Marvel’s Avengers Initiative, Part 1 of 4: Avengers and Avengers Arena

What hath Bendis wrought?! In unravelling the traditional structure of the Avengers nearly a decade ago, writer Brian Michael Bendis lay the groundwork for something truly unimaginable at the time. Something both Joss Whedon with the 2012 blockbuster, and current writer Jonathan Hickman are heirs to.

The Mighty Ones

What is an Avenger? What constitutes the use of the label? Who has the authority to bestow the title? Is anyone who was ever an Avenger always an Avenger? What does it mean to be an Avenger? These are some of the questions Brian Michael Bendis was attempting to answer with, “Well, anything we want!”

Before 2004, the term ‘Avengers’ was pretty straightforward. It was a team of superheroes not unlike DC Comics’ Justice League of America. The Avengers was designed—just like the League—to be an alliance of heroes who could all do great things on their own, and extraordinary things when working together. The Avengers were different from the Fantastic Four because they chose each other. They differed from the X-Men because they didn’t all share a genetic trait that made them targets of social injustice. The Avengers formed because of their sense of duty, simple as that—they avenged those who could not fight for themselves. And in the early 21st century, in came Bendis and his design for a whole new paradigm.

“Avengers: Disassembled” was the beginning of it all by being the end of the first, ongoing volume of the Avengers which had climbed to over 500 issues. Bendis broke the idea; he shattered the foundation of whatever it was we, as readers, perceived the Avengers to be. Bendis killed off a number of characters, set fire to Avengers Mansion, salted old wounds, and generally created an environment of discord on which to begin the process of reinventing the Avengers for a new era. He left almost nothing untouched and angered quite a few fans along the way. But what came from that culling is precursor to how the modern Avengers landscape looks today.

The New Avengers was a stroke of brilliance. Bendis, wisely, saw that the Justice League wasn’t just made up of various heroes from the DC universe; it was made up of the best heroes from the DC universe. He decided it was time to change things up and take the idea of the Avengers to places it had never been.

This is what Brian Michael Bendis added to the Avengers franchise: the idea that it could grow. This team didn’t have to just be about the classic traditions of justice because the world wasn’t a traditional place anymore. Spider-Man and Wolverine became team members to show that the Avengers could diversify and that Captain America (who assembled the new team) recognized that a new world needed new strengths and skills. Of course, it also meant that two of Marvel’s biggest characters would now be swinging and slicing, respectively, side by side with the likes of Iron Man and Captain America. It was a win-win situation. Whether you liked it or not, the New Avengers was the test that proved successful, spawning a whole lineup of Avengers titles instead of one solitary series.

Soon, there were more Avengers titles than X-Men (or at least as many). Only in the last two years has DC started to take a cue from Marvel by expanding the idea of the Justice League beyond it’s stringent, historical status as a single, flagship team and title. But what are the costs of doing this? When does ‘expanding the concept’ turn into ‘diluting the source’? When you enter a comic shop and stare down a rack with upwards of seven different series with ‘Avengers’ in the title, how do you know what to buy? If you saw Joss Whedon’s 2012 movie the Avengers, you shouldn’t pick up Jonathan Hickman’s current Avengers comicbook series, even though they share the same basic moniker because fans of the movie should be reading Secret Avengers, which is a more reasonable facsimile of the silver screen adaptation.

This is the age of comicbooks we live in, where the idea of the Avengers has evolved in such a way that each title can have it’s own distinct voice—some surprisingly different from the others—and still all fall under the Avengers umbrella. Bendis pioneered the framework by launching at least half a dozen new Avengers titles during his nine years directing the franchise. But because he was laying the groundwork for each title, Bendis’ voice comes through in almost every series, regardless of what other creators came on board to keep them going.

In the Marvel NOW! era, the idea of the Avengers is being reworked. Bendis may have been the pioneer, but Jonathan Hickman, Rick Remender, Dennis Hopeless, Kieron Gillen, and others are redefining the core concept of ‘Avengers’ because it’s time for that concept to evolve again. The precedent of a robust Avengers lineup gave Marvel the freedom to let creators explore and experiment with ideas that could still be called Avengers, but be fundamentally different from how Bendis structured things during his tenure. Now, the real expansion begins.

Whedon's Avengers, Hickman’s Avengers

It’s hard to remember that Joss Whedon’s the Avengers only came out about a year ago, that the Avengers themselves have only been in the real spotlight for less than a full calendar year. Avengers is a textbook, in a very loose sense. After the team’s big screen success, Marvel needed something new. The entire Marvel NOW! initiative was both a response to the industry pressure that resulted from DC finding success in their New 52 rebranding, as well as a real opportunity to reorganize the Avengers lineup to better entice fans of the movie.

In this regard, Avengers is a bad choice for audiences who couldn’t help but smile when the Hulk stopped a building-sized monster with a single fist. Jonathan Hickman doesn’t deal in high-octane action; he deals in high-concept grandeur. This isn’t to say that there aren’t fight scenes within the pages of Avengers, but that’s not the focus. Hickman and Marvel understand that the Avengers are bigger than ever before, and the Avengers lineup needs to reflect that. If Avengers is the main title of the flagship franchise, then it has to be BIG! The first arc of three issues, “Avengers World”, broadened the scope of things in the most literal ways possible, by expanding the team roster, moving the team off world, and adding new plot elements (with universal consequences) without much explanation as to their meaning…yet.

Avengers has an epic framework that demands plot be focused on more than character development, which is a big difference from the Bendis era. But if we have seven other Avengers titles that are more focused with a narrower narrative direction, then Avengers is kind of the starting point. The stories technically matter more than the characters here, but Hickman is such a good writer that every hero he’s chosen to include within these pages has grown almost every time we see them.

In this sense, being an Avenger means being part of something greater than you. Hickman has structured this sentiment through the lens of a space opera. Avengers #1 opened with prolific images of stellar happenings that have resonated throughout the series. The way to make the franchise feel bigger is to take it to grander heights. The original Avengers were formed in response to an attack by Thor’s half-brother, Loki. Bendis’ New Avengers formed in response to a massive super-villain prison breakout that each member was somehow connected with. Hickman’s Avengers differ from the two previous incarnations because, for the first time, the Avengers regrouped as a preventative measure instead of a reactionary effort.

The new paradigm for Avengers titles is rooted in Hickman’s Avengers. Rick Remender’s specific team of Uncanny Avengers can guest-star in All-New X-Men, but Hickman’s team isn’t about the specifics. This shouldn’t be confused with a lack of detail because Hickman’s attention to detail is what makes him such a phenomenal writer. Avengers isn’t about specifics because it’s the core title around which other titles orbit. It’s hard to imagine a tagline on another title reading “Featuring the AVENGERS!” because that term has become something more than a reference to a singular group of heroes. Is it the Uncanny Avengers, the Young Avengers, the Secret Avengers, or the New Avengers? The franchise is so segmented that Avengers-proper has to be broader, bigger, and more flexible.

In the Arena…

One of the biggest byproducts of change is fear. People fear and criticize what they don’t yet understand, and that can often stymie creation, innovation, and evolution. I did not give Avengers Arena the benefit of the doubt when I read the first issue. All the promotional material comparing it to The Hunger Games reinforced an idea in my head and created a bias against the series before it even began. It wasn’t so much about the actual premise as much as I disliked the idea of Marvel allowing a popculture fad to dictate the direction of its characters. The first death at the end of Avengers Arena #1 made me angry, and I didn’t even read the title from which that character came from.

It took me a while to understand that causing me to have such an emotional reaction was what made the title so good. There were other factors, of course, like how I found Kid Briton to be one of the best new characters I’ve read in years, how the narrative has revealed that it’s less reliant on the Battle Royale/The Hunger Games aspect and more focused on getting to the truth behind civilized rhetoric. Human beings (or mutants, superhumans, and Atlanteans in this case), individually, do not have a concept of what they are capable of when under extreme duress or fatal conditions. Would I eat my best friend to survive through an avalanche? I’d say no, but that’s a lie I tell myself because I’ve never know such a version of myself that would actually have to make that decision. Similarly, the characters in Avengers Arena are forced into facing their greatest test: survival.

I’d be lying to myself again if I didn’t admit that part of the reason Avengers Arena has ‘Avengers’ in the title is to sell more copies. Since the franchise has become more popular, Marvel is trying to maximize it’s potential by pushing it more than ever before. And it may have started off solely about the money, but Dennis Hopeless adds something to the series that makes it worthy of the label ‘Avengers’. This series features teenagers of the Marvel universe who come together through the machinations of some super villain and now they have to work together to save the day, which in this case means save themselves. It might be a different setting with a different set of rules, but the core premise of Avengers Arena isn’t too different from how the original Avengers assembled.

The difference is that, while some of these kids did in fact come from Avengers Academy, making them Avengers by proxy, Avengers Arena also features a few of Brian K. Vaughan’s Runaways, some teenaged mutants like X-23 and Juston, as well as new characters like Deathlocket and the Braddock Academy students. As much as this series is about survival, it’s also about recognizing that anyone can be an Avenger because an Avenger is someone who has a certain attitude and sense of responsibility. Some tackle the challenge head-one, and others are less enthusiastic, but at the end of the day, what connects them is their experience.

Growing Up

There is no one definition of an Avenger. Maybe at one time there was, but the basic idea has changed. No longer is the label reserved for the most powerful and popular in the Marvel universe, but rather a title earned through hardships and a sense of duty. But even that broad definition could change tomorrow. Instead of using the concept as a guideline, creators are being given the opportunity to redefine the idea with each new series. What is an Avenger? The answer is yet another question: What do you want an Avenger to be?

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