Sidekicks aren’t big in the Marvel universe. Heroes are a dime a dozen, and there are super-powered teams all over the place (remember, this is the company that gave us The Great Lakes Avengers), but you’re hard-pressed to find a hero with a sidekick. Part of this may be due to rival comic publisher DC’s monopoly on the sidekick market: Batman’s perennial second fiddle, Robin the Boy Wonder, is one of the most recognizable and persistent superhero sidekicks, regularly appearing alongside the caped crusader in several contemporary adaptations. But even in the few instances where Marvel does allow its heroes to be supported by a sidekick, it often isn’t long before the secondary character is given the opportunity to step up to the plate and prove themselves to be a hero in their own right. Spoilers for Avengers Standoff: Assault on Pleasant Hill Alpha #1 begin after the jump.
A Tale of Two Captains
If there’s one Marvel hero most likely to be supported by a sidekick, it’s certainly Captain America. In the early days of Marvel comics, when Cap was fighting for the Allies during World War II, the general consensus was that the target audience – namely, children – would lose interest in the heroic wartime exploits of Steve Rogers unless he was accompanied by a specific character to which they could relate. Enter Bucky Barnes, the young boy that joined Cap as he punched his way across the Pacific Theater. After the war ended, Cap was frozen for several decades and Bucky was largely forgotten. Sometime after Cap’s revival, however, his one-time sidekick was revived and reimagined as the brainwashed weapon of America’s enemies – the Winter Solider.
But Bucky wasn’t Cap’s only sidekick over the years, and this issue goes to great lengths to highlight the complicated relationship between those wearing the mantel of Captain America, those serving as sidekicks to the hero, and those who have occupied both positions over the years. Ultimately, it creates a fascinating set of parallels and foils between the two Caps, and the two sidekicks they respectively seek out in this issue.
The narrative starts with Steve Rogers, the original Captain America, who is showing his age after being drained of the super soldier serum that gave him his exceptional powers. Serving as a Commander of S.H.I.E.L.D., he follows the trail of bodies and debris his one-time sidekick Bucky left behind as he destroyed four S.H.I.E.L.D. bases. Despite the overt violence, Bucky is still Steve’s friend, as so Steve is willing to follow the personal hint Bucky leaves to lead him to a rendezvous.
Meanwhile, the current Captain America, Sam Wilson, has been working with the Snowden-stand-in The Whisperer, the whistle-blower responsible for alerting the world to Hill’s plans for the Cosmic Cube fragments. While Steve and Sam are working at odds to one another, their situations run parallel: both heroes are collaborating with pragmatic individuals who happen to be fugitives from the law (embodied here by S.H.I.E.L.D.). While Bucky is wanted for destroying several S.H.I.E.L.D. bases, the Whisperer is wanted for revealing top-secret information.
And the parallels between the two fugitives don’t end there, as it is soon revealed that the identity of the Whisperer is Rick Jones, another one-time sidekick of Captain America. Also like Bucky, Rick Jones spent some time wreaking havoc, as a monster called A-Bomb – and, as the quick expositional panel recapping Jones duly notes, Jones has also engaged in enough day saving to be considered a hero in his own right. As noted by Sam in the narration, “I’d call [Jones] a professional sidekick, but as someone who’s been dubbed that myself – it’s a disservce.” It’s an interesting observation from a man who went from sidekick to hero himself, and it’s creates a fascinating set of connections between Sam, Bucky, and Jones, all of whom have occupied both the role of sidekick and hero.
Once the identity of the Whisperer has been revealed, what follows is an exemplary demonstration of employing crosscutting and character foils to make exposition a quick and painless affair. By bouncing between Steve’s discussion with Bucky and Sam’s discussion with Jones, the expositional dirty work of exploring what the two sidekicks have been up to becomes an interesting and entirely readable endeavor.
In fact, the two conversations are so engaging that it’s almost disappointing when S.H.I.E.L.D. shows up and crashes the party. Bucky, equipped with the gadgets he brought back from space, quickly escapes of his own volition, while Jones accepts a little help from Sam before vanishing.
A Tale of Two Hills
And so Maria Hill rolls back into the narrative, immediately soaking up the spotlight. Spencer’s Hill is abrasive and cocky – character traits she possessed during Spencer’s run on Secret Avengers. But arrogance aside, she seems to have adopted an air of condescension in the interim. Nevertheless, the prickly patronization creates an interesting dynamic between Hill and Steve. Mocking him for his costume and suggesting he’s kind of a snob for not being familiar with The Simpsons, Hill is presented as a foil for Steve, and it’s a dynamic that serves the narrative well.
Whether her snappy sensibilities are just part of an affected personality used to assert authority, or whether she might be undergoing some measure of personality alteration due to the Kobik program is unclear at this point; what is clear, however, is that her character is a lot of fun to read. Despite her flippant demeanor, Hill is extremely adroit at her job. She admits Steve raised some legitimate concerns regarding the use of the Cosmic Cube to alter reality, but makes it clear that she isn’t willing “unilaterally disarm” over them. Instead, she presents Pleasant Hill as a compromise – she isn’t using the Cosmic Cube to play god with everyone’s reality, just with the realities of a few “deserving” individuals.
Steve’s unwilling to compromise his values and acquiesce to Hill’s “Guantanamo Bay of alternate realities,” so Hill turns his values against him by introducing him to the cause of the alterations: Kobik, an entity created when several Cosmic Cube fragments combined. Kobik has taken the form of a child, a symbol of innocence Steve immediately finds sympathetic. The same ideals that cause Steve to be repulsed by the concept of Pleasant Hill are those that prevent him from taking action against it by destroying its source. Hill has Steve pinned, and she knows it – but unfortunately for her, the incarcerated super villains have begun to rebel, and her power games take a backseat to a more immediate crisis: the abduction of Kobik, the childlike entity with the ability to alter reality.
Politics & Current Events
The political commentary has become more overt in this issue, and it isn’t unwelcome. Naturally, the Whisperer has been a Snowden analogue all along, a reference Jones makes overtly in this issue. Tellingly, the Whisperer is also the individual that created the tension between Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson, a polarizing figure who has created a philosophical divide between two reasonable men.
Marvel has always permitted current events to influence their world, especially when it comes to bigger events, and this story is no exception. Additionally, Nick Spencer, the writer of this event, was a politician before becoming involved in comics. It’s the sort of experience that makes dangerous characters like Maria Hill simultaneously more interesting and more terrifying. The narrative so far has taken the political groundwork laid in the first issues and built upon it quite well, and there is every indication this trend will continue.
The narrative continues to keep a focus on characters that will be recognizable to MCU fans, with a cameo this week from Crusher Creel (who also appeared on this week’s episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), but coming up soon, we’ll have a whole slew of comic-only villains to contend with. Plus, we can look forward to figuring out whether Maria Hill will be the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. responsible for killing Steve Rogers, and hopefully we’ll finally get to see the big air show!
Stay tuned for the ongoing installments on Marvel’s Avengers Standoff: next up is our first tie-in issue, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. #3!