10 years ago, Marvel’s superheroes split into factions and pounded each other in the face because they disagreed over whether their world-saving should be regulated by the government. The spark that will ignite the upcoming Avengers Standoff crossover is a lot more sinister.
Avengers Standoff: Welcome to Pleasant Hill is a one-shot by Nick Spencer, Mark Bagley, Scott Hanna, Paul Mounts and Clayton Cowles. It begins with Bucky Barnes infiltrating a secret S.H.I.E.L.D. research facility and watching the last disturbing moments before its staff got their lives snuffed out. After an abrupt change in milieu, the rest of the issue plays out in Pleasant Hill, an eerily quaint suburban hamlet where everything’s too peachy-keen.
The main character of Welcome to Pleasant Hill is a fellow named Jim, who wakes up in the woods with no memory of his past. Freaked out by the Stepford vibe of Pleasant Hill, Jim tries to escape multiple times before accepting his fate. The central mystery of Welcome to Pleasant Hill hinges on who Jim is and why he’s being kept in the town.
Spencer cleverly teases readers with clues, and the eventual reveal is a twist that actually surprised me.
There’s a connection between Standoff and a subplot in the Captain America series. In that title, current shield-wielder Sam Wilson came out against S.H.I.E.L.D.’s efforts to harness the power of Cosmic Cube fragments to reshape reality. Both Sam and original Captain America Steve Rogers agreed on the insidious moral implications of such research, which was leaked by a mysterious whistle-blower called The Whisperer. In Standoff, we see one project that the research was driving: a fake-reality prison where S.H.I.E.L.D. can secretly mindwipe and detain supervillains. One of Jim’s escape attempts showed a bit of Stark technology powering the force-field keeping folks within Pleasant Hill’s borders, so it’s a fair guess that Iron Man is working with S.H.I.E.L.D. on this disturbing detention facility.
Standoff seems to be serving as a thematic prologue to Civil War II. The promo images released for Civil War II show Iron Man either facing off with Captain America or tussling with Captain America. So far, plot details for that upcoming event seem to revolve around a different existential dilemma about whether to act on foreknowledge of crimes before they happen. But the thematic linkage between Civil War II and Standoff is pretty obvious, as concerns with oversight, the use and control of metahuman power and institutional oversight appear to be central parts of each storyline. The events in Standoff are definitely meant to change the way that readers think about S.H.I.E.L.D.. But that shift in perception is cleverly built on an age-old superhero trope that’s been the source of arguments for years: what should happen to supervillains? For decades, fans have debated whether the archfiends who keep coming back time and again should be detained, killed or subject to attempts to rehabilitate them. Standoff presents an option that’s pretty discomfiting, in part because it’s a really attractive solution to dealing with the worst aspects of human nature.