There are some issues in modern superhero comics that just don’t have a real world parallel. Issues like regulating superpowers, safeguarding weapons of mass destruction, and managing the use of killer robots have some degree of contemporary relevance. In fact, the management of killer robots is almost certain to become an election issue if DARPA, the Pentagon, and Amazon have their way. The same cannot be said for mind-wiping.
Despite the CIA’s best efforts, there is no real-world equivalent to completely wiping the memory of an otherwise healthy adult mind and reshaping it accordingly. That’s what makes the concept behind the Avengers: Standoff event such an intriguing thought experiment. In a world where telepaths like Emma Frost can make people forget their own names, why wouldn’t the use of psychic manipulation be an issue? Given its potential uses and abuses, it would probably have its own lobbyists.
All-New, All-Different Avengers #8 highlights the potential of psychic manipulation in a way that is both disturbingly pragmatic and naturally terrifying. SHIELD, in its infinite wisdom and gross lack of oversight, attempts to use psychic manipulation to turn unrepentant criminals into productive members of society. On paper, it sounds like a win-win. It removes dangerous individuals from society in a manner that still allows them to pay taxes and contribute. It’s basically a Republican’s fantasy and the private prison industry’s worst nightmare.
Despite sounding so good on paper, the Avengers learn fist-hand why this sort of thing would have the ACLU up in arms. Thanks to Maria Hill and a sentient version of the Cosmic Cube named Kobik, they’ve been subjected to the same psychic manipulation usually resolved for the Baron Zemos of the Marvel Universe. The fact that Kobik takes the form of a young girl adds an extra twist that feels like it came right out of The Shining, minus the Stephen King style of horror.
For the Avengers and the Unity Squad, the way Avengers: Standoff unfolds still has all the traits of a horror movie. A brief flash forward at the less-than-favorable outcome of this conflict with Kobik suggests that elements of a slasher movie get mixed in as well. However, these traits become secondary in All-New, All-Different Avengers #8. The story deals less with the mind-bending implications of Pleasant Hill and more with escaping its grasp. It’s not quite as exciting as it sounds and in a story that has Deadpool in it, that’s quite an accomplishment.
Previous issues of the story deal with breaking the psychic manipulation on the Avengers and the Unity Squad. It’s hard to contemplate how someone who hasn’t seen The Matrix multiple times might react to such manipulation. Having the power of Thor, the computing capacity of Vision, and the mental instability of Deadpool adds plenty of potential complications that might reveal something about these characters. It might even reveal that they’re not that as mentally stable as Deadpool would have them believe.
All-New, All-Different Avengers #8 fails to address this though. It effectively paints itself into a corner, making it unable to add the kind of mind-bending layers to the story. It’s less like a philosophical thought experiment and more like a prison break. The complexities that helped make Avengers: Standoff so intriguing give way to the kind of generic action that the Avengers face every other Tuesday.
That’s not to say there aren’t some compelling aspects of this struggle to escape Pleasant Hill. As is often the case, Deadpool finds a way to creatively confront the source of the chaos. Being a walking testament to chaos, violence, and tacos, he’s uniquely qualified to confront Kobik. It’s hard to imagine him being competent enough to confront a little girl who happens to embody a reality-warping power, but it gets a lot easier to imagine, considering it’s not even the sixth weirdest thing Deadpool has confronted in his colorful history.
This doesn’t necessarily mean Deadpool is a good influence on children, but it does mean that he helps end the last parts of the Kobik’s reality-warping, mind-bending illusion. It comes off as a bit overly simplistic, but Deadpool helps add a little entertainment value, as only he can. It completes the final part of the escape for the Avengers and the Unity Squad. Entertainment value aside, it still comes off as generic.
If there are any deeper impacts to being mentally manipulated, then they’re cast aside in favor of more battles against super-powered monsters, as if the Avengers don’t face enough of those. Mark Waid and Adam Kubert still find ways to add entertainment value where they can, but aside from Deadpool’s contributions, it falls flat.
There’s still a lot of potential in the concept behind Avengers: Standoff and All-New, All-Different Avengers #8 offers the best opportunity to the story to explore that concept. While that opportunity isn’t completely wasted in terms of the overall story, it still wastes or ignores much of that opportunity.
The characters are mentally manipulated to a point where they believe that they’ve lived entirely different lives. Then, when the deception is exposed, they basically snap back to their old selves with no noticeable effects. While the minds of superheroes are supposed to be resilient, there’s only so much protection a magic hammer or a spider sense can offer. It gives the impression that the human mind is stronger and more rational than daytime talk shows would have us believe.
Most Avengers stories involve them fighting super-powered bad guys at some point. The challenge is getting them to this point in a creative, novel manner. Avengers: Standoff tries to takes a creative path in meeting this challenge, but reverts back to familiar territory too quickly. There are any number of stories that involve the Avengers escaping the grasp of powerful, mind-bending, reality-warping threats. This is just the latest and far from the greatest.