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Boys, Toys, Electric Irons, and TVs 16: Futures End #17 and Avengers #34

We are still reading post-The Authority superhero comics almost exclusively. While Grant Morrison and Howard Porter’s JLA kicked off the Blockbuster Widescreen Era of superhero comics, the Warren Ellis/Bryan Hitch/Paul Neary/Laura DePuy The Authority took that sensibility and added on a subtle question of morality and heroism that remains unresolved. Granted, that question wasn’t introduced there, but it was popularised – it became an integral part of the superhero comic language after that point, floating to the surface now and then only to be smacked down because of the terrible implications. Here, it has risen again and shows itself in very different ways in Futures End #17 and Avengers #34. Basically, how far must a superhero go to save the world? How far before they stop being a hero and become a villain? Is there even a line?

Futures End exists in the postscript of those questions. The Nu52DCU went to war with Earth 2 like they were two countries, each armed with superhumans. One world won, the other lost, and, in the aftermath, the citizens of the losing world have been treated like the losers of war usually are. We have even seen many of their superhumans imprisoned with the subtext of ‘war criminals’ hanging overhead. Except, how can that be? That’s Mr. Miracle and Hawkgirl and all of the other Earth 2 heroes! They can’t possibly be war criminals! They can’t be the Bad Guys! However, when their interests directly conflict with the interests of the regular heroes we follow, someone must be in the wrong. We don’t know the whole story of what exactly happened, but it was clearly war between the two worlds. Heroes fought heroes. If everyone is a hero, no one is. Were they all villains then?

Without further information, it’s difficult to argue that Superman Kal-El thinks so. However, that lengthy beard and his seeming effort to bring water to a desert in Africa suggests some sense of guilt and an attempt at atonement. Perhaps something even bigger: if this world is so important, so primary, that it justifies war with another and doing monstrous things to preserve it at the expense of that other world, then isn’t there a responsibility to improve the world? To make it worthy? That was another aspect of The Authority that was added after the first 12 issues. To justify the actions required to defend the world, you also need to make the world better. It’s a pulling in two directions, neither of which fall into the traditional definition of a ‘superhero.’ Of course, that’s part of why Ellis called the group villains. They slaughtered the enemy in the thousands, arguing that they saved more than they killed, and that made it right.

Cadmus Island is portrayed as a place of villainy, but is it? We don’t have enough information. These were the enemy in a war – a war between worlds. It is not unusual for enemy soldiers to be imprisoned (or worse) after wars and, given the scope of the war, who is the party charged with such a task? Will Cadmus still be evil if we learned that it is sanctioned by the governments of the world? What if the truth of the war shows the Earth 2 ‘heroes’ committing the sort of atrocities common in war? Futures End plays upon superficial cues in superhero comics to produce the desired reaction: heroes in costume in cells is bad; cloaked islands are bad; Deathstroke is bad. However, on the scale hinted at, larger questions of morality are in play that could easily skew the scenes we have already seen.

Take the final scene of Avengers #34 out of context and the Illuminati are monsters. They plan to (or already have) destroyed worlds. Captain America is rallying the Avengers to take them down before they can commit more acts of global genocide. However, taken within the context of what has happened in New Avengers to date, your reaction to Captain America may be very different.

His speech to Iron Lad, Kang, and Immortus before he returns to his time is very much a summation of the typically simplistic morality of superhero comics that exists on one side of the spectrum: he doesn’t weigh lives, he doesn’t choose the lesser of two evils, he just saves lives, goddamn it. It’s a very limited way of thinking, one that would kill him and his world, as we know. It’s hard to read his words in the larger context and see anything heroic about them. Instinctively, they feel right: that’s what a hero does! Except, what happens when the only way to save lives is to kill others? Technically, if Captain America is being honest about not weighing the lives of one group against another, shouldn’t he be in line with the Illuminati and be willing to kill those other worlds? To save his world, he must destroy the other. No other solution is available. Kill or die. That’s it. As a soldier, it’s a concept he should be far more familiar with – and willing to embrace. However, in trying to make Captain America Marvel’s answer to Superman, they have consistently shied away from that part of the character, even as DC has created scenarios where Superman must embrace the soldier mentality.

Captain America’s speech is a longing for the pre-The Authority days where these larger questions of morality were rare and contained to much smaller stories where the ending could be a vague “Did the bad guy jump off that building or was he pushed?” When saving lives meant punching the bad guy in the face and putting him in jail, not destroying other worlds. As the scale of the stories grow, the idea of what a superhero is grows less fixed, more fluid. Distilled, it seems in line with Captain America’s speech: they save lives, no matter what. I guess the natural follow-up question, where the real problems lie then, is: which lives? Because you can’t save them all when two worlds are at odds, willingly or unwillingly…

It looks like Superman found his answer; Captain America doesn’t have a clue.

15 Comments

Just because Captain America used to be a soldier doesn’t mean that he automatically should embrace the idea that sometimes the choice is “kill or die.” That’s a pretty simplistic view, and suggests that all soldiers have the same experience and viewpoint. Maybe it is specifically his time as a soldier, and seeing war firsthand, that makes him strive so hard for a solution other than kill or die.

And considering that these are all stories, then no matter how high the stakes, there always can be a way where the heroes save everyone. It’s just up to the storytellers to come up with it.

Hey Kids! Comics!

The Illuminati are six people who have decided no one else may know, and thus cut off as many sources of ideas and aid as possible. Given that the moral of Hickman’s FF was that Reed shouldn’t try to fix everything as part of a secret council of self-appointed “fixers,” it’s hard for me to see how the Illuminati don’t turn out to be int he wrong here.

The Illuminati are another take on the old idea of the “noble lie,” the idea that those in power have to hide the real cost of the tough decisions from us ordinary folks if the world is to keep running. In real life, that’s always worked out badly for the regular folks in the end; the lesson of history is that people who decide that atrocities are necessary “for the common good” are really just people looking for an excuse to perpetrate atrociites. The Iron Law of Oligarchy is not lightly named.

Patrick Maloney

August 28, 2014 at 4:21 pm

I felt they rushed the latest issue of Futures End to get to the Kal El reveal because they knew people were getting annoyed with the pace.

Omar, that’s an interesting take. Given the members of the group being the acknowledged smartest people in the world, it seems unlikely that they’ve missed something — definitely not something that Captain America could add since he was a member of the group at first. Plus, given what Iron Lad, Kang, and Immortus say, there doesn’t seem to be any other solution discovered besides destroying other worlds. Granted, they don’t know that. I think they’ve covered their bases enough to trust (as readers) that there are no other solutions forthcoming — and none provided to Captain America at any point in the future, either. Part of the reason why I find this so engaging is that it really is a situation where there is no other solution and the issues that raises.

Patrick, I think the reveal of Captain Marvel (Shazam) came at the right spot, but coupled with Kal-El’s appearance at the end, it seemed a bit strange. I would have preferred a little distance between the two, even just an issue.

Really? I’d say Hickman has loaded the regular Avengers with characters who could make a difference, like his take on Captain Universe, Starbrand, and Nightmask, and beings like the Ex Nihilos. More broadly, the six smartest people in the world aren’t necessarily better than the eight smartest, or the ten smartest, or whatever.

The Illuminati have effectively admitted this already by bringing in Banner. and it still doesn’t prove that their extreme secrecy has bought them anything but limitations and trouble. It’s not like Reed Richards or Tony Stark discovered Pym Particles, even if he is “smarter” than Hank Pym, for example. Having other eyes on a problem matters.

It doesn’t help that two of the Illuminati spent half their time trying to destroy one another, nor that one of those two is now running around *behind the Illuminati’s backs* with the likes of Thanos. And Strange is making horribly shortsighted decisions; even if you save the Earth from the incursions, a Sorcerer Supreme whose soul belongs to Hell may not be much use next time Dormammu comes calling.

The series seems to be showing the Illuminati doing stupid, desperate things because of the initial arrogance required to decide that Only We May Know And Act. Their secrecy has imposed serious limitations on them as far as resources and support from others seems increasingly indefensible given the scale and the stakes of the crisis. And since Cap had his memories restored, their secret didn’t stay terribly secret from the other Avengers anyway. They haven’t stopped the incursions, they’ve utterly failed to grasp how much Black Swan is playing them to get them to wipe out worlds on an accelerated schedule, and they can’t even keep their own secrets. If these are the five greatest minds of the Marvel Universe (and Namor), the MU is full of ineffectual idiots.

William O'Brien

August 29, 2014 at 6:43 am

It’s Franklin Richards who tells Cap that there is another option. Given Franklin’s role in Hickman’s FF run, I’d be pretty shocked if he isn’t right.

Omar, I do really like that reading. I’m probably clouded by my own views of the genre — and past instances of stories like this where the end usually reverts back to the typical superhero story morality. I do wonder about Captain Universe, though. Wouldn’t she be aware of the incursions? They’ve talked around that about the system being broken and all, but haven’t really hit it head on, I don’t believe.

William, Franklin tells Captain America that the incursions will continue, the Illuminati will fail (because they are not the only ones trying to save their respective world), and that Captain America should ignore what Hawkeye told him, but he won’t… because he is who he is. What’s interesting there is that he flat-out says that everything dies/ends… and, yet, the future is still there.

Justifying war is all the rage these days. It is stil wrong.

Particularly when it involves having Superman become a murderer.

As is often the case, Omar articulates well what I’ve only sort of attempted to say, that just because these certain characters think their way is the only way doesn’t mean there isn’t a way to solve the problem that doesn’t involve world destroying and there is a “heroic” (in the traditional sense) way out.

(Mind you, Chad does intrigue me with showing that there are interesting things to say about a situation like this where there are no other solutions and how that presents its own intriguing story potential — although I’m not sure that these characters can do these things and still be “superheroes”, but again, may be just my bias.)

Even in universe, there are other minds that may not be the “smartest”, but they do come up with solutions to problems that weren’t discovered before. I recently read through the Fraction run of F4/FF, and *mild spoiler* Scott Lang intuits something about Pym Particles that nobody had figured out before and that helps in the final battle (mind you, I’m not entirely sure what that is — it kinda stumped me as to its actual import). There, too, we had Reed realize something bad was happening to himself and the rest of the F4, and rather than, y’know, TELL THEM about it, he comes up with this whole secret plan to figure it all out by himself. Which he can’t. So things go worse than they would have had he ‘fessed up early on.

As Omar said “If these are the five greatest minds of the Marvel Universe (and Namor), the MU is full of ineffectual idiots”.

If the story wants to get away from :”standard superhero morality,” perhaps it shouldn’t be built around a problem defined in standard superhero terms. The incursions are a science-fiction apocalypse event, the sort of thing superheroes tend to fight; they seem to involve all sorts of superhuman beings from other dimensions and weird cosmic menaces, too. There’s even a villain at the back of it, the mysterious Rabum Alal and his agent, the Black Swan.

As someone else pointed out, the whole “collapsing multiverse” thing is basically DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, perhaps the most superhero-stuffed of all superhero stories. Like that story, this one is a crossover with conventional superhero books — by default, Fantastic Four and arguably All-New X-Men and Hulk , and more formally with the other two main Avengers titles.

You can certainly pull in trappings of the superhero genre without the standard-issue morality, but there’s a reason nearly all of the really prominent, artistically successful examples went off and built their own little worlds. Add in that Hickman himself isn’t all that skeptical of said morality in any other title he writes, and it’s hard to imagine that the Illuminati will come out in the right.

Honestly, I’m increasingly sickened by Marvel’s tendency to pull the old “it had to be done” bit dates back to (at least) Civil War and the opening arc of New Avengers volume 1. We’ve seen characters justify torture, extrajudicial killing (as opposed to the slightly more defensible “just don’t save the Joker this time” argument), and worse. And the same writers then show us the destructive long-term consequences, again and again, but never allow the characters to learn from it or move on to some other plot and theme. Maybe it’s time for them to move aside and let in someone who can tell the next part of the story, or tell a better and less wearying story entirely.

This doesn’t mean sunshine and roses. It means finding a better idea than “only this horrible, indefensible act can save the world, so I’m ultimately in the right for doing it! Oops, it made everything worse in the end anyway! Better do something even worse to help out!”

One reason for secrecy is that this is a small group that, at first, seemed willing to do whatever necessary if that was the only option available. By expanding, they risk what seems to be happening: others opposing them and, possibly, dooming them all. Granted, someone from that other group may come up with a solution not previously considered, but… do you take that chance given the high chance that all they will do is stop other worlds from being destroyed and, in the process, destroy that other world AND their own? I can see the argument for keeping this a secret despite it also closing off possible solutions if only because it will almost certainly stop any current solutions from being put to use in the event no other solutions are forthcoming.

Omar, I don’t see as much value in exploring the morality of these situations without using elements of known superhero stories — that’s the point to a large degree, as far as I’m concerned. To push the limits of these stories as far as they can go and explore what that would mean for the characters.

Omar, I don’t see as much value in exploring the morality of these situations without using elements of known superhero stories — that’s the point to a large degree, as far as I’m concerned. To push the limits of these stories as far as they can go and explore what that would mean for the characters.

I think the problem is that the real limits on these stories and these known characters have a lot to do with non-story concerns like licensing and open-ended serialization. Because the limits are imposed from outside any particular storyline, it’s hard for any storyline to successfully push against them without either a) mutilating long-established points of characterization, which loses the whole point of using “known elements;” or b) having to make a bunch of concessions to editorial, which sort of loses the “breaching the limits” element since, well, the limits are gonna be reimposed with a vengeance, usually by the same writer who just tried to breach them.

And all of this still doesn’t really let us talk about whether the themes are any damn good at all, or whether the stakes and ideas ring true for us. A story that elegantly advances a bad idea is still advancing a bad idea.

Too true. And that’s usually where my frustration hits. Though, the incursions stuff has definitely pushed further than you’d think it would thus far…

To provide an example of an interesting theme, spelled out in another work of somewhat convoluted, overlicensed fantastical fiction, “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

I think that’s my issue with the reading of this story that says, “well, they have to do what they have to do.” They don’t fully understand the situation, and even as the smartest in all the land, they will never really know everything…and so surely the response is self-restraint above all else. That doesn’t strike me as “standard superhero morality;” quote the reverse, in some respects. (Superheroes aren’t exactly known for using minimal force, for instance.)

It’s not that I’m angry about how imaginary people are being made to look bad, it’s that I utterly disagree with the implicit argument made by the story’s themes. One of my favorite comics of all time is Judge Dredd, where Dredd is sometimes called upon to do awful things: nuking Sov-City 1 is perhaps the best-known example, but there are more obscure ones like exiling Uncle Umpty from Earth or forcing an evil supergenius child into a lifetime of Judge training. But in every instance, the storytelling is smart and reflective enough to pull back and show us that the reason these are the best decisions possible in their local contexts is that the larger situation that creates such local contexts is both utterly horrible and largely the result of the Judges’ actions and beliefs.

Ina weird way, what I don’t like about the whole “Illuminati” thing is that the writers *aren’t* pushing the limits. On the one hand, they’re giving us characters who do terrible things to achieve perhaps defensible short-term goals. But they won’t take the extra step and make it clear that these guys, by their sheer power and influence, are also shaping the local situation and placing limits on what counts as a “right” response. And so it becomes, not a critique of “ends justify the means,” but a defense pretending to be a critique.

Again, Hickman does seem to eventually pull back the curtain, and he’s seeded his story with things that might: Namor taking the Illuminati’s realpolitik justifications to their logical end and just teaming up with the likes of Thanos and Maximus, Captain America getting back in his memories and preparing to shut them down, and even the secrecy failure that (inevitably) has happened. But in the context of the Marvel Universe, the price of that reveal isn’t going to be the Illuminati taking over and then having to live with themselves. It’s going to be the reimposition of standard superhero morality down the line. (Well, that or this is all an extended setup for a linewide reboot, as a vocal portion of online speculation would have it….but that’s also likely to be a backdoor to erasing this story and replacing the Illuminati characters with less bloodsoaked reboot incarnations.)

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