It’s been barely a month since Marvel Comics’ “Secret Wars” sequel has ended, so that means its time to gear up for another crossover! Ready or not, 2016 will technically play host to at least three across Marvel’s main family of titles. Technically, “Secret Wars” ended in January, and the summer will see “Civil War II” clog the comic shop shelves in time for “Captain America: Civil War” to hit theaters. Sandwiched in between is a smaller crossover titled “Avengers: Standoff” which will run six different titles from March to May. It has been described as being a prelude to “Civil War II”, meaning that even crossover events need to be built up with crossover events at modern Marvel these days. This is the first of three one-shots which will bookend the story line. Writer Nick Spencer teams up with longtime Marvel Comics artist Mark Bagley, inker Scott Hanna, and colorist Paul Mounts to produce this over sized introduction to what is slated as a complicated tale. In reality, behind the trappings, the basic story is rather old hat.
It all starts with Winter Soldier uncovering some dirty secret which SHIELD is trying to bury – which means it must be a Tuesday. From there it flashes forward to the story of Jim, a mysterious man with amnesia who finds himself in Pleasant Hill, a seeming small town smack in the middle of generic Americana. He seems to share vague memories with Bucky and quickly discovers that behind the pleasant demeanor of the town is, unsurprisingly, a dark secret. Nobody can leave the place without being subject to armed SHIELD agents and more “therapy”. Eventually Jim seems to settle into his life in town, until he encounters another rebellious stranger who offers to uncover all of the town’s secrets for him, including his own past. Jim also meets the mysterious girl on the cover whose powers will presumably be at the center of the event. Although the script clearly steers readers to assume that “Jim” is somehow a brainwashed Winter Soldier, but it turns out to be Captain America’s second greatest nemesis. The last page reveal seeks to pay homage to the famous final page of 1997’s “Thunderbolts #1” (especially since Bagley also drew that), but it is largely unsuccessful.
This one shot is a classic example of a comic book which seems to nail all of the individual components of what a solid read should be without quite coming together as an ideal whole. Bagley’s artwork is up to its usual snuff, despite the fact that he is also drawing a monthly series (“All-New X-Men”) and draw two few pages in “New Avengers” lately. It is nothing ground breaking, but Bagley is a master at pacing a comic book story, and he is well flanked by Hanna and Mounts. From cover to cover, it looks like a timeless Marvel Comics story. And Spencer’s script offers a perfectly efficient introduction to Pleasant Hill and its central premise while leaving obvious mysteries for subsequent material. The fake out with Jim is executed sufficiently as well.
Yet the premise seems to collapse under its own weight, as many modern stories seem to do. In an attempt to proclaim how they’re “progressive” compared to past tales or canonical set-ups, many modern stories instead come off as pretentious. Maria Hill (the director of SHIELD) all but brags about how previous attempts to rehabilitate and imprison super villains have all failed for one reason or another, and Pleasant Hill – a place where super villains are given both therapy and new identities – will obviously succeed. Yet one of the first super villains they treated is the Fixer, a man whose powers involve crafting advanced technology from common tools, who is given the cover identity of a mechanic. In no time at all, muscle memory resurfaces and he remembers who he is, and is set to shatter their entire project from within. It is akin to attempting to rehabilitate a meth lab chemist by recreating him as a pharmacist. It is a rookie mistake which no SHIELD agent of any rank with any knowledge of their subjects should be making, much less their literal (and pompous) director. Add in the fact that one villain (Graviton) is appearing in two comics this month with wildly differing circumstances, and it reads like a comic which wants to get to a firm editorial objective without caring how bluntly and crudely it arrives at it. It gets from point A to point B, ends at a cliffhanger, all with efficient speed without being terrible. And while avoiding being terrible is a triumph compared to most crossover preludes, it also isn’t terrific. Hitting mediocrity dead center should be the bare minimum for a five dollar comic, not presented as a bonus.
Left unsaid is how many stories involving small towns with secrets or secret attempts to rehabilitate super villains that go wrong have been told, and it simply becomes more staggering that such a premise is genuinely seen as that innovative. Overall, this is a well drawn and competently told introduction to the latest crossover of the season, and little more than that. It’s neither good nor bad, awful or lovely. It just is, for better or worse. As usual, it will be left to the writers of involved ongoing series to make this more interesting than it may deserve to be.