wonderfully surreal to see that depression reflected through interactions with androids and aliens instead of a failed attempt to curtail organised crime. In many ways, Nocenti writes Daredevil as a sort of absurdist superhero drama, as the character wanders into situations he can’t really make sense of. It’s a very clever way of tying into these gigantic crossovers, and making them work as part of a theme. “Why am I surrounded by endless problems I don’t care about?” he asks. “Where is my compassion? When did I pull the plug on my own ability to care?”

It’s ridiculous, of course, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a fascinating examination of the superhero form, as Nocenti blends the sort of grounded character-based drama of Miller with the spectacle of event comics. While Matt contemplates life and the universe, for example, we cut back and forth to the killer robot dispatched to eliminate him. This version of Ultron, harnessed by Doom, is completely insane. I think this version may be my favourite iteration of the iconic Avengers villain, if only because it’s so damn surreal.

Head on a stick…

One of the best images from the book sees the android surrounded by his own heads, arranged on pikes as some sort of “pagan” ritual. As written by Nocenti, the villain is just as existential as the lead character himself. “Kill the Daredevil,” Ultron contemplates its orders, wandering around the woods. “Why? I don’t hate him.” He works remarkably well as a foil for Daredevil, who is also more concerned with his own self-doubt than with being a superhero. At one point, illustrating how disconnected from reality Ultron has become, Daredevil observes he can hear Ultron mumbling “something about perfection… and absolutes… and false men…”

In fact, these two issues are filled with lots of lovely nice touches that add to the fun. Just like in the Punisher crossover, Doom is still harping on about Kingpin. It seems like the mad scientist, one of the most iconic Marvel villains, has a a dash of insecurity about proving himself to the Kingpin. “Kingpin does not believe that where he fails, Doctor Doom will succeed!” Doom monologues in his very Doom-y way. “As always, it’s a great man’s ego that is his downfall!” (Ignoring the effective irony, I find it interesting the Doom effectively concedes that the Kingpin is “a great man.”)

Don’t choke…

“I will show the Kingpin that a mere robot will easily kill his precious Daredevil,” Doom insists, again seeming strangely preoccupied with proving himself to Kingpin. That said, this insecurity is perfectly in character, I just love the idea that Doom is so desperate to prove himself ‘worthy’ that he’ll meddle with the Punisher and Daredevil. I love his boast, if only because the Kingpin is basically just a fat mob boss. Sure, he can occasionally employ superhumans, but he’s more fond of bribery and arsonists.  It feels almost like cheating even to use “a mere robot” against his opponents. Not that that would stop Doom.

The more I read of this crossover, the more I think that the Kingpin gleefully manipulated his fellow supervillains, especially Doom. The guy meddles with a teenager who can shoot webs and a blind guy prone to psychological breakdowns, while Doom tends to deal with the smartest and most powerful heroes on the planet. It can’t help but feel a little lopsided. Although, I will confess, I would love to see the Kingpin try to take on the Fantastic Four as payback.

Devil may care…

Ann Nocenti’s Daredevil is one of the highlights of this giant company crossover, and a huge joy to read. It’s smart, it’s witty and it’s well-composed. I know Nocenti isn’t considered to be one of the “top tier” Daredevil writers, but I’d adore an oversized hardcover of her collaborations with John Romita. Until then, I guess her crossovers will have to do.

In celebration of Acts of Vengeance, we’ve taken a look at some of the more memorable tie-ins and crossovers:

7 Responses

  1. I have been interested in obtaining this title. Great read. Was very well written.

  2. You just reminded me I really, really need to go out and collect what I can of her run. You’re absolutely right; why there isn’t a a trade collection of her work, let alone an omnibus is sheer criminal.
    Loved that little Beatles reference, with Ultron repeating the phrase “Number 9” over and over.

    Finally, I do believe the “Dr. Doom” we all saw in Acts of Vengeance was revealed to be just another Doombot. Makes a lot more sense in that context than if it had been the real Doom all along,

    • Bah! Doombots are a narrative copout! 🙂

      But, yeah, I’m a big fan of this run, in part because it hands what is basically a nightmare brief. How do you write Daredevil after Born Again? More to the point, how do you write Daredevil after Born Again, but without the space to process it?

      • Good point. You either go in a totally different direction, or you take what was learned in the last run, and try to continue to evolve from there. Best to maybe stick with the first option if you’re not sure you’d fare well with the second. Either way, you’re faced with an unenviable task.

  3. Nocenti was actually the editor for Uncanny X-Men for a large chunk of her Daredevil tenure. Tying DD into the latest event she was editing (e.g. the Mutant Massacre, the Fall of the Mutants, etc.) was a canny move; she puts in work promoting both the crossover (showing it has impact beyond the Mutant world) and her own title (exposing DD to an audience that normally wouldn’t care about street-level stuff).

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