Vishal Gullapalli: Scott Snyder’s Justice League and Jason Aaron’s Avengers are fascinating to look at, because they both began around the same time and promised to do similar things to their respective teams. They were these huge, expansive books promising big ideas and to solidly define what the team was meant to be. Not to say that they necessarily succeeded, but they’re definitely interesting to look at.
Ritesh Babu: Vitally, both books felt like the ultimate attempt to re-create a definitive iteration of the team, particularly leaning into and drawing hard on their wider media iterations and influences. Avengers was taking from the MCU, while Justice League was transparently trying to evoke the DCAU roster.
VG: What I find fascinating, though, is that Avengers feels like it’s also trying to take from Morrison’s JLA, while Justice League was clearly drawing from Hickman’s Avengers saga. Both series seemed to be trying to incorporate their counterparts’ success with their own. What we ended up getting on both counts for me ended up feeling like strange Frankenstein’s Monsters that were confused about their own identities and were unable to do anything definitive.
The Case Of The Avengers:
RB: Avengers is fascinating to me, in that it opens on The Celestials, right after the work of Al Ewing dealt so heavily with them, and given it is touching on The Celestials, it also loops in The Eternals. And its take on both is…a choice. What’d you make of it, Vishal?
VG: Yeah, it certainly is a choice! Aaron decides to kill the Eternals off-panel in a move that did not faze anyone and decided to completely rewrite the mythology of the Celestials. The biggest and most baffling change was the idea that the reason Earth has so many superhumans is because the Progenitor, one of the oldest Celestials in the universe, died and its blood spilled all over the planet. This is a move I can only compare to Geoff Johns’ take in his Green Lantern that Earth is actually the center of the universe – while Geoff made it explicit in text, Aaron arguably made it even sillier by doing this strange subtext around Earth being important. We didn’t need it.
Of course, Aaron also had to make the Celestials nothing more than Loki’s lackeys, once again taking these immense stakes and making them feel meaningless. Not that they were necessarily believable beforehand, but to introduce this all-encompassing mythological entity and then just make it the henchman to an established villain feels pointless. We could have just had a normal Loki arc.
But I think Aaron’s Avengers is much less about the big conceptual ideas he comes up with, because even he doesn’t really spend much time with them. The book is instead about the structure of the Avengers, promising a return to a form that doesn’t exist. The book begins with Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor talking about being the “Big Three” of the Avengers and how the Avengers aren’t really the Avengers without them. Which is baffling when you consider that the Avengers existed for quite some time without any of them as active members. Ritesh, how does this blatant desire to appear like the Justice League strike you?
RB: It feels…odd to me. Like, I get it. I see what it is trying to do. It is blatantly aspiring to that Grant Morrison/Howard Porter JLA era of bombast and Big Ideas, the ‘every-month can be an event’ esque sensibilities. The idea of The Biggest Characters Of The Marvel Universe having The Biggest Adventures. It tries to grant the cosmic importance The Avengers in the cinema hold, but in the comics, and specifically in a post-Jonathan Hickman/Al Ewing Avengers world.
But it never feels like it actually has The Big Ideas the way Morrison did? Or even the way Hickman or Ewing did? It instead is this bizarre reduction of The Marvel Universe. Wherein Ewing’s Ultimates felt like it significantly expanded the wonder, mystery, and grandeur of The Marvel Universe, Aaron’s retcons and vision feel insular. They shrink it all down to his bizarrely constrained Unified Theory Of Marvel Mythology. In the end, I think it just dilutes and takes away from the magic and fundamental appeal of the setting it seeks to capture.
The most laughably odd (if blatant) choice to me indicating this is when Aaron’s run basically goes ‘Hey…What If…The Justice Legion…but rather than DC One Million The Future, it’s DC One Million The Past?’
Thus you get The Avengers 10, 000 BC.
VG: Yes! And where The Justice Legion implied that the universe grew from the icons that we are seeing for the first time – that we’re watching something that inspired everything that is to come – the Avengers BC imply that everything in the current Marvel Universe is just a rehash of something that happened millennia ago.
Jean Grey becoming the Phoenix feels cheap when there was a prehistoric redhead woman who became the Phoenix already. Ghost Rider is completely forgettable now that there’s an ancient Ghost Rider who rides a skeleton mammoth. Danny Rand is even more cliché than before now that there’s an Iron Fist of the Past. Why does anything that we’re reading matter?
Even worse is the setup of Mephisto as this all-encompassing master planner who’s been scheming and plotting against the Avengers the whole time. Once again, this just makes everything feel small and insular. Darkseid in Morrison’s JLA did what he always did – the Justice League had very little to do with his plans, they just stood in his way. He doesn’t scheme to stop a team of super heroes, he doesn’t focus his efforts around them… he simply is.
What Aaron’s run ultimately ends up being is an unnecessary attempt to make the Avengers like the Justice League – it creates this “core cast” built around a “trinity” with a few guest stars that vary between arcs, and it throws these characters at the largest-scale conflicts Aaron can come up with. But by being this, it betrays the Avengers and the Marvel Universe as it exists and renders the whole endeavor meaningless.
RB: A lot of this run feels like the case of ‘Answering questions no one was asking’, as in, it’s cooler to imagine and imply certain things rather than definitively answer them. Some things don’t need to be shown, some things don’t need to be explained or answered. Part of the fun of a gigantic macro-construction like a Marvel Universe or a DC Universe is all the gaps, all the stuff that you yourself fill-in. It’s the questions. You don’t need to have every single detail of this thing broken down, with everything shown.
So, certainly, while it is reasonable that a lot of these ‘legacy’ ideas, like Iron Fist, Black Panther, Ghost Rider, could have very early iterations, doing them the way this run does, and calling them ‘The Avengers’ just feels cheap. The whole thing, rather than embracing the chaos, the mess, the wonder and ‘gaps’ of the shared-universe and construct, feels too obsessed with drawing some kind of ‘Marvel Universe Explained’ conclusion.
And y’know what? Some stuff needn’t be. This isn’t a company report, it’s a story.
Although, I will say, I am genuinely fascinated by the choice of Mephisto as The Ur-Antagonist of The Avengers, if only because it feels like such a baffling choice.
VG: It really is, isn’t it? I can’t think of any point where Mephisto has ever truly felt like he mattered, outside of the one infamous storyline where he’s literally a stand-in for Marvel editorial. I get that Aaron wanted to use someone known for scheming, since his entire run hinges on the idea that this evil has been manipulating its way through the course of history. But Mephisto? Really?
We’ve found out that Mephisto brought back Tony Stark’s father all evil-like and that he’s been whispering in the ears of all the Avengers’ greatest foes since the Avengers first formed in 10,000 BC. And all this revelation does is cheapen everything it touches. Mephisto matters less than ever, the Avengers matter less than ever, and Iron Man’s going through a dull version of Grant Morrison’s run on Batman. There’s nothing here.
RB: I noted it precisely because the transparent Morrison influence struck me. Beyond JLA, Mephisto felt blatantly like the Doctor Hurt-figure of the whole thing, and there’s so many elements that echo the Morrison influence that I was thinking about Aaron’s choice.
The problem, I think, ultimately boils down to this: Aaron doesn’t actually have much to say on the matter of The Devil, whereas someone like Morrison is constantly enamored by it, always returning to it. Aaron wrote an entire run about Gods, both good gods, bad gods, and everything in between, and a lot of it is very much rooted in his inability to believe in gods, or a divine force, and trying to reckon with that.
The question always was ‘What is a worthy god?’ and while I don’t have positive thoughts on Aaron’s Thor tenure (I am not an Aaron Big Two fan, I enjoy him in indie), it felt like it had some semblance of identity, clarity and vision? Whereas this big, grand Avengers run, it opens on Gods, it opens on The Celestials, The Ur-Gods of The MU, it opens on The Death Of The Gods (and Angels), which feels like Big, Meaty material to work with. And then it sets up the grand antagonist as The Devil.
That’s actually a remarkably solid set-up to say and do big things. There’s potential meat there. There’s so much you could chew on and do. Immortal Hulk, for instance, is an entire text obsessed with Devil Figures, much in the way, say, Morrison’s work is. But I read Avengers, and I truly wonder what the point, purpose, and deliberations of its invocations are. What are you trying to express, on a personal level, as you do all these shenanigans?
If Thor is about Man and God, Avengers ought to be about Man and The Devil, yes? Thus, Tony Stark becomes a vital instrument to consider that, given his history and nature. But… there’s none of that. I’m describing a work that doesn’t exist. I’m constructing that which isn’t, because Aaron consistently seems to struggle to make anything meaningful with what he’s got.
VG: The devil isn’t the least of Aaron’s key focuses in this run, though – he spends arguably even more time doing commentary on DC Comics and the Justice League with his Squadron Supreme. The Squadron’s always been a pastiche/parody of DC Comics, and Aaron’s definitely using that for his own ends – he even got Ed McGuinness to redesign them all to look like Howard Porter’s JLA.
This is continuing into Heroes Reborn, which posits that in a universe where the Avengers never formed, we basically get… DC Comics. There’s no Captain America or Iron Man or Thor, there’s Hyperion and Nighthawk and Power Princess(?). Peter Parker isn’t Spider-Man, he’s a Jimmy Olsen Analogue. The Shi’ar Imperial Guard, who were created as riffs on the Legion of Superheroes, are still just a riff on the Legion of Superheroes. But the problem is, it feels like he doesn’t have very much to say about DC or Marvel here.
RB: The wildest thing to me, reading Aaron’s run, is that I am in no way shape or form interested in his takes on The Avengers. I don’t care for his take on Cap or Carol or Hulk, I have no investment or interest in his Black Panther or Blade. I am not chomping at the bit to see this team interact. I am unmoved and disinterested in all of the characterizations of these Avengers characters.
But! However! I read Aaron’s Squadron Supreme, and I am fascinated. In what I consider the single best issue of the run, Aaron basically revamps the Squadron and tells you their origin story, with them as The American Superhero Team, this militaristic strike force working for the government from Washington DC (lol). And it is…a hilarious piss-take on modern Justice League, specifically Geoff Johns’ New 52 Justice League, which was basically DC Ultimates.
The most telling moment is when a dude looks at Power Princess, the WW pastiche, and says ‘Make her like Thor, but with Boobs’, and it’s a genuinely hilarious, on-point bit. While I’m not sure Aaron has much to say on the Marvel characters, it DEFINITELY feels like he has thoughts on the state of modern Justice League comics, or at least how they could be used to make a point.
Aaron’s Avengers isn’t a character-first comic, it’s a big Action Blockbuster. It’s a Big Moments book, of Event Scale. As such, it works best in broad sweeping motions and grand gestures. And that’s effectively what The Squadron Supreme Of America is. It’s the biggest, widest gesturing possible, which is why it works, even if Aaron isn’t exactly making compelling characterization for any of those characters.
Partly what’s interesting to me here is, not that Aaron really explores this too much, the work trying to shift The Avengers away from the films, in a sense. The MCU Avengers are, even in the most generous interpretations, an American Imperialist Task Force, often in cahoots with the military.
And this is the run where The Avengers are no longer ‘The American Team’, that’s the government-operated SSA, in the iconography of DC heroes. The Avengers are now instead run by Black Panther, a Wakandan leader, whose country has recently moved towards a more democratic system, as opposed to its previous blunt monarchistic system. And that, the idea of moving The Avengers away from America, having a Wakandan man take charge of the whole operation, as leader, distancing itself from that context? That’s potentially interesting! Like, imagine that in the hands of a Black writer who isn’t American! I’d love to see that!
The frustrating thing is, in the end, Aaron rarely does anything worthwhile with any of this. The best angle, the most genuinely interesting angle of Aaron’s entire run, is the kind of geo-political situation, wherein every nation develops its own superhero team, with The Namor and The Defenders Of The Deep representing Atlantis, The Winter Guard representing Russia, so on and so forth. There’s a sense of international scope and possibility. There’s a global conflict and shift in power, as things are rapidly changing.
It’s glowing with possibility! This should be an incredible, momentous thing with weight! It could be an exciting, epic Avengers run. But it isn’t! Because it does absolutely nothing with this, dropping this angle for a good chunk of its run. For all its international setup, the limitations of its White American writer, its insular perspective, become immediately apparent. It’s a comic that has notions, but little else. It knows what it wants to gesture at, but it does little more than gesture, in the end.
VG: This is why I’ve got my eyes on Heroes Reborn. I don’t expect much from it, but it’s Aaron’s biggest opportunity to say something interesting. But what I feel like has been forgotten even amidst the mostly-forgotten Squadron stuff is the other super-teams that were created at the same time. Aaron created a Russian super-team called the Winter Guard, and an Atlantean one called the Defenders of the Deep. And they basically haven’t shown up in over a year. This was the point where I genuinely thought the run was going to be interesting, and I feel like it’s telling that they just haven’t been followed upon at all.
Even more noteworthy is Aaron’s replacement for the Secret Avengers – the Agents of Wakanda. It is honestly absurd that there is a superhero team whose special ops division is run through an African nation. Not even getting into the potential racial implications here, this is a kingdom that basically runs a team of superheroes. Why is this not a bigger deal in the text?
RB: Right? Like, that’s just it. It’s what I mean by notions and gesturing. It goes ‘What If’ and then never actually sits down and considers what it’s doing. It’s how you get that racist scene with the Vibranium Grill in the recent Phoenix arc, or the uhh ‘The Phoenix is actually The Thunderbird’ mess, alongside a whole host of other tasteless, awful things.
So much of Aaron’s run is frustrating because you can see how, in other, more considerate hands, it could maybe be something, without all the careless, poor choices and problems. It could say something, but it just never does, beyond offensive nonsense.
VG: The Thunderbird thing is something I want to touch on, because it’s both a pointless and unnecessary choice, and also an incredibly careless, bordering on offensive, one. The explanation is offered by the character of Echo, who, in Marvel, is Cheyenne. Jason Aaron, seeing that she was Native American, seems to have thought that would be a good way to connect the Thunderbird to the Phoenix, but missed that the Cheyenne themselves do not worship a Thunderbird. Native American tribes have vastly different belief systems and lumping them all together is somehow both completely expected and still surprisingly tone deaf.
Even beyond this one instance, there’s a whole arc where an Egyptian God takes over the planet using Moon Knight, and there’s absolutely no thought put into it beyond its aesthetic level. The entire run feels so centrally white in how it approaches all cultures that aren’t “standard American.” There’s so many places for Aaron to dig into some of the concepts he’s bringing in. There’s so many opportunities to justify and legitimize these half-baked ideas. But instead, he just moves onto the next big story climax.
Ultimately, I think the core problem with Avengers – the problem that prevents the entire run from succeeding, not just specific stories – is that Aaron is trying far too hard to make this book “central” to the Marvel Universe. He’s trying to convince us all that it’s important. But because of the nature of this shared universe, the fact that all these high-stakes conflicts keep happening in the book without any impact on the rest of the line, it’s hard to believe that any of this is important. This is best exemplified by Heroes Reborn, in which the only ongoing book that’s being affected is Avengers – the rest of the line is just continuing without notice.
It’s funny in a cynical way, then, that the DC counterpart to this run – the one from around the same time and with a similar ethos – fails in such a similar way. What’s more interesting though is how Snyder’s Justice League fails in ways unique to itself.
NEXT: TO THE HALL OF JUSTICE!