Marvel – where have all the heroes gone?

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I tried, I really did. Conscious that my weekly contributions might cause some readers to perceive me as a bitter old curmudgeon, I’d resolved that my last column of 2014 would be positive and cheery, infusing the readership of the Big Glasgow Comic Page with festive jocundity.

Apologies, dear readers. I have failed. The printed stink-bomb that is Marvel’s Axis crossover scoffed at my paltry efforts and demanded that I write about it in all its hackneyed glory. As the cast of characters expanded, pointless battles followed one after another as our inverted heroes and villains engaged in their very own celebrity death match. I’m not going to complain about the ridiculous broad brush-strokes of the character ‘inversions’, nor am I going to focus on poor characterisation or the apparent ‘retcon’ that has come out of the event and the likely motives behind it. Heck, as I’m still feeling some Christmas spirit I won’t even mock the name ‘Kluh’. I will, however, say one thing – I am completely and utterly tired of Marvel’s myopic obsession with pitting hero against hero.

At this point long-time readers of my contributions are probably rolling their eyes, expecting another soapbox rant about the nature of heroism and morality within superhero comics. I’ll do my best to avoid such well-worn tropes and I’ll also acknowledge upfront that the idea of hero vs hero is hardly the invention of modern-day Marvel. Since the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner first duked it out in 1940, such match-ups have been a common occurrence. Chris Claremont’s lengthy run on Uncanny X-Men was notorious for having mind controlled heroes be used against their team mates, while the classic format of misunderstanding followed by team-up has long been a mainstay of Marvel character interaction, particularly in the days when Spider-Man was a misunderstood teenager as opposed to an establishment superhero.

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Despite this, it’s undeniable that the last decade has seen a paradigm shift in the way in which superhero conflicts are presented, particularly in crossovers. Since Civil War, in 2005, turned close teammates to bitter enemies under a paper-thin central concept, Marvel’s yearly crossovers have returned, time and time again, to the reliable old standby of hero vs. hero. Be it Children’s Crusade, House of M, Secret Invasion, Avengers vs X-Men or Axis, Marvel can’t seem to help going down this route, with ever diminishing returns. This isn’t just seen in the big events – countless pages in the X-books over the last few years have been wasted with staff members at the Jean Grey School repeatedly whinging about Cyclops and his followers, while the recent flash-forward of the Avengers titles have seen heroes lining up on opposing sides, with distrust and aggression heavy in the air.

All of which begs the question: where have all the villains gone? Why are Marvelites being force-fed the playground squabbles of supposed heroes, with common sense and rational thought consistently being sacrificed in the name of plot expediency? I actually don’t have a problem with the general concept of heroes disagreeing, but when the mechanics to engineer a disagreement are so clunky it’s impossible to ignore the Wizard behind the curtain. The conflict over the registration act in Civil War, the debate over the threat of the Phoenix in Avengers vs X-Men, the disagreements over Cyclops’ new approach to mutant rights – when it’s considered that the majority of participants will have known each other for years, it’s laughable that so many of them appear to have studied at the Rocky Balboa school of conflict resolution.

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Every fan has had arguments about how respective characters compare across a range of parameters, and there’s an undeniable thrill in seeing how they match up, but having the disagreement of heroes be a recurring theme isn’t just lazy storytelling, it diminishes and weakens the characters involved. I’d be surprised if many X-Fans did not feel that characters at the Jean Grey School (including Beast, Wolverine and Iceman) had been reduced to ranting one-dimensional characters through their attitude to Cyclops. When the strong ties of these characters are considered, as well as the mitigating circumstances and the fact that it echoes previous events (including the recent time where Iceman was possessed by an ancient force and killed lots of people…), the characters appear not as individuals but as mere mouthpieces to further the plot.

Current events in New Avengers, leading into the ongoing ‘Time runs out’ storyline, clearly show – to my mind, at least – how conflict between heroes is being artificially created for plot purposes. With the incursion threat that the Illuminati members know is a clear and present threat to their world, it is utterly baffling that they didn’t pull every string, call in every favour and utilise the help of all of their allies to combat this. Instead we have a collection of heroes who have been diminished by their complicity in these activities, more characters sacrificed at the altar of the high concept.

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I’m not trying to argue that all heroes should get along and that fist bumps should be a mandatory part of victory celebrations. But I do think there is a way of having conflict between characters in an organic fashion, stemming from their established mind-sets and personalities. Captain America and Iron Man coming to blows because Cap felt Iron Man was neglecting his responsibilities to the Avengers? Absolutely plausible. Beast breaking the space time continuum because he thinks Cyclops is mad, bad and dangerous to know? The likelihood of the motive appears to have been considered less important than the high concept of bringing the original five X-Men to the present day.

Misty Knight’s recent revelation in Captain America that every super team has at least one member of Hydra within its ranks had me banging my head off the table in despair. More distrust. More accusations. The potential for more characters to be thrown under the metaphorical bus. As this is very similar to the Skrull tactic in Secret Invasion, a mere six years ago, the optimist in me is hoping that this ‘revelation’ is a red herring.

The optimist in me likes to think that this is part of the natural cycle of things, that at the end of ‘Time runs out’ divisions will be healed and heroes will once again be allowed to be just that. Yet we’ve been there before, less than five years ago, when the dawn of the Heroic Age in the wake of Siege was meant to signal a return to a more optimistic outlook. Perhaps the way in which Marvel’s heroes are now being portrayed is the ultimate extension of the concept of the flawed but noble Marvel hero. But by accentuating these less attractive aspects at the expense of everything else I think Marvel has lost sight of the fact that while it’s good to have heroes that readers can relate to, it’s not old fashioned to have heroes that can also inspire readers. Marvel can do this, as titles like Ms Marvel show. It’s long past time that her more experienced colleagues began to act their age and started setting her an example.

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