Sunday, March 20, 2016

What the F#&k, Avengers Standoff? (Part 1)


Avengers: Standoff is a pointless, silly, ridiculous charade of an event that defeats its own purpose from the very beginning. On top of a rushed and seemingly slipshod narrative flow, Standoff uses the cosmic cubes (more-or-less new to the comic book universe) in about the least interesting way possible: to subdue villains. With shards of the cube, S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Maria Hill has created a system to overwrite physical reality and reshape supervillains into upstanding members of her new Connecticut community, Pleasant Hill. Garish pun aside, Pleasant Hill is obviously an analogy for mistrust in the government and superheroes, a symbol of federal overreach and horrifying levels of invasion of privacy.

This image makes NO sense.
The wasted potential of Avengers: Standoff is upsetting. The cosmic cubes have the power to rewrite reality, to literally change something into something else – it’s cosmic alchemy, one step below godhead – and Marvel decides to have a spy agency use them to existentially jail villains in a quaint Connecticut hamlet. The worst part is that reality-warping powers have been used in major Marvel stories before, and to better degrees. House of M saw a psychologically broken Scarlet Witch murder former teammates, rewrite reality into one where mutants were the dominant species and Magneto ruled the world, then decree “No more mutants” and erase the x-gene from hundreds of thousands of individuals. In Jonathan Hickman’s Secret Wars, Doctor Doom uses the Molecule Man to become a literal god at the end of all realities and fuse the fading remnants of the dying multiverse together to create Battleworld, a patchwork existence Doom controls absolutely. These are just two examples; two recent examples (one in 2015) from a bevy of similar stories over decades of comics.

Yet here, in 2016, cosmic cubes are reduced to unsubtle political allegories. It’s a failure of imagination, and whatever ethical core Avengers: Standoff might have is completely overshadowed by the cumbersome approach to Maria Hill’s atrocious characterization. The comic book version of Maria Hill is an authoritative hard-@$$, an obsessed perfectionist, and a stubborn militant; she embodies what the director of the world’s foremost security, intelligence, and espionage agency (that, ironically, is incredibly transparent to the public) should be: the personification of tactics and strategy. Hill took over S.H.I.E.L.D. after Nick Fury (and Daisy Johnson, a.k.a. Quake for a short stint, true believers!), and her entire stay as director is marked by unrest and subversion. From superhero civil war, to the secret invasion of shapeshifting Skrulls implanted for years as heroes and agents, to the de-commissioning of S.H.I.E.L.D. during the dark reign of Norman Osborn and H.A.M.M.E.R. (an evil S.H.I.E.L.D. whose acronym is still meaningless), to the re-commissioning of S.H.I.E.L.D. and then on to more superheroes-at-war shenanigans and a full-on alien invasion/end of the universe. Needless to say, Hill’s tenure has been absolutely unbelievable and completely terrifying.

Hill has worked with the Avengers on and off again more times than I can count, and though her reputation with the superhuman community isn’t the best – S.H.I.E.L.D. relations with mutants became far worse over the course of Hill’s career, but that’s more to do with Brian Michael Bendis’ X-Men saga needing a ‘big bad’ that eventually helps the mutants when the going gets rough – she’s retained a relatively peaceful coexistence/working relationship between this spy organization and the Avengers as well as other random heroes around the world. She’s worked with other spy agencies, like China’s S.P.E.A.R., and S.W.O.R.D.; the ‘S.H.I.E.L.D. in Space’ for lack of caring to think of a better term. The point is that Hill has a long history of working well with others and finding solutions to impossible problems. Maria Hill is an incredibly strong character that
has grown and evolved over the years. Playing her against the Avengers for the sake of surreally lobotomizing supervillains undermines that growth, and turns Hill from a hard-lined, cranky-yet-lovable, “mean ol’ boss” type into a complete monster who sincerely believes the ends justify these means. That’s not Maria Hill. There’s no way she would give up and stoop this low.

The more believable and digestible version of this story would have been one where Hill is replaced as Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Whoever this new Director might be is inconsequential; his or her purpose is to reject the olive branch Hill extended so frequently in favor of the metaphorical stick in the form of the cosmic cubes. Even if the cubes were still only used to make Project Kobik’s Pleasant Hill scenario play out, it would work much better under a less superhero-friendly S.H.I.E.L.D. director. This scenario also puts Hill in a renegade position that collates with her character history, one in which she is confident in her authority and knows Project Kobik would be the political, ethical, and moral destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D.

My own delusions of narrative grandeur aside, Maria Hill deserves better than this. Writer Nick Spencer is quick to root Hill the role of demented, power-hungry fascist that spews propaganda about ‘real’ security and ‘true’ peace, which makes her a scapegoat for the entire story. The criminals aren’t the enemy, nor the Avengers, or even the hundreds of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents who’re told they’re making the world a better place. Spencer has placed all the blame firmly on Hill’s shoulders and that’s not only unfair, it’s a bit obtuse.

Even in the Marvel comic book universe, a world where green monsters and mythological gods are commonplace, government agencies, including S.H.I.E.L.D, have oversight. The way Spencer has presented Hill’s influence basically makes her almighty god of international security, and that’s simply preposterous; no one has that much power over an entity so big…NO ONE. S.H.I.E.L.D. is a multinational, borderless agency that deals with worldwide crises on a daily basis and I’m supposed to believe that a single person, even the director, is able to bypass any accountability and proceed with a program that is not only overwhelmingly ethically dubious, but also incredibly unpopular with the public after being leaked by hackers and denounced by the one of the most well-known heroes in the world? Balderdash.

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