Bendis’ Avengers: The Heroic Age

I remember when, for the first time since Avengers Disassembled, Bendis was announced to write the classic Avengers title. There was no adjective attached to the team, like “new”, “mighty”, or “dark”. This time, Bendis had a clean slate to make the main Avengers comic his own. In my mind, Bendis’ reinvention of the classic Avengers series was ripe with possibilities. Simply looking at the team’s roster, I could tell that Bendis was combining the best of the old with the best of the new. My favorite characters, Spider-Man and Wolverine, were finally on the same team as Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor. An all-star lineup of this caliber officially made this the coolest looking Avengers team that I’d seen. Most importantly, things were heading in a brighter direction in the Marvel Universe for the first time in a while. The Heroic Age ended years of internal conflict and political uncertainty for Marvel’s heroes. All of the good guys were finally on the same side, Ronin went back to his identity as Hawkeye, and the heroes were treated like heroes by the public again. In this new status quo Bendis could focus on getting back to basics. Relaunching the main Avengers title seemed like a bright new era for some of my favorite heroes, and I couldn’t wait to see them go into action.

Talk about a new golden age…

Bendis’ new Avengers title is centered around this new, Heroic Age status quo. Following the events of Siege, Steve Rogers was appointed as the new “top cop” of the Marvel heroes, essentially placing him in charge of world security. Rogers ushered in a new age for the Marvel landscape, abolishing the superhuman registration act and expanding the Avengers’ roster immensely. In fact, the Avengers became so large that they were split off into four titles: Avengers, New Avengers, Secret Avengers, and Avengers Academy. Finally, after a long, difficult period of political uncertainty from Civil War through Siege, the heroes were free from political agendas or government interference. Additionally, heroes such as Noh-Varr were now free to achieve their potential. Indeed, Noh-Varr, after fleeing from Norman Osborn’s Dark Avengers, finally found his purpose on Earth. Naming himself the Protector and donning a new costume, the Kree warrior was at last becoming the hero he was trying to be since Secret Invasion. Despite this bright new status quo, some issues remained unresolved. For example, the Illuminati, a group of the smartest men in the Marvel Universe, was still hidden from the rest of the heroes. These men acted covertly in order to protect the world at large. One of their more significant decisions was to split up the infinity gems, hiding each stone in a separate location. The secrecy of such a powerful action will not bode well for the Avengers.

Avengers Assemble indeed!

The main premise of Bendis’ Avengers builds off of Bendis’ Heroic Age, acting as both a fresh start and a continuation of what came before. Steve Rogers begins the series by selecting the flagship Avengers team. This team consists of Iron Man, Captain America (Bucky), Thor, Hawkeye, Spider-Woman, Spider-Man, and Wolverine. Acting as the public face of the Avengers, this group of heroes is tasked with larger-scale threats. The Avengers operate out of Stark Tower, establishing themselves as the premiere superhero team of the Heroic Age. The team almost immediately embarks upon their first adventure when Kang the Conqueror approaches his old enemies for help. The Avengers are tasked by their adversary with fixing the broken timestream, becoming entangled in an intricate time-travel plot between Kang, Ultron, and their future children. Later on, all of the Avengers teams must band together in order to stop the Hood from acquiring all of the infinity gems. The former New Avengers villain has discovered the Illuminati’s hiding places for the stones, forcing the Avengers not only to confront him, but the Illuminati as well. Several bonds are tested by the discovery of the Illuminati’s existence, putting the new Heroic Age in jeopardy.

The old order changeth

During both of these epic storylines, the one central Avenger seems to be Tony Stark/Iron Man. In Rogers’ absence, there is no real leader of the Avengers, yet Stark maintains a central focus throughout the title. Bendis devotes much of his attention to Stark’s futuristic outlook and its consequences. Indeed, the first arc of the Avengers is based on time travel, specifically the events of the future. Stark plays a vital role in this arc, working to understand and repair the break in the timestream. It’s Stark who leads a small band of Avengers into the future, and when the team arrives, it’s an older version of Iron Man who greets them. Interacting with his future self only leaves Stark even more concerned about the future of the Avengers, and the world as a whole. Iron Man now knows that he must be prepared for what’s coming, as his future self warns him of imminent threats. Yet the bearing the burden of the future on his own ultimately comes back to bite Stark. In the second story arc, when the Hood gains control of the Illuminati’s infinity gems, Stark must confide in the other Avengers. Realizing that he cannot control the fate of the future as one man, Stark relies on his teammates, working with the Avengers to recover the infinity stones. Once Stark wields the Infinity Gauntlet, he realizes that mankind must be free to make their own progress, choosing to relinquish the power of the gauntlet. Although he is deeply concerned with the future, Stark realizes he cannot solely control the fate of humankind.

Avengers intervention!

The next classic member of the Avengers is Thor. Just like Iron Man, Thor’s presence gives the team a more classic Avengers feel. Thor’s power levels, for example, bring the Avengers back up to a large-scale, cosmic-level status as a team. The god of thunder is certainly the Avengers’ main powerhouse, taking on beings of immense power such as Galactus, Kang, and the Hood, who wields several infinity gems. A nice touch which Bendis adds to the book is the sense of awe which the Avengers display in Thor’s presence. This Avengers group is a mix of the old and the new, so the reactions of Spider-Man and Spider-Woman to someone like Thor contributes much to the god of thunder’s status as an Avenger. Thor is a founding member of immense power and nobility, and Bendis does an excellent job demonstrating how important and inspiring this is for the team’s morale. When Thor blasts Kang out of Avengers Tower, the rest of the team gapes in awe, while Hawkeye simply says, “That would be what it’s like to be on the Avengers with Thor”. Bendis also includes several moments that showcase Thor’s nobility and wisdom. Specifically, when inducting new members to the Avengers, Thor shows great insight into these heroes’ character. New members such as the Protector and the Red Hulk are given a chance because Thor can see their heroism and strength. Fighting side by side with the Red Hulk against the Hood, for example, Thor is a great comrade in arms for old and new Avengers. Overall, Bendis returns Thor to a major player in the Avengers.

Now that’s a heavy-hitter

While Bendis insures the return of classic Avengers to the title, he also makes room for plenty of newcomers. Continuing his character arc from earlier in Bendis’ Avengers saga, Noh-Varr finally joins the team. Joining Earth’s Mightiest Heroes is a natural progression for Noh-Varr’s character. Indeed, after deciding to embrace his role as the Earth’s Kree protector, it seems as if Noh-Varr has finally found his footing as a true hero. Naturally, then, the Avengers are a great team on which the Protector can fulfill his purpose and contribute to the protection of mankind. Additionally, adding the Protector to the team shows Bendis’ enjoyment in expanding the Avengers’ ranks. After adding popular heroes such as Spider-Man and Wolverine, and obscure characters such as Luke Cage and Spider-Woman, Bendis is certainly willing to make nearly anyone who qualifies into an Avenger. If a hero can be an Avenger, why shouldn’t they be? Indeed, Noh-Varr brings many skills to the ranks of the Avengers, including his great intelligence. Showing off Noh-Varr’s intellect contributes to his interactions with Avengers such as Stark and Spider-Man, as he begins to bond with the team. Adding the Protector’s knowledge of alien technology and time travel makes him a valuable asset, especially when the Avengers need to fix the timestream. Bendis also writes a lot of fun character interactions between Noh-Varr and the others, poking fun at the cultural differences between humans and Kree. Particularly, seeing Noh-Varr struggle to figure out Spider-Man’s jokes is a lot of fun. Bendis has always been quite adept at this witty kind of dialogue, which also adds to the group dynamic. All of these factors make Noh-Varr a great addition to the Avengers.

Our little boy, all grown up

Bringing on the Red Hulk is another bold move on Bendis’ part. On the one hand, adding a Hulk to the Avengers feels perfectly consistent with the team’s history. Combining the Red Hulk’s raw power with that of Thor evokes the original lineup of the founding Avengers. The Red Hulk’s strength is certainly necessary in the face of major threats such as the Hood with the infinity gems. Indeed, the Red Hulk plays a major role in combating the Hood, taking him on single-handedly several times. More importantly, Bendis emphasizes the Red Hulk’s strategic mindset. Unlike his green counterpart, the Red Hulk has a rich military background, as General Thunderbolt Ross. Bendis certainly does not forget the character’s history, distinguishing the Red Hulk from the other powerful heroes on the Avengers. It’s the Red Hulk’s strategy and tactics which aid against the Hood, in addition to his strength, showing the character’s well-rounded nature. Furthermore, the circumstances under which the Red Hulk joins the Avengers is in the true spirit of the team. Bendis introduces the Red Hulk naturally, coming to the Avengers after his own encounter with the Hood. It’s the pure chance of the Red Hulk’s fight with the Hood which connects him to the Avengers, yet this chance encounter becomes an opportunity for the Red Hulk to join the team. The Avengers come together under dire circumstances that involve them all, bringing together heroes from all over. Once again, if a hero can be an Avenger, why not give them a chance?

Seizing his opportunity

The rest of the team is a great collection of heroes. Unfortunately, most of the Avengers serve as glorified cameos for both of Bendis’ stories. Captain America/Bucky, for example, should be vital to the team. At last, Bucky has the opportunity to be on a classic Avengers roster and demonstrate his unique skills. Yet Cap only gets a few moments to show off his marksmanship that don’t really do much for his character. Clint Barton has become Hawkeye again, but beyond his return to the role, not much is done with the character. Spider-Man has some good quips and Wolverine does his fair share of stabbing, but both characters seem like they’re only there because of their popularity. Spider-Woman also just seems to be on the team because Bendis likes her character, but she is given a minimal role thus far. There isn’t a lot of insight into these characters’ thoughts/feelings either, leaving them as colorful extras in Bendis’ narrative. Still, at least Bendis’ knack for dialogue gives the team a few fun moments. Particularly, former New Avengers Spider-Man, Spider-Woman, and Hawkeye, share plenty of light banter which provides good comedic relief. If Bendis had focused more on these characters, and the team dynamic in general, Avengers would feel more fully like a team book. Indeed, Bendis’ New Avengers run and the first few pages of Avengers illustrate his skill with entertaining character dynamics. Additionally, Maria Hill serves a nice role as the Avengers’ consultant. Giving the Avengers someone who speaks on behalf of the government, and regular humans in general, really grounds the team. This way, the Avengers never stray too far from the people’s interests, while remaining free to act of their own accord.

Some colorful extras…

It seems to be the very idea of the Avengers which Bendis grapples with throughout these two story arcs. While it seems that the Avengers are stronger than ever in light of the Heroic Age, it’s this very strength which may threaten the world. Much of the first story arc, for example, explores a possible future in which the Avengers are responsible for the Earth’s decimation. Bringing their own power up against the likes of Kang and Ultron leads to humanity’s downfall. Additionally, Simon Williams, formerly Wonder Man, tells Steve Rogers to shut down the Avengers, fearing that the team has become too much like an army. Indeed, it is this army which is seen to have decimated humanity during the battle with Ultron in the future. Witnessing the consequences of their power, the Avengers must insure the responsible use of their combined might. Instead of fighting, the Avengers negotiate with Ultron, averting a catastrophe by using their brains instead of their brawn. Furthermore, only a small band of Avengers speaks to Ultron, showing a group of heroes at work, rather than an army. In seeing the future, the Avengers realize the balance they must strike between being proactive and being reactive. While the team is expanding, making the world safer than ever, they must also be wary of the consequences behind their actions. Literally facing their own future, the Avengers realize that they have to keep themselves in check, remaining humanity’s defenders instead of their destroyers. The Avengers certainly keep their own members accountable, such as when they confront Iron Man and his involvement with the Illuminati. Previously acting under no accountability, the Illuminati now face the judgement of their peers. For example, the secrecy of the Illuminati is criticized heavily. Specifically, by placing such immense power in their own hands, the Illuminati only took the consideration of a select few into account. Additionally, when the Hood discovered the hiding places of the infinity gems, he demonstrated the danger of messing with such immense power. When the Avengers learn of the Illuminati’s actions, the heroes act to fix the mistakes of their own, recovering the gems. By working together, and holding each other accountable, the Avengers are able to act in the interests of all, rather than a select few. The Hood is brought down, and the gems are returned to their rightful places, thanks to the cooperation of the entire Avengers team.

With great power, there must also come crazy alternate futures

While each of these themes are very powerful on a conceptual level, the specific story arcs of the Avengers are not executed as well. The first story arc, in particular, is overstuffed with ideas. There are far too many time-travel based twists and turns to the plot which complicate things unnecessarily. Often, the Avengers’ mission shifts from one goal to the next, and the whole broken timestream plot generally loses coherence. Bendis does present many exciting, entertaining moments, big action scenes, and beautiful glimpses into the future. Much of this is brought to life dazzlingly by John Romita Jr. Yet the story ultimately loses focus on the Avengers themselves, giving most of the spotlight to Iron Man and Noh-Varr. Considering that this is the first story arc featuring the new Avengers team, I would have liked to have seen a greater focus on all of the Avengers. Overall, the first story arc crumbles under the weight of its own ambition, presenting some great ideas with minimal focus. Bendis also takes a lot of time setting up his big event, Age of Ultron, which does not pay off in the main Avengers title. The second story arc is an improvement in many ways. The Infinity Gauntlet story addresses the issues with the Illuminati, especially the consequences of their actions. Specifically, when the Hood gains some of the infinity gems, he shows what can go wrong when power like the Illuminati’s falls into the wrong hands. Additionally, Bendis finally gives the readers a confrontation between Steve and Tony about the Illuminati, and other unresolved issues which were not addressed in Avengers: Prime. This conflict between the two heroes demonstrates how some wounds never fully heal between friends. The story also has beautiful splash pages, a great inclusion of every Avengers team, fun action scenes, and entertaining character moments. My only issue with this story is its ending, when the Illuminati secretly decides to hide the gems again, with Steve Rogers joining the group this time. The ending is written as if the characters have learned nothing. During the story, Bendis made it seem as if the Illuminati learned that even they, as heroes, cannot take it upon themselves to wield such great power. Yet, not only do they continue to meet in secret and hide the gems, but Rogers becomes part of their operation. Not only does this action contradict the lesson which the group should have learned, it makes Rogers look like a hypocrite for chastising Iron Man earlier on. While this story arc is very entertaining and thought-provoking, it stumbles in the conclusion.

Action worthy of the Avengers

Re-reading Bendis’ Avengers, these first two arcs have a lot more flash than substance. John Romita Jr.’s artwork is gorgeous, there are some amazing action scenes, funny moments, and a great roster of heroes. The plot itself, unfortunately, is a bit of a jumbled mess, especially during the time-travel story arc. Bendis makes things way too convoluted for my taste, and the stories simply don’t hit as powerfully as Bendis’ more grounded, New Avengers work. The Infinity Gauntlet story arc is much better than the first arc, but still, the story loses its message in the ending. It feels as if Bendis is trying to say something about power and how heroes should wield it, yet there are so many contradictory messages which muddle the overall point. Should the Illuminati disband, realizing the consequences of their actions, or should they continue in secret, realizing that they are needed more than ever? Bendis, in a way, says both, in the most confusing way possible. There’s also generally too many characters for anyone to receive significant focus, outside of Iron Man, Noh-Varr, and the Red Hulk. Of course, these last two are new members, so it would feel strange if Bendis did not give them any attention. The Avengers in this title feel more like props than actual characters, sacrificed for the sake of an over-convoluted plot. Overall, Bendis definitely displays stronger work in more grounded, character-focused stories, rather than massive, sci-fi blockbusters.

Maybe don’t assemble all at once…

Going forward, the time-travel story arc will only hold significance outside of Bendis’ Avengers series. Specifically, Ultron will return during an alternate future story, entitled Age of Ultron. This will be the final story which Bendis writes that features the Avengers, although it ultimately holds little weight in his overarching Avengers run. During the actual Avengers series, however, Bendis’ new members will continue to show great importance to the team. The Red Hulk and Noh-Varr will be featured heavily throughout Bendis’ run, even during big events such as Fear Itself and Avengers vs. X-Men. During these tie-in issues, Bendis’ new members demonstrate several valuable skills to the Avengers and are given some great character insight. Finally, the Illuminati is essentially finished after Bendis’ Infinity Gauntlet story arc. The group never really makes another appearance in Bendis’ Avengers run, outside of one failed meeting during Avengers vs. X-Men. Perhaps this shows that the Illuminati shouldn’t be operating anymore, despite the confusing ending to this last arc. The absence of the Illuminati indicates that their incident with the Hood showed them the consequences of their actions. For the rest of Bendis’ Avengers run, Earth’s Mightiest heroes act as one, harboring no more secrets between each other.

I guess this pays off somehow…

That’s all for today. How do you feel about the Heroic Age? Do you like Bendis’ epic, sci-fi stories, or his more grounded, street-level ones? Let me know on Twitter, @book_column, and be sure to share the blog with your friends! Thanks for reading! Check back in tomorrow for my look at Bendis’ take on New Avengers in the Heroic Age!

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