Tuesday, May 3, 2011
The Heroic Age And Its Discontents
One year ago, Marvel's big thing was the Heroic Age, returning to a place of heroes being heroes and villains being villains after years of Civil Wars and Dark Reigns. Today, this is giving way for Fear Itself, which so far has the Marvel Universe public returning to their usual state of apocalyptic panic and incompetent xenophobia. The age of the bright, cheery shared universe status quo is ending, in favor of Mighty Marvel chaos and trepidation.
And I, for one, am relieved by this development.
The Heroic Age reminded me of Civil War in the sense that the only good titles published under that banner were rebelling AGAINST the basic premise, wether intentional or not. When Civil War was going on, the framework set up by Mark Millar was so shoddy that every other writer ended up contradicting the original intention, as seen in stories where Iron Man is portrayed as an outright villain (which, to be fair, is the only thing you can do with the creator of Clor) instead of one of two morally relative sides, or stories where the heroes' attempts to capture actual wrong-doers are hobbled by bureaucracy and petty in-fighting. The Heroic Age doesn't suffer from the same problem in the sense that it's not a poorly built world-- the premise is pretty straightforward. The problem with the Heroic Age is that the setup is anti-dramatic.
Marvel's marketing of the Heroic Age was the kind of "everything's going to be alright" optimism seen during Obama's inauguration, and lost after reality set in. Because the Marvel Universe is fictional, the authors could convincingly sweep the recent past under the rug and move forward, as seen by Cyclops dodging any and all penalties for his sins in X-Force. But by the same token, peace and prosperity is NOT ideal for a fictional universe. Conflict is what motivates good drama, but the Heroic Age moved the Marvel Universe into a peacetime state, with the conflicts largely regressed back to isolated supervillain fisticuffs.
If this meant a return to books that were relatively self-contained with shared universe compatibility becoming optional, I would be all for the Heroic Age. But Marvel launched it as the new status quo for all the books. The new Director of SHIELD, a job whose occupant is required to appear in every Marvel book, is Steve Rogers. Since his reputation makes Abraham Lincoln look like a child pornographer, he'll never be caught doing the kinds of morally dubious things Nick Fury and Tony Stark had to do (and which gave Norman Osborn a hard-on). His Avengers are basically every hero under the sun, pro-registration and anti-registration alike (though that issue's been removed). And his enmity with Tony Stark was resolved in Avengers Prime, which amounted to an Asgardian adventure making Tony beg for forgiveness (despite having a good case for pro-registration, random acts of evil like Clor aside), and Steve forgiving him.
The X-Men's DeciMation dilemma was resolved, but in a half-assed way that swept the issue of the limited mutant population under the rug and exonerated Cyclops for unforgivable sins-- note how Steve Rogers doesn't seem to know about X-Force, the Legacy Virus strain in Secret Invasion, or other war crimes. Their first Heroic Age story basically ignored the hard questions and had them fight vampires, offering little more than inconsequential fight scenes and Twilight-bandwagoning*. Daredevil's descent into fanaticism would have been justified by what he'd been through and what the heroes had conveniently forgotten, but it turned out that it was just a demon using him as a meat-puppet. And the Secret Avengers' first mission (not sure about their later ones) hardly fit the tone that black ops requires, instead having them fight villains on Mars. As Ellis put it (IIRC), it's secret because nobody cares.
The books that have been genuinely compelling in the Heroic Age have been the ones questioning this optimism. Avengers Academy is the best example, because it deals with the kids traumatized by Norman Osborn's experiments, and has them counseled by the Avengers with the most baggage of their own. Captain America has made a big deal about how Bucky can't escape his past, especially when standing next to a living Steve Rogers. And the new X-Force, with Wolverine leading a team of hardened anti-heroes instead of child soldiers, openly acknowledges that some situations will require resolutions that can't be seen in the Heroic Age. Of course, these are all stories going against the nature of the Heroic Age's naive optimism. They're saying, don't let the bright marketing fool you-- the life of a hero still casts shadows.
What's been the most interesting example of the Heroic Age's tension is Stark Resilient, the first post-lobotomy story by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larocca. Thanks to erasing his brain (and the Registration Database with it), Tony doesn't remember any of his Civil War-era sins. But he's pieced together what he's done, and has almost completely stepped out of the military-industrial complex that informs modern superhero stories. Not only has he retired from his role as all-seeing police chief a la Major Zero**, but he's given up trying to engage in conflict unless provoked. His goal is to win wars preemptively by eliminating reasons for conflict, be it with the repulsor batteries threatening to replace oil, or by creating new jobs in the rebuilding of Asgard. Unfortunately, his engagement with the bad guys has gone beyond self-defense and towards an obstructive pacifism, as he simply tries to avoid conflict rather than resolving it (as seen by his show of faux-groveling in the Doc Ock story). He'll have to once more learn that sometimes force is a necessary solution, and that some enemies can't be coaxed with the promise of an improved quality of life.
Still, it's preferable to slugging vampires.
*Thank God Jubilee lost her original mutant powers, otherwise she'd be a Sparkling Vampire.
** If you've played Metal Gear Solid 4, you know just how well this comparison fits.