Trade Paperback Review: Avengers Initiative

Avengers Initiative Vol. 1-4: Basic Training, Killed in Action, Secret Invasion, Disassembled

by Dan Slott, Christos Gage, Stefano Caselli and Steve Kurth


There’s a conundrum at the core of Avengers Initiative that the series rarely resolves.  The basic premise is that young heroes are required by the government to train at a special facility in order to become licensed to use their powers.  That mandate arose as a result of the alleged misuse of powers by young superheroes led to the destruction of Stamford, Connecticut.  In other words, young heroes are being trained at this camp in order to keep both them and the public safe. 


Here’s the problem: safe isn’t interesting.  At least, not in stories.  Especially, super-stories.  So everything interesting that happens undermines the very premise of the series. 


This problem isn’t unique to Avengers Initiative.  It plagues every series that purports to train young heroes.  That’s why young characters from New Mutants to Starfleet Academy routinely sneak out and get into trouble away from their respective schools.  But this problem is intensified in Avengers Initiative.  Every issue, we’re told that the purpose of the camp is to keep the students safe.  And every issue, they’re routinely thrown into dangerous situations.  Every issue, we’re told that the students need to know how to use their powers before they go out into public.  And every issue, they either sneak out of the base or are forced into action, betraying the stated purpose of the book. 


The first two stories vacillate between two common plots.  In one set of stories, the students go into action before they’re ready.  Sometimes, they feel stifled by the confinement of the camp and manage to sneak out on their own.  Sometimes, they’re pressed into service by trainers who know they’re unprepared.  This happened as early as the second issue when the students are sent up against Hydra.


In the other set of stories, the students are put in danger when the camp itself is attacked.  This happens frequently.  And it often happens because of internal threats. The same camp where students are trained is used as a prison and as a testing facility.  Prisoners get loose.  Experiments go wild.  And the students are forced to defend themselves in the very place where they’re supposed to be safe.  It may be dramatic.  But it completely undermines the stated purpose of the series.


Some readers have given Avengers Initiative a pass regarding these problems.  They see it as an allegory for problems in the real world.  After all, attempts to keep us safe often backfire.  Government agencies that vow to protect us often fail.  And so on.  I disagree.  Allegorical elements are not an excuse for a broken premise.  Individually, the stories may be exciting.  But taken together, they create a series that is at odds with itself.  


That isn’t to say that Avengers Initiative is entirely bad.  The various elements come together for an excellent story with Secret Invasion.  While the Initiative has been training heroes to serve on licensed super-teams in each of the 50 states, the alien Skrulls have been planting secret agents in each of those teams.  Indeed, the entire 50-state Initiative may have been a Skrull plot to spread their agents around the country.  With the third volume, the Skrull’s plans are revealed and the Invasion initiated. 


However, the 50-state teams become the heart of the resistance.  3-D Man, a former camp trainer and now team leader, is able to identify Skrulls even when they’re disguised.  He jumps from state to state exposing the infiltrators, pulling former students and other allies into his battalion.  Along the way, there are some fun guest stars such as the Skrull Kill Krew and some interesting twists.  For example, Initiative trainee Crusader is a Skrull defector and not a spy.


The Secret Invasion story rattles along at an exhilarating speed.  It’s fun to jump from place to place and to see so many heroes.  The near-constant action is a treat.  In addition, I think the series is stronger when it focuses on the 50-state teams instead of the training facility.  Any flaws in the premise float into the background.


Unfortunately, the training camp takes center stage again after Secret Invasion.  Its attacked by yet another internal threat.  It becomes home to villains in training as well as heroes.  And the initial problems are exaggerated.  

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Comment by Jason Marconnet (Pint sized mod) on June 10, 2011 at 10:14am

I always thought the stated purpose of the series was to show the 50 State Initiative and training program in action. The stated purpose of the training program was to keep the students safe and train them, that is undermined constantly. I don't agree that it undermines the series itself though. I am with those that sees this as an allegory.


I enjoyed your article though and your well thought out points on the series and why it didn't work for you. You and I rarely disagree, so this is refreshing.


I do agree with some points though. I really liked the Secret Invasion arc. I also wished the series focused a bit more on the 50 state teams as well.


Over in the Avengers the Initiative reading project thread, we are going to discuss soon the second half of the series. We just finished Disassembled and will start on the rest of the Dark Reign stuff and finally Siege. While I enjoyed the series as a whole, the second half took a dip in quality overall.


One thing this series did well especially at the beginning was working well with big event crossovers. The World War Hulk issues were excellent. They carried on the still fit with the event. And you already touched on the Secret Invasion story. It was probably better, imo, than the main miniseries. 


The series also did a fine job in breathing new life into characters such as Taskmaster, Constrictor, Bengal and Diamondback. 


Please post any addition thoughts you have regarding the series in the re-reading thread. I have no problem disscusing these first issues again from a new perspective. I'm sure the rest of the readers of that thread wouldn't mind either.

Comment by Figserello on June 11, 2011 at 11:11pm

The basic premise is that young heroes are required by the government to train at a special facility in order to become licensed to use their powers


That was only what the general public in the Marvel US was told, rather than the premise of the book.  The series showed that there were all kinds of factions that were using Stamford to variously: build up and control the US store of superhuman WMDs, to build a super-army for various US wars of occupation, to conduct all sorts of experiments on human beings that wouldn't have been as easy without the control over the superhuman population that the Reg Act gave to the authorities.


Whatever about Civil War, it was clear from Mighty Avengers onwards that most of the writers in the MU post-CW wrote stories that illustrated distrust of the government and mistrust of the motives for clamping down on the civil liberties enjoyed by the superhumans.


I don't think major entertainment corporations would have been to happy with such messages being conveyed overtly, but the creators got them across in the long run anyway.  To drive the point home, it all culminated in the mad, bad and dangerous to know Osborn using what began with the Reg Act to become a very powrful destabilising and malignant figure in the MU.


The Initiative was unusual for a modern superhero comic for engaging so directly with the political concerns of ordinary Americans in this way, and it was a special little series.  You put your finger on it that in superhero comics, well-considerred political and social arguments have to take a back seat to spandex punch-ups in the mighty Marvel manner.  I realised while reading Siege that Bendis produced, not a nuanced discussion of civil liberties vs government control, but a parody/satire of recent US history.  Likewise The Initiative is a necessarily veiled black satire on government claims to be working in our best interests.


I'm sure Dark Reign and The Initiative hit a chord with people deeply susicious of so much the government tells them.  As only one example, how many times in the last 10 years were we told that victory in Iraq/Afghanistan was just around the corner, the opposition don't have a chance? 


So it is a particular kind of allegory.  It worked for me, and made The Initiative an unusual and noteworthy comic amongst the piles of product we get every month that use endless recycling of decades-old story materials to shy away from political comment on what is happening right now.

Comment by Figserello on June 30, 2015 at 8:44pm

The Initiative thread that Jason refers to...


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