Avengers Assemble, the 10-part finale of Jason Aaron’s 80-issue-plus Avengers run that began in 2018 finally came to an end in April. More than the end of his run, it was the culmination of a longterm build that began early on his run and, then, specifically in Avengers #50 (or, if you’re inclined to count it, Free Comic Book Day 2021: Avengers/Hulk). The focus of Avengers and the launch of a spinoff Avengers Forever directly led to this finale with multiversal Avengers, traveling through time to thwart Mephisto’s schemes, and, generally, feeling like the book was on a treadmill until the real story could actually begin. Which is why, when Avengers Assemble finally began, it felt so underwhelming. Over a year and 23 issues (not to mention the pre-issue 50 issues that set up various elements of the story through subplots in Avengers) the payoff is a meandering, inconsistently paced story featuring bad guys that won’t stay defeated despite looking quite dead for… ‘reasons’ until Deus Ex Machina and good guys win! At least, that was my first impression.
In rereading Avengers Assemble and the issues that preceded it, my view has tempered. That initial backlash has subsided, to an extent. Reading from Avengers #50 on through Avengers Assemble Omega over a few days, various threads connected better, some beats landed better, and the general shape of what Aaron achieved was more apparent. However, other, new flaws were also revealed. Avengers Assemble is a deeply flawed story that aims for a timeless, epic feel and falls well short. But, the ways in which it fails fascinate me. Aaron ends his Avengers run with a story about Mephisto scheming to kill everything backed by multiversal variations of himself and a small group of villains that are opposed by a shockingly small army of Avengers led by the very first Avengers villain. It’s almost an achievement for something this weird to read so mediocre.
But, Avengers Assemble is not only the end of this specific run on a specific franchise. It is the last major work for Marvel by the sole remaining Architect (technically, Jonathan Hickman left; that he came back does not change that), a group of five Marvel writers that I can’t seem to escape writing about. Consisting of Brian Michael Bendis, Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, Hickman, and Aaron, they dominated Marvel for, roughly, the decade or so between 2004 and 2016. The culmination of their collaborations was Avengers vs. X-Men, which they co-wrote. After that event, over the ensuing half-decade, all of them left Marvel save Aaron. He was the final Architect and this is, according to him, his last major Marvel work for the foreseeable future.
I will begin with Avengers Assemble and, eventually, get to architecture…
Authenticity and Abstracts
The success of Avengers Assemble and its build largely lie in how much you believe in the idea of the Avengers presented in these comics. It feels ingenuous to point at Aaron favouring his chosen cast of Avengers as a negative given that is how every team book writer in the history of superhero comics has approached their epic stories. Part of the fun of these books is seeing which characters writers select to be on their team. Who are their Avengers? Their Leaguers? Their X-Men? And, to a point, Aaron’s run worked with that idea well enough. But, I would argue that it becomes something different when your story centres on an “Avenger Prime” gathering an army of Avengers from across the multiverse and, if anything, your Avengers cast gets narrowed, drawing on the extensive history of the group as little as possible. Instead of going beyond his core team of Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Captain Marvel, Black Panther, Starbrand, Echo (the new Phoenix), and Ghost Rider (other characters like Namor, Valkyrie, Blade, and Nighthawk are part of the team at various points in this large story, but, I would argue that they are largely incidental in the grand scheme of the story, itself a different problem), Aaron focuses as intensely on that group to build his story up. If you see multiverse versions of characters not them, then it’s only as a quick background appearance, for the most part. The history of the Avengers is narrowed to such a fine point that it barely exists as far as this story is concerned.
There’s a sense of the rich and lengthy history of the Avengers being erased in Avengers Assemble. Compare it to the Heroes Return three-part story that began the Kurt Busiek and George Perez Avengers run, a story that found a place for, literally, every character who had been an Avenger to that point, or even The Avengers Finale, where, after destroying the Avengers in Avengers Disassembled, Brian Michael Bendis teamed with a long lineup of artists to eulogise the group and honour its past triumphs, Avengers Assemble is somewhat hollow. Aside from the Avengers from Earth-818, the only variations we see in Avengers Assemble from the ‘Pillars’ (variants of the core cast I noted above) come as background panel fodder in Avengers Assemble Alpha drawn by Bryan Hitch, Andrew Currie, and Alex Sinclair. Jump ahead to the siege on Avengers Tower in the God Quarry by the Mephisto Army in part three of the story, Avengers Forever #12 (drawn by Aaron Kuder, Mark Farmer, and Frank Martin), and those background Avengers don’t even make an appearance. Nor do they for the rest of the story. It is a shockingly small group of Avengers, mostly bolstered by the Howling Commandos and Carol Corps for numbers. But, what it doesn’t do is showcase Avengers history.
Avengers Assemble provides a version of the ‘real’ Avengers. The Avengers that matter.
That narrow focus presents another problem: by building around such a small subset of Avengers, the core cast of Avengers is diminished. What makes the versions of these characters so special when they’re surrounded by endless variations of themselves? When Captain America settles into a role as a faceless soldier in the Howling Commandos, the ‘grunts’ of the multiversal Avengers army, how is he different from any of his fellow Steve Rogers? What makes him special? They become part of an idea of what the Avengers mean as far as Aaron is concerned here, but that turns them from characters into abstracts. The Captain America of our Marvel Universe (616) becomes another representation of the Platonic Ideal of Captain Americas and the same applies to the rest. Should they fall, a slightly different looking version of them would rise to take their place. While Aaron’s Avengers never placed a premium on character development, losing them in the faceless sea of themselves is anti-development.
Aside, of course, from the Avengers in his cast that have no alternates. Those are the characters that get spotlight issues (Valkyrie, Nighthawk… before them, (She-)Hulk and Blade) in the build up to Avengers Assemble. In actually giving those characters some development and advancement, Aaron does fit into Avengers history, a part of the lineage where characters like Hawkeye, the Scarlet Witch, Vision, Wonder Man, Black Widow, Hercules, the Black Knight, Hank Pym, the Wasp, and Luke Cage among so many others were made Avengers and given the focus in favour of Marvel mainstays. As I alluded to earlier, the writer ‘playing favourites’ with certain characters is all part of the fun. And, by the end of Avengers Assemble, Aaron does give special moments to some of his pet characters; yet, many of these characters get lost in the shuffle. Just as much as the characters with endless variations disappear, so too do the likes of Valkyrie and Nighthawk. Made smaller against the singular, small idea presented here of what the core of the Avengers is. They aren’t ‘Pillars.’ They’re just there, random Avengers part of one of three teams all vying for a spotlight.
Ancient and Antithesis
Jason Aaron’s Avengers run begins with a splash page drawn by Ed McGuinness, Mark Morales, and David Curiel depicting the Stone Age Avengers. The captain reads “Earth. One million years ago.” Odin is front and centre, raising a cup of mead with his left hand, Mjolnir in his right. He’s backed up by Phoenix, Black Panther, Iron Fist, Starbrand, Ghost Rider, and the Sorcerer Supreme. Actually, sorry, the run begins with the cover of Avengers #1 by the same art team that shows the initial cast of the title in the same pose (albeit with an extra member) with specifically connected characters in the same position: Thor, Black Panther, Ghost Rider, and Dr. Strange. Turn the cover to the first page and it’s like a fade out to the past, from the Avengers of now to the very first Avengers. This is the moment where the Avengers became a little less special. A little less noteworthy. A little less historic. The Avengers became less.
The introduction of the Stone Age Avengers is the first hint that Aaron’s view of the Avengers is one of a lineage where the heroes that we know are not unique. It’s a misguided approach best summed up by the fact that it has Odin occupy the same role as Thor: the Mjolnir-wielding Asgardian protecting the Earth. It takes a key element of Thor in his love of Earth and his inability to choose Asgard over it and dilutes it needlessly. That is the Stone Age Avengers in a nutshell. Each one waters down a character from the present Marvel Universe in some way and Aaron doubles down on the idea in Avengers #57-62, the “History’s Mightiest Heroes” arc.
Attempting to travel back to the time of the Stone Age Avengers, the present Avengers are waylaid by Mephisto at various times, encountering past versions of Sorcerers Supreme, Ghost Riders, Starbrands, and Phoenixes until they can actually get where they’re trying to go. Various unknown-until-now heroes whose stories somehow never came up that take the idea of the Marvel Age of Heroes and make it more and more insignificant. What has always been a burst of champions just when Earth needs them, a miraculous confluence of power and might in the service of good becomes a nonstop line of The Way Things Have Always Been Actually. I understand that Aaron does it to place the Avengers and other heroes within a legacy that makes them part of something bigger, but all it does it take away parts of what make them so special.
Part of the power of the stories of characters like Jean Grey and her struggles with the Phoenix is that a cosmic force sought her out. Beginning with Avengers vs. X-Men, the Phoenix has been a trick that Aaron keeps returning to, including the Stone Age version, Echo as the new present day Phoenix, a Dark Phoenix in the Multiversal Masters of Evil, the future Old Man Phoenix, and, in Avengers #59, an old west Phoenix as well. If it keeps happening, what makes Jean so special? If there have always been Avengers, what makes the present day versions matter so much? Why are they special or key to winning the day? In the rush to showcase the Avengers throughout history and across the multiverse, Aaron never clarifies that point.
Instead, they’re set down next to the Stone Age Avengers to battle the Multiversal Masters of Evil (after the two Avengers teams fight one another, of course) before eventually moving on to the God Quarry to stop Mephisto’s final plan. Some members play larger roles than others, but they mostly exist to take up space that could be used by the present day Avengers or outshine them in various ways. Once you add in the multiversal Avengers, the insistence on three specific groups of Avengers creates storytelling chaos that Aaron is never able to rein in entirely.
The ‘Pillars,’ as they were known, made up the incredibly low key Avengers team defending the God Quarry from Mephisto’s army. Gathered by Ghost Rider (the All-Rider), a Deathlok, and Ant-Man Tony Stark, the group never actually coheres as a team proper. Part of that is by clear design, part of that seems to be a lack of focus in establishing them as a central focus of Avengers Assemble despite them being the only other Avengers to fight alongside the regular team and the Ten-Thousand-BC team. Based around five Avengers, no true explanation for the choices are ever provided. In the past, the central core of the Avengers, the group that best exemplifies what the Avengers are, have typically been the founders plus Captain America: Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Ant-Man, and Wasp. Here, Aaron selects a team based around the core group of Avengers from his run up until the point where Black Panther departed due to events in his monthly title: Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Thor, T’Challa, and Carol Danvers with the All-Rider acting as the bridge between two Avengers teams.
The Tony Stark, as mentioned, is from Earth-818 and is that world’s Ant-Man. That world is ruled by the brutal Wastelord, the Black Skull (Red Skull with a Symbiote). The All-Rider and a Deathlok help eliminate the Black Skull and, then, multiversal variants that come to that world to take his place. Like many Tony Starks that we would see, this one is an alcoholic, and a builder. What sets him apart, though, is that he’s an archaeologist. This is a Tony Stark that does not look to the future; he looks to the past. When we meet him, we see that he’s been gathering powerful objects from the past in the hopes of using them. He’s actually the final ‘Pillar’ recruited, working as one of the gatherers until it comes down to finding a Tony Stark.
The first actual recruit is in Avengers Forever #6, a T’Challa from a world where Killmonger from the Multiversal Masters of Evil wiped out Wakanda and T’Challa was sent away in a rocket ala Kal-El. He scraps together a vibranium suit and tries to take on Killmonger, but is defeated. Launched into a star, the vibranium reacts somehow and turns him into a literal Superman, the Star Panther. After the Tony Stark that looks to the past instead of the future, the introduction of a superpowered T’Challa, a character normally associated with relying on his intelligence and training, begins to suggest a pattern at play in these ‘Pillars.’
It’s confirmed a couple of issues later in issue seven where Aaron focuses on the Thor Odinson of Earth-56337, an unworthy Thor taunted by the presence of Mjolnir, which stalks him. Unable to wield the hammer at key moments, he’s haunted by his failures and by the way that hammer will not leave him alone, following him wherever he goes. This Thor is a cross between the unworthy version from Aaron’s Thor run and the Endgame Thor (overweight and bearded). Finding himself in the ruins of K’un-Lun, the only survivor of the Masters of Evil, the Thunderer, trains Thor in the art of the Iron Fist. Eventually, Thor develops into the God of Fists, choosing to eschew Mjolnir, marking himself as purposefully unworthy, in a way. These ‘Pillars’ are purposefully opposite versions of the Avengers from Earth-616. Not in the moral sense that’s typically associated with opposite alternate versions of characters. Instead, they’re opposites in choices and motivations, while remaining heroes. A Tony Stark that looks to the past, a T’Challa that has superhuman strength and flight, a Thor that willingly turns his back on being worthy of Mjolnir…
And Steve Rogers that don’t lead, but follow. In the previous issue of Avengers Forever, Aaron and Kuder tell a solid story about four Steve Rogers brought to an unknown place where they continually get a chance to escape through an obstacle course of sort. At first, only one of them attempts it and, slowly, over time, they form a small unit and manage to succeed as a group. The big reveal, of course, is that it’s a test for them to join the Howling Commandos group of Steve Rogers to fight for Avengers Tower. While always a soldier, a key element of Captain America is his singular existence. He was never one of a legion of super-soldiers. He was always the sole one, thrust into a position of leadership and uniqueness instead of the faceless conformity of most soldiers.
The Carol Danvers issue ends in a similar fashion with the revelation of a Hellicarrier full of variants that form the Carol Corps. If Steve Rogers makes up the army, Carol Danvers is the air force. This ‘Pillar’ is less an opposite than a throwing up of the hands and giving the easiest version of the character possible. It’s an anti-climax after a really affecting issue focusing on an enslaved Carol that dreams of flying and featuring some of Kuder’s best line work and compositions. The panel of Carol flying after breaking free is one of the best moments of the entire run, honestly. A perfect moment of pacing and execution that I have to mention.
Unfortunately, the ‘Pillars’ never get a true chance to shine. They have some small moments in Avengers Assemble that don’t amount to much. Their usage against the Mephisto army is somewhat misplaced while both teams of Avengers from Earth-616 (past and present) fight the Multiversal Masters of Evil as every member of the ‘Pillars’ that we focus on (save any of the Steves) has a direct connection to the Masters of Evil. Ant-Man’s world was ruled by the Black Skull, Star Panther fought Killmonger, Thor’s Asgard was burned by the group, and the Carol whose story we’re told lived under the Dark Phoenix. The group of multiversal Avengers seems assembled to be the counterparts of the Multiversal Masters of Evil, yet they never fight one another. It’s a baffling creative decision after the eventual conflict is foreshadowed in each of their origin stories.
More than that, the ‘Pillars’ team is largely overshadowed not just by the two Earth-616 Avengers team, but by King Thor’s granddaughter and Old Man Phoenix who join the battle at the God Quarry at the end of part three of Avengers Assemble and really make their presence known in part five, almost single-handedly taking down the majority of the Mephistos. Aside from acting as grunts against the Mephistos, their inclusion is fairly minor. The single largest moment any of them get is when Star Panther punches a hole through Doom the Living Planet after the Mephistos are supplanted by the All-Doom’s forces. Just as the present day 616 Avengers seem there simply to deliver the Starbrand for a key moment at the end of the story, the ‘Pillars’ group is there to get the All-Rider to the Tower for his moment at the end.
Like the Stone Age Avengers, the ‘Pillars’ don’t come across as essential enough to the story to warrant as much time and attention in the build-up to Avengers Assemble as they received. Basically, the entire run of Avengers Forever until that point (11 issues) is devoted to the ‘Pillars’ and the payoff is minimal. They aren’t set against their natural counterparts, the Masters of Evil, nor is much made of the fact that they are set in opposition to the Avengers of Earth-616. Given how purposeful Aaron’s choices in determining specifically which variants of each character would be chosen for this group, the idea of two teams of Avengers representing polar opposites conceptually working together to defeat this evil might have come up. It did not. It’s so overlooked that calling it subtext would be a generous reading.
Instead, both the ‘Pillars’ and Stone Age Avengers are just large enough of distractions to ensure that the Avengers that have been the stars of Aaron’s run are pushed aside and not given a central enough role. The three teams along with the extras that show up along the way all make for a muddled mess of heroes where no group of characters is given enough time and space to make a true impact.
Antagonists and Assembler
As alluded to, the big bads of Avengers Assemble are Mephisto and the Multiversal Masters of Evil. Mephisto turned up fairly early in Aaron’s run, teased endlessly, and even directly responsible for the Heroes Reborn alternate reality. The entire run pointed toward him at the very end with a suitably large scheme. That Mephisto has largely been a bit of an also-ran villain, more style than substance, lessened his threat not a bit. Forget the time that he was Thanos’s lackey… or Loki’s lackey… or the many, many times he was defeated in his own realm at the height of his power. This time would be different and, instead of showing this, Aaron told us this. Again and again. An entire storyarc about Moon Knight conquering the world was about the threat of Mephisto (two Moon Knight variants appear in Avengers Assemble in minor roles). By the time the title reaches Avengers #50, the entire focus is on Mephisto and his master plan.
Part of his plan is enlisting Doom Supreme to weaken and subjugate Earths across the multiverse. This All-Doom does so by recruiting his own Masters of Evil team: the Black Skull, King Killmonger that wears the Asgardian Destroyer armour, Dark Phoenix and her mindless berserker Logan slave, a Norman Osborn that rips the heads off Ghost Riders to use as bombs called the Ghost Goblin, and Kid Thanos. They go from Earth to Earth, often strangling any burgeoning heroes in their cribs, basically, bragging about the ease with which they slaughter Odins and Thors and Phoenixes and Steve Rogers and every other hero. This group, over the course of the issue building to Avengers Assemble and the story itself, present two specific problems.
The first is that, instead of drawing upon villains typically associated with the Avengers, Aaron either chose ones associated with specific Avengers in their solo adventures or well known Marvel villains. Only Thanos has a history of specifically fighting the Avengers enough to be called an ‘Avengers villain.’ The rest are associated with specific heroes, some not part of the Avengers during the Aaron run. Typical Avengers villains like Ultron, Kang, Baron Zemo, Graviton, Count Nefaria, or even Loki aren’t chosen for the group. With Mephisto’s large role in the story and him not necessarily being an Avengers-specific villain, putting together a team of largely non-Avengers villains gives it less impact. The group seems placed into a role that doesn’t necessarily suit the chosen characters. The Masters of Evil conjure up specific images of Avengers villains, particularly for those who have read stories like Under Siege and this group does not fit that, undercutting the idea of them as the ultimate opposing force in the multiverse to the Avengers.
The second problem is that, after their continual build as world beaters and slaughters of an endless parade of the heroes we know… they’re defeated by those same heroes. They’re made out to be such huge, unbeatable foes that, when they are taken down, it undercuts everything we’ve been told and seen. Or, in at least one case, possibly more, they’re defeated and replaced with identical versions so easily that we know with certainty that not all are unique or actually as powerful as they’re made out to be. How truly threatening is the Black Skull when he can be defeated by the All-Rider and, the next time we see the Masters of Evil, a new, identical version of him is in the group? Now, that could be purposefully done to suggest to the reader that these guys aren’t as dangerous as they like to brag that they are – except they do ravage the dozens (hundreds?) of worlds that they say they do. There’s no sense of consistency in how truly powerful they are. Nor does their defeat, on the whole, come in such a way as to feel earned through a massive struggle and breaking through limits as is typical of heroes that overcome overwhelming threats.
Ultimately, they’re simply pawns of Mephisto, as are the rest of the Mephistos. The Mephistos suffer from what I refer to as ‘The Citadel of Ricks Problem’ where the main Rick in Rick and Morty is an unstoppable badass and all of his alternate reality selves are not. They are easily misled, fairly foolish, and cannon fodder in any episodes they appear in. A whole army of Mephistos should pose a threat and, for about an issue or so, they almost seem like they will until they are routed and largely defeated. At least, when the 616 Mephisto is revealed as the most powerful, Aaron does explain that as him feeding off the energies of the Earths that the Masters of Evil conquered. Perhaps the most understated element of Avengers Assemble is the joke at the heart of Mephisto’s plan to end all existence. He talks of growing weary and bored as ruler of his private Hell, but it always reads as he’s tired of being a devil so easily outclassed consistently. The only way he can truly win is to go for broke and destroy all of reality by unleashing the anti-matter-like foundational energy kept locked away in the God Quarry. Any scheme that could put him in a position of power would require more temperance and invite defeat; only truly suicidal nihilism has a chance in hell of succeeding. And, of course, it doesn’t.
In the end, Mephisto is a bit of a letdown as the built-up villain of Aaron’s entire run. The justification for wiping out existence doesn’t quite land and he himself is not much of a threat. He’s easily and repeatedly beat down – though, in a clever twist, often purposefully, leaning into his tendency to be defeated. He becomes less the central threat and the point on which the multiverse-threatening McGuffin turns. There’s no emotional satisfaction in his defeat. It’s almost fait accompli that he will lose and return to his hell, adding on yet another layer of meaninglessness.
If there’s one thing that could possibly justify the revelation that a Loki is the fabled Avenger Prime, the pinnacle of Avengers, manning the Tower in the God Quarry, tasking Deathloks, and assembling Avengers to protect the multiverse, it’s the past interactions of Loki and Mephisto as, lacking a better term, frenemies. Their shared history is of alliances quickly brokered and quickly dissolved, constant attempts to one-up one another, and races to see who can backstab one another the quickest. The idea that it’s a Loki standing between Mephisto and his goal has a ring of truth to it. But only just.
Aaron’s decision to have the central figure of the Avengers in the multiverse be Loki is the most misguided one of his run. It seeks to take the idea that, because the Avengers formed to stop Loki’s schemes, he is the unifying figure in their history and turns that into a positive action. The last word on Loki accidentally creating the Avengers should have been the gag in Thunderstrike #21 where his attempt to pit Thunderstrike against She-Hulk results in him facing down those two heroes in addition to War Machine and the Scott Lang Ant-Man, causing him to scream “Not again!” faced with the legacy versions of the original team. That Loki led to the creation to the Avengers is to his eternal shame and regret. When Aaron had Loki brag about the times he brought the Avengers together back in issue eight of this run, the appropriate reaction is to roll your eyes.
Moreover, due to the addition of the Stone Age Avengers and the endless variations of the multiverse, an important question is raised: if there have always been Avengers, why does their formation to battle Loki in Avengers #1 matter at all? Various elements of Aaron’s story structure undercut one another far too easily. Every new bit of Avengers lore and history that puts them into a superhuman continuum stretching back to 10000 BCE makes the fact that they formed to defeat Loki that much more meaningless.
Adding insult to injury, the revelation that Avenger Prime is the Lokiest Loki, one that managed to take the throne of Asgard, prevent the formation of the Avengers, and, then, kill his entire universe genuinely goes nowhere. It’s a shock tactic that adds nothing of value to the story from that point on. Avenger Prime brings the Stone Age and present day Avengers to the God Quarry, throws out a magic blast or two and, largely, fades into the background. The revelation is meaningless in the grand scheme of things, because, for all he contributes to the story, Avenger Prime could have been literally any character. His identity is rooted in hollow symbolism that Aaron positions as more and more irrelevant as the story continues.
Apex and Awesome
Two concepts weigh on Avengers Assemble and the stories that lead to it: the idea of the best version of a character and the love that Jason Aaron has for ‘cool’ ideas. The former is new, while the latter is, as Michael Cole would say, ‘vintage Aaron.’ Within the context of a multiverse story, it’s easy to see the temptation a writer faces to introduce the ‘best’ versions of characters. It’s a quick and seemingly effective way to make the story bigger, better, and hit harder. You think you’ve seen an Avengers story before? Well, here comes the Apex Avengers from across the multiverse to take on the ultimate Multiversal Masters of Evil, all of whom are the most powerful and deadly versions of these already overpowered Marvel villains! Sounds great, right? The problem, of course, is that, once you introduce that idea, you need to follow through with it and actually do something interesting with it. Unfortunately, Aaron doesn’t do too much with the ‘best’ versions of characters except introduce them, tell us that they are the best, and, then, they either take a backseat or get defeated. In some cases, it’s not entirely clear if the characters are meant to be the ‘best’ versions or not. Are the ‘Pillars’ the best? Are they simply the opposites of the best? No true explanation is given when they’re brought together.
There are, however, two ‘best’ versions of characters that somewhat live up to their reputations: Doom Supreme and the All-Rider. Aaron puts the work into establishing Doom Supreme as the ultimate Doom, particularly in Avengers Forever #5 where his history is given along with the way that he collects and breaks Dooms from the Earths the Masters of Evil ravage. While much of what separates him from other Dooms is left to a hand-wave of being exceedingly powerful, Aaron imbues him with the proper attitude and perspective, always setting himself apart from the Masters of Evil and, then, supplanting Mephisto as the grand threat in Avengers Assemble with his army of Dooms. Unfortunately, they suffer the same fate as the army of Mephistos is how easily they’re cast aside and defeated – though, he proves a tougher opponent. The smartest thing that Aaron does is never has the Earth-616 Doom appear, leaving open the idea that Doom Supreme would not actually measure up to the Doom that we know. Leaving open Doom Supreme’s unchallenged greatness seems counterintuitive, but it makes it plausible that he is the greatest Doom only because he hasn’t met the true Doom Supreme.
The transition from Ghost Rider to All-Rider for Robbie Reyes is another successful ‘best’ version by Aaron. Like Doom Supreme, it’s because the work is put in to show again and again just how great he is. From the first Avengers arc, Aaron has done a consistent job of building up Ghost Rider as incredibly powerful and, often, integral to the Avengers’ success. The idea that he can ride anything is an interesting one that Aaron revisits in interesting ways, like him ‘riding’ the Black Skull’s Symbiote. There’s an element of prophecy and fate to Robbie’s role in saving the multiverse that verges on happening because it’s said enough times so it must be true, granted; largely, it works because Aaron finds enough ways to show it. Even small touches like the revelation that this is the only Robbie Reyes to become Ghost Rider in the entire multiverse give credence to his singular greatness. My only real quibble is that the All-Rider’s action to save the multiverse doesn’t exactly hinge on his specific powers. It’s a sacrificial move that, like the identity of Avenger Prime, could have been anyone. If the All-Rider is diminished, it’s only by the denouement.
Related to the idea of characters being the ‘best’ is Aaron’s obsession with awesome ideas. His work is filled with them, small and big moments that exist only to produce a reaction of “Aw, cool!” Ka-Zar showing up as a herald of Galactus to sic the big guy on Doom the Living Planet? A Deathlok possessing the dead Celestial? Thor’s granddaughters raining down a whole host of Mjolnirs? These and a host of other moments pop up through Avengers Assemble with the expressed purpose of being awesome. Some work, some don’t. I would argue that, too often, they’re distractions that get in the way of telling a clear, unified story. The best of them catch you off guard while feeling organic; the worst seem like they were welded on with no regard for logic.
If Aaron has always had a weakness as a writer, it’s been his inability to tell those two from one another. It’s also part of his charm. He can’t help but think that the Orb is the greatest character of all time or that the only better than one Phoenix is four. Or that Thor becoming the ‘God of Fists’ is an amazingly cool concept. Even when I can’t help but roll my eyes, I’m somewhat charmed by the sincerity of Aaron’s enthusiasm for genuinely dumb ideas that he thinks are awesome. As much as I want to write many of them off, Avengers Assemble wouldn’t be an epic Aaron finale without them.
Affectation and Architecture
As critics Vishal Gullapalli and Ritesh Babu pointed out two years ago on this very site, Jason Aaron’s Avengers is based largely in replicating the format of Grant Morrison’s JLA. Big action, attempts at iconic character beats, and pointing towards an apocalyptic threat to conclude things. Post-issue 50, Aaron adds in another Morrison work as a primary influence, Multiversity. Avengers Assemble specifically reads like Aaron took the final arc of JLA, “World War III” and combined it with Multiversity. The “World War III” similarities lie specifically in the confrontation with a much-talked-about bad guy with Mephisto taking the place of Mageddon, the weapon of the Old Gods that created death and war wherever it goes. This central villain figure is paired with the Multiversal Masters of Evil acting as the second iteration of the Injustice Gang. The Stone Age Avengers are akin to the Justice Society, while the ‘Pillars’ group is like the Justice League team assembled in Multiversity of variants of familiar heroes from across the multiverse.
The lack of balance in Avengers Assemble when compared to “World War III” and Multiversity is the largest problem. Taking two robust, complete stories and smashing them together creates an overstuffed story that doesn’t allow for the proper focus. While Morrison was always good about giving many characters their moments, they also knew to keep a sharp focus on a small group of key characters – preferably the ones that readers would think of as key characters. By “World War III,” their JLA cast has ballooned, but that didn’t stop that story from honing in on the original seven from the beginning of the run.
The second version of the Injustice Gang actually points to the flaw in Aaron’s Multiversal Masters of Evil. The first version of the villain group was made up exclusively of one-to-one counterparts of the JLA from their solo adventures. When that team failed, Lex Luthor opted to gather a group of villains that nearly defeated the JLA by themselves. That second iteration was made up exclusively of villains from earlier JLA stories (save Killer Bee, who was an updated version of a class Justice League villain). Instead of basing his Multiversal Masters of Evil around villains from his Avengers run until that point, Aaron copied the idea of random solo villains thrust together and it comes off disjointed.
Morrison’s focus on his core group of seven (while still giving small moments to other Leaguers) provides the emotional connection necessary for “World War III.” As readers focus in on a smaller group of characters, the stakes feel bigger. Avengers Assemble never gives that same human-level perspective that allows the scale and scope of the story to hit home. Multiversity works the same way in its bookend issues, focusing on a very specific singular team, while the one-shot issues create a stacking effect of the evil being wrought. The disconnected nature of each is what gives the impression of the larger scheme at work. Aaron attempts that in the recruitment of the ‘Pillars,’ but since there is no true, meaningful payoff to that, the same effect isn’t created. We get the sense of the evil done by the Masters of Evil across the multiverse, yet it feels disconnected from the events of Avengers Assemble.
Perhaps the most damning failed emulation of Morrison comes at the end of Avengers Assemble when Aaron uses the Stone Age Phoenix and present day Starbrand to heal the multiverse. It recalls elements of Final Crisis, Multiversity, and even the end of Morrison’s New X-Men where Jean healed the timeline in her love of Scott. In Morrison’s work, moments like this are transcendent and meaningful. In Avengers Assemble, the scene lacks an emotional core and element of poetry to land the same way. In a somewhat sad/fitting bit, Aaron’s inability to include Black Panther in Avengers Assemble despite that being the obvious plan does recall Morrison constantly changing their plans to accommodate the events of various characters’ solo titles.
Beyond the basic problem that Jason Aaron is not Grant Morrison and cannot write the same as them, there are others. As Vishal and Ritesh argued at length, Aaron’s attempts to apply DC-style logic to Marvel’s premier hero group does not work. The construction of the two universes is so different that what works in a DC story actively diminishes Marvel heroes in theirs. At this point, DC is built on lineage and legacy and, while Marvel has elements of that, it’s much more about the spontaneous eruption of 20th century American ingenuity and power. Although, as Ritesh recently argued in his examination of DC’s Crisis stories, applying DC concepts to Marvel can work quite well when done correctly.
The larger problem is that I’m not sure what Aaron is trying to accomplish. In Morrison’s stories, the goal was to showcase the heroes of his story. From that perspective, it seems like Avengers Assemble would be about showcasing the idea of the Avengers and the specific group of Avengers as they exist now triumphing over evil in an epic battle. That’s not what happens, though. It sort of happens. You can see Aaron actively struggling to make it happen, but something gets in the way. And it’s not that Aaron’s Avengers include characters like Ghost Rider, Starbrand, Valkyrie, or Nighthawk. It does in that he’s trying to mimic Morrison stories centred around the foundational core of the Justice League with Avengers that are not anyone’s definition of the foundational core. Nonetheless, he still has Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor as central characters, and those are the big three of the Avengers. If he had pulled in his focus to them, he might have been able to pull it off.
But, he couldn’t pull in his focus, because this isn’t just the culmination of Aaron’s Avengers run, it’s also the culmination of his work at Marvel. That’s why so much of the story is given to Thor’s granddaughters and Old Man Phoenix. Or why Ghost Rider is a central figure in saving the multiverse. Or the inclusion of a Kid Thanos straight from the pages of Thanos Rising. The punishment of Mephisto to be back in his hell with Orb at his side is entirely about Aaron putting a favourite character of his in one more time. Avengers Assemble packs in as many references and characters from his time at Marvel as he can manage. Instead of being a good Avengers story, it’s a mediocre Aaron story. While Morrison’s stories were conclusions to runs or stages of their career, they never had the weary quality that Avengers Assemble possesses where, in the effort to shoehorn in his pet characters and the sad nihilism of his big villain’s plot, there’s a sense of Aaron being done. It’s been around 15 years of writing for Marvel consistently, the last decade largely as the last holdover from the previous era that was built by him and his fellow Architects. As the last one standing who had never left Marvel, always balanced his creator-owned ambitions with his company duties, the end of this Avengers run is like the final nail in that time’s particular coffin.
In some spots, Aaron manages to integrate his past work into Avengers fairly well. While it’s easy to forget, the Robbie Reyes Ghost Rider was a Big Deal since the first arc of this run, making his central role from issue 50 and on a logical continuation. Or, adding Valkyrie to the Avengers lineup is a solid way to take the lead from arguably Aaron’s most beloved run and giving her a role in the final leg of Avengers. Prior to Avengers, Aaron had three major in-canon non-Star Wars Marvel runs: Ghost Rider, Wolverine/Wolverine and the X-Men/Amazing X-Men, and Thor (sorry, fans of his Hulk run). The first and the last are represented well in Avengers Assemble, while the middle one gets the odd nod here and there. One of the best tip of the caps comes from learning that Mystique is the Dark Phoenix of the Masters of Evil, and actually took the Phoenix from Old Man Phoenix, calling back to a major conflict from his Wolverine run. Had all of these details been either as well integrated as Ghost Rider was throughout the entire run of Avengers and Avengers Forever, or kept as a minor wink to long-term fans, then Aaron might have kept the balance of the story intact. Instead, he overstuffed it and threw off the balance of the three Avengers teams by dramatically increasing the roles of characters from previous runs.
The worst thing that I can say about Avengers Assemble is that it revealed that Jason Aaron had little new or interesting to say, in the end, about the Avengers. The 10-part story is slowly paced, lacks focus, doesn’t follow through on seemingly integral characters, lacks a genuine feeling of high stakes, and relies on you taking every statement about the greatness of characters at face value without the comics doing anything to back it up. It reads like a story by a writer who is Done. And, honestly, after 15 years at Marvel, he should be. The most excited Aaron has sounded in a while has been his most recent newsletter where he talks about his Marvel exclusive being done and looking towards more creator-owned work aside once a few minor things come out over the next few months. I’ve been a fan of his going back to Ghost Rider, adore his Thor run, and stuck with Avengers out of sheer loyalty and hope that he could land it. He didn’t. And that sucks. I hope that if/when the next time we see Jason Aaron’s name on a work-for-hire comic, it’s with a renewed excitement and sense of purpose.