Aug 31, 2015

Secret Wars II: Not as Bad As You Remember

Secret Wars II: Not as Bad As You Remember
Ben Smith

There are many significant milestones throughout the course of the average human life. For some, those may include the day they met their significant other, graduation from a particular level of schooling, marriage, divorce, or the birth of a child. The original Secret Wars was a milestone event on a far grander scale. The mere birth of a child cannot compare to this cataclysmic moment in the annals of human history. To lay your eyes upon it was to understand true beauty. Its stunning wonder humbled even the most confident of individuals, and made them want to be better citizens.

Such a stunning artistic achievement was bound to inspire demands for a sequel. Marvel obliged, and yet, the resulting miniseries and endless stream of tie-ins were met with less than stellar reviews. It sucked, was the general consensus, and that’s mostly probably true. Nearly every single title that Marvel published was forced to acknowledge Secret Wars II with a story, which makes sense in terms of it being an important in-universe situation, but the execution fell well short in many cases.

However, it is my belief that the main series is not as awful as you might remember, or heard about from others. It is my goal, to exhaustively explore Secret Wars II, and to show you the quality story that lay beneath the surface. It’s one of the most maligned events in comic book history, and undeniably gave birth to the template of bloated excess and diminishing returns that would plague many of the events that would follow in its footsteps. But it’s not all bad, and we’re going to discover that together, like Romeo and Juliet on a suicide pact toward our mutual destruction.

Ready, set, grab your goblet of poison.

Secret Wars II #1
Scripter: Jim Shooter; Penciler: Al Milgrom; Inker: Steve Leialoha; Editor: Bob Budiansky

Longtime readers will remember my weird fascination with Shooter, and this would arguably be the most ambitious story of his career. A 9 part exploration of the human condition through the perspective of a child-like omnipotent being, using superheroes. I believe the original penciler for the series was supposed to be Sal Buscema—the pencils for his entire first issue were for sale on the internet a while back--but the final duties fell to Al Milgrom. Milgrom certainly has his detractors, but I think he does a capable job, as he always does. He doesn’t have the most dynamic style, but that’s okay, I love him all the same. You leave Milgrom alone! Bob Budiansky wrote Transformers. That’s all I should have to say about that.

Space, a being of incredible power travels through the cosmos. His final destination, the Earth.

In a suburb of Denver, Colorado, Owen Reece (Molecule Man) notices a flash of light hit nearby. However, he’s content to finish watching TV with his girlfriend Marsha (Volcana). Except, that nearby mountainside is now flying through the streets, coalescing into a ball of fire.

It was a good choice to open with Molecule Man, since he will be one of the key players in the storyline. I don’t know why I love Molecule Man so much. Most likely it’s just because he’s one of the earliest villains I encountered as a superhero fan, through the original Secret Wars. Maybe it’s his facial scars, they just look cool. Maybe it’s that he’s so damn powerful. He can basically do whatever he wants, but ever since Secret Wars, he just wants to be chill. He just wants to hang out with his girlfriend and watch Hogan’s Heroes. Who can’t relate to that? Also, it’s a solid narrative continuation from the original.

Owen and Marsha hit the streets to investigate, and he’s shocked to discover the identity of the being that stands before them, the Beyonder.

Half a world away, in Scotland, Professor Xavier telepathically senses the arrival of the Beyonder. Understandably shaken, he sends his New Mutants to rendezvous with the X-Men and Magneto in Westchester.

Meanwhile, Captain America is in the middle of his commercial flight from London to New York, when he receives Xavier’s telepathic warning. (It must be really difficult for him to concentrate on his periodical of choice with all those people openly talking about him. I wonder what Captain America reads. Entertainment Weekly? Rolling Stone? Cat Fancy? Anyway, I’d be annoyed if I was Captain America. Also, why is he on a commercial flight?)

He strolls right up to the cockpit and uses his Avengers priority clearance to divert the flight to Los Angeles. The rest of the passengers react with predictable irritation, because people are the worst. Which they should, there’s really no sense in diverting a flight from New York to L.A. He should just land and get another flight, or call for a Quinjet. Or any of the dozen of people that he knows that can teleport. Still, the point is that people are selfish assholes. Unless it was me, then my annoyance would be justified. Furthermore, 9/11 made flying a complete pain in the ass. When I flew to the Middle East, it took two days of flying with stopovers in between uncomfortable sleeping. Suicide begins to look like a reasonable option.

Back in Denver, Owen and Marsha host the mysterious Beyonder, taking a physical form that is an amalgamation of several of the characters he encountered during the original Secret Wars. It looks pretty ridiculous, and yet, this is not the worst look he will sport in this series, as you will eventually see.

The Beyonder is here on Earth desiring to understand human life. Owen posits a theory based on his own past history, that mere knowledge isn’t understanding, but that experience is the best teacher. (He arrives at this based on when he first received his powers, he had the knowledge of what he could do, but not the experience to fully realize it. It’s all a bit contrived and involves transmuting an apple, but its fine. Don’t think so hard about things.) Marsha comments offhand that he should go to Los Angeles, because you can experience everything there. (Thus, they unload this potentially troublesome being off on anyone else, just as I would do. It’s someone else’s problem, or maybe Hogan’s Heroes was really good that week. Either way, who needs the hassle?)

In Westchester, Magneto argues with Nightcrawler and Colossus about whether or not he can be trusted, when Wolverine, Rogue, and Kitty Pryde come busting through the mansion window. This furthers a long and storied tradition of superheroes wantonly destroying their own facilities. (Magneto is sporting one of the more ridiculous looks from what is a long history of questionable changes from his iconic helmet and cape motif. Specifically, the all purple suit with a giant “M” on the front. He looks like a 1980s television magician, only with less dignity.) They scuffle for a bit before deciding to work together to face the threat of the Beyonder. They all pile into the Xavier’s sweet Rolls Royce which Magneto uses to magnetically fly them across the country. (How did the X-Men and Captain America know to go to L.A. before the Beyonder was even in L.A.? Again, it’s best not to think too hard about these things. “No prize” it, if you’re so worried about it. Except, this story is 30 years old, so you’ll literally receive nothing for it. Not even the envelope with nothing in it. Nothing! Not even the satisfaction of a life well lived, because that would be untrue.)

The Beyonder’s ball of non-corporeal energy arrives in L.A. early in the morning, and enters the home of the first person that he finds that is still awake, screenwriter Stewart Cadwall. Stewart has a very low opinion of the state of humanity and society (I feel like I should be ashamed to admit I agree with him about a lot of it).

Taking on the form of the Molecule Man, the Beyonder explains how he is here to understand, to experience. There is so much diversity and incompleteness on Earth, in his universe he was all there was. He demonstrates his power by turning Stewart’s desk into a big pile of apples, which his girlfriend immediately samples, because she’s fearless, that one. (Owen had just done this earlier, turning a small sculpture into an apple. This was a nice subtle nod to the Beyonder copying previously seen behavior. At this point, he wouldn’t necessarily understand enough to make his own choices yet. Of course, this is all ignoring anything he learned on Battleworld, but again, it’s best not to think of such things. The point is that he’s a giant baby, and he’s mimicking behavior.)

Nearby, Magneto liberates a few mutants forced to compete in a gladiatorial arena, for the amusement of some wealthy and powerful attendees. Among those that agree to leave are Cannonball, Magik, Dazzler, and Lila Cheney. (Where the hell did this come from? Is this covered in some tie-in issue somewhere? You can’t just have a one-panel glimpse of an underground mutant gladiator pit without any explanation.)

Stewart breaks the Beyonder’s situation down succinctly, he can do anything he wants, but he doesn’t understand what it is to want something. (It’s unfortunate for the Beyonder that the internet didn’t exist yet, because that might have saved him a lot of time. It would have also sped up his decision to destroy humanity, much like Ultron in Avengers: Age of Ultron. The lesson here, stop being dicks on the internet, humans.) Stewart offers to give him a firsthand look at wish fulfillment, by asking that he grant him some of his power. The Beyonder agrees, giving Stewart a portion of his power, which he uses to deck himself out in golden armor,calling himself Thunder-Sword. He flies off on his winged horse towards downtown, with the Beyonder following behind unseen.

The X-Men ride around in their car, looking for any sign of the Beyonder (like parents looking for their kid that stayed out past curfew, the X-Men are incompetent). Just when they’re ready to give up, Rachel’s telepathy detects a powerful presence nearby. The X-Men find Thunder-Sword destroying the NBC studios. The people flee from Thunder-Sword’s onslaught of destruction and insults, leading to my single favorite line of dialogue in the whole issue, “What is he … a critic?” (I don’t know why this amuses me so much. Who can explain the complexities of the human brain? Beyond Jim Shooter.)

The X-Men and the New Mutants attack Thunder-Sword, with little success (big surprise). Thunder-Sword hits Cannonball so hard he’s sent barreling out of control towards a nearby McDonald's. Colossus and Wolverine try to catch him, but the force of his momentum sends them all crashing into the fast food restaurant (rudely interrupting Michael Jackson’s lunch). Colossus once again proves why he’s absolutely the worst, by defending the virtue of the Big Mac in the midst of a battle for the fate of humanity.

Thunder-Sword is predictably not a fan of the fast food industry either, calling it “all part of the same canker of mass-media manipulated mediocrity that gnaws at the heart of this country.” (Maybe if I mention McDonald's enough, they’ll sponsor us. McDonald's absolutely doesn’t taste like subpar discount meat cooked days ago, then reheated and served beside a clump of cold fries. McDonald's is the pinnacle of the meat-adjacent sandwich industry. McDonald's is preferable to starving.)

Captain America implores his taxi driver to drive faster, so that he can join the fight. But the driver wants to take it as slow as possible, so he can talk to the living legend as long as he can, and really savor the righteousness. (Is this the most mundane sequence of travel that any superhero character has ever employed in the space of a single issue? I can absolutely picture this played for laughs in a big budget superhero movie. The X-Men are fighting an unbeatable enemy, with periodic cutaways to Captain America aboard various forms of public transportation, checking his watch.)

At the West Coast Avengers compound, Tony Stark is alerted to the situation, and sends Jim Rhodes in the Iron Man armor to assist.

Captain America finally arrives, just in time to save a mother and her child from certain doom. (This was actually a pretty great little pair of panels. Captain America is the best. I want to buy him a milkshake and talk about our feelings on liberty.)

Captain America coordinates a more effective attack on Thunder-Sword, but it is still ultimately unsuccessful. During the din of battle, Rachel detects another powerful being in the area, uncovering the presence of the Beyonder, who, having made himself visible, is intrigued by the dark essence hiding inside of Magik, and pulls it to the surface, turning her into the Darkchilde. Frightened, Magik panics and summons her magic stepping disk, teleporting her and a few of the other mutants somewhere else.

Wolverine reacts to the team’s psi-link suddenly being cut-off (after Rachel was teleported away) and sniffs out the Beyonder close-by. He slashes at the Beyonder with his razor sharp adamantium claws (which is how Claremont has taught me to always refer to them, repeatedly), confusing the godlike being.

Before he can respond or retaliate in any manner, Lila panics and teleports herself and the remaining mutants away. (Those wacky mutants are always teleporting from danger. The X-Men are the worst.)

Thunder-Sword defeats Captain America, and stands over him triumphant. Reinforcements finally arrive in the form of Iron Man. Iron Man’s sensors indicate that the source of Thunder-Sword’s power originates in his sword.

The Beyonder, still processing the physical attack on his form, begins to wonder if merely observing others will provide him the sufficient experience he desires. The visceral feeling of claws slashing his body has inspired him.

Captain America and Iron Man are able to separate Thunder-Sword from this weapon, turning him back into Stewart. Cap then turns his attention towards attempting to address the Beyonder, who is in the midst of quantifying what he has learned.

“Experience is the best teacher! To watch is not to understand without experience! I desire to understand! I shall experience! I shall understand!” (Basically, he has come to the conclusion that he needs to experience life firsthand to understand it.)

The Beyonder disappears, leaving a distraught Stewart to plead with Cap and Iron Man that he was corrupted by the power and wasn’t in control of his actions. He then realizes he destroyed all his places of employment, causing him to become even more despondent.

Captain America leaves Iron Man with Stewart to wait for the authorities to arrive, while he goes off to search for the Beyonder. Little does he realize, that the Beyonder is following him.

The issue ends with the obligatory tease of the title of the next issue, as well as the first list of titles that continue the Secret Wars II storyline. As I said before, this crossover created the blueprint for the overload of unnecessary and subpar ancillary stories to a major comic event. I haven’t read them all—who has the time?—but the ones I have read are largely not of a quality for human consumption. Just like a McDonald's burger.

Thus begins Shooter’s epic tale exploring the human condition, as told using brightly clad heroes and villains punching each other. So far, the Beyonder has learned that the best way to learn about human life, is to live one. Knowledge is great, but experience can teach you in ways that a book simply cannot, which is an idea that Good Will Hunting would appropriate several years later. It’s pretty profound, if you think about it, just don’t think too hard about those details. I appreciate Shooter's ambition, let’s find out if he can pull it off.

Next week, issue 2!

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