It's time to talk about Avengers/X-Men: AXIS, a crossover whose storyline effects aren't discussed much, whether in the current comics -- which titles affected by the "axis" are really hit and miss -- or with an eye to the future. I'm trying to re-read all my Hickman Avengers books to prep up for next year's Secret Wars, so AXIS gets left behind in the fan consciousness, which is a shame because the concept is really fascinating.
The Red Skull steals Professor Xavier's brain (a phrase I never get tired of typing) and uses his telepathy to become a super-powerful evil Nazi. All the heroes band together to stop him, and even get villains involved in the fight. Because something of Xavier is still present in his brain matter, the Scarlet Witch and Doctor Strange work up a spell that would flip who's in charge of his mind; the Red Skull would be the echo and Xavier could be in command long enough to get the heroic victory. When Doctor Strange goes down in the middle of the spell, Doctor Doom steps up to complete it and, unsurprisingly, things don't go according to plan.
While whatever happened to the Red Skull is still in question, the rest of the heroes and villains in the fight have switched alignments. Traditional bad guys are now acting heroic, and good guys have more villainous traits. Take Tony Stark, for example: He's a philandering ego-maniac, living it up in a fancy mansion on the West Coast and working on ridiculous technology with little to no care on its effects on the public. He's drinking again and dismissing his friends, leading Pepper to chastise him ... and this all starts to sound like Iron Man 2.
If you think about how the public views Tony Stark, he's not that far off from villainy, at least in actions. He's a former weapons manufacturer who technically still manufactures weapons, mostly for himself and a few friends. He's a man of pure ego and pride, traits that often get him into a boatload of trouble. Do keep in mind that Tony tried to control an entire island by building a city of tomorrow; a good deed until you wonder what the people of Mandarin Island thought of this new overlord. He's lavish with his money and revels in beautiful women and fancy cars, sort of like Bruce Wayne without the guilt. Tony doesn't play well with others and has issues with needing to be control and be right. It makes you think about which traits we consider to be villainous by nature and which ones become villainous in the wrong hands. If Tony ever had political aspirations or hated an alien other, he'd be treading closer toward Lex Luthor.
Look at Tony's history fighting his friends in a civil war, starting a secret group that works behind their back to "fix" what they think is wrong, wiping Captain America's mind when he found out about it. Those aren't the acts of a hero; they're the acts of an architect, someone who builds a better future with whatever he's got, however he can. For AXIS to work, however, Tony has to start taking his tactics to the next level. I feel a little bit bad for Tom Taylor, writer of Superior Iron Man, as turning Tony into a man of little morals isn't as simple as it may seem. Tony's methods are already questionable, so now he has to get greedy, work self-serving into his nature, and threaten an entire populace with extortion, as he's made Extremis open to the public for a surprise hefty monthly fee. It seems like a corny and mustache-twirling maneuver, but this is as far as you have to go to make Tony a clear and present villain. He can't be questionable, he has to be wrong.
Last week, I mentioned that both wrestling "heels" and comic-book villains tend to propel plot, and it's a thought that's stuck with me since I read it in the Peter David miniseries The Last Avengers Story:
"That's the problem with heroes, really. Their only purpose in life is to thwart others, they make no plans, develop no strategies. They react instead of act. Without villains, heroes would stagnate. Without heroes, villains would be running the world. Heroes have morals. Villains have work ethic."
While that's a pretty stark view of the situation and can be easily debated in a more philosophical fashion, it can be applied loosely to Tony Stark and his position as a man of change. Being someone who fights the status quo and builds a better future isn't villainous; it all depends on the morals of the future fighter in question. A weapon isn't inherently evil, it's the intention behind the weapon that makes it a force for good or evil. Tony has been working with questionable methods and having variable success rates. The Illuminati wasn't a great idea, but it had good intentions. Didn't it?
AXIS is fascinating to me as a a way to look at our favorite characters and really study what makes them who they are. Sure, some of them have become little more than caricatures of angry, snapping baddies. But in a way, aren't they four-color heroes and kind of caricatures in their regular lives when these crossovers happen? The alignment flip has taken an innocent and nurtured good character like Evan Sabahnur and flipped him to become the catastrophically evil Lord Apocalypse. It has taken a odd character like Deadpool, who's villainous in deed but generally goodhearted and well-intentioned, and transformed him into a Zen-like monk of balance between these two sides. It's taken a raw concept of evil like Carnage and forced him to struggle with the idea of wanting to do good and be better. These realigned heroes and villains are fun to watch as they struggle with their new demeanor and try to make these foreign intentions work. There is so much good stuff to work with and pour over, it's a shame it might get lost in event apathy and all the hype of what's to come after it, so take a little of Remender's bombast with a big dollop of salt and look into and see new sides of your favorite characters.
Or perhaps sides that were already there...