What is a superhero? Both Futures End and New Avengers have spent two dozen issues dancing around this question, neither providing answers yet. This was an easy question to answer in the past, but, as stories became more morally complex and easy solutions were eliminated by increasing demands of realism and logic, the exact definition seems more elusive than ever. When the enemy is cosmic entropy where you’re faced with the options of your planet dying, saving your planet by killing another, or both planets dying... what is the heroic action? How much are you expected to give? Is sacrificing your life more noble than sacrificing your soul? What are the ethics of a secret identity and when do you cross the line between protecting yourself and lying to your loved ones? For a lot of readers, these questions are a nuisance in a genre that’s supposed to be escapism and pure entertainment. For me, these are the only questions that matter anymore.
I reread Chuck Klosterman’s I Wear the Black Hat: Grapping with Villains (Real and Imagined) earlier this year, a collection of essays where he explores the concept of villainy in various ways. The thing that stuck with me was his definition of a villain (and I’m crediting it to him because it’s where I first encountered it specifically, but he probably got it elsewhere): the person who knows the most and cares the least. When it comes to the incursions, this was Captain America and, then, the Illuminati once they decided that they could not destroy other worlds. They knew that the incursions could only be stopped by destroying the other Earth and, by doing nothing, they were dooming their world and, quite possibly, the other world as well (because, if the two worlds collided, both would be destroyed). By doing nothing, they showed that they didn’t care enough to save the world despite knowing the most about the situation (and knowing that, as of that moment, destroying the other world was the only method of survival). But, that’s the past. It’s a good baseline to start with, though.
In New Avengers #25, who is the villain? Given the perspective of the issue, it’s Sue Richards and SHIELD. They are hunting down the Illuminati (who has increased in membership in the intervening eight months) for reasons not fully defined, but we are to assume (perhaps erroneously) are their actions relating to the incursions. This, despite allusions last issue that the world knows about the incursions and has decided, collectively, to sanction the actions of the Cabal, the group that has taken over destroying the other worlds to save the planet. Though, given the Black Panther’s attempts to stop the Cabal last issue, maybe it’s because the Illuminati oppose the Cabal and their destructions of other planets? That would mean that the Illuminati are still the villains that they became in issues 22 and 23, and Sue Richards and SHIELD are actually the heroes... That is, if simply opposing the villain makes you the hero.
But, the last thing we saw in Avengers before the titles jumped forward eight months was Captain America ready to hunt the Illuminati down with the Avengers because they have killed worlds to save the Earth. Now that the Illuminati have come over to his way of thinking, does that mean that SHIELD is also opposed to Steve Rogers? Part of the intrigue here is that we don’t know the exact reasons why SHIELD is hunting the Illuminati; Sue Richards is incredibly vague when interrogating Amadeus Cho about why they’re being hunted. Though, given the character’s history, it seems unlikely that she is somehow so patient about locking her husband up because he decided that it’s morally wrong to blow up other planets to save his own (it is possible, though). And, when Cho says that they’re trying to save everyone, what does he mean? They’re clearly not destroying other worlds anymore and, if there were another option, I’m sure everyone would jump at it. Or are they continuing to search for a better option and SHIELD is actually opposed to the Cabal, but, because of politics, has to settle for the Illuminati since everyone is fine with them being sacrificial lambs (and the personal betrayal elements, of course)?
Who are the superheroes in New Avengers #25? Are there any superheroes left?
We don’t have enough information to make that judgment yet, but those questions can’t help but hang there. In a lot of fiction, the protagonist doesn’t need to be a hero (let alone a superhero); yet, this is superhero fiction in a mainstream corporate superhero universe... you would think there would be some superheroes in any conflict involving two groups of superhumans (let alone three)... So, who are the superheroes?
In Futures End, we have less moral ambiguity, but still have a comic that struggles to define its superheroes. But, that seems to stem from the lack of moral ambiguity, because there’s a decided lack of conflict. Two targets have slowly revealed themselves to be the ‘bad guys’ as it were: Brainiac and Brother Eye (and, to a lesser extent, Cadmus, though that is under the rule of Brother Eye now). After months of aimless wandering, the comic looks to be coming into focus and the questions about what being a superhero means are dropping away. It’s quickly becoming apparent that standing in opposition to Brainiac and Brother Eye will suffice as a definition. That’s too easy. After weeks (months!) of questioning what a superhero is, reverting the old definition of the person who stops the obvious bad guy is such a disappointment. What I want to know is, when did Ronnie Raymond stop being a superhero? I have a feeling that it was before this series even began... I have a feeling that none of these characters are superheroes anymore.
I don’t think there are any left anymore. And that’s not a bad thing. Do no mistake that statement for a qualitative judgment of these comics, because I’m quite happy with the old style superhero being a thing of the past. I just want to know: if there are no superheroes anymore, what comics am I reading?