Dark Avengers: The Deconstruction of the Marvel Antihero
Thunderbolts showed that a team of villains pretending to be heroes could turn their lives around, but not every villain team can succeed.
Thunderbolts begins a brand new volume under the team of Jim Zub and Jon Malin. Ever since showing up in the late ’90s, Thunderbolts has always been one of my favorite series. It’s rarely had a bad creative run and it’s had some very interesting directions. The new series tries to call back to the original version of the team, back during the years when Kurt Busiek and later Fabian Nicieza took the pen.
As a fan of redemption stories, I can’t praise the Busiek and Nicieza stuff enough. One of the better touches is that over the years, all the original members redeem themselves in some fashion and become good guys, even if only temporarily. MACH, Songbird, Atlas, Moonstone, Fixer, and even Baron Zemo have had their days in the sun. As it stands right now, MACH and Songbird are the only ones who are truly heroes, but we’ll see how the series shakes out over time.
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There are so many great runs on that book, even for ones that had little-to-nothing to do with the Zemo concept and were Thunderbolts in name only (ie. the fight club storyline and the Red Hulk era). Thinking it over, I realized that in the end, one of the best Thunderbolts runs is a comic that isn’t even called Thunderbolts.
The first volume of Dark Avengers by Brian Michael Bendis and Mike Deodato Jr. (with a couple fill-in artists) is required reading for any Thunderbolts fan. It’s practically a sequel to the stuff that Warren Ellis and Chris Gage wrote with four of the same major characters and it has the same basic hook as the original Thunderbolts storyline. It’s about a madman dressing up villains as heroes to fool the public and basically using the ruse to rule the world.
It lasted sixteen issues, stretched across the “Dark Reign” Marvel era. At first glance I thought it was a fun time-killer in a status quo that would never stick. Over time I realized it was actually a brilliant counterpart to Thunderbolts. The Dark Avengers are the antithesis of the Thunderbolts, showing that not just anyone can follow in their footsteps and rekindle the magic.
After years of getting more and more “deconstruction of superheroes” books, we got a team book that exists as a deconstruction of antiheroes. It’s a story where everybody fails to meet their own potential and none of the team members come out of it looking good. They merely trip on their way towards redemption. It only makes it more remarkable when scumbags like the Fixer, Deadpool, or Max Damage step up and become something better.
Now, I should note that I’m talking specifically about the book itself, as well as Siege, which is ultimately what Dark Avengers is meant to lead to. During the Dark Reign scenario, Daken had an ongoing, Moonstone took over Ms. Marvel’s ongoing, and Venom, Ares, and Bullseye each had their own minis. All of these made them out to be horrible monsters, not to mention all the many guest villain appearances they make during this time.
Dark Avengers is a different story. But in the end, not really.
I’m going to talk about each character from least important to most. That means starting with Daken because you could have removed him from the entire book and you wouldn’t have noticed outside of that nothing Dark X-Men crossover.
Daken is the ultimate paradox. He’s the angry, rebellious son of the man who defined being angry and rebellious. Having him as a member of both the Dark Avengers and Dark X-Men, all under the guise of the “official government Wolverine,” is openly a joke about his father being on every team.
It makes sense that he’s so forgettable here. The real Wolverine stood out on every team because he was unique. He was the savage killer always looking for a fight. Being on a team with guys like Ares, Bullseye, and Venom puts Daken at a disadvantage. He’s already on a team of Wolverines, so what’s the point?
But the important thing here is that Wolverine works because despite being a cynical maverick who’s always mouthing off and instigating violence, he still gives a damn. He was an X-Man because he believed in Xavier’s teachings and philosophy. He was an Avenger because he believed in heroism and what Captain America represents. He led X-Force because he believed in going to extremes to protect innocent mutants from the wicked.
Daken believes in nothing. He values nothing. He does nothing but occasionally remind us that he exists.
Venom – the team’s Spider-Man – barely does any more than Daken. When he isn’t being a hulking cannibal, Venom plays the part of the comic relief. From taking meds to sedate the alien symbiote, Mac Gargan comes off as extra emotional and sensitive.
When Bullseye threatens to kill Venom, he doesn’t react by posturing back, but instead tattles on him to Victoria Hand. When they take down Man-Thing, Venom proceeds to mope about how heartbreaking it is. Unlike Daken, Venom actually cares about stuff.
Nothing comes of it because even with forced emotions, Venom lacks conviction to be anything more. Without having a spine, he’s unable to even stand up for himself and spends the comic as an ineffectual laughing stock.
Noh-Varr/Marvel Boy/Captain Marvel is basically the team’s counterpart to Jolt from Thunderbolts. He’s the hero who joins the team without realizing for a while that they’re actually bad guys. His time on the team is incredibly short-lived as after the team’s first mission, he’s seduced by Moonstone and she casually mentions after sex that the team is really made up of villains.
Hearing that offhand remark is Noh-Varr’s final appearance in the book. The next issue’s cover shows him escaping while being chased by Venom, but it never happens. He’s simply gone and nobody knows what happened to him.
On one hand, it’s great that Noh-Varr chose not to be associated with these people. On the other hand, he did nothing but run and hide. He didn’t oppose them in any way. He didn’t try to help their enemies in any way. He simply chickened out and allowed them to continue.
With Dark Avengers being the antithesis of early Thunderbolts, you have Karla Sofen as the common factor, existing on both teams. Moonstone, branding herself as Ms. Marvel during this series, is a really fascinating character. She’s a self-serving master manipulator who lacks megalomaniacal goals. Sure, she’s interested in great power, but doesn’t care for the great responsibility that comes with it. She doesn’t want to rule the world because it’s simply too much work. She’d rather take advantage of people for her own personal gain as long as possible until it’s time for her to move on.
In essence, she’s about worming her way into comfort, no matter the situation. She’s as much a parasite as the creature attached to Mac Gargan’s hide, in the sense that she’s dependant on someone to exploit and give her what she wants. This backfired in the best way when she tried that on Hawkeye as she ended up being taken in by his personality and it made her question herself enough that she tried to be a good person for at least a little while.
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With the Dark Avengers, that doesn’t happen. She makes the best of being a prisoner with benefits by trying to appeal to Osborn. The moment it all goes south is when she accidentally causes Noh-Varr to fly the coup because Osborn screams in her face over it and she takes it as an insult. She stops respecting him after that and instead starts hitting on Bullseye.
Part of her actions are to openly rebel against Osborn. She’s acting out as a big middle finger. It’s just that instead of actually opposing Osborn in any meaningful way, she chooses to simply bang a guy who’s dressed as her ex. In essence, she just sits around and allows the empire to fall around her because annoying Osborn is one thing, but actually challenging him isn’t worth the trouble.
Ares is the only character to have any sliver of actual redemption on the team and he screws it up so badly that it ends up being meaningless. Despite being the most bloodthirsty member of the Mighty Avengers, Ares ends up being the heart of the Dark Avengers. He sees their potential and wants them to be honorable brothers in arms.
What’s important here is that Ares just doesn’t understand what kind of team he’s on and what kind of man he’s dealing with in Norman Osborn. It might not entirely be his fault. In his eyes, Osborn’s questionable morality doesn’t seem all that different from that of Tony Stark. Even though people he respects (Ms. Marvel, his son, Nick Fury) outright tell him that Osborn is bad news, Ares really can’t see the forest for the trees and never questions anything. He even points out that he himself is a murderer, so why should he care that Osborn has blood on his hands?
Ares eventually does realize something’s rotten, but it’s far too late. Things have gone too far and Ares quickly dies at the hands of the Void, his insides splattered across the battlefield.
Even though Osborn is easily the main character, Bullseye is the soul of the team and the book. As the brand new Hawkeye, Bullseye stands out and shows promise. As I said earlier, let’s ignore his actions in his miniseries or in Daredevil’s book. In Dark Avengers, Bullseye grabs us with his charisma and becomes genuinely likeable.
Early on, Ares addresses the team, but Bullseye especially.
“You Avengers, you listen to me! YOU LISTEN! Up until now, it mattered not what kind of men you were… But now the gods have chosen you, and you, and you to lead. To fight. Together. Aye! All of you! From this moment on, if you choose to act as a child…that is what you will be! And I will spank you like a child! But act as men, as noble men, and that is what you will be treated as.”
Not feeling that Bullseye takes his words seriously, he backhands him across the face.
“What you were then – did it make you a whole man? You take this chance. You be the man you’ve always dreamed of being. Be that man.”
What we see of Bullseye is that of someone we can easily root for. He’s snarky. He sees through everyone and tells it like it is. He’s badass. Even when he threatens his teammates, he isn’t in any way different from Wolverine who once threatened to disembowel Cyclops on a damn children’s cartoon.
He hits all the right qualities for us to get behind and when Moonstone starts hitting on him, her explanation isn’t that far off. He doesn’t seem like the psychotic lunatic from Ellis and Gage’s Thunderbolts. He’s better. He’s impressive and comes off as someone who, if the storytelling stars align just right, could become the next Deadpool and get a new lease on life.
One of the most important scenes in the book is in the fifteenth issue. Bullseye flies off with the Sentry’s wife Lindy and although we know Osborn’s orders to have her killed, Bullseye still comes off as kind of decent. He’s polite and down-to-earth, his smile makes him look exactly like Clint Barton Hawkeye, and he makes her feel safe to the point that she thanks him for it.
Then things take a horrible turn as he reveals his true self. He starts badmouthing her out of disgusted honesty. He’s constantly smiling, but now he looks purely evil. He basks in his vileness as he strangles Lindy to death and gets off on it.
Bullseye can never be anything more. He doesn’t want it. His reward is ultimately being punched into oblivion by Luke Cage.
NORMAN OSBORN AND THE SENTRY
Norman Osborn and the Sentry are equally as important because they’re linked. When one falls, so does the other.
While Bendis’ take on the Sentry is incredibly different from Paul Jenkins’ (which makes Jenkins’ post-Siege funeral issue eye-rollingly dumb), he’s a neat fixture in Bendis’ Avengers run. When introduced, he’s mostly a pretty cool guy because he has the support of Captain America and Iron Man to keep his head on straight. Then the Civil War registration era begins and he starts acting like more of a confused mess. He ends up falling by the wayside and Norman Osborn picks up the pieces.
The thing is, Osborn is believable in trying to help the poor guy. There’s a scene in Bendis’ Secret Invasion where Osborn confronts a Skrull imposter of Captain Mar-Vell who thought he was the real deal and is spiritually torn apart about the truth. Although Osborn is essentially manipulating him to get rid of him as a threat, Osborn’s saddened and sympathetic, “I’m so sorry,” is completely believable because it relates to his own mental problems.
Osborn during this time is interesting because of how he relates to the moral grayness of Marvel’s heroes. While the Sentry is a clear-cut good side and evil side, Osborn is an evil side and a…dickish side? I suppose it’s more a battle between order and chaos, but when you take away the Goblin aspects that make Osborn mentally ill, what are you left with? A pragmatist who gets hung up on spite. He has good intentions and the way he goes about his business puts him only a couple of degrees away from people like Nick Fury and Tony Stark. Yeah, he’s harsh in his ways, but he gets results!
Conceivably, a clear-minded Norman Osborn can do a lot of good for the world. That’s why Victoria Hand stays with him and tries to steer him in the right direction. It’s why his kinship with the Sentry early on feels almost heartwarming. They’re in this together. If Osborn can save the Sentry, then he can save himself. If the Void is defeated, so is the Green Goblin, and together Osborn and Sentry can save the world.
It’s just that Osborn can’t do it. There are a lot of reasons. He’s too stressed, he’s too driven, Loki’s messing with him, Molecule Man scrambled his brains, he isn’t getting his way, and he just might be too weak to win against his demons. His inability to cope and his desire to see results causes him to push the Sentry in the direction of being the Void. He thinks less about what he can do for the Sentry and more about what the Void can do for him.
It all blows up in his face as he feels compelled to start a war that causes his power structure to crumble. The Void is too corrupted from being Osborn’s plaything and he ends up being the big end boss for Bendis’ Avengers saga (before Bendis’ writing runs out of gas). Sentry is killed in the lamest way and the heroes decide to be pals again.
Osborn’s Avengers could have made a difference, but due to their own hang-ups, two are dead, and four are tossed in prison for their crimes.
In the final scene, Osborn no longer with anything to lose, speaks from the heart. Although callous, he was still intending to save the world and keep it safe in his own way. He just got tangled up with his Goblin persona, which he simply couldn’t escape. Despite everything, it’s actually kind of sad, if only because throughout the series, we could see him struggling. He did want psychiatric help at times and he was grateful that Victoria Hand was trying to hold him together.
As for Victoria Hand? Well, she was at least recognized for trying to make something out of this. Steve Rogers realized that although she worked with a bunch of villains and lunatics, she still believed that she could make the world a better place. That earned her a spot on his new New Avengers team and while Hand did sadly die a couple years later, Captain America still made sure she had a statue made in her honor because she was one of them.
So at least somebody was able to life their head high after this mess.
Gavin Jasper thinks it’s a shame that Superior Spider-Man didn’t happen during Dark Avengers. That could have been a fun time. Follow Gavin on Twitter!