"Avengers" #40 brings Jonathan Hickman's narrative into sharp focus as the writer begins tying together the various threads he has been dangling since the beginning of his run. It's as dark as any of the previous installments of the "Time Runs Out" arc but injects moments of clear character motivation and some fun interactions between the Avengers as everyone begins to reveal the secrets they've been keeping from one another all this time.
(Spoiler warning!) The biggest shock of the issue, of course, is Black Panther murdering Namor and dumping his body on the mapmaker Earth that was incurring on the main Marvel Universe. Like much of Hickman's run, the seeds were laid in what felt like a random fashion months ago, like Shuri returning their father's blade to T'Challa, imploring him to put it where it belongs. It is the climax of a tumultuous relationship and Hickman and Stefano Caselli deliver an impactful moment of action and power amid the chaos of a much larger problem. Caselli renders Namor's reactions to this turn of events with the needed detail, shifting from shock to shame to horror to anger across several panels. This is a payoff issue, building to the final movement in Hickman's oeuvre. With the Avengers fractured but no longer fighting one another and Sue and Reed's own hidden alliance standing revealed, almost every ball is in play.
Hickman's scripts, while densely and brilliantly plotted, have a tendency to be cold, requiring a lot more lifting in the artwork to create an emotional connection with readers. Caselli's art is a perfect fit to what the story required, an excellent blend of emoting and big action. His facial expressions convey a lot of the power behind the decisions these characters have made: Sam and Roberto's levity is made even more fun by their body language and overacting; the pain on Steve Rogers' face is evident as he reminds his friends that they have mucked with his mind; Reed looks appropriately conflicted throughout, a man who is doing the right thing but knows his actions are dishonorable; and even in the absolute fury on Proxima Midnight's face as she realizes too late the Illuminati's true plan is a great moment in a bigger scene. The action is nothing to sneeze at either, with the Cabal's devastating wholesale slaughter on the mapmaker Earth and Black Bolt's execution of Namor delivering big time.
After what has felt like watching light refract through cracked glass over the last several months, Hickman weaves everything together at just the right moment; any later and it would have felt either too late or too rushed, and any sooner none of the decisions made herein would have had the type of impact required for the larger game Hickman is playing. There are still a few months to go before "Secret Wars" but the end is in sight. Whatever comes next is going to be a burden for the characters but a hell of a ride for readers.