A tournament to the death storyline is a classic, albeit overdone comic trope. Still, Avengers #41 approaches the idea with enough novelty and pertinent themes to lend some positivity to the trite plot. Writer Jason Aaron is no stranger to long-form storytelling, or even the Phoenix Force itself, using the strong history of characters at his disposal to imbue the story with gravitas. In concert with Javier Garron’s designs and eye-catching art, the second entry into the “Enter the Phoenix” story arc is flawed but fun. Despite some apprehension to the implications the story may bring, Avengers #41 is a fun ride with a who’s who of the Marvel Universe.
The Phoenix has returned to Earth. A tournament is underway to determine the Phoenix Force’s new host, with contestants made up of Earth’s mightiest heroes and vilest villains. The world’s greatest heroes and villains are pitted against each other in locales spanning the globe, imbuing the fighters with the Phoenix Force remnants for battle. Having narrowly survived the first round, the next wave of battles begins. However, the Phoenix’s true intentions or determining factors for a new host remain in question. All the fighters are kept in the White Room, only building the tension and dissidence. More importantly, what role T’Challa plays in all of this?
This issue is a mixed bag, with some foibles that remain evident to your tenured comic reader. If you’ve read a comic, played a video game, or – most notably – watched any anime in the last 20 years, you understand how oversaturated the market has become with this arc. At this point, it practically feels like a mandatory step in every hero’s journey. An obvious comparison will be made to the recent X of Swords storyline running throughout Marvel’s X-books pages. Another tournament, another set of dire consequences. That’s an understandable comparison, but unfair to the narrative Aaron is presenting. Having thoroughly enjoyed Aarons’s work on Thor run, it’s only fair to give “Enter the Phoenix” the benefit of the doubt. It remains to be seen what, if any, ramifications this arc will have on the Avengers and Marvel Universe.
Another point of contention is the Phoenix Force itself. Currently, the Phoenix feels like a simple plot device to present this tournament. Inherently, the kid within us all loves this: our favorite heroes and villains against one another in mindless battle, fanboy/girl locations, and a cosmic superpower. But I can’t help but feel like it’s fan service — that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it lacks any real depth to entice us to read deeper into the narrative. The inconsistency, or more accurately, the ambiguity of the Phoenix Force, is a concern. Let’s avoid how the Phoenix was used to explain Scott’s heroic fallout, not unlike Parallax in Green Lantern. At one point, the Phoenix was attracted to the most sensitive psychic on Earth, hence Jean Grey as its host. But now, the qualification is… practically anyone?
That’s not to say Avengers #41 doesn’t have some redeeming qualities. Rather than go with the all-knowing, omniscient narrator, each issue has tapped into the thoughts of a particular Avenger. The previous entry followed Cap, but here we follow T’Challa as he gleans his situation and his comrades’ reactions. Frankly, it’s one of the best aspects of the issue as T’Challa struggles to come to terms with the Phoenix Force, using it in tandem with the power of the panther to resist the bloodthirsty lure of the Phoenix.
Instead of just pitting the characters against one another for the sake of the tournament, Aaron uses their past relations to build on the weight of the battle. Clearly indicating he is aware of the bigger picture outside of his own Avengers run – as fleeting as this example is. Take Nighthawk versus Black Panther, for example. As ambassador to Wakanda in his civilian identity, Nighthawk is using political clout to tarnish the nation. T’Challa and Nighthawk play a proverbial game of geopolitical one-upsmanship, debating chess moves to outdo the other. The moment resonates now more than ever, in a world of political outrage with those in power using their positions for selfish gain or hateful destruction. This was the standout moment of the issue; the poignant theme is only touched upon, scratching the surface of a far better story than the one we have. Maybe Aaron should be exploring this further.
Another noteworthy aspect of Avengers #41 is the art. As simple as it is, seeing Javier Garron’s character designs on the page was joyous. As each new battle was underway, I gazed upon the Phoenix designs for the heroes/villains. Howard the Duck with the Phoenix Force, rocking a Phoenix-shaped tie? Yes, please. Shang-Chi in a sun-yellow Martial arts outfit? I’m okay with this.
As I close the final page on any comic book, I ask myself two main questions. Did I enjoy my time with it? Yes. Does the story feel relevant? Well, the jury’s still out on that one. This particular entry lacks relevance, but seeds are planted here that may (I stress “may”) come to fruition later on. Aaron’s Thor run is proof that he is capable of excellent writing, but his Avengers run thus far isn’t his best work. It isn’t terrible by any stretch of the imagination, but I can’t help but think there could be more. Avengers #41 is a single-issue microcosm of Aaron’s run with the team: a solid outing, but there could be more.
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