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Rick Remender’s Run on Secret Avengers – Avengers vs. X-Men (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of Thor: The Dark World towards the end of next month, we’ll be looking at some Thor and Avenger-related comics throughout September. Check back weekly for the latest reviews and retrospectives.

Secret Avengers manages one of the strongest tie-ins to Avengers vs. X-Men. I will confess that I am not normally a fan of comic book event tie-ins. They tend to distract from on-going narratives crafted by long-term writers in order to assure a cynical short-term sales boost. At worst, they can feel like vacuous filler, comics full of nonsense that are impossible to decipher unless you’re reading the giant crossover of the month. Both Ed Brubaker’s Captain America and Matt Fraction’s Invincible Iron Man lost a lot of momentum thanks to crossovers.

On the other hand, I’ll concede that good writers can shrewdly use crossovers to tell their own stories. Perhaps the most obvious example is Alan Moore’s wonderful Swamp Thing tie-in to Crisis on Infinite Earths – stories that can be read (and be quite entertaining) on their own terms, without requiring the reader to constantly flick back or forth. Kieron Gillen’s Uncanny X-Men tie-in to Avengers vs. X-Men manages to retain its own identity and tell its own story, and Rick Remender’s Secret Avengers makes a valiant attempt.

Into the fire...

Into the fire…

Sandwiched between his spectacular run on Uncanny X-Force and his controversial run on Uncanny Avengers, writer Rick Remender had a short stint writing Secret Avengers. Secret Avengers is a book that has had something of a crisis of identity, difficulty defining its own particular niche in the shared Marvel Universe. Ed Brubaker’s Secret Avengers was a team book focused around Steve Rogers; Warren Ellis wrote a collection of high-octane done-in-one spy thrillers; Rick Remender plays with Marvel continuity and carries various threads over from his other work.

Remender’s Secret Avengers is solid and fun, but it lacks the sort of high-concept foundation that drove his work on Uncanny X-Force, Venom or even Punisher. It doesn’t feel like an epic in its own right, as much as a collection of odds and ends tying into various characters and narratives that Remender has been incorporating into the rest of his Marvel Comics work. The result is a run that isn’t weak or flawed, but remains very much one of Remender’s lesser works.

The brains of the operation...

The brains of the operation…

You can see many of the threads carrying over and across. Certainly, Remender’s portrayal of Captain Britain remains consistent with the supporting character glimpsed in Uncanny X-Force, albeit rendered with just a little bit more sympathy here. This is a character who doesn’t – to quote Mar-Vell – understand the difference between “confidence and arrogance”, a power-house who is frequently ignored or overlooked by his fellow heroes, with Remender having Beast suggest that it is because Brian is so difficult to work with.

Indeed, Remender’s characterisation of Brian Braddock has been somewhat controversial, choosing to emphasise the character flaws that have been identified by earlier writers. He’s a character who desperately wants to be a paragon, but winds up coming up just short. Beast, who Remender characterises as the cynical and condescending snarker on the team, is quite blunt, stating, “I was wondering when we’d finally see classic Brian Braddock emerge from this perfect hero you’ve been trying to sell.”

A beast of a man...

A beast of a man…

Coupled with his possessive behaviour towards Betsy in Uncanny X-Force, Brian Braddock comes across as a deeply flawed character – a person dealing with his own deep-seated personality issues. However, Remender seems to argue that these unflattering personality traits – his problems and insecurities – are precisely what make Captain Britain a hero. “You know who has total confidence?” Brian asks, rhetorically, in a moment of self-doubt. “The bad guys. Every pig intent on domination, they’re always so bloody confident.” It’s Brian’s insecurity and self-doubt that keeps him on the right track.

This is, of course, another of Remender’s favourite themes playing through. Remender is fascinated by the notion of heroism, particular comic book heroism. This is part of what makes his rehabilitation of various nineties properties (X-Force and Venom) so fascinating. Remender has a habit of playing subversive comic book concepts (death squads and assassins) against the heroic ideals, with considerably flare and insight.

"Not only did I cameo in The Avengers, I cameoed in Secret Avengers..."

“Not only did I cameo in The Avengers, I cameoed in Secret Avengers…”

In many ways, this is something that doesn’t come across as well as it might in his Secret Avengers run, but it is definitely there. The Avengers vs. X-Men tie-in affords Remender the opportunity to write Thor, the most archetypal of the traditional Avengers. He writes the character in the boorish and loutish short of way that is quite common of late – one can easily read Thor’s lines here in Chris Hemsworth’s faux British accent and they sound great fun. This is a Norse god who thinks that right before an important battle is the best time to get wasted.

However, Thor is also presented as something of a heroic ideal. Despite his loud volume and his lack of tact, Thor is unquestionably heroic. He’s a romantic, which probably comes from being the major player in this arc who isn’t the member of a top-secret superhero death squad. “We are strong in a place where the weak are in danger,” he explains to his colleagues, which might be the textbook definition of heroism. “So we stand to push back for those who cannot.” As the group faces death, Valkyrie suggests they have failed in their mission. Thor corrects her. “No. We stood tall against the terrible storm… I die proudly at your sides.” No heroism can ever be a true failure.

The life of the party...

The life of the party…

Indeed, one of the central conflicts in this crossover arc – albeit one that never quite works – is the conflict between the heroic ideal represented by the deceased Captain Mar-Vell and the morally questionable actions undertaken during his resurrection. As Carol Danvers talks with him, she recalls that Mar-Vell was always more concerned about his own memory than the inevitability of his death. “You were so concerned that who you were would be washed away by time. That no one’s heart would hold you. Being forgotten terrified you more than death itself.”

This three-issue arc ends with the characters reflecting on the fact that Mar-Vell is probably better served as the dead ideal of pure and untarnished heroism then by any potential resurrection. He is, to quote Carol Danvers, “a lone man willing to sacrifice his opportunity for life… for a world and people that forsook him.” She assures us, leaning quite heavily on the fourth wall, that “the name will always define the best of us.” (Oh, if only the company were called Squirrel Girl Comics.)

Better off dead?

Better off dead?

However, it’s this central plot point which causes the most trouble for Remender’s Secret Avengers. Captain Mar-Vell, the Kree superhero who famously died in a hospital bed from cancer, is one of the few iconic comic book characters to remain dead in the years since he passed. Even Ed Brubaker resurrected Bucky during his Captain America run. Mar-Vell’s death has had a huge impact on the shape of the Marvel Universe, particularly the decision to have the character die by means of cancer.

Bringing Mar-Vell back, even briefly, feels like it should be a bigger deal. It feels like this should be something that happens in more than three issues, with considerable build-up and with carefully-structured pay-off. Remender is a writer who has a wonderful ability to cram an insane amount of plot into a 22-page comic book, but this story feels just a little bit too small to house even the temporary resurrection of Captain Mar-Vell.

Fight of the Phoenix...

Fight of the Phoenix…

Of course, that’s entirely the point. Remender is trying to subvert our expectations by resurrecting an iconic and memorable character in an unconventional manner. Mar-Vell is brainwashed and abused by the Kree, turned into a fascist footsoldier, his actions juxtaposed against his heroic legacy. It feels like resurrecting him so suddenly and without much foreshadowing or hoopla is intended to make the comic all the more powerful. Bang! He’s back! Boom! He’s gone!

This doesn’t quite work, though. The tie-in ends with Mar-Vell returning to death, but in the most heroic manner possible. He dies saving an entire planet by taking on the very embodiment of death and resurrection in the Marvel Universe. His death is practically operatic, on an absolutely massive scale. If his resurrection was intended to be sly and subversive, his inevitable death feels grandiose and epic. There’s an obvious mismatch there.

Drinking it in...

Drinking it in…

More to the point, though, giving Mar-Vell a grand heroic death feels like it undermines a lot of what was so effective about his death from cancer. Mar-Vell wasn’t defeated by a supervillain or the intergalactic embodiment of anything. He got an illness, and that illness ate him from the inside out. It was big or grand or epic. It was the kind of thing that happens to normal people, a perfectly meaningless death, rendered no less important or moving for the fact that he didn’t die saving the universe. It feels like throwing a resurrected Mar-Vell at the Phoenix undermines that a great deal.

It’s a shame, because there’s actually quite a lot to like here. Remender continues his habit of building off ideas from the best and brightest writers to work in the medium. His Uncanny X-Force was very clearly a spiritual successor to New X-Men, and his portrayal of Captain Britain owes a sizeable debt to Alan Moore’s work on the character. Here, for example, Remender uses Grant Morrison’s explanation of the “White Hot Room” inside the M’kraan Crystal.

Hammer time!

Hammer time!

Remender also gets a chance to play rather directly into the themes of Avengers vs. X-Men, acknowledging the Phoenix as a metaphorical religious force. He’s hardly subtle about it – Danvers’ narration explicitly mentions Cyclops’ fanaticism – but he suggests that Kree culture has developed a religious fervour around death and destruction. The villain of the piece – the Minister Mar-Vell – sounds almost like a preacher awaiting the end of days.

Using and exploiting the gifts of those around him to maintain power and influence, he concedes, “My gift was faith. Faith that there was something more awaiting my people. Faith that there is a hand guiding the universe.” It’s very easy to use “faith” to rationalise terrible acts, and imposing your own will and beliefs on other people. Remender isn’t subtle in his comparison and metaphor, but he doesn’t have to be. It’s a powerful theme, and it connects his Secret Avengers tie-in to the main series quite effectively and efficiently.

Union 'jacked...

Union ‘jacked…

Secret Avengers does manage to tell its own story as part of Avengers vs. X-Men, which has to count for something. That story has its problems, and hardly counts among Remender’s best work, but it ensures that the series never completely loses its identity in the midst of this gigantic comic book crossover.

2 Responses

  1. Loved, loved this one myself, especially for the very beautiful art.
    Have you read his entire run so far?

    • I have. I was… not mad about it, from what I recall, despite some ingenious ideas. I really disliked the dispatching of Eric O’Grady in it, for example.

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