After putting out over 110 mostly excellent issues of “Ultimate Spider-Man,” there should be no doubt that Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley work really well together. While they’ve collaborated on a few projects outside of that title, nothing they’ve done yet has managed to equal that legendary run. That holds true for their work on the first volume of “Avengers Assemble” and their creator-owned title “Brilliant.” Neither are essential reads, but there’s still entertainment to be had from experiencing them. That’s even more true if you can find them for half of their cover price like I did.
This volume of “Avengers Assemble” effectively reads like volume zero of Bendis “Guardians of the Galaxy” series. Things start off conventionally enough with a new version of the Zodiac appearing on the scene to steal some items of incredible power from the U.S. Army and sources unknown for their own benefit. While Cap, Iron Man, Thor, Hawkeye, Black Widow, and the Hulk are able to get one of these items back, the action quickly escalates when the Zodiac take the fight to the heroes and their mysterious backer is revealed to be none other than Thanos. (It’s not a spoiler, he’s on the back cover.) With the arrival of the Mad Titan, the stakes become cosmic and the Guardians of the Galaxy show up to take part in the fight. It’s a battle royale of epic proportions with the fate of the universe at stake, which turns out to be a good and bad thing for the story.
In regards to the good, there’s the story’s evolving scope over the length of its narrative. Things start out as a simple fight against a new and improved version of an old enemy and steadily escalate to a fight of cosmic significance. Though I liked how things changed over the course of this volume, the significance of the cosmic threat isn’t pulled off very well as you never feel that the Marvel Universe is going to end in a story from an “Avengers” C-title. Still, Bendis and Bagley keep the action flowing at a steady clip and while the fighting does get to feel a bit grind-y after a while, a good sense of fun permeates the goings-on here. It feels that the creators were trying to create their own “Avengers” movie -- appropriate, given that the first issue here launched in time for the “Avengers” film -- unhindered by things like casting or budget. The end result is a decent enough effort that still feels like it bit off more than it can chew.
So if this represents their take on the “Avengers” movie, then “Brilliant” can be summed up as their version of “The Social Network.” Well… that might be stretching things a bit as the college students in this story don’t create a generation-defining website, but unlock the key to superpowers. Flight, super-strength, bulletproof skin, energy projection -- they may just be the tip of the iceberg for Amadeus and his crew, but he also needs his friend Albert to help perfect the formula. It’s Albert who serves as our point-of-view character into this particular circle of friends and their discovery. Though they try, it doesn’t stay secret for long and then people start getting hurt. This is a world-changing discovery, though what it’s going to change the world into is anybody’s guess right now.
The means by which these students came up with a formula for superpowers is (smartly) never explained. If you can accept that, then you’ll likely enjoy this story that is more about success changes people than what superhuman abilities they’re able to create. Amadeus’ lets power corrupt him, his girlfriend Maria starts losing it, and the businessman father of Kindred -- who kinda got the whole thing started -- makes moves to have his son legally control the formula. Albert winds up being a reactive presence to all this as well as a voice of reason in all the craziness. That could’ve been really boring, but Bendis’writing makes him into a strong and intelligent presence here. In fact, the writer’s dialogue feels more vibrant here writing ordinary people and their issues than what I’ve been reading in his superhero work as of late. Bagley pays him back in kind by finding the right balance in his style between the ordinary and the fantastic. My main concern with the story so far is that the use of superpowers has been pretty dramatic with the users in question not having any awareness of the consequences of their actions. I can see that Bendis wanted to have this out in the open as soon as possible, but it still feels rushed with the side effect of making his characters look pretty dumb.
Even so, things end on an interesting note that sets up a public battle for the rights to the formula, which sounds more interesting than seeing who else in the cast is going to wind up with powers. Though there are some nods towards it in “Avengers Assemble,” that human element is largely missing amidst all of the cosmic shenanigans of its narrative. “Brilliant” is the better of these two books, but both volumes feel overpriced in their current formats with this one collecting five issues in a $25 hardcover and the other being a $30 paperback collecting eight issues. Picking them up at Comic-Con for half-off did make the decision to pick them up a lot easier on my end. Also, “Brilliant’s” serialization has currently spiraled off into the same black hole that Bendis’ other creator-owned projects currently occupy so there’s no telling when vol. 2 will arrive and the interesting ideas of vol. 1 will be followed-up on. Disappointing as this is, I’ll still pick it up when it comes out along with any future projects from Bendis & Bagley. These two volumes show that the creators still do good, but not great, work together.