Today, Drew and Ethan are discussing Avengers Assemble 14AU, originally released April 10th 2013. This issue is part of the Age of Ultron crossover event. Click here for complete AU coverage.
…it’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.
-Rachel Dawes, Batman Begins
Drew: I remember laughing out loud when I first heard Rachel’s lecture to Bruce in Batman Begins. It’s not that the scene was poorly acted, or even that the sentiment was that offensive, but that its underlying “who you are on the inside doesn’t count for much, after all” message flew in the face of essentially every 90s movie, from Beauty and the Beast to She’s All That. Of course, the message here is about action vs. sentiment — talk is cheap, if you will — rather than about superficiality, which makes it a more appropriate, if sensitive, topic for comics. It’s sensitive because we care about who our heroes are underneath. Does Superman’s moral strength come from never failing to want the right thing, or from never failing to do the right thing? Many fans may balk at finding out Superman has immoral thoughts, while others may find a squeaky-clean mind entirely unrelatable, making the very act of pulling back the curtain a precarious one. You might expect this discomfort to be smaller with more down-to-earth human characters, but as Al Ewing demonstrates in Avengers Assemble 14AU, the opposite might be true.
The issue details how Black Widow ends up in San Francisco (she was visiting friends), as well as how she got that gnarly facial scar (one of the friends’ bionic arms is taken over by Ultron during the invasion), but the real point of interest is Natasha’s internal monologue. The pastoral opening pages detail a woman who lives for her time off, valuing her time with her friends as sanity-restoring opportunities to be herself. Of course, it all quickly falls apart as Ultron descends on the city, kicking Black Widow into superhero mode. Unfortunately, she is unable to save a single other person — and even has to kill her own friend once his bionic arm takes control over him — which is apparently supposed to harden her to the world.
Only, I thought she already was battle-hardened. Granted, I’m still very new to this character, but my impression of her as an ex-KGB agent has always suggested that she’s ALL business. She’s cold, efficient, and above all, opportunistic. I can’t imagine this is the first time she’s had to leave the wounded behind. I mean, christ, her codename is “Black Widow” — I don’t think that’s because she was so careful about making sure everyone survived every encounter with her. I don’t mean to suggest that there’s no room to humanize her, just that her reactions seem more like those of a normal person in her situation, not those of a seasoned super-spy.
I think it’s that notion of Natasha being “seasoned” that’s really sticking for me here. Throughout the issue, Nat refers to her “training,” as in this sequence:
But is it really just her training? It would be easy for someone with a little experience to know better than their training, but Nat herself says that there’s “no time to reach him.” In that case, she’s not balancing her better judgement against her training, she’s ignoring both her better judgement AND her training — both of which accurately predicted that she wouldn’t be able to save this guy. So…why did she try to save him anyway? Basic decency? After she had already left behind countless wounded on the streets? I just don’t think it adds up.
Ewing gets a little more mileage out of her humanity at the end, where Natasha has to act strong in order to keep Moon Knight calm. It’s not lost on me that the lie she tells Moon Knight is more in line with what I wanted out of this story, but her “humanity” in the rest of the issue strains credulity a bit. Perhaps it’s more palatable here because it relies on her trusting her instincts and training, rather than arbitrarily going against them, but it certainly feels more like the Black Widow.
I don’t know, Ethan, am I way off-base here? I’ve otherwise been petty happy with the Age of Ultron crossover issues, but this one felt totally disposable, filling in pedantic details with equally pedantic explanations (“She just was in San Francisco, okay?”). Is Natasha’s humanization here better than I think it is?
Ethan: I agree that the characterization of Black Widow in this issue is oddly limiting/human. No, she doesn’t have any superpowers, per se, but she routinely holds her own face-to-face with excessively dangerous superpowered villains and emerges from the battles without a scratch. When Ultron showed, up, I admit that I too expected her to magically change into her famous slinky black uniform in a heartbeat and put a few slugs through the nearest Ultron drone. So her all-too-human capacity in this issue was — in that sense — a bit jarring and off-putting. That said, I think that this issue accomplished something that none of the previous Age of Ultron comics have done, which is to make Ultron’s takeover something that is truly awful.
Previous issues in this event have depicted a broken-down world – fallen skyscrapers, enormous piles of rubble – and have even dealt with the murder and even tragic, accidental deaths of heroes. But this issue shows us on a street-view level what the initial moments of the Armageddon were like for normal, non-superpowered non-superheroic people, and I think that in and of itself makes this a powerful and valuable addition* to the Age of Ultron event. The scenes of people running through the streets, being cut down by beams of energy as they flee, affected me more viscerally than all of the admittedly gloomy issues that preceded it.
The scene that really got to me was not the one in which Natasha’s friend’s prosthetic takes over his body and forces him to attack her; the one that really got to me was the one in the sewers. Black Widow has led everyone into the sewers to try to put some distance and asphalt between them and the airborne robots, only to find that Ultron has, of course, anticipated this move and cut off this avenue of escape: specialized drones have already arrived in the underground tunnels before them and begin to pump the sewer full of toxic fumes.
I’ve always had a special terror of deadly gases, ever since I learned about the use of mustard gas in the World War I. Or when I first heard about the gigantic bubbles of carbon dioxide that sometimes bubble up through crater lakes, flow down mountainsides and wipe out entire villages. Breathable air is something I take for granted every second of every day, so the idea that just the act of inhaling can be sufficient to kill you – sometimes slowly and painfully – is a nightmare.
And here we arrive at the crux of it. Ultron is just not another person that has been altered by chemicals/radiation/bad childhood. Ultron is not a person. Ultron shares no shred of what it means to BE a living organism save that which is buried deep within its programming thanks to the fact that it was created by a human. So when it comes time for Ultron to make its move, it makes some kind of twisted sense that it would opt to use every sort of weapon available. But this does not make it easier to read about. Granted, supervillains have always plotted to blow up the planet or flood it or irradiate it or whatever. Showing the scenes of a villain’s success in carrying out such a threat is, nonetheless, upsetting.
In the end, I agree that this issue may have departed a bit from the standards of comic book narrative, but ultimately I thought that the weight it brings to the story was worthwhile.
* Please let me pause for a second to say that writing this after the bombing of the Boston Marathon is a bummer. Best wishes to everyone who was affected by that attack. Just watching the video of the explosion made my skin crawl and I really cannot imagine what it was like to be there when it happened. I believe that there is value in using fiction to explore negative parts of reality so that we can think about the repercussions of horrible things without experiencing them directly, but I have tremendous respect for those who have lived through the worst things in life and my thoughts are with you now.
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