This article discusses the events of Champions #1, which may be considered spoilers. You’ve been warned!
Champions #1 poses an interesting question for superhero fans: Do superheroes save the world anymore? Now, this should not be confused with the idea that there is a lack of villainy in comics. Of course, in the grand scheme of things, most superhero narratives in some way hinge on bad people doing some bad things, and boy do they need to be straightened out. But, when I begin to think about some of the major titles running right now, I find that they are focused on narratives driven by self-serving danger or self-serving events (personal growth is central). Remember, even Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War played on the personal conflict between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, with Baron Zemo serving as catalyst for their bromantic drama. The movie even goes so far as to completely defuse Zemo’s assumed threat by clarifying that he had no intention of reinstating the super soldier program, and simply wanted to see the heroes rip each other apart.
This all points to, what I would argue, is a new trend. A trend that is centered on stories driven by personal struggles and personal demons (look no further than the recent International Iron Man, The Vision, or the Batman Rebirth series to see what I mean), where extraordinary people are viewed through the tribulations of the human condition (they are, as we say in the biz, humanized). Where superheroes came from a tradition of being, well, super; more and more creators are honing in on the personal struggles of characters instead of the greater power of the hero to affect change. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with this (The Vision is easily one of my favorite comics . . . ever); and many series are doing incredible work addressing current social issues through their heroes, which is great. The pre-Rebirth Superman addressed the racial tensions felt in the United States, and Ms. Marvel has broached a number of issues from cultural acceptance to civil disobedience (my heart is with you, Bruno). But, I would argue that these are aberrant occurances, and that the dominant thematic shift to superhuman plight begins to detract from the greater pleasure(?), value(?), message(?) of superheroes as saviors in a world where a lot of terrible things happen.
Now, wait. Wait! Wait, wait, wait. Please! I can hear the swelling groans of the cynics as their eyes involuntarily roll back into their skulls. Don’t leave. Hear me out.
I’m not here to clamor for a return to the rudiments of comic creation, and I am certainly not here to poo-poo on the ingenious ways so many creators have used superheroes to address a number of social and cultural topics. Manipulating the genre in order to address themes relevant to people on a personal level is wonderful, and vital, to keeping the medium thriving and new. But, so is a return to some of the classic qualities of crazy costumed people who take it upon themselves to help others. Essentially, I am humbly suggesting that this somewhat dated feature of the great American superhero—even Captain America is flipping the script and fighting for the baddies—to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves, may be worth revisiting. Champions #1 attempts to bring readers back to the core values of a hero: to save the world. And, I would like to think that this is something worth paying attention to.
Champions #1 is a direct response to the events of Civil War II (CWII) and the moral conundrum that manifests after the discovery of an Inhuman with the ability to see some form of the future. As with the first Civil War, lines are drawn and heroes have to make a choice as to which team they will align with: Captain Marvel and the precognitive police force she hopes to institute, or Tony Stark and his philosophy of existential inevitability. What this confrontation creates is a fitting scenario in which to discuss my proposed problem of superheroes and their detachment from the world in which they live. The premise of CWII is entirely self-involved, with one side fighting to introduce an arguably anti-humanist approach to policing a population. This is, quite simply, the distillation of that which is comics right now. In the guise of social security, heroes are fighting over their own ideologies, paying little attention to the people who are actually suffering from their escapades.
The Champions reject the infighting that has beleaguered their idols, and leave their respective teams, in an attempt to shake off the apathy toward communal responsibility to fix the world.
This makes Ms. Marvel a fitting candidate for team leader, as her solo comic works on the premise that while Kamala struggles with her own personal conflicts, they are always connected to the people around her. The emphasis is on how her actions affect her city, which in turn establishes Kamala’s personal growth. The most recent arc of Ms. Marvel excellently addresses the compromises to superhero ethics that stem from narcissistic motivations, embodied in Captain Marvel; and Kamala’s eventual rejection of Captain Marvel is a powerful statement on Kamala’s budding self-confidence and commitment to her communal family over the strictures of Captain Marvel’s macroscopic comprehension of world policing.
Additionally, Miles Morales serves as an excellent member of the Champions, considering how Spider-Man has always been a hero of the people. Though, as Tim pointed out in his article, the current iteration of Peter Parker is far removed from the boy from Queens that worked to better his community. Globetrotting leaves little time to fight the good fight back home, and Miles represents a return to that form of superheroism.
Even Viv Vision works as a foil to her father by rejecting his detached view of humankind, willing instead to live in the roiling waters of social anxiety and insecurity (human feeling, warts and all, piques Viv’s interest in a way untenable for Vision). It is, after all, Viv who responds emphatically to the dissonance between her family and the human world around her. Where Vision works to selfishly, and ineffectively, insert himself into his social environment, Viv works doggedly to immerse herself in the social world.
As for the other Champions, for me, the obvious reason is their opposition to Captain Marvel’s actions. Considering the death of Bruce Banner and the forthcoming arrest of Miles Morales—both as a result of Captain Marvel’s initiative to enforce precognitive law—Hulk and Nova’s joining is entirely justified.
And once they unite, the team’s goals involve not only saving people from dire situations, but also ensuring that these situations are completely resolved in order to leave those people in a better state than they were before. This is the conflict that ultimately disillusions Kamala in the series’ beginning, and appears to be a major element of the Champion’s agenda. And this is where the narrative takes an interesting turn. The Champions take the time to reconstruct what has been torn down, and affect change through a surrendering of the authority often prescribed to heroes, in order to position themselves as social servants rather than super elitists. The Champions function as a grounded form of superheroics, fighting for the micro-communities that make up the world at a time when heroes are too busy bopping each other around the globe.
Champions #1 steers clear of the typical team scenario of facing off with some imposing villain or organization, and instead ends with the team taking down a human trafficker. While the action certainly focuses on the way the heroes use their powers to take down the bad guys, they are working for a social cause. This is not a battle with cyborg ninjas or otherworldly creatures, but rather a gun totting clown and his cohorts, and a shipping container full of young girls who need to be rescued. The tension is in response to the safety of the citizens in danger, not the heroes; and the emotional impact comes from the cultural mores in jeopardy, especially in regard to the lascivious nature of the criminal act. This emotion is expressed literally when the team discovers one of the girls has died, which induces the Hulk to savagely assault the trafficker. The attack, symbolic of the standard form of superhero justice, is restrained by the team in favor of abidance to formal law. Rather than pummel the villain, the Champions alert local authorities. They do not represent justice, and do not have the authority to prosecute the criminal. In this way, the Champions acknowledge the limitations of heroes, and assert a clear condemnation on those heroes who assert their power above their social authority (in this narrative, defined by Captain Marvel and the events of CWII).
Yet, I fear that the central push for the Champions’ formation may quickly fall wayward as the series continues, considering the fact that while the Kamala and company state that they won’t be leaving the scene of a crime or disaster until they have performed the necessary repairs, such as the collapsed coal mine that they save the stranded miners from, there is no panel-time dedicated to the actual act of reparation. In addition, this may get further pushed aside as the arc begins to take off, and the heroes get embroiled in a larger conflict (though, this is pure speculation at this point).
I have similar concerns when it comes to how Mark Waid (the series writer) builds up the emotional draw for the conclusion of the issue, which is weirdly dissonant. Perhaps a symptom of the comic form, the conclusion blithely approaches the death of the girl by juxtaposing it to the heroes’ fixation on their phones, which gives the book a capricious sense of concern for the material it is addressing. It is disturbing to see a group of heroes swing from rampantly outraged at the sight of a young girl who died as a victim of human trafficking to hypnotically drawn to their smartphones as praise from people on social media sites spams their inbox; all of which ends with the eerily apathetic remark from Ms. Marvel, “how about that. We may have started something . . .” What?!
Still, I am hopeful that this new team-up will take superheroing back to what it was in its beginning. Even if the series inevitably does not work well as a whole, there are exciting parts to be considered; and, though I have my concerns, I believe there is something enticing about the idea of superheroes saving the world again.