Today, Ethan and Drew are discussing Avengers 21, originally released October 16th, 2013. This issue is part of the Infinity crossover event. Click here for complete Infinity coverage.
Ethan: The Infinity arc has been many things: ambitious, epic, nail-biting, repetitive, crowded. The adjective that perhaps best describes the current bit of the story — Avengers #21 — is “compressed.” We’ve groused a bit about the many angles through which we were forced to watch the events of Starbrand wiping out a Builder fleet and an Avenger strike team freeing their teammates, so maybe this issue is a welcome departure from the exhaustive coverage of the previous battles. Yet I’d almost welcome an alternate perspective / re-hashing of the events of this issue, because it was anything but drawn-out. We get the meditations of supercomputers, hand-to-hand fighting across 6 different planets, absurdly dangerous decisions made by a handful of commanders far from the fighting. The brink of despair, total salvation, all in a couple dozen pages.
As Captain Universe’s children — the Ex Nihili — work to restore their mother to consciousness on the Shi’iar battleship Lilandra, Kree technicians work to repair a damaged Supreme Intelligence (apparently Accuser Ronan got a little hammer-happy and smashed its housing to make a point). Ronan leads the recently freed Accusers into battle against the Builders, at first successfully freeing other Builder-controlled worlds and growing his army, but eventually losing momentum as the numbers and sophistication of the Builders are brought to bear. Captain America and the rest of the Council make the call: release the Annihilation Wave. The portal to the Negative Zone is opened, and the Wave floods into their universe. Like the Accusers, it initially overwhelms the enemy, but suffers absolute rout when the Builders tap into the Wave’s hive-mind to turn it against itself. Even as the news of this defeat breaks, the Ex Nihili succeed in rousing Captain Universe, who instantaneously drops in on the Builders command vessel and destroys most of the enemy leadership. One surviving Builder lives long enough to issue an emergency code to the Aleph corps, instructing them to “destroy everything.”
Accuser Ronan did WHAT? Captain America gave the ok to do WHAT? Captain Universe did WH- ok you get the idea. I suppose that when you name a cross-title event “Infinity,” you’re assuming the license to get a little crazy, but I’d argue that in this issue, Hickman got a LOT crazy. Let’s start with Ronan’s temper tantrum at the beginning:
I get that Accuser and Supemor have a complicated relationship, but this just seems juvenile, silly, and most importantly, wasteful. From the urgency of the Kree technicians to repair the Supreme Intelligence, it seems that Ronan actually managed to do some decent damage to the world’s most incredible collective/techno-organic/accurate/precise/predictive consciousness/mind/machine/computer/database.
To put this in perspective, a quick review: the Supreme Intelligence started out as the technological fusion of generations of the most brilliant minds of the Kree Empire, harvested after death, merged with a terrifically advanced machine. Thanks to all of its organic benefactors, the Supremor has telepathy, telekinesis, intuition, emotion, and flexibility. Thanks to all of the wires, it has the ability to organize all of the organic stuff into one coherent intelligence AND process all of the stored knowledge of millions of years into clear, actionable advice. The Kree Empire — a civilization of some impressive scope — went so far as to recognize it’s capabilities by removing their own government and putting the Supreme Intelligence in its place. Sure it’s built on the brains of their best and brightest, but it still takes a lot of faith to hand the ruling of your entire society over to a robot. It reminds me of the Minds in Iaian Banks’ Culture novels. The science behind how you make such complicated, powerful machines is equally murky in that series, but the outcome is the same — the population of merely organic individuals realizes the potential good of putting the biggest brain(s) in charge, and acts on it. It’s the opposite of Skynet — a cooperative, benevolent constructed intelligence serving as mother goose for all those fragile, short-lived sparks of life that built it. And this is what Accuser Ronan decides to take a hammer to, just because he’s in a bad mood and doesn’t like what he’s hearing. You can read it as an overly dramatic gesture or an insanely wasteful act of petulance; either way it doesn’t endear me to Ronan.
All of that aside, the near-miss suffered by the Supreme Intelligence isn’t really billed as that big of a deal; the Annihilation Wave at least gets a little more respect.
The Builder invasion constitutes a threat that could end (or at least significantly cramp) all life. All life in the galaxy, in the cluster, in the universe, whatever — the Builder invasion is a really big, really bad thing. In the face of defeat and absolute conquest by the Builder threat, the decision is made to open the door to the Negative Zone and invite a large — limitless, for our purposes — host of hostile creatures out of their prison-dimension into our own. It’s like that old jingle: “Double your pleasure, double your fun; if you’re losing a war against one omnipotent enemy, voluntarily bringing a second omnipotent enemy into the picture is probably a good idea” (paraphrased). I mean, come on — Annihilus the Scariest Insect has already told you he’s not going to be able to control the Annihilation Wave. You can’t even communicate with the thing — it’s just a whole lot of spaceworthy bugs that want to eat you and everything else. You might try to justify this with some kind of “the enemy you know…” angle, but really, this move smacks of fatalism more than anything else. The thing that boggles my mind is that the strategy is enacted by — if you count — eleven people standing around a fancy light display of the multi-system war. Part of me wants to be outraged: these people are supposed to be the level-headed bunch that you can trust, not the wackos that light the fuse of the potential reality-bomb that is the Annihilation Wave. The other part of me is watching the CNN updates about a small group of people playing games with the global economy. Representative government has its limitations.
Drew! I’ve ranted enough. Did the pacing of this issue seem as breakneck to you as it did to me? What’s your impression of the war so far, and where do you think it’ll go next? And what about Captain Universe — do you think the all-powerful-being-with-human-flaws-and-frailties is too played out, or does her character work for you?
Drew: Captain Universe doesn’t work well for me as a plot device (oh, did I forget to mention that this machine has a god in it?), but she works incredibly well as a thematic mirror of our own egocentrism. There aren’t really stakes for us until the Earth is in danger. Billions have already died in the Builder’s crusade to destroy Earth, but we’re happy to elide that in a few pages. Doesn’t matter as long as no humans are in the line of fire. Hell, the Avengers are so obsessed, they can’t even turn their Earth map off during their strategy meetings.
I’d have to think the rest of the universe, facing utter defeat, might throw Earth under the bus. All the Builders want is to prevent infinite incursions from destroying every universe ever, and all they need to do that is to destroy one little planet. Why wouldn’t the Supremor or the Shi’ar leaders advocate for giving up Earth to save ALL THE UNIVERSES? We’re letting planet after planet topple just to save one planet? I live here, and even I think that’s fucked up.
Marvel has always struggled with coming up with reasons that everyone thinks Earth is so special, but Hickman comes up with one of the most straightforward reasons I’ve ever seen: the Universe is an Earthling. The importance she places on Earth is entirely irrational, but so perfectly human. It turns the epicness of this issue into a simple, relatable character moment. That relatability is essential when going toe to toe with logicians like The Builders or Supremor, who are designed to be the rival coach whose folded-armed confidence in the stats is upended by the spunkiness of our beloved Avengers. There’s no stat for heart!
Seriously, though, Captain Universe’s wildcard status goes far beyond her emotional instability. She’s been on the side of the alliance all along, but Supremor has long suggested that this war was unwinnable. Was he counting her out? Did he not know that she was capable of this? Did he somehow know that her play here would trigger the Aleph self-destruct button?
Speaking of that self-destruct button: how funny is it that the Alephs have an additional “destroy everything” gear? Like, what was it they were doing before? Why didn’t they switch into this when Starbrand was blowing Builders away? It’s a nonsense cliffhanger — especially when you consider the justification for it. Faced with defeat — to learn that their plan to save the universe is for naught — the Builders just decide to destroy everything on their way down? Actually, if this was all about destroying Earth (to save the Universe), why were they ever doing anything besides destroying Earth? They’ve destroyed plenty of planets on their way across the Universe, but how does that fit with their goal to save the Universe?
So maybe everybody is acting a little irrational at this point (you’d think the greatest minds of the Kree Empire might have a little more tact when dealing with a big dude holding a hammer), but this event has pushed them all to their limits. The scale of the battles suggests that this war has been raging for months (if not years), but the compression makes it difficult to really estimate. At any rate (ha), I can understand why Cap might resort to such desperate measures — they’ve tried everything, and none of it has worked. Unfortunately, when they finally land a couple blows, the Builders throw a temper tantrum and threaten to destroy everything (that one extra night gives me a little more perspective on the government shutdown, Ethan, but the analogy still holds). The Avengers will hold strong, because the Avengers don’t negotiate with terrorists (at least, not without giant, magical hammers).
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