Today, a big, bright Avengers movie filled with quips and heroics is lighting up screens all over the country. This week, one of the grimmest runs of Avengers comics comes to a close. Earth’s Mightiest Heroes? Not always.
Technically, there was a book called Dark Avengers a few years back. It featured villains posing as heroes. The reason that New Avengers has been even darker than that is because it’s had Marvel’s smartest heroes slowly becoming villains. And it ended with with one of its greatest villains acting a lot like a hero.
This is essentially a series recap for New Avengers, so major spoilers follow.
Launched by writer Jonathan Hickman in 2013, New Avengers started with the ambitious upscaling of a few familiar premises: a group of heroes bands together to stop cosmic evil from destroying worlds. But these characters formed the newest version of Marvel’s Illuminati, a secret collective culled from some of the smartest, most respected and powerful heroes in their reality.
The heroes faced a big challenge.
Earths from alternate realities were crashing into the native Marvel timeline (616). The problem was too big for just one genius to handle.
Right away, the Illuminati had to consider some rather unheroic actions. How far would they go to prevent the premature end of the entirety of existence?
The Black Panther was already allying with Namor, who destroyed much of the Panther’s kingdom while imbued with the power of the Phoenix Force. Things were tense.
The threat they faced was destroying entire realities, and they had to consider the notion of doing the same to preserve the existence of their own. An early plan required the re-assembly of the Infinity Gauntlet, which galactic conqueror Thanos one used to try to wipe out reality.
That’s right: the heroes were going use a weapon wielded by one of the universe’s most sadistic bad guys. And the guy who had to put the Infinity Gauntlet on? Only the most noble dude in Avengers history.
When that didn’t work, the Illuminati did something really bad. Using Dr. Strange’s magic, they made Captain America forget everything they’d been working on.
They continued to hold a fugitive from a dead reality in a secret prison. OK, she’s evil but such an act is still out of character for these heroes.
As things went on, the Illuminati continued to slide down a slippery slope. They let a Galactus destroy another dimension’s Earth to buy their native one more time. They lied to each other and their families, betrayed promises and launched secret attacks on each other’s kingdoms.
Dr. Strange in particular went to some dark places.
Oh, that whole incident with Captain America didn’t go according to plan.
Time kept winding down on the clock. Spying on other realities for information, the Illuminati watched as The Great Society — Hickman’s alt-Earth riff on DC Comics’ Justice League — reckoned with the same threat in far nobler fashion…
then they debated them…
and beat them…
and killed their planet.
That’s just the first half of the run.
New Avengers co-existed with the mainline Avengers book — also written by Hickman — and was a darker twin to that series’ more optimistic altruism. The two runs eventually intertwined very tightly during the Time Runs Out storyline, with a militarised Avengers/SHIELD hybrid run by Captain America hunting down the Illuminati to make them pay for their accumulating transgressions. This week sees the final issues for both titles — Avengers #44 and New Avengers #33 — with incredibly grim denouements for each.
It is the finale of perhaps the bleakest era in Avengers history. The good guys don’t win. Worse yet, there was never any chance of winning.
Hickman’s tenure has pretty much been a total subversion of conventional superhero tropes. The smartest, strongest most socially elevated members of Earth’s superhero population were not the best of humanity.
And Doctor Doom, the Fantastic Four arch-villain who tried for years to conquer the world? He’s the one who arguably came closest to saving the multiverse.
Granted, the actual cosmology governing the plot logic of Hickman’s collective Avengers oeuvre is damn confusing. Trying to actually have things make chronological sense is daunting. But, that doesn’t matter, really. The most radical thing about New Avengers is that all of those terrible personal sacrifices have been for nothing. The heroes don’t win the day. In a way, this subversion is also the apotheosis of the Marvel Superhero Concept: this is the world we live in and these heroes are just like you and me. In New Avengers, Mr. Fantastic, the Black Panther and Iron Man and the rest aren’t better than the average civilian. They stand in for the worst foibles of the human psyche.
Marvel is about to usher in big changes. Starting next week, their huge Secret Wars crossover, written by Hickman and presumably continuing this saga, will lay the groundwork for a Marvel Universe that will look a lot different than it did before. After what Hickman’s done with the publisher’s marquee superteam, the Marvel Universe will have to feel different too. (And the previews we’ve seen for the next comic-book incarnations of Avengers teams certainly presage a shift in approach.) This weekend, millions of people are going to thrill to a version of the Avengers that comes together as a team. The excellent New Avengers comic shows that the super-group can also be just as compelling when the weight of multiple worlds has them falling apart.