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A Series of Unfortunate Events

 

Avengers Disassembled

Brian Michael Bendis, David Finch, Various Artists

Marvel, 2005

Rating: 3.4

 

Posted: March 15, 2005

By Kevin Forest Moreau

(Spoiler Alert: This review reveals critical plot information.)

To create, you must destroy. Nietzsche knew this (or was it Too Much Joy?). So have some of the best comics revisionists. Alan Moore had to strip away everything we thought we knew about the Swamp Thing, after all, in order to truly explore the possibilities inherent in a walking, sentient pile of vegetable matter. Brian Michael Bendis knows this as well (not that anyone's ever going to confuse him with Alan Moore). From Daredevil to Alias, he's built his rep as the 800 lb. Gorilla of Marvel Comics by putting his characters through the wringer and observing how they react. What does not kill you, after all, makes you stronger. (That was definitely Nietzsche.)

So now Bendis has applied this technique to The Avengers, the Marvel Universe's premier (if not most popular) superhero team. And in order to bring The Avengers -- the team, the book, the concept -- to the level it deserves (a task he's currently in the early stages of tackling with New Avengers), he has first dismantled it; indeed, has razed it to the ground.

That's not a bad idea, in and of itself: If The Avengers is not Marvel's flagship title -- and (let's be honest) it never has been -- it's because it's long strained beneath the yoke of tradition. As well executed as it was, Kurt Busiek's recent formalist run on the title was steeped in tradition to the point of déjà vu. (Not for nothing do "formal" and "formula" sound so alike.) If you're going to fill a book with the biggest, most iconic toys in your toy chest, then that book should be just as iconic; its stories epic, its concepts grand, its adherence to tradition nil (or at least, it should adhere to some new traditions). Witness Grant Morrison's JLA, or, even better, the original, defining, Stan Lee/Jack Kirby Fantastic Four. And it stands to reason that to get to that point -- to abuse our metaphors a little more -- you're going to have to break a few eggs.

Trouble is, there's more to making an omelet than just cracking some eggs. It requires a sense of balance. You've got to add in the other ingredients, in just the right measure, and you've got to know exactly when your omelet is done. Avengers Disassembled breaks plenty of eggs, and two of them, to be sure, are in dire need of breaking. But is it an omelet?

Here's where that spoiler alert up top comes in. An uneventful conversation at Avengers Mansion is cut short when former member Jack of Hearts, who's believed to be dead, unexpectedly flies onto the grounds. He's there just long enough to whisper an apology to Ant Man (the two endured an uneasy relationship during Geoff Johns' run on the book) before he detonates, leaving a huge, fiery crater and, yes, killing Ant Man. The Avengers are still dealing with that when one of the group's quinjets, piloted by the synthezoid hero The Vision, plows into the mansion, causing further havoc. What's more, Vision imparts some cryptic mumbo-jumbo about how he's sorry for the trial the team is about to undergo, and starts spitting out little globes that sprout into versions of the mechanical menace Ultron, one of the team's most dangerous foes.

Things just get worse: She-Hulk loses control and goes into a mindless rampage, ripping Vision apart, battering The Wasp and dropping a truck on top of Captain America. At roughly the same time, Tony Stark (also known as Iron Man) has a meltdown of his own in front of the United Nations general assembly, an episode that costs him his post as the United States secretary of defense. A group of heroes gathers outside the mansion to offer their support, and a Kree invasion fleet materializes out of nowhere in the sky above New York; in the ensuing battle, the archer Hawkeye is seen sacrificing his life to take out one of the ships.

It's at this point that Doctor Strange, the Marvel Universe's pre-eminent authority on the mystic arts, appears, and helps the battered and dispirited heroes figure out the story's big dramatic revelation: Everything they've endured today has come at the hands of one of their own -- Wanda Maximoff, the reality-bending Scarlet Witch.

The Scarlet Witch's tortured history is a bit too complex to delve into here, but suffice it to say that Bendis is right on the money in positing that someone with her powers, who's endured the things she has, would stand a very good chance of cracking up. (Not that Doctor Strange does the best job of selling that point.) This, then, is the first of the aforementioned eggs that needed breaking. Unfortunately, when the Avengers confront their teammate, she's retreated so deep into her psychosis that she can do little more than conjure phantom foes for them to fight.

Given Wanda's powers, and the deep sense of betrayal she must feel (her teammates, after all, have been keeping a pretty big secret from her, even if it was for her own mental health), she could have turned into an impossibly dangerous and righteous foe. If allowed by Bendis to retain some shred of her intellect, during this climactic showdown she could conjure even more unimaginable horrors, and even threaten the fabric of reality. Instead, Doctor Strange (who's not even an Avenger) knocks her out in a mystic clash of wills, and then Magneto -- Wanda's father -- drops in out of nowhere to take her away ... and everyone just stands there and lets him.

In some ways, criticizing Avengers Disassembled is a bit unfair. It is, after all, really just a set-up, not just for the new New Avengers title but also for the imminent House of M miniseries, in which the Avengers and the X-Men must decide what to do about their former compatriot. It can be argued that those are the omelets that count. Still, Disassembled is packaged and presented as a standalone story, and on that score it proves disappointing. For three of the four issues of the "Chaos" arc -- the final arc of the regular Avengers title, which Disassembled collects -- the heroes do nothing but react to the events assaulting them. Then, in the fourth issue, an outside party comes in and explains to them just what's going on. What's more, it's that outside party who defeats Wanda during the climactic confrontation, before Magneto takes her away. The heroes themselves do nothing on their own. They take no proactive measures; they have absolutely zero effect on any outcome. (Well, except for Hawkeye.)

Even if this passivity is part of some larger point Bendis wants to make about the ineffectuality of the Avengers -- and before he dies, Hawkeye breaks the second of those two aforementioned, in-need-of-cracking eggs by opining that the too-reactive heroes have had a day like this coming for some time -- it's just not good dramatic storytelling.

(It's up to history -- or at least the new New Avengers title -- to prove whether a new, different team actually solves that whole ineffectualness issue. But judging by the initiative that Captain America, Iron Man and Spider-Man -- all members of the new team -- show here, there's little reason to think that a simple change of membership will do the job.)

Avengers Disassembled certainly has its pluses. It's packed with the kind of "Holy Shit!" moments at which Bendis excels, and which thrill the hearts of comics readers of all ages. David Finch's artwork is well suited to the story's widescreen action sequences, of which there are plenty, and he also handles the more personal scenes well, for the most part. (Colorist Frank D'Armata's murky palette, on the other hand, does neither any favors.) And the closing "Finale," in which a handful of Avengers mainstays hold a kind of wake for the team (impressively rendered, mostly, by a phalanx of guest artists), is a touching salute to the best moments of Avengers history. It's a bit traditional and sentimental for a tearing-down process like Disassembled, but it's both necessary and well handled. (Let's overlook Tony Stark's somewhat implausible rationale for pulling the team's funding, and the fact that Captain Britain looks a lot like Jessica Jones from Alias.)

Ultimately, however, one ends up appreciating Disassembled more for the kinds of stories it will hopefully allow to be told in the future, and less for the lackluster tale it tells in the present.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: Breaks new ground
 4.0-4.9: First-rate
 3.0-3.9: Solid
 2.0-2.9: Mediocre
 1.1-1.9: Bad
 0.0-1.0: The worst

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