I didn’t read Avengers Arena when it first came out, because I objected to someone taking characters I love and sticking them in a battle royale-type situation. (Even if I do love Battle Royale the movie.) Then after the series was finished, I’d read enough that was positive about the series (and also really enjoyed the author’s run on Cable and X-Force) that I decided I would give it a go. And it wasn’t as bad or sensationalist as I had feared. But it wasn’t that worthwhile either.
Avengers Arena isn’t the series Hopeless originally pitched – that was a ‘straight teen drama set in a superhero school’. In the afterword to the trades, he says:
‘[The editors] pointed to a couple sentences near the end of the pitched that outlines what would have been our third arc. It was something about our kids competing in a tournament with other Marvel Universe schools that turns into a death match when a super villain takes control. The Triwizard Tournament meets The Hunger Games. Tom and Axel pointed to those two sentences and said, “There’s your story. Just do that.”
I never told this part of the story before, but I hated the idea. Instead of my dream project, they wanted me to do a Battle Royale homage. Were they serious?’
Later, Hopeless says he’s grateful for it. ‘They knew the story we needed to tell, long before I did. I’ll never thank them enough for pointing it out or Bill for talking me into giving it a shot.’
Thing is, I can imagine the concept working as an arc in an existing series – you’ve had time to build up to it, it can bring together themes you’ve been hinting at throughout the whole thing. (You won’t be pissing off the fans of existing characters by starting a new series devoted to those characters being compelled to kill one another!) But as it stands, I think Avengers Arena is a weak story. It’s not thematically coherent the way other teens-forced-to-kill stories are.
The basic idea is, I think, to highlight that adult superheroes are already letting these kids become killers. The closing pages of the comic show a couple of reporters discussing the kidnapping of the teenagers involved (before they or anyone else has let slip what happened in Murder World). One of the reporters says, ‘There’s a lot of blame to pass around here … most of which obviously belongs to whoever did this horrible thing. But from there I think you can head straight over to the adult super heroes. The men and women who trained these kids. Who failed these kids. These heroes of ours …’ – and we see Arcade, the mastermind of the whole thing, clicking ‘upload’ on a video –‘they should be ashamed of themselves.’
But this is not a theme that has been pushed through the series as a whole. It would have worked if this had been the end point of a series about training young superheroes – but that’s not what this is. This is a stand-alone story. Sure, half the kids are from Avengers Academy, and I could understand the arc in that context – but others are from Runaways, or other series that don’t involve kids actually being trained as superheroes. The original characters in the series are a UK superhero school, but this needed to come across of much more of a training facility than it did.
Also, Arcade’s motive for pitting the kids against one another is personal – partly him trying to prove his own worth as a supervillain, and partly just for entertainment. It is not political, the way the Hunger Games are political, or Battle Royale is political.
Arcade says to the participants, ‘Got the idea from a couple of kids’ books I read in the pen.’ Which is to *nudge wink* to the reader, yes, we know this is like The Hunger Games – but later, it comes out that book Arcade mostly has in mind is ‘the one about the kids on the island’, that is, Lord of the Flies.
But Lord of the Flies is about ‘human beings are [mostly] bad or at least morally weak people who form bad societies’, not about ‘bad societies force [mostly] not-bad people to do bad things’. Bringing up Lord of the Flies doesn’t strengthen the themes in Avengers Arena, it only confuses them.
And I think that’s what the issue is with the series as a whole – it is confused, and it tries to make an argument at the last minute that it hasn’t been building towards.
On the other hand, I did enjoy a lot of the characters – mostly the ones I wasn’t familiar with. Cammi I really liked, and would be keen to track down her other stories, and Death Locket and Apex in particular of the original characters. Also Arcade’s contractor, Miss Coriander, who was supremely competent and happy to work for Arcade whilst not buying into any of his bullshit.
I was more disappointed with the role of the characters I knew coming in. There was plenty of Hazmat being nihilistic, which is always good, but other than that … Reptil didn’t really get to do anything, Mettle got to die almost straight away … (Also, I was annoyed because there’s a line in there that made it so that Mettle was not Polynesian. Not that it was ever stated that Mettle’s dad was native Hawaiian, but it was a reasonable thing to assume, and it’s not like there are a whole lot of Polynesian characters in comics.)
I think Hopeless would have been better off with all-original characters, because he really did seem more interested in them. Which may be an artifact of this not being the series he originally pitched.