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Uncanny Avengers vol. 3: Ragnarok Now

August 28, 2014

We saw the setup for this epic storyline in the previous volume, and now the narrative barrels on full steam ahead.  It’s the Avengers Unity squad vs. The Apocalypse Twins and their horsemen for the fate of Earth itself.  This arc recently concluded in serialized form after eighteen issues -- a virtual eternity in today’s market -- and we see here that every one of those issues is likely to be necessary to the story.  Death and destruction abound here, but there’s meaning to it all that adds weight to the epic scale writer Rick Remender is working with here.

While this arc wasn’t billed as a trilogy, it is being collected in three volumes.  As is the case with any planned trilogy, our heroes reach their lowest point in this middle part.  The members of the fractured Unity squad fight the Twins’ horsemen inside and outside their pocket universe while Eimin and Uriel make their pitch to the Scarlet Witch.  They want her to kickstart their plan to rapture all of the mutants off of Earth onto the paradise world of Planet X.  With their species safe, the Twins then plan to let the Celestials destroy Earth and rob their hated adopted father Kang of his conquest.  Kang and his future self Immortus have their own plans to avert this catastrophe, and they involve a recruitment drive of notable characters from future timelines in the Marvel Universe.  As for the members of the Unity squad, success hinges on them overcoming their differences and working together long enough to put a stop to the bad guys’ plans.

Now, if you heard about the controversy that erupted when two prominent female characters were killed in the course of this arc, then you know that the Unity squad utterly fails to do that in addition to being unable to live up to their name.  The thing about those deaths, and the one that follows a few issues later is that they ultimately “don’t matter.”  As certain events in “Ragnarok Now” will make abundantly clear, the reset button will be hit before this storyline is over.

This may feel like a cheat for some.  After all, how are we supposed to care about these events if they’re just going to be reversed at a certain point.  I say that the fact that this act is built into the core of the storyline makes it easier to take.  Instead of being used as a storytelling “get out of jail free” card at the end of an arc, we have to consider the matter of how the reset button is going to be hit and what everyone is going to be like afterwards.  Given that Kang and Immortus are involved here, it’s not too hard to see that time travel will be used to undo a lot of the events here.  However, I can’t begin to guess at how the specifics of that will work or what other tricks those two have up their sleeves in the meantime.  That tension helps to keep me interested.

What’s even more important to making the events of this story matter are the feelings of the characters themselves.  These world-ending circumstances are still very real to them, and Remender does an excellent job of conveying the fear and desperation they feel as victory starts to slip away.  There’s Rogue, who takes some extreme measures to avert the crisis at hand and starts paying for them almost immediately afterwards.  Captain America faces these impossible odds with his brand of square-jawed heroism that takes him far… but ultimately not far enough.  Then you’ve got Thor, who gets some of the best scenes in this volume as we get to see him angry in a way that’s rare for the character.  Don’t expect a berserker viking rage -- we get a Thor who is shamed by the knowledge that his creation of the axe Jarnbjorn helped set these events in motion, but utterly committed to setting things right even at the cost of his own flesh.  When he shows up to face the Twins, telling them to surrender or that he’ll kill them both, you really feel that he means business here.

Even though he doesn’t have as prominent a role, Wolverine also faces a reckoning of his own here.  Drawing again on events from his “Uncanny X-Force” run, Remender pits Logan against his son Daken who has been raised from the dead as one of the Twins’ horsemen.  While the vicious words of the other horsemen -- Banshee, The Sentry, and the Grim Reaper -- can be attributed to the particular brand of mad science that’s involved in the process of becoming a horseman, Daken’s words feel very much in character.  In fact, it’s not surprising that Daken would taunt Wolverine for killing him, his son, and reveal that the act was caught on a video by Sabretooth that has since found its way into the Red Skull’s hands.

In the context of the story from “Uncanny X-Force,” Daken’s death felt like an inevitability.  Not only did Logan’s future self tell him about how his kid would go on to murder the students of the Jean Grey School, but Daken himself was presented as an unrepentant psychopath who deserved to die.  Seeing Wolverine drown his kid was harsh, dramatic, but ultimately necessary given the circumstances.  Here, Remender doesn’t really reverse himself but explores the consequences of that act in greater detail as well as Logan’s continued reliance on killing to solve all of his problems.  That has grave consequences when Rogue uses her powers to absorb his and employ a lethal solution to the Twins’ plans.  Even though Wolverine pleads with her to find a solution that doesn’t involve killing, it’s an effort that feels halfhearted and comes too late to change anything.

This is why I’m starting to warm up to the whole “Death of Wolverine” business.  With his character being broken down in his main title and his methods being shown to be ineffective here, something has to give with the character.  After he dies and goes away for a while, I’d like to think that whoever is tasked with bringing him back is going to have to find a way to balance the fact that while he’s someone who can make the hard choices to kill if necessary, he’s capable of finding another solution if that would lead to a better outcome.  All of this being said, I do like the fact that after castigating him for his methods, the Wasp is put in a situation where she has the chance to kill one of the horsemen in order to save lives.  This may be seen as muddying the issue, but it just shows that there are no right answers when it comes to taking a life.

Most surprisingly, the majority of the art in this volume is handled by Steve McNiven.  I say “surprisingly” because the artist is usually involved in event series like “Civil War,” or high-profile launches like the second volume of Brubaker’s “Captain America,” or Bendis “Guardians of the Galaxy.”  You don’t see him on monthly comics much, mainly because he tends to destroy deadlines with his detailed work.  Not only did that not happen here, but he kills virtually every scene in the last two-thirds of the volume.  The emotion on the characters faces -- from Logan’s fear at Rogue’s actions, to Thor’s hate towards the Twins -- is vividly rendered on each page.  He also gives the narrative a convincing sense of scale to match Remender’s storytellling ambitions, best seen when the Celestial shows up to pass judgment on Earth and EVERYONE has to pitch in to hold off doomsday.  That’s not to say that Salvador Larroca and regular artist Daniel Acuna don’t turn in solid work with their respective issues, but with McNiven it’s a case of a talented artist being served up some challenging material and knocking it right out of the park.

When this series launched, it felt like it was meant to demonstrate the worst of Marvel’s market-manipulating practices with its twenty-plus variant covers and advance-solicited collection that let us know it would cost $25 to read the first four issues in hardback.  I mention this because it only reinforced my long-standing habit of waiting for most Marvel collections to hit paperback before I read them.  This one, I picked up for half-price at Comic-Con and it has made me very anxious to find out how this arc is going to end.  So do I stick to my guns and wait for the collection to come out… next year, or bite the bullet and pick up the hardcover of “Avenge the Earth” in September.  I’m entertaining a middle-ground solution to my dilemma, and if it works you’ll be seeing my review of the next volume before the end of the year.  Until then, I’ll just have to deal with those final pages of Thor, Odin, and a whole lot of regret on my own terms.

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