It says something about the current state of superhero comics when the idea of superheroes not fighting each other seems like a novel concept. It may seem like such a long time ago, but there was once a time when superheroes primarily fought villains, criminals, and monstrous manifestations ripped right out of old Roger Corman movies.
It’s getting harder and harder to remember those times. These days, it seems every major superhero team, in both Marvel and DC, can’t go a year without fighting one another. Cullen Bunn and Steve McNiven clearly remember those simpler times and if Monsters Unleashed #1 is any indication, they remember them fondly. The challenge for them is to remind readers that there’s still a place for stories that don’t involve superheroes fighting each other.
It’s one of those concepts that shouldn’t be such a challenge, but between Civil War II and Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice in mind, it may as well be a chess match with Dr. Doom. Bunn and McNiven are getting back to basics, having Marvel’s premier heroes take a break from clashing with each other to confront a new threat. The end result is an over-the-top, action-packed thrill ride that pits iconic heroes against giant monsters. It’s as basic a formula it can possibly be without Deadpool making a poop joke, but it works.
The story doesn’t try to be overly complex or nuanced. Monsters start falling from the sky in cities all over the world. Marvel’s various superhero teams, including the Avengers, the X-men, the Inhumans, the Champions, and the Guardians of the Galaxy, all get to step up and fight some monsters. There’s no elaborate exposition. There is some mystery, but Bunn never lets it get in the way of the spectacle of heroes fighting monsters.
He seems to understand the audience. He knows there’s too much entertainment value in giant monsters. It should be as obvious as a temper tantrum by the Hulk, but it still feels refreshing in that it provides a simple, entertaining story that allows heroes to just be heroes. Nobody has to worry about characters acting strangely, timelines being tampered with, or reputations being ruined. It’s just heroes fighting monsters. No fan need agonize over their favorite characters and in at a time where Captain America can be a Hydra agent, that counts for something.
That’s not to say that the narrative in Monsters Unleashed #1 is overly simple. It does have some refinements that make it more engaging than a typical Power Rangers rerun, although not by much. While Bunn does make it a point to emphasize the battles between heroes and monsters, he does squeeze in some mystery behind the wanton destruction.
The details of that mystery, which involves a kid who enjoys drawing monsters more than fighting them, are somewhat ambiguous. It involves Elsa Bloodstone and another dime-a-dozen doomsday prophecies, of which there are plenty in the Marvel universe. It’s not nearly as engaging as seeing the Hulk punch a giant eye monster, but it does add a sense of purpose to the hero vs. monster clash. There’s a larger story behind it, even if that story offers as few hints as necessary. At the very least, it ensures that Monsters Unleashed #1 never devolves into a glorified Michael Bay movie.
The main appeal of the story is still its simplicity. McNiven’s art further supplements that appeal, providing rich and colorful battles that give a diverse cast of heroes plenty of opportunities to shine. These are the kinds of scenes that will never make it into a Marvel movie, if only because even Disney’s pockets aren’t bottomless. That helps add to the overall spectacle in Monsters Unleashed #1 and in a story that involves giant monsters, that’s saying something.
There’s something to be said about the overall context of this story. In real estate, it’s all about location. That’s the key to making a project work. In comics, the closest equivalent is timing. While some stories are indeed timeless, as those of Superman and Captain America have proven, work best when the time is just right in both the real world and the fanciful world of comics.
Stories like the Phoenix Saga and the first Civil War have an impact because they reflect a certain time and sentiment with the audience. Monsters Unleashed is one of those concepts that could be shrugged off in the extremes of the ’90s, the macho grittiness of the ’80s, or the psychedelic mindscape of the ’60s. However, its presence in 2017, a time when audiences are burned out on superheroes fighting each other, feels both right and overdue.
Comics don’t need to blow minds, break hearts, and shatter spirits every other week. They just need to entertain. Bunn and McNiven succeed in delivering just that with Monsters Unleashed #1. They go out of their way to avoid complicating the plot. They also avoid crafting a story that devolves into shameless disaster porn as well. There is story. There is mystery. Some details are lacking, but it still works. No major characters are getting reinvented, retconned, or replaced by clones. In this particular era of comics where everything gets shaken up every other year, that counts for something.
Monsters Unleashed #1 is not a story that’s going to get anyone thinking too hard about real-world parallels or blurred lines between good and evil. It’s not going to reinvent an entire genre, either. This story caters to the kid in everybody who plays with action figures, imagines giant monsters attacking big cities, and comes up with over-the-top battles full of fiery explosions and crumbling buildings. Anyone’s inner child, especially those that pestered their parents for action figures every Christmas, will be thrilled with this story.