When Dennis Hopeless and Kev Walker’s “Avengers Arena” series was announced, I know there were a lot of “Avengers Academy” fans who were a little upset. After all, it was taking five cast members (plus eleven other super-powered teens, some new and some old) and plunging them into an “only one survives” series promising to kill everyone else off. But when the dust settles on the first issue, it ends up not controversial or shocking, but instead… a little forgettable.
After an opening sequence set (presumably) near the end of the series’ set-up, Hopeless re-introduces readers to the characters that he’s lined up to get kidnapped by Arcade in the latest iteration of his Murderworld complex. Here, these sixteen characters are given 30 days to kill or be killed, with only one allowed to be standing at the end of the time period. If this sounds a little bit like “The Hunger Games” (or going further back, “Battle Royale” or even “The Long Walk”), you aren’t alone in that assessment. Hopeless has Arcade acknowledge the similarity and move forward from there, a nod to the connection between the two. But once you get past that, there’s actually less to get worked up over than you might suspect.
Hopeless tries to up the stakes very quickly by not only showing how the sixteen heroes are unable to take on Arcade, but also by having one of the contestants die at the end of the issue. It’s a familiar tactic; show the readers that characters are trapped in this bad situation, and to remind us just how high the stakes are. But in the process, Hopeless seems to also open up a back door for all of this to be undone down the line. Arcade’s transformation from an unpowered weasel to someone who controls people’s bodies and can have them explode at the snap of a finger is such a big shift that it feels almost obvious on how someone (either Hopeless or another writer down the line) could bring back any or all of these characters at a moment’s notice; in doing so, Hopeless doesn’t make his villain feel more dangerous, but instead undercuts the one big selling point of the series before it even begins.
That’s not to say that it can’t turn around. With 15 characters still around and most of them not getting any dialogue this issue, there’s a lot that Hopeless can still do to make “Avengers Arena” fun. But with the first issue focusing almost entirely on just two characters, it does mean that Hopeless’s eventual introductions of the rest of the cast could end up providing some fun new characters provided some of them are able to stick around long enough.
More instantly pleasing is Walker’s art. His work on “Thunderbolts” was strong and this follows suit. There are some nicely dramatic moments, like Arcade rising out of his “volcano elevator,” or when Arcade’s fists provide a huge blast radius around him when he strikes the ground. He’s still at his best when it comes to character reactions, though. Hazmat’s look of horror when Arcade talks about dressing everyone takes a little moment and makes it stand out with the power of the illustration; that’s the sort of thing that Walker shines at.
“Avengers Arena” #1 right now feels decidedly average. For a book that promised a lot of controversy and shock, so far it hasn’t delivered on either. Over time this could still easily shift in either direction, but for now it fails to stand out among the pack of other Marvel NOW! titles.