Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Review # 11: "Avengers by Brian Michael Bendis - Volumes One and Two"

After his New Avengers dealt with new threats, his Mighty Avengers operated as a half-facade and his Dark Avengers operated as a FULL facade, Brian Michael Bendis' adjective-free "Avengers" relaunch is like a throwback to the time before he took over the title and made it Marvel's biggest-selling franchise. It's a sensible move as after the events of "Siege," the company launched the new "Heroic Age" with a back-to-basics line being drawn between heroes and villains. Political infighting ("Civil War,") espionage ("Secret Invasion") and hidden malice ("Dark Reign") had made everything blurry.

The result has the original Captain America (Steve Rogers) running S.H.I.E.L.D., administering the team with a kinda-sorta-almost big three reunion of Iron Man, Thor and the new Cap (Bucky Barnes) along with the company's two top-sellers (Wolverine and Spider-Man,) Hawkeye, liaison Maria Hill and "back on the team -- for the first time" Jessica "Spider-Woman" Drew.

The story they're thrust into in Volume One begins with images of their offspring killing old Avengers foe Immortus. Not long after, another old Avengers foe Kang (who is also Immortus. Long story.) shows up, warning the team that their children are on the brink of destroying the entire timestream. We're treated to a confusing image of an old Bruce Banner in Hulk form, and the more suspicious types suspect that - with Kang - things aren't quite what they seem. So, part of the timestream is shattered, all kinds of crazy crap goes down with appearances from the likes of Apocalypse, Galactus and Ultron, and everything is wrapped up in a neat little package. Really, I mean that. The last issue in the arc where panels from the first are given proper context is really well done.

Also, Bendis' character work is as enjoyable as usual. Despite his strange dialogue style (think everyone speaking like Tony Stark and Pepper Potts in the Iron Man movies), he plays the cast off each other really well. I like how - despite the accessible relaunch - Steve and Tony are definitely not buddy-buddy following the events of "Civil War." I also appreciate the reverence Thor is treated with as each newer Avenger reacts to what it's like with his power set on the team. There's also a great moment with Spider-Man and Spider-Woman hanging out on the outside of a building.

But here's the thing: it's essentially a condensed, simplified rehash of Kurt Busiek, Roger Stern and Carlos Pacheco's incredible "Avengers Forever" miniseries. Sub out Avengers plucked from weird points in history and replace them with the Bendis All-Stars, then remove the countless intelligent references to continuity and you end up with this. What's there is still good, but it's not nearly on the same level. And, unfortunately, it falls below the opening arc of BMB's New Avengers relaunch as well.

From there we head off to Volume Two as the team battles crime lord The Hood, who has escaped from prison and is in the process of tracking down the powerful Infinity Gems. The story is a callback to another Bendis creation - the Illuminati, a secret group made up of Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic, Professor X, Namor, Dr. Strange and Black Bolt who had been pulling the strings of the Marvel Universe behind the scenes for years. They had been keeping the gems in their possession, but The Hood has breached their security systems. And as they go to investigate, who shows up but a pissed-off Steve Rogers? And he has the new Red Hulk in tow.

Things nearly blow up between Steve and Tony, but they recognize the crisis and - along with split-up groups of each active Avengers team, including new member the Red Hulk and the non-Avenger Illuminati members - go after The Hood. There are some damn fine action scenes and misdirection cameo, but despite an appearance by the Watcher, the narrative just doesn't seem to carry weight. I think part of the reason for that is the selection of The Hood as the villain. While there's nothing wrong with Parker Robbins per se, I think a more classic foe would have have fit what they were going for better.

Maybe that's a problem with the "Heroic Age" Avengers as a whole. The complexity and grit shown in Bendis' previous titles in this line doesn't seem to have the same "oomph." These trades aren't bad by any means. As always, I really enjoy the way these characters interact. But if you want to get into what truly was an excellent run for BMB, his original "New Avengers" is a much better choice.

Rating(s): 6.5/10 (Volume One), 6/10 (Volume Two)

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