In case you had any doubts that Hickman’s two “Avengers” titles were different sides to the same story, this volume will put them to rest. So if you’ve been putting off reading “New Avengers” for some reason -- and the monthly sales numbers tell me that there are a lot of you -- then consider this a wake-up call. Yes, there are some issues with the main story here, but they’re worth putting up with for the moments that show the writer’s master plan coming together.
That being said, the one-off that opens the volume is free of those issues. “Rogue Planet” finds the core team relaxing in the wake of “Infinity” only to have their party crashed by an Iron Man from the far future. This version of the character brings disturbing news: A planet-sized hunk of space matter is flying through the cosmos on a collision course with Earth. The entire team has to mobilize in order to face this threat while Stark tries to figure out just who this new Iron Man is and if it’s even a person at all.
Even if it’s only for a few pages, seeing the team party down on the top of Avengers Tower with Thor manning the barbecue and Hulk in charge of pies reinforces the sense of camraderie enjoyed by core team. This is exemplified further as they all work together to build the device that’s going to save the day, and the issue manages to capably pull off a story that does justice to its epic scale. Then things close on an ominous note as Stark finds out who the new Iron Man is and that the game he’s playing with the Illuminati is about to come to light.
Which serves as a reasonable segue into the title story, “Adapt or Die,” and brings A.I.M. back into the pages of this title. Last seen harvesting the DNA of the Avengers while they were passed out in Perth, Australia, we finally find out just what they were up to there. This new batch of DNA is meant to serve as the basis for the latest iteration of Super Adaptoids that will help further their mad/bad/evil -- take your pick -- science plans. How best to try them out? By pitting them against the group of evil Avengers they mined from a dying universe.
That’s the ostensible core of the story for this arc. On its face, this is exactly as interesting as it sounds with these versions of Cap, Thor, Iron Man, Wasp, Ant-Man, and Hulk coming off as fairly generic world-conquering totalitarianists. Bruce Banner’s double flatly stating that he’s a sociopath is a particularly clumsy bit of characterization in that regard. The fighting isn’t that much more impressive and the conflict ends with an A.I.M. sponsored cop-out.
What saves this part of the volume from being completely forgettable are the bits of self-awareness, nastiness, and oddball humor Hickman throws in. As this isn’t the first alternate-universe version of himself he’s encountered, Cap’s first instinct (along with Carol Danvers’) is to wonder aloud if he’s a Nazi-backed version of himself named Sigmund. Then we find out how their version of Iron Man got his armor, which is grim even by current Marvel standards. As for the funny bits, well, your mileage may vary but I’ve found Hickman’s version of A.I.M. as science nerds gone bad to be quite amusing. Particularly the part here where their leader expresses his love of a really well designed term paper.
However, as the fighting is going on, the good stuff is being set up. The Super Adaptoids start evolving beyond their original specs and our version of Banner meets up with his doppleganger and manages to infiltrate A.I.M. on his own. It’s there that he learns some very specific information about the current state of the multiverse and then goes on to confront Stark over it. This leads to the most thrilling scene in the volume as Banner lays out everything he knows about what Stark has been up to, while the other scientist calmly asks him about the box he’s brought with him. It’s a sequence that’s filled with the frisson of a plan coming together as we find out the true nature of the Avengers Machine Stark has built and how he goes on to do the only logical thing to someone who has figured out all of his plans. Oh, and we get some payoff to a thread over in “New Avengers” about the Mapmakers as well. A.I.M.’s irresponsibility apparently knows no bounds.
It’s worth mentioning that the Banner/Stark conversation came off as well as it did thanks to the incredible work of artist Salvador Larroca. While he’s always been a great superhero artist, it would appear that his time with Matt Fraction on “Invincible Iron Man” has really allowed him to hone his skill at making talking heads seem incredibly exciting. The panel arrangement and emotions visible on the characters’ faces do just as good a job at building tension as the words themselves. Hickman and Larroca were completely in sync during this scene, in a way that’s not completely seen in the rest of the story. They do good work together, but things don’t really click until that final issue.
So there it is. A big chunk of Hickman’s “Avengers” plan is revealed along with a major twist in its status quo. The parts that are good make you wish some of the stuff around them was better, but the end result left me satisfied. “Adapt or Die” also does a good job of getting you excited for the rest of Hickman’s run as we only have one volume to go before the end begins in “Time Runs Out.” Not only does artist Lenil Yu return for the next volume, Cap remembers that his memory of the time he spent as a member of the Illuminati was wiped away by people he considered to be trusted friends and comrades. If that doesn’t sound like the recipe for some great superhero action, then I don’t know what does.