Bendis’ Avengers: Dark Avengers

I must admit, at the time of its release, I never actually read Dark Avengers. The only exposure that I had to this new team was in Bendis’ New Avengers run. In the context of New Avengers, there really wasn’t much to be said about the Dark Avengers themselves. The team was simply a group of villains posing as heroes, hunting down the real heroes. As simple as this idea was, I always enjoyed the concept behind Dark Avengers. There’s something appealing, in a twisted sort of way, about a dark mirror to the Avengers. Seeing the villains masquerade as heroes opened up a lot of storytelling possibilities in my mind. The one thing about the Dark Avengers that piqued my curiosity was the inclusion of the Sentry, Ares, and Noh-Varr on the team. If the Dark Avengers were all villains, what were these heroes doing with them? I suppose I missed out on the answer to this question by not reading the main title. It was also quite a bold move to put Norman Osborn, the former Green Goblin, in a suit of Iron Man armor painted red, white, and blue. As a lifelong Spider-Man fan, I will always see the Green Goblin when I see Norman Osborn. So when Osborn was placed in charge of national security, I knew it would only be a matter of time before the psychotic mind of the Goblin re-emerged.

Dark days ahead…

At this point, however, the world of Marvel was at Osborn’s fingertips. After publicly killing the Skrull queen during Secret Invasion, Osborn replaced Tony Stark as the world’s “top cop”. Osborn was placed in charge of the fifty state initiative, the new organization known as HAMMER, and his own team of Avengers. While publicly, the world seemed a lot safer with Osborn in charge, behind closed doors, Osborn had his own agenda. Assembling his own version of the Illuminati called the Cabal, Osborn and some of the biggest villains in the Marvel Universe planned to divide the world between themselves. While the Cabal protected Osborn’s interests, Osborn looked out for the sinister goals of members such as Doctor Doom and Loki. Additionally, prior to being handed the keys to Avengers Tower, Osborn was the head of the Thunderbolts, a group of criminals who went on black ops missions for the government. This team included Moonstone, Bullseye, and Venom, some of the most psychotic criminals in Marvel Comics. The Thunderbolts helped Osborn ward off the Skrull invasion, standing alongside Earth’s heroes. Along with Osborn and his Thunderbolts, the Kree Warrior, Noh-Varr, also proved himself during Secret Invasion. After the intervention of the Illuminati, Noh-Varr became convinced of humanity’s worth, defending the planet from the Skrull invasion.

Dark Illuminati?

After successfully defeating the Skrulls, Osborn takes advantage of his new position of power, forming his own team of Avengers. These “Dark Avengers” are comprised of Osborn’s Thunderbolts, Noh-Varr, the Sentry, Ares, and Wolverine’s evil son, Daken. All of the villains (Bullseye, Moonstone, Venom, and Daken) are dressed as heroes (Hawkeye, Ms. Marvel, Spider-Man, and Wolverine) in order to boost the public image of these new Avengers. For all intents and purposes, the Dark Avengers are the official Avengers team, fighting for the people’s interests. Throughout Bendis’ series, however, the reader witnesses the dark underbelly of these Avengers’ operations. Each member is a different kind of psychopath. Venom eats people, Bullseye is a gleeful killer, Moonstone manipulates everyone around her, and the Sentry is deeply unstable. Osborn himself undergoes a mental breakdown, showing how fragile this whole “Avengers” facade truly is. Despite the dark and disturbed nature of these Avengers, this team accomplishes a relative amount of good. Threats such as Morgan Le Fay and the Molecule Man are confronted, albeit always with some hidden agenda.

Yep, that’s us, the good guys…

Indeed, the star of the series, Norman Osborn, is never without his own agenda. In the beginning of Dark Avengers, Osborn has several components to his agenda, from the Avengers to HAMMER to the Cabal. Bendis presents Osborn as a smooth-talking businessman, always playing on three different teams, without any clear loyalty to anyone but himself. Osborn uses everyone to his advantage, especially his team of Avengers, which is largely a publicity stunt. Bendis portrays Osborn as a kind of satire on contemporary politicians. From the moment Osborn landed the killing blow on the Skrull queen, he’s been in the right place at the right time, manipulating public image in his favor. In reality, Osborn never does much to protect the world, but his manipulation of the media spins the public narrative in his favor. As readers, we see Osborn present himself publicly as a reformed criminal who has worked his way into power, when on the next page, he is plotting with the Cabal to take over the world. Despite the smooth manner in which Osborn manipulates the media, the pressures of power quickly overtake him personally. Over the course of Dark Avengers, Bendis shows Osborn gradually lose his grip. For example, there are moments when Osborn locks himself in his laboratory, at which point the reader sees Osborn collapsing as he hears voices of the Green Goblin in his head. Osborn’s loss of sanity leads him to gradually lose control of his daily life, becoming irritable and impatient. Despite his initial ease into power, Osborn cannot maintain his facade of control forever.

Can’t take the goblin out of the Osborn…

Losing control right alongside Osborn is Bob Reynolds, the Sentry. It’s at this point in Bendis’ run where the Sentry has almost completely gone off the deep end. Osborn is a major catalyst for the Sentry’s downfall, encouraging Reynolds to let his power loose on several occasions. As Osborn begins to lose his grip on sanity, the Sentry’s downward spiral increases at an almost exponential rate. More often than with the New Avengers or the Mighty Avengers, Bob is treated as a blunt instrument rather than a valued member of the team. In fact, surrounded by psychopaths and killers, the Sentry is more isolated on the Dark Avengers than ever before. The team distrusts the Sentry, and he distrusts his teammates just as much. Near the end of Dark Avengers, Bendis puts a lot of time into the Sentry’s backstory, revealing many dark secrets about the character. It feels as if Bendis portrays the Sentry as an almost inherently disturbed individual, in order to justify his downfall later on. By the end of the series, Bendis is essentially using Dark Avengers as a vehicle for the Sentry’s fall from grace, rather than a series about the Dark Avengers.

It makes you a tool for a supervillain

Despite Bendis’ focus on some of the more unstable characters in Dark Avengers, there are still a few sympathetic members of the team. Surprisingly, Bendis gives the most pathos to Ares, the god of war. Initially, I was confused about why Ares would join the Dark Avengers. Yet his reasoning is sound. Since Osborn killed the Skrull queen, Ares mistakenly sees him as an honorable warrior. Additionally, it is the mission to fight for a noble cause which drives Ares, no matter who he fights alongside. The combination of misinformation about Osborn and a sense of duty places Ares in a group of killers and criminals. Furthermore, Ares himself was never a shining example of nobility to begin with. Bendis keeps Ares’ more distasteful characteristics consistent, including scenes of Ares hitting on Moonstone or getting into fights with his teammates. Ares’ flaws run even deeper, as Bendis shows Ares’ role as an absentee father. Phobos, the god of fear, is the son of Ares, who is almost never around. When Ares is around his son, their interactions are tense and confrontational. Yet Ares still recognizes his poor parenting. Indeed, when he discovers that Phobos is a member of Nick Fury’s Secret Warriors, Ares lets his son go, simply asking that Fury look after him. This request for his son’s well-being shows a softer side to Ares, making him much more sympathetic than the rest of the Dark Avengers.

Flawless logic

Following Ares, the closest character to a hero in Dark Avengers is Noh-Varr. Yet Bendis barely gives the Kree warrior anything to do during the course of the series. He’s only on the team because of his own naivete, failing to recognize that these Avengers are psychotic criminals. As soon as Noh-Varr realizes that the Avengers are not who they say they are, he takes off fairly quickly. The few issues in which Noh-Varr is present don’t do much to explore his character, and writing him off the title eliminates the possibility of any further exploration. Bendis only really gets to further Noh-Varr’s arc in Dark Avengers Annual, an issue focused exclusively on the character. This one issue does more for Noh-Varr than the entirety of the main Dark Avengers series, and it’s a personal favorite of mine. Dark Avengers Annual shows Noh-Varr adapting to Earth culture, exploring the streets of New York, meeting students at NYU, and finally discovering his purpose on Earth. Most importantly, Bendis gives the reader a look at Noh-Varr’s feelings of isolation, especially while he is hunted by the Dark Avengers. Ultimately, Dark Avengers isn’t the most extensive chapter for Noh-Varr’s character, but it does plant the seeds for future stories.

“You mean you’re NOT Ms. Marvel?!”

The rest of the team isn’t given much to do either. Moonstone, Bullseye, Venom, and Daken, are mostly present to masquerade as Ms. Marvel, Hawkeye, Spider-Man, and Wolverine, respectively. The gimmick of villains disguised as heroes isn’t developed very much, past the first issue. There is still a lot of fun banter between these characters, in a very different sense than in New Avengers. This team of Avengers actively hates each other, and the dialogue presents this in a very clear yet entertaining manner. The Dark Avengers are more of a publicity stunt than an actual team, and Bendis shows how little each member regards the others in private. Additionally, Victoria Hand is a great addition, acting as a consultant for the team. Hand is a good foil for the Dark Avengers, keeping everyone, including Osborn, in check. Bendis adds a layer of nuance to Hand, as she actually believes in Osborn and his goals. Hand’s bad history with S.H.I.E.L.D. makes her loyalty to Osborn very believable. Rather than a cartoon-ish henchwoman, Victoria Hand feels like a real person. Overall, I do wish that this cast of characters received a more individualized focus. Perhaps if Bendis had more room, he could write one-shot issues examining each member of the team. As it is, the Dark Avengers, much like the Mighty Avengers, feel like an underdeveloped team.

Laying down the law

As a whole, Dark Avengers does an excellent job exploring the idea of perception versus reality. The Dark Avengers team is a great illustration of contrasting perception and reality. Osborn presents this team to the public as the Avengers, heroes willing to protect the common good. Beneath this facade, however, lies a group of killers and psychopaths, which the public never sees. Additionally, Osborn himself slowly loses his mind behind the scenes, despite presenting himself in a polished, professional manner on television. The only member of the team who is the same in public and private is Ares. Despite a rough, unpolished personality, Ares is the most authentic member of the Dark Avengers. Even though the rest of the team is not who they say, they still maintain control of their public image. Much of Dark Avengers examines the importance of control, particularly maintaining control in the face of enormous responsibility. Over the course of the series, the pressures of being in charge lead to a loss of control for Osborn. As a consequence of losing his own sanity, Osborn loses control of the Dark Avengers, and even the Cabal, as Doom turns on him and Loki manipulates Osborn. This loss of control is indicative of the cracks in Osborn’s designs. Creating an Avengers team that is more of a group of political pawns than an actual team, Osborn leaves himself isolated. Osborn’s isolation leaves him without any support during his own mental spiral, as the Dark Avengers are an empty shell of a team with zero loyalty to their leader. Despite controlling public image for a time, eventually, Osborn cannot maintain his own grip on power, leaving him lost and alone.

Not exactly a model of mental health…

The actual story arcs in Dark Avengers are quite adept at exploring the previous themes. Dark Avengers’ initial arc, featuring a confrontation with Morgan Le Fay in Latveria, starts off the series nicely. While the Dark Avengers are publicly shown confronting a dangerous menace in Latveria, in reality, Osborn only went as a favor to Doctor Doom, the ruler of the nation. Osborn’s hidden agenda shows the different levels at which he is playing, using the Avengers as mere pawns in his political game of chess. This story is also a nice follow-up to the Mighty Avengers’ siege of Latveria, showing Osborn un-doing Stark’s progress as the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. There is a lot of fun action, and seeing Osborn work with Doom demonstrates that this is not the heroic Avengers of old. The next couple of issues consist of a short story arc which features Osborn’s day to day operations. Bendis does a good job contrasting Osborn’s appearance on a talk show with his activities behind the scenes. While Osborn presents himself and the Dark Avengers well, the team’s activities indicate a toxic, sinister group of individuals. The following story arc of the Dark Avengers fighting the Molecule Man goes into some fascinating psychological territory. Seeing each member of the Dark Avengers torn apart, literally and figuratively, the reader gains a deeper insight into the team, especially Osborn and the Sentry. The artwork during Osborn’s psychological torture at the hands of the Molecule Man is also very well done. Additionally, Victoria Hand is spotlighted, showcasing her excellent negotiation tactics and her background with S.H.I.E.L.D. The final arc mainly acts as a prelude to Siege, focusing on the Sentry in great detail. Most of these issues are spent setting up the Sentry’s downfall during Siege, with little focus on the actual Dark Avengers. There are a few good character moments for Bullseye, but ultimately, not much else for the rest of the cast. The Sentry himself has gotten quite tiring as a character. Reynolds doesn’t have any compelling character motivations or identity, acting more like a tool for Osborn than anything else.

“Don’t confuse the issue with facts!”

Overall, Dark Avengers has a lot of great ideas that are never explored fully. The whole concept of an “evil Avengers” group is fantastic, but the idea never goes anywhere beyond its initial premise. The Sentry, for all of the focus on his fragile mental state, doesn’t feel like a fully-formed character either. Ultimately, the series feels too short for its own good. If Bendis was given more time between major events, I think he could have done more with the concept here. As it stands, Dark Avengers feels similar to Mighty Avengers, in that it seems to be written out of necessity for the current status quo. Most of the cast, just like Mighty Avengers, feels underdeveloped. There isn’t much of significance to be missed if readers only read about the Dark Avengers in other titles like New Avengers. Still, there are some decent parts to the book. Osborn’s personal descent into madness is done well, showing how unsustainable Dark Reign‘s status quo really is. With the former Green Goblin in charge, national security was bound to implode eventually. Ares is also developed in a sympathetic and believable way, making him a stand-out member of the team. Victoria Hand is a great new character, given a great backstory and a sensible personality to balance out the rest of the cast. There are plenty of great ideas in Dark Avengers, but the run just seems too short to explore them all fully.

Great start, now what?

Going forward, Dark Avengers plants the seeds for several storylines. Noh-Varr will return, given much more material than in Dark Avengers. During the Heroic Age, Noh-Varr becomes the Protector, joining the main Avengers team. Once the Kree warrior is free of Osborn and the Dark Avengers, he will finally get the chance to be a hero. Victoria Hand will also be an important part of the Heroic Age. Seeing the potential in Hand, Steve Rogers appoints her as a consultant to the New Avengers. Needless to say, this decision will not go over well with everyone. The tension and suspicion behind Hand’s role on the team will result in plenty of drama in the pages of New Avengers. Before the Heroic Age, however, comes Siege, and Norman Osborn’s ultimate downfall. Finally snapping and deciding to invade Asgard, Osborn will lose all public favor and government credibility. Both Osborn and the Sentry will completely crack, resulting in the end of Dark Reign and the Sentry’s demise. Additionally, Ares’ sense of honor will lead him to turn on Osborn, ending in tragedy. In sum, the facade of the Dark Avengers will soon end, exposing Osborn and his cohorts’ true nature.

Yeah, this’ll last

That’s all for today. What do you think of Dark Avengers? Great idea, poor execution? Did you like the way it was executed? Was the idea just bad to begin with? Share your thoughts on Twitter, @book_column, and be sure to share this blog with your friends! Thanks for reading! Check back tomorrow, when I dive into Bendis’ next big event: Siege!

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