Sunday Slugfest - Avengers #503

A comic review article by: Keith Dallas, Andrew Burlinson, Jason Cornwell, Keith Dallas, Kelvin Green, Shawn Hill, Jason Sacks, Dave Wallace
"Chaos: Part Four"

Andrew Burlinson

Brian Michael Bendis and company bring the “Avengers Disassembled” event to a close with this week’s Avengers #503. This issue marks the finale of the cataclysmic “Chaos” storyline and the end of the current run of Marvel’s mightiest heroes as we’ve known them. For those of you who steer clear of message boards and rumor mills, this one might have come as a shocker, worthy of being included in the annals of great comics epics. Or maybe it hit you like the contrived anti-climax of a tortuously slow storyline, conjured up (pardon the pun) to explain a fan-fiction-esque chicken-and-pot mess of an “event” would. You might guess where I’m leaning with this one.

The convenient summary on page one brings the reader up to speed on the “worst day in Avengers history” and then asks us the pressing question “But who was behind it?” The story then explodes with a breathless... pool scene. As far as mysteries go, this one is solved when we see the first furrowed brow of our hero-gone-bad. Watch closely for it; it’s somewhere after the third or fourth gratuitous shot of the Wasp’s rear-end.

Switching between scenes from “Now” and “Then”-- with art chores flip-flopping between David Finch and Olivier Coipel-- the action resembles that of a TV courtroom drama, depicting the back-story of the villain and the revelation of her wickedness. Doctor Strange arrives to give the Avengers the bad news that the culprit behind the chaos is one of their own. What follows feels like nothing more than a trial-lawyer attempting to convince not only the Avengers but the reader as well that this revelation is somehow feasible. Tom Brevoort, the veteran editor, brings together a striking double-page spread which acts as “Exhibit A” in our ersatz whodunit trial. I have to admit, it’s a pretty ingenious device: past pictures of our former-heroine in her weaker moments re-colored to give the reader a truly sinister depiction of someone who used to seem no more than a little... disturbed at worst.

We’re served some more “whole-kit-and-kaboodle” style action before the culprit is finally brought down and given into the arms of the “special guest cameo” character who whisks her off for future writers to make her good again. I’m not a huge stickler for continuity, but it seems odd that the collected Avengers and Nick Fury would allow someone who had recently enslaved New York to fly off with the person who had recently destroyed the Avengers’ Mansion and murdered some of their friends. Nah. That’d mean more action.

All in all, the attitude of “let’s throw it all at ‘em at once” left me feeling a bit numb. When I saw the double-page action spread near the end of the issue, I got that feeling you get when you’re about three-quarters through a really kick-ass rock concert: “Man this is great, but the louder it gets, the sleepier I feel.”

Aside from the overwhelming effect of all the splash pages, the art is kinetic and enjoyable, both from Coipel and Finch. Sadly, Frank D’Armata’s murky coloring often robs it of its energy. Finch’s attention to detail is breathtaking, I’ll admit, but he could take a cue on body language from Coipel, whose subtlety of expression and movement is second to none. It’s true that Marvel has some “Young Guns” in their stable.

I’m usually a big fan of Bendis’s work, especially on the wonderfully nuanced and refreshing Ultimate Spider-Man. His dialogue is naturalistic and often funny-- note the terrific Spidey faux-pas during Dr. Strange’s monologue-- but here, it falls flat, bringing the grand old spandex super-guys to a fairly mundane level. And aside from Dr. Strange, each character sounds roughly the same.

This was a fairly flat ending to an over-hyped story arc. I have to admit, I’ll probably buy at least the first few issues of the upcoming New Avengers series out of sheer curiousity. But I think Marvel is missing the mark on this one. Not everyone is looking for their superheroes to be street-level every-man types. Some of us still yearn for that hokey old Thor dialogue, and the moments when second-tier characters shine.





Jason Cornwell

Plot:
As the gathered Avengers and their allies take a moment to listen to the explanation that Doctor Strange offers up regarding the nature of the attacks that have befallen the Avengers recently, we see it soon become clear who’s responsible. However, knowing who’s is attacking you and being able to take them down are two different creatures, and the Avengers find themselves in a fight that shakes the team to its very core.

Comments:
While I’ll do my best to preserve this issue’s big surprise, I do want to start off by saying that I think the character will be far more interesting in their new role, so I’m not overly upset by this issue’s big revelation. What I did find myself less than impressed with was the rather lengthy bit of exposition that Brian Michael Bendis engaged in to explain why this character would take the path they took to have traveled down in this arc. Rather than focus on the explanation that would deliver the emotional punch, he turns his energies on a less satisfying exchange where Doctor Strange delivers a long-winded explanation of a rather simple idea.

In fact given the inevitable uproar that is sure to come from the fans of this character, I have to say Brian Michael Bendis would’ve had more success playing up the emotional turmoil that had plagued this character than he’s going to have trying to sell them on the idea that the character was driven nuts by the very nature of their powers. In the end it felt a bit like he went for the less satisfying explanation because it’s one that can’t be as
readily attacked by rabid fanboys who can rattle off a wealth of evidence from previous issues that enforce their position that there’s no possible way their favourite character could turn into this arc’s big, bad villain (heck, Hal Jordan fans kept it up for the better part of a decade). However, I did find myself wishing the issue had focused more energy on the character moments than on selling the idea that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Still, I did enjoy several little moments in this issue, from Spider-Man’s moment of awkward tension, to the impact of the scene where Nick Fury and his men discover what’s inside that darkened house.

David Finch is a fine artist, and while there are moments when I find myself a little disappointed by some of the decisions that he makes when it comes to his delivery of the big impact moments, there are also some truly spectacular pieces of art in this issue. The double-page spread where the Avengers collide with another group of conjured-up characters is the visual highlight of the issue. There’s also some great secondary moments, from the scene where Spider-Man uncomfortably finds himself the centre of attention, to the surprise appearance of this character’s father in the final moments of the issue, as the raw intensity of this character is perfectly presented. The art also does a pretty effective job of conveying the underlying sense that the main villain of this issue is one of the most dangerous opponents the team has ever faced, though the clash this character has with Doctor Strange wasn’t nearly as impressive visually as it could’ve
been.





Keith Dallas

*SPOILERS*

The Scarlet Witch has always been one of my favorite Avengers, probably because I grew up on George Perez’s and John Byrne’s curvy, voluptuous renditions of the mutant sorceress. Despite my fondness for Wanda, I’m not going to wail like a shrieking fan boy about how absolutely this character has been degraded. Truth be told, The Scarlet Witch is a third-tier character whose proper place in the Marvel Universe IS in Avengers mansion in a supporting role. For the most part, she’s remained a static character over the past 25 years. A 1990s Force Works make-over was a change in appearance only (and a quickly abandoned one).

If Marvel (and yes, I’ll hold several Marvel personnel responsible for this development because even if the idea was originally Bendis’s, it was approved by both Avengers editor Tom Brevoort and Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada, otherwise it wouldn’t have been published; it’s not like Bendis stole the keys to the printing presses and locked himself in)… If Marvel wants to degrade a third-tier character, that’s fine. But the attempt to present this development as a natural, logical progression of The Scarlet Witch’s published history is laughable. As Dr. Strange floats above the Avengers explaining how unhinged Wanda has become and why this shouldn’t be unexpected, the Avengers stand in disbelief… and I read in disbelief. I don’t buy it. This is a desperately contrived development.

What’s worse, Avengers #503 is flat-out boring. Dr. Strange drones on and on for a significant portion of this nearly double-sized comic book. It’s a painfully boring read. The confrontation between The Scarlet Witch and the Avengers is compressed and forgettable, and WHY do the Avengers stand like passive sheep while mutant terrorist Magneto grabs Wanda and flies away?

The end of the issue reprints Jack Kirby pages from Avengers, Vol. 1, #16 in which Quicksilver and The Scarlet Witch join the team. So while the first 30 pages of Avengers #503 was a complete degradation of The Scarlet Witch, the comic book (and volume) concludes as a misguided tribute to the character.

Thankfully, “Avengers Disassembled” has finally come to its pathetic conclusion.





Kelvin Green

So it was Wanda all along. That had been hinted at a number of times, but I couldn’t see why she’d turn on her own team. Bendis gives us an explanation that is sadly all too believable and ties in neatly with the thoughts raised in an earlier issue about the teams’ effectiveness at dealing thoroughly with the situations presented to them.

What this means is that there’s something of a sense of spoiled expectations when reading this comic. This is billed as a big event, but the “member gone bad” scenario isn’t really as big an event as the hype made it out to be. There’s this niggling feeling that this is the kind of thing that the team fights all the time, and “Disassembled” should have been “bigger” in some way. Of course, that’s not the comic’s fault, as all along Marvel’s publicity on this storyline has done nothing but harm it. It’s also true that even though there wasn’t a big villain behind things this time, and it wasn’t a vast anti-Avengers conspiracy, this is a deep wound for the team. Zemo, Red Skull, Ultron and other malcontents all joining up for a big assault is something they’d shrug off with ease, but to have a team member turn on them because she was badly hurt and they didn’t stop to notice is going to hurt the team’s unity. It’s going to hurt them at a terribly fundamental level, and Bendis and company have managed to convey this wonderfully. Cap is as upset, if not more so, about Wanda’s situation than he was about the physical bashes and bruises everyone has undergone. There were physical wounds, but trust, respect, etc. were all damaged this day. The Avengers should be about big threats and big fights, but it should also be about the team, and not in a “who's dating who” way. Going with the big “end-of-level boss” (to use a video-gaming analogy) type of threat is a risky move in serial publication like this where the writers of subsequent stories are under pressure to top what went before. By using all the explosions and pyrotechnics as a foreground to a more basic assault on the way the team works, Bendis has, with this issue, convinced me utterly that he knows how the Avengers work.

It's not perfect though. Where Bendis really screws up here* is that he completely sidelines Quicksilver. It’s a very appropriate and intelligent use of Captain America to have him come in and talk Wanda down, because beyond the super-athlete, beyond the patriot, Cap is a clever, level-headed man who understands people. That’s why he’s a good leader. In fact, I would keep this bit in because it works for those exact reasons, but I would have had Pietro be involved somehow. We know he’s there because we saw him in the battle with the Kree, but there’s no sign of him this issue (beyond a Kirby-era flashback) which just strikes me as really odd. It doesn’t ruin the comic for me or anything, but it’s a very conspicuous missed opportunity.

I’ve really warmed to David Finch’s art during this storyline, and for the most part, he’s risen admirably to the task of depicting the story’s events. He does need to work on distinguishing facial features though, as Stock Female Face and Stock Male Face is not really a varied range. There are a couple of other flaws here and there, but it’s hard to know whether they’re a result of Finch’s art or Bendis’s scripting. Nick Fury appears in two places at once towards the end of the issue, and what’s worse, both scenes are on the same page. I’m also not particularly convinced that after recent events, the Avengers would all be standing around in such a close group where just one grenade could take the lot of them out. But as I noted, these could be down to glitches in Bendis’s script, so I don’t judge them harshly, just note them as quirky inconsistencies. Finch’s pencils have been made to look quite lovely, in a gritty rough-edged kind of way, by Danny Miki’s fine inks, and Frank D’Armata does another excellent job of the colouring, although the weird green hue used on some of the flashbacks is a bit disconcerting. That said, all in all, I’d be quite happy to see this art team continue to depict further Avengers adventures. I should also mention Olivier Coipel here, who returns briefly to illustrate a flashback set during his run on the title (a very neat idea, I thought). He does an excellent job as always, and it’s a real shame that we’ve lost him to the X-books when he does such a good job here.

I know I’m in a distinct minority here as I’m an Avengers fan who really enjoyed this wholesale destruction of my favourite team. I think that the creative team, and Bendis in particular, have proved with this final issue that they knew what they were doing and that they did it well. I just hope that the critics can look beyond their prejudices and enjoy what was, in the end, a wonderful Avengers tale.

*I'm not counting Doctor Strange’s appearance when he’s supposedly on trial for crimes against time, according to recent Amazing Spider-Man issues, or Magneto’s when he’s either dead or rebuilding Genosha to accommodate wheelchair access, depending on who you believe. I’m not counting Quasar’s presence or the fact that the wrong Spider-Woman has turned up. I won’t single this issue out as a continuity mess when Marvel as a whole is like that nowadays, and besides, I do not give or take points for adherence to continuity. If Spidey took off his mask and revealed himself to actually be Red Sonja or something, then I might have a problem with it, but then again, such a weird change probably would have a good, or at least interesting, story behind it, so I’d probably let it pass…





Shawn Hill

Plot: The death of an Avenger. The death of the Avengers. Everything you knew was wrong. All that mattered is gone. The end of everything. The center cannot hold. It lies split, drained, dying and silent, a husk exposed to the elements of a harsher, more brutal world than they ever dreamed.

Uninteresting: I feel like lying in the corner, curled in a fetal ball, rocking from side to side and murmuring “nononononononononononononononono…” infinitely.

This is not the feeling I long for when reading a comic.

Like every other issue in this arc, events have already happened by the time they’re explained to us. This story has been a lesson in the bait-and-switch, only it’s all switch, less and less bait. Literally nothing could be relied on as real in this story, so nothing added up to any sort of consistent … well, narrative. What we had was a sequence of events, and a passel of seasoned heroes reacting to them like rank amateurs.

In many of his stories Bendis has as text and subtext how very hard it would really be to be a hero of this stature. His Peter Parker is constantly smarting from the strains of his impossible life. His Wolverine is a roughened brute in response to the brutality around him. His Jessica Jones bumped up against the heroic world and got stung, badly, so badly she only recovered by rejecting most aspects of that life, including her poignantly ridiculous costume.

That’s a good, or at least interesting message for the heroes who can’t cut it, or who keep their battles on the street. It’s not too far removed from the primal Marvel message, that even heroes have lives and family problems and vulnerabilities.

But that’s not the Avengers. These aren’t just ridiculous beings to be dismissed because they talk to jungle cats, as Ka-Zar was memorably described by Jessica at one point. These aren’t naïve reporters unable to defend themselves from mad Norman Osborne, like poor Teri Kidder.

These are the best, biggest and baddest the Marvel Universe has to offer. These are cosmic beings who have had regular consort with aliens and demi-gods. These are heroes who have stared back fate, Thanos, Infinity and Death herself and defiantly persevered.

These are not mewling idiots who wait patiently for an inattentive Doctor Strange to explain it all to them, after the fact. These are not boobs who ineffectively let their world, house, mansion and friends slip away when faced with devastating loss. Devastating loss is a piece of fucking cake to this crew, Wanda included.

Here, succinctly, is what Bendis has done to Wanda. He’s taken one of the most powerful women in the Marvel or DC Universes, an iconoclast who rejected every attempt by others to impose their will on her, a gifted and lucky “nexus” being who had an infallible (if self-involved and “unearned,” so the fuck what?) personal sense of morality and right and wrong. Sure, she had bad patches, each one of them lovingly resurrected here in literal flashback swipes. Who hasn’t?

But she was possessed in one of them. Her family had been destroyed in another. She was kidnapped and restrained in most of the others. And the rest were actual moments of striking out righteously at foes, relit here with lurid red eyeballs like a demon. The very definition of out of context, actual rewriting of history, as if by a rabid anti-mutant detractor.

To ignore her innumerable successes, her actions that saved so many days, wiping out Ultron, reviving Simon and kayoing Orka and offering a supportive ear to friends and family members time and time again, is a worse offense than any she’s accused of here. J’accuse Bendis!

For with this execrable arc, he has silenced Wanda. He has reduced her motivations to a reproductive imperative. He has animated a family of corpses as if her fondest dream was a parodic and childish play. And Finch abets by rendering her literally faceless. She does nothing more than bleat “my children, what about the children,” without even the semblance of irony in this leaden, thuddingly obvious, worst common denominator tale.

Bendis casts her as a victim, in complete denial of all that she has for so long symbolized as an antidote to mutant-phobia. By returning her to her bad dad, he takes a primal female power for good and renders her a deadly femme fatale who must be contained and controlled, the ultimate other that disrupts polite society like Rochester’s madwoman in the attic.

It’s the worst kind of retcon.

It’s bullshit. It’s wrong-headed. It systematically dissects Busiek and Avengers Forever just as he systematically built it all up to correct the errors of the past Bendis so perversely loves.

My laundry list:
1. Reprinting as a coda Wanda’s initial positive gesture, her application to the Avengers with her brother Pietro, one of the Marvel Universe’s longest-running symbols of how to turn a bad life around, is more than just a bittersweet gesture; it’s a cruelly insensitive one.

2. As is casting Agatha Harkness as Norman Bates mom.

3. Also, Patsy Walker didn’t know who Wanda’s dad was? This girl studied the Avengers files for fun! She’s a hero-worshipper from way back, and her first fixation was Hank Pym for chrissakes!

4. And how can I even get into the naïve, airheaded Janet van Dyne who gossips about babies and boys like a schoolgirl, as if she’d never been far more levelheaded and poised than that? Why all this relentless dumbing down?

Because it was the only way to tell this story.

Of minor interest: Coipel is meant to draw super-heroes. He has fun with the poolside scene, and nails Agatha instantly. Finch does what he can amidst the melodramatic murk, though his faces are still a bit hard to distinguish.

Final thought: Let’s never speak of it again.





Jason Sacks

It's over! Thank goodness it's over! This painful disaster has finally concluded, clearing the decks for New Avengers, and not making much sense or providing much resolution along the way.

Here are just a few reasons why this storyline was so awful:

- No plot flow: We get lots of action the first issue, then people standing around, then more action, now again more standing around. Didn't Bendis ever hear of flow in a plotline?

- Pointless plot twists: What was the point of all the deaths? Aside from their shock value, they made no sense in context, and only seemed to make the Avengers seem weak; they'd survived crises worse than this many times before. Also, what was the point of all the Avengers showing up at the end of issue 501? What good did any of them do?

- Deus ex machina twist: Instead of having one of the hundred or so former Avengers figure out the evil-doer behind the deaths, Bendis brings in Doctor Strange of all characters, a man with almost no connection to the Avengers, to tell every one of the Avengers what's the cause of the attacks. Strange appears out of nowhere to provide the twist, leaving the rest of the Avengers look like slackjawed amateurs.

- Stupid characters: Why didn't any characters think things through? Why would nobody think to investigate the concept of chaos magic to see if it was a real thing? Why did nobody send Wanda to counseling if she seemed so messed up? Any why the hell did Jan suddenly mention the kids in the beginning of issue 503?

- Woman in the refrigerator syndrome: Yet another powerful female character has gone insane. It happens over and over and over again in comics, and now it's happened to a character who's been an Avenger for over 40 years.

- No closure: if this is to be the final plotline for the Avengers as we know them, this is an awfully inconclusive way to end it. It doesn't feel fitting or appropriate for the whole thing to end this way.

But in the long term, who really cares? I'm sure we'll see the old school Avengers return in two or three years.





Dave Wallace

So that’s it then?

The huge Avengers event of the summer concludes with this issue (or rather, doesn’t – there’s the money-wringing Avengers Finale out next week) and with it comes the “revelation” of who has been behind the Avengers’ sufferings over the last four months. And it fails to save an arc which could have been so much more.

There are a few reasons why this doesn’t work as a good comics story for me. The solution to the mystery as a whole is pretty inconsequential to a new reader like me, with the character who is responsible for the chaos having hardly appeared in the last four issues, and relying on a plot point from Avengers history which hasn’t been touched on during Bendis’ tenure over the last four issues. The script feels as if it’s been over-written to the extreme, sapping life from the story and leaving only the wordless action scenes as the moments of intense drama. Every scene which should feel urgent drags on and on, and Dr. Strange’s comment that he has to explain quickly as he doesn’t have much time seems laughable in the face of the huge diatribe he offers up by way of explanation of exactly what’s happening to the team. And the explanation itself? Well, it stops short of “it was all a dream,” but it veers dangerously close. New line-ups and character deaths notwithstanding – they’re the simplest way to boost sales when you have nothing of any real quality to offer – the whole “Chaos” arc just feels like a nothingness, when the potential was there to give the old Avengers guard a much more meaningful and thoughtful send-off.

Admittedly, the artwork is still above-par (with some nice retro work this issue, the Wanda collage being particularly effective), but it serves a story so weak that I’ve already lost interest. And this was meant to be the big lead-in to hook readers for the New Avengers title which begins in a month! Many casual readers, like me, will feel turned-off enough by this issue that they might not even take a chance on the new series, and that’s a shame as there’s undoubtedly a lot of potential there. There are enough big-money shots this issue to offer some entertainment (the final Cap confrontation with the villain is one of the few dramatic scenes which really works, and the arrival of Magneto – regardless of continuity issues, I couldn’t really care less – is suitably large-scale), but they’re exceptions to the dull tone of the rest of the story. A wasted chance to attract new readers, and a blot on Brian Michael Bendis’s record.

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