Can an almost routine crossover event which serves to justify a series of battles between super heroes, villains, and other superheroes be both serious and self mocking? Writer Nick Spencer tests this series with the first installment of the first major crossover of Marvel Comics’ schedule this year, “Avengers Standoff”. The basic premise was introduced a fortnight ago with a “welcoming” prelude one shot. This subsequent one shot acts as the official start of the series, which naturally prompts a half dozen other ongoing series to tag in for a couple of months. One of those titles, “Sam Wilson: Captain America” is also written by Spencer, whose work has varied from gritty creator owned fare such as “Morning Glories” to comedy such as “Superior Foes of Spider-Man”, and everything in between (such as a run on “Action Comics” or “Avengers World”). He’s routinely writing at least two to three ongoing titles for Marvel, and this is his first stab at one of their major crossover events (which historically have been mostly written or co-written by Brian M. Bendis for the past eleven years).
As the prelude established, “Avengers Standoff” appears to be another go around of the “break out at a super villain jail” story which has been done many times throughout the history of the medium. Famous examples within Marvel Comics themselves include “Avengers: Deathtrap: the Vault” from 1991 (which was later reprinted as “Venom: Deathtrap: the Vault” to capitalize on his popularity two years later) and the first major arc of “New Avengers” from 2005 which included “the Raft”. Most plots involving prisons for super villains going wrong rely on the “gimmick” of the prison going wrong. Usually this is a black out or some disturbance of the security. In the case of “Standoff”, it includes a rather glaring oversight of one fairly well known villain from the arrogant director of SHIELD, Maria Hill, who has spearheaded their latest attempt at a super villain jail – the seemingly perfect small town “Pleasant Hill”. The Fixer – a figure who has been a long time member of both the Thunderbolts and Masters of Evil – was given a cover identity which involved having him “fix” things, which reactivated his powers (and thus his memories). Capitalizing on the incredibly lapse in judgement of his jailers, he promptly liberated his old boss Baron Zemo from the prison’s reality warping effects.
This installments begins much as the last one did; with a tale involving Winter Soldier attacking various SHIELD facilities. While he appeared to be blasted unconscious and captured by SHIELD last month, this time Bucky seems very much in the peak of health and operation. After promptly interrupting a trio of lazy SHIELD agents who were attempting to watch NFL Sunday Ticket while on duty (by sheer coincidence, Disney owns both ESPN and Marvel and thus cooperates with all NFL ventures, even minor advertising within a comic itself), Bucky figures out this latest ugly secret of SHIELD and sets out to gain the attention of his old partner. That would be the temporarily geriatric Steve Rogers, who is a SHIELD civilian overseer. Meanwhile, Sam Wilson continues his rocky career as Captain America, in which he manages to save the world from an eco-terrorist yet continues to face the full wrath of entrenched racism and a politically divided nation. He’s also tipped off to SHIELD’s big secret by “the Whisperer”, a hacker from his own title who turns out to be the long time Avengers hanger on, Rick Jones. They’re both told of SHIELD’s experiments under Maria Hill’s orders to utilize the powers of a reality warping cosmic cube for their own interests under the “KUBIK program”. Seemingly decommissioned, she’s instead used it to run “Pleasant Hill”, the latest in super villain prisons which Hill arrogantly assumes is perfect and impregnable. As Sam and Rick escape a SHIELD arrest squad, Steve is brought to Pleasant Hill to meet the cube in person – who turns out to be one of those standard adorable toddlers who has godlike powers which has become standard in many science fiction or horror stories for decades now. Just as Steve is trying to figure out how best to deal with Kobik, a band of reorganized “Masters” led by Fixer and Zemo reveal themselves and begin their titular “assault on Pleasant Hill”.
The artist this time is Jesus Saiz, who delivers an utterly beautiful piece of work for this over-sized issue. From raids on facilities to no end of superheroes and super villains and a few explosions (and a lot of talking scenes), he makes it all look iconic and memorable. The blank yellow wraparound cover also makes the comic stand out distinctly from others on the shelf.
In fact, the biggest dilemma that this one shot faces comes from the uneven tone produced by Spencer. The humorlessness of many mainstream superhero comics has long been a fair criticism of many of them, including the editorially driven “crossover events” such as this. So on the one hand, the near non stop comedic one-liners from Bucky, Jones, Hill, and even Wilson’s narration could be seen as a breath of fresh air. On the other hand, it becomes harder to take the danger of the entire affair seriously when Hill seems to be attempting to rebuke Rogers’ genuine concerns with one arrogant stand up routine after the next. It would almost work had she not made the absurdly careless mistake of allowing Kobik to give Fixer a new identity which even a child should have predicted would only reactivate the worst in him. Kobik is claimed to “recreate” the villains using some genuinely good or stable detail within them, and that seems to make some sense when one sees Nitro remake as a neighborhood crank or Tiger Shark as an aquarium shark. But why is Absorbing Man a malted shop owner? Why is Atlas a mail man? Why is Mr. Hyde an old geezer? Because it seems fairly random, to the point that Maria Hill literally jokes that one villain’s cover identity was determined to make a reference to “the Simpsons”. Which implies that she’s nowhere near as competent as she insists, which makes much of her arrogant comedy seem absurd. Hill also claims most of the villains were top priority, but they seem to include rather low level goons like Trapster (who at worst has a single murder attributed to him) and several figures who were working for the government as Thunderbolts several years ago.
At best, the premise of this crossover at least involves some of Marvel’s best villains set to fight various teams of Avengers in yet another prison break story. At worst, it is an overconfident take on a very well worn premise which is too comedic to be serious and too serious to be comedy. However, the art is nice and there are a few notable one-liners. Thankfully, the bar for most crossovers is very, very low. Mediocrity is a win.