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Brian Michael Bendis’ Avengers – Avengers Assemble (Review/Retrospective)

To get ready for Iron Man 3, we’ll be taking a look at some Iron Man and Avengers stories, both modern and classic. We hope to do two or three a week throughout the month, so check back regularly for the latest update.

How do you cash in on the success of a big-budget blockbuster comic movie? Especially a film that has gone on to be the most successful film of 2012, and one of the most successful films of all time? It’s a tough question, and I’d like to imagine that Marvel thought long and hard about how to capitalise off the success of The Avengers. After all, comics are a medium that have been trying any number of desperate ploys to maintain sales and to attract fans over the past decade, so it would be stupid not to try to turn some of the cinema-goers into comic book fans. I made the transition, so it can’t be that tough.

Avengers Assemble, an eight-issue miniseries, seems to have been created as an answer to that question. Not only does it carry the name used by the film in several international markets, it uses the iconic roster from the film, tries to tell what appears to be a continuity-light tale and comes from a high-profile creative team. Unfortunately, these factors all feel rather cynical, rather than a genuine attempt to court new readers.

Hey, it's that guy, from that thing!

Hey, it’s that guy, from that thing!

Of course, I’d argue that the best way to attract movie fans to the comic book versions of these iconic heroes is through clever exploitation of the back catalogue. After all, people who aren’t too familiar with comic books are probably unlikely to jump on to a single story told over eight months. Offering a nice trade paperback (or hardcover) could give the reader a whole story in one sitting. More than that, you can cherry-pick from decades of work on particular characters, offering the best possible glimpse at how writers and artists have approached a particular property.

A book like Mark Millar’s The Ultimates would seem like the perfect book to push around the time of the release of Whedon’s film. It’s widely regarded as one of the best superhero comics ever published. It features most of the cast of the film. It was a major influence on the production. Joss Whedon even wrote an introduction to one volume. More than that, it has the same sense of verisimilitude and accessibility as the movie. You don’t need to know who Loki is to enjoy The Ultimates. I’m amazed that Marvel didn’t make a push to churn out cheap paperback printings that could be sold at midnight screenings and even advertised before screenings.

Respect your Elders!

Respect your Elders!

Still, there’s probably a reason that I don’t work in Marvel’s publicity and promotions department. To be fair, Avengers Assemble looks like a genuine effort was made to appeal to any movie fans who might be willing to dabble in comic books. Bendis and Bagley are a fantastic creative team. On top of their creator-owned work, the duo are responsible for one of the best Spider-Man runs ever published, in Ultimate Spider-Man. That was a book that prided itself on being accessible to casual readers, and played a major role in getting me into comics.

More than that, there’s a very clear attempt to channel the film version of the Avengers. Bendis wisely ignores all the crazy continuity surrounding each of the individual members, and offers a version of the team roster that will look familiar to anybody who went to the cinema in 2012. Notably, Steve Rogers dons his iconic patriotic outfit for this adventure, despite being pictured in his then-current “top cop” uniform on the cover of the collected edition.

Thunderstruck...

Thunderstruck…

I actually love that Bendis doesn’t feel beholden to the continuity of any of the myriad of crossovers and on-goings, and instead feels free to tell a relatively continuity-light tale. I’ve never been a big fan of excessively tight continuity, or the belief that a writer’s work should be governed by somebody else working on a completely different project. This is the group of characters Bendis wants to use, and he doesn’t feel hemmed in by the fact that these characters are also being used by a variety of different writers in a variety of different ways at the same time. It does a lot to make the book accessible.

And you can see the influence of the movie on Bendis’ Avengers Assemble.He writes these broad versions of most of the characters. His version of Tony Stark could easily be voiced by Robert Downey Jr. – although seeing the dialogue written down underscores how strong Downey’s charisma is. Bendis even offers a rather archetypal version of the Hulk, a character who tends to go through extreme and radical shifts in status quo. Here, we open on the Hulk alone in the desert, being hunted down by the army. “Army. Leave Hulk alone!”

Hulk has a smashing time...

Hulk has a smashing time…

Indeed, at times it feels like Bendis is trying a little bit too hard to evoke Whedon’s gigantic epic, that he’s struggling too much to fit in all these references and ideas. After all, it’s almost foolish to invite comparisons to the work of Joss Whedon. Whedon has undoubtedly been a major influence on Bendis’ writing, just as Whedon has been an influence on an entire generation of comic book writers. However, it feels like Bendis is attempting to do an impression of Whedon.

So we get scenes that remind us of better scenes in the film. Bendis puts Black Widow and Hawkeye together, treating them as the mere mortals on a team composed of gods and supermen. It was a dynamic that worked well in The Avengers, with Whedon creating the impression of two veterans watching the future unfold before them. There are flashes of that here, as both leave an exposition-filled meeting to dress Black Widow’s wounds, and Hawkeye points out that they both have their place here. “You don’t have to act tough,” he tells her. “You saved the world.”

Falling to Earth...

Falling to Earth…

However, Whedon created an interesting sense of intimacy between the pair in the film. It was clear that they loved each other, even if they weren’t romantically involved. They knew each other in every way. Bendis can’t seem to evoke that same connection, so we instead fall back on references to the fact they used to be an item. Hawkeye’s first line is “Hey, Widow, I know we haven’t dated in forever, but will you do me a favour?” The pair kiss passionately in the kitchen, before Widow storms off, a scene which undermines the intimacy depicted in the film.

It doesn’t help that, while Bendis writes broader and more iconic versions of most of the characters, his version of Hawkeye is still his version of Hawkeye. As he has been throughout New Avengers, Bendis writes Hawkeye as this sort of hyper-jock character. The question referenced above? He wants to ask, “No, no, just at my funeral, will you get up and say something crazy awesome about my manhood?” It’s crass and juvenile. It’s not that Whedon is any more mature (“mewling quim”), but he is less clumsy and a bit more sophisticated about it.

A flash of brilliance?

A flash of brilliance?

To be fair, Bendis’ connections to The Avengers work best when they are thematic, rather than literal. The book opens with the Avengers celebrating a massive success. “The new Avengers Tower is open for business,” we’re told, mirroring the finalé of the film. (While Stark asks his team mates not to break anything else.) Building off the use of 9/11 imagery at the climax of The Avengers, Hawkeye remarks the Ultimate Nullifier could be “the Ultimate Terrorist Attack.” Thanos’s anonymous army are revealed to be religious extremists – followers of “the one true Lord of Death!” A voice in John King’s head directing the small-time crook to do Thanos’ will.

These elements resonate with the sort of verisimilitude that helped The Avengers become more than just a popcorn flick. They also play to Bendis’ strengths as a writer. Bendis is a phenomenal writer when it comes to urban fantasy, the blending of New York life with the surreal or the absurd. Bendis’ best Marvel books are firmly rooted in urban life – his fantastic stint on Daredevil, his work on Ultimate Spider-Man and his time on Alias. Although it was far from perfect, New Avengers was interesting because it offered Bendis an Avengers book that played to his unique strengths, while taking the franchise where it hadn’t gone before.

"Um... we don't own the movie rights to most of you guys, so you're gonna have to sit this one out..."

“Um… we don’t own the movie rights to most of you guys, so you’re gonna have to sit this one out…”

And some of the best ideas in Bendis’ Avengers Assemble reflect the author’s skill at more intimate superheroics. The revelation that the new Zodiac team isn’t composed of b-list continuity in-jokes, but “a team of lackeys given the powers of a god” is a nice under-played riff on one of Bendis’ favourite Avengers story-telling devices. (See also: The Hood.) The notion that Thanos lured out a bunch of evil pencil-pushers to become his legion of doom is fascinating, and it’s something that is sadly under-developed.

Instead, Avengers Assemble goes for bombast, and comes a little off the rails. Building off the teaser buried in the end credits of The Avengers, Thanos makes an appearance. You’d imagine this would be neat. After all, a bunch of people came out of the cinema going “who is that guy?”, so it would be neat to be able to point to this book and say “this will tell you.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. There are several problems, but the primary one is that Thanos is never really developed or even characterised. Loki wasn’t the most well-crafted comic book villain ever in The Avengers, but Thanos feels like nothing but a walking plot device, with none of the personality that made Loki engaging.

Watch this space...

Watch this space…

Part of the problem is that Bendis has a bit of difficulty writing cosmic stories. That’s not a problem – after all, everybody has their strengths and their weaknesses. Bendis can write fairly solid dialogue between ordinary characters, but his writing sound hollow coming from god-like beings. There’s something strange about hearing the ultimate personification of evil engaging in what might be termed “banter” as his underling badgers him. “Can you not just be happy that you have been chosen to lead the Zodiac?” Thanos asks, more like an exasperated parent than a cosmic-level threat. Later on, one of the Elders of the Universe snipes at another, “Be quiet, Champion, you’re embarrassing us.”

Of course, Avengers Assemble isn’t just an attempt to tie into the film version of The Avengers… well, not directly. Bendis has had a long reign on The Avengers comic book franchise (writing three separate books and many events over almost a decade), but the writer is moving away from the books. He is writing The Age of Ultron, but he has migrated to two other major Marvel properties. Bendis is writing All-New X-Men and Uncanny X-Men, taking over the two flagship books, but he’s also writing Guardians of the Galaxy.

A Hulking presence...

A Hulking presence…

That last book is interesting, because Marvel Studios is planning a film version of Guardians of the Galaxy for 2014. It’s perhaps the most ambitious of the studio’s big screen plans, a gambit forced by the fact that Sony owns the movie rights to The Amazing Spider-Man while Fox owns The X-Men and The Fantastic Four. Without those core franchises, Marvel has had to develop its big-screen universe, and this means taking advantage of low-profile properties. That’s not a bad thing. After all, Iron Man was hardly a big name before Iron Man in 2008.

Bendis is taking over the cosmic wing of the Marvel universe, something that I’m both fascinated by and slightly concerned about. Bendis has a talent for innovation. He doesn’t tend to believe in sacred cows, and will demolish absolutely anything that gets in the way of his story. I like that sort of iconoclastic approach. However, it feels a shame that Bendis’ arrival means that the sterling work of his predecessors on cosmic stories like Annihilation and War of Kings will undoubtedly be overlooked an ignored. Still, I suppose that’s the way that comics work.

"Saving this for the sequel, you say?"

“Saving this for the sequel, you say?”

Anyway, Avengers Assemble serves as something of a passing of the baton, an opportunity for Bendis to transition from one iconic property to the other. The problem, however, is that we can’t really get a sense of how Bendis will write Guardians of the Galaxy, because the Avengers Assemble sort of devolves into a gigantic action set piece towards the end. It’s one of the ironies of comics that artists like Bagley can afford the story an infinite special effects budget, but it becomes easier to lose the human angle in the midst of all this.

There are one or two nice touches – in particular, I like the “Trojan Hulk” bit, which I can see some Avengers movie “borrowing” in a few years. However, Bendis never really anchors the story. He doesn’t ground it. All of existence is at stake, but it just becomes a bunch of silly-looking men hitting one another very hard. There’s none of the interesting philosophical or meta-fictional stuff that underpins Bendis’ best work, and Avengers Assemble ultimately becomes nothing more substantial than a beautifully illustrated action comic.

Hulk's boundless enthusiasm...

Hulk’s boundless enthusiasm…

There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, but it’s not the best thing to show newcomers. There’s nothing here that speaks to the Avengers as a concept (either individually or as a group). There’s no insight. There’s no real hook. They are just sort of there. It feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity, which is a shame, since it’s clear a great deal of effort went into crafting the book to make it accessible to movie fans. The problem is that it needs a great deal more.

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

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