One of the most daring – and, in the end, disastrous – moves that the pre-NOW Marvel universe made was the decision to knock most of its heroes out for a year. This wasn’t because they’d all appeared to die, or been captured by aliens who needed pointers on the finer aspects of table tennis. It was because the world hated them, in the wake of a supreme cock-up that saw many die and the world fall to its knees during the super-event clusterfluff that was Secret Invasion.
In the aftermath of the Skrull invasion, and the perceived failure of the Avengers (and Tony Stark in particular) to keep everyone safe, America at large rejected its star-spangled saviours in favour of the real hero of that conflict. Unfortunately for America, that hero was Norman Osborn. You may know him better as the Green Goblin – yes, that Green Goblin.
Osborn manipulated the Skrull situation to his advantage by appearing to find a weakness in their defences and exploiting it, killing the Skrull queen and saving Earth for another week. The President appointed him the head of security for the US, giving him the approval to run his own team of Avengers with little to no judicial oversight. Unfortunately for America (again), that Avengers team was composed of a bunch of supervillains masquerading as heroes. They were led by Osborn himself in the guise of Iron Patriot, a flag-painted armour “screw-you” to both Iron Man and the recently-deceased Captain America.
That’s where we find ourselves when Dark Avengers opens. See, aren’t I nice for saving you a trip to Wikipedia?
I’ve oft-referenced Dark Avengers as the defining villain protagonist superhero book a few times on this site, so I figure it’s high time I actually explain why. I know a lot of people will disagree with me, and quite a few more actually view the book with disdain especially in comparison to contemporary efforts at making villains and extremely grey anti-heroes the center of the action. Fair enough, Dark Avengers ain’t for everybody. As a book penned by Brian Bendis, it’s almost a given that it’ll prove divisive. God knows I’ve thrown stones in that direction often enough.
The thing is, Dark Avengers may well be my favourite Brian Bendis book. At least, it becomes my favourite if you disregard most of the plot and the rest of the Marvel Universe at large. So what I’m saying is it’s a good book if you ignore three quarters of it.
The spine of the story comes from my summary above; Norman Osborn leads an Avengers team that nicks inspiration from the Thunderbolts by being comprised of villains. Obviously bad things happen to them and lots of other people, and there’s the occasional hijacking of the story’s main arc whenever a bigger character’s story gets in the way (with Iron Man and his World’s Most Wanted being the biggest source of that).
It’s damn hard to write an anti-hero story with a character we can empathise with. Sympathetic protagonism is key to a well-written story; if you hate your hero, why bother watching? Granted, there’s the flipside of the coin where a villainous protagonist exists to fail prolifically and allow us to experience the kind of schadenfreude we reserve for falling trapeze artists and people forced to eat dog food.
Depending on how you look at it, Dark Avengers had to balance between both those poles. It needed a story good enough to keep us invested in its main characters, but it also had to keep them as the mostly reprehensible, outright evil forces they’d been written as since time immemorial so as to avoid disingenuous characterisations. That’s one tough act to pull, and if you ignore the actual plot of the book then Dark Avengers pulls that off with precision.
What do I mean by excising the plot? Well, the actual “adventures” – for lack of a better word – that the Dark Avengers embark on are mostly either boring, ridiculous or both. The initial conflict involving Dr. Doom and Morgana le Fay is meaningless to those unfamiliar with either character or jarring to those of us expecting more of the US security-based narrative the premise offered at its opening. The subsequent battle with Molecule Man in the second story arc is more of the same. Things only really come together during the book’s third act, tying directly into Siege and its aftermath, so if nothing else it’s worth it to give that event title a bit more context.
Instead of the plot, we focus on the characters. Each of the Dark Avengers – including completely morally bankrupt assholes like Bullseye – gets a turn for fleshing out and characterisation. Yes, they’re still evil (or at best anti-heroic, as in the case of Ares and Moonstone), but they’re given extra facets. They’re made into people rather than mask-wearing mass murderers. They’ve got hopes and dreams, however lethal and despicable some might be. A couple are even a little repentant of their villainous modus operandi, though that’s the exception rather than the rule.
When Brian Bendis finds a great property that suits his talents, he can literally make magic. I hold up his Daredevil as the quintessential run of the character, expertly capturing tone, character and dialogue whilst never sacrificing innovation or improvement, and when it comes to the more grounded character moments of Dark Avengers it’s like watching a much better, more engaged and well-written version of Seinfeld or Mad Men. High praise, yes, and some may not agree, but it really is that damn good. The breakfast scenes between characters – something I wouldn’t expect anyone to write with characters like Venom and the Sentry at the table – are absolute gold, particularly because it’s a slice-of-life element so jarringly juxtaposed against both the evil protagonists and the larger-than-life setting that is the Marvel universe.
The main reason this succeeds is the dialogue. Bendis has a voice for everyone, and everyone’s voice is consistent through Bendis. As with my Superior Foes review, I’m not sure if the way the characters are written here jives with how they were written decades ago, but who cares? As its own microcosm Dark Avengers has some truly excellent dialogue, character banter, one-liners and introspective thought bubbles for each of its characters in a way that makes them feel distinct and play off each other well. Character dynamics are front and centre when the plot’s ignored, something to the book’s credit, and writing these villains in a way that actually makes me sympathise with a few (on occasion) is something no other book has been able to pull off to a similar degree since. The brevitous run of 16 issues compared to other Avengers titles also aids both character arcs being tight and actions having distinct and quickly-recognisable consequences, rather than having a plot point appear to be fulfilled seven years down the track.
Though as I said, the actual plot until the 2/3 mark is mostly forgettable. There are some cool visuals throughout courtesy of a rotating cadre of artists, predominantly Mike Deodato, but on the whole the “action” scenes aren’t the main Dark Avengers draw card. Hell, the latter tie-in to Siege isn’t even the major reason to read it, though as I mentioned it’s definitely worth checking out on its own merits. No, the strength of Dark Avengers lies in making villain protagonists sympathetic if not likeable, and through having them act as people – particularly in those aforementioned breakfast scenes – rather than antagonistic ciphers. Coming at a time when most cape-and-cowl fare was facing a bit of a slump through lack of good direction and a massive case of event fatigue, the book stood out as something different. Existing in an age where moral grey is the colour of choice for our colourful heroes, the book stands out as something lasting.
Brian Bendis divides fan groups like almost no other writer, being at once an excellent handler of maturer content and also a complete and utter hack when given the wrong tools to work with. Dark Avengers is firmly in the former category, and while others might disagree with me as to the success or failure of the text in terms of its content and character, I still point to it as the main villain protagonist yardstick.
That is, I’ll point to it until we get a Joker series written by Grant Morrison. Because no amount of anti-heroes in the world could possibly beat Grant Morrison writer a Joker series.
PUBLISHER: MARVEL COMICS