More than two years ago, I started reading Avengers by Jonathan Hickman as a bit of a gamble. I’ve always loved the X-Men, but the Avengers are fairly new territory for me. But when I saw that bottom panel, I was hooked. I had to figure out what it meant, no matter how long I had to wait, no matter how many issues of Avengers and New Avengers I had to buy. And Hickman doesn’t make it easy. His words are powerful but subtle. One line casually thrown around solves an entire mystery, while whole issues are spent building up ideas that don’t seem to go anywhere. And as Avengers and New Avengers have ended, and into Secret Wars (issue #4 at present), I can finally try to unravel the onion that is the quote above.
One was life
Let’s dissect this quote into two parts. First, we have “life”, idealized by Captain America. He represents the traditional philosophy we’ve come to expect from our superheroes:
Cap knows what is right and what is wrong, and can be counted on to always do the right thing. With Tony Stark’s help. Cap puts together the strongest team of Avengers ever assembled, the Avengers World. Avengers #29-34 shows us that this idea outlives all of them, and that until the end of time, Avengers exist to protect the multiverse under some form of Cap’s ideals.
Of course, this idea is not unique to Captain America, with the obvious DC parallel of Superman. Luckily, Hickman gives us an obvious analog in Zoran, aka Sun God. In true Hickman style, he quickly but powerfully summarizes what it means to be on the side of life:
We see variations on this scene for those who fight for death, which are equally powerful. But this at least sets up two powerful forces who fight for and embody life: the Avengers World, led by Captain America, and the Great Society, led by Sun God.
…and one was death
It’s not immediately obvious why Tony Stark would be “death”. He’s one of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, right? So Hickman puts him and his Illuminati-brethren, which initially includes Cap, up against their greatest challenge ever: multiversal destruction via the incursions. We see Reed Richards spell out the Illuminati’s motivations:
Their goal is noble: to stop the early end of everything and save their world. But Cap knows they are going down a dark path:
At the end of the issue, we know that the Illuminati is willing to destroy other worlds to save entire universes. The rationale is simple utilitarianism: billions must die on one planet to save an uncountably large number of entities in two universes. This defines what I call our “modern hero”, what we used to call an anti-hero: someone who does bad things for the right reasons. But Cap knows that these people aren’t heroes:
We see Doctor Doom, of all people, echo this sentiment, even though he’s talking about a completely different thing altogether:
Acting on what you believe has a way of solidifying dogma. It changes the way you think. It changes the way you speak. In the doing, it becomes more real.
We see Doctor Strange erase Cap’s memory and kick him out of the Illuminati, leaving Tony Stark and Reed Richards to come up with “653 separate designs” for weapons systems. Tony knows that he needs Cap distracted while they work on their plans, so one of these weapons systems is the Avengers World itself. He plants the idea into Cap’s mind to set him off on building the team and using it to protect the Earth.
Meanwhile, the Illuminati goes down exactly the path Cap warns them about. Reed and T’Challa build dozens of antimatter bombs to destroy other worlds. Tony builds a Dyson Sphere to turn into an energy-based superweapon. Doctor Strange sells his soul to get the ability to summon what looks like Cthulhu. All of this buildup means that peace is pretty much impossible at this point. Our “heroes” have prepared for death, are expecting death, and death they will have.
…and one always wins
The Illuminati reach their breaking point when an incursion occurs with the world the Great Society hail from. From even the start of their meeting, the Illuminati are prepared for death, and it is the preparation itself that destroys any type of peaceful outcome:
Tension quickly builds between the two parties, but this time, it is Namor who pushes our team over the edge, into oblivion. We see that he is more than willing to be on the side of death, because as a king, he considers himself beyond human morality.
Ultimately, Doctor Strange summons Cthulhu to kill the Great Society and their world, and while he succeeds in the former, Tony knocks him unconscious before he can destroy their world. The team manages to escape back to their Earth, and now the team must decide if they’re going to save their Earth by blowing up the other one, and who will do it. Most of the team outright refuses, leaving our three kings (Namor, Black Bolt, and T’Challa) to make the decision. T’Challa struggles and cannot, but before we see what Black Bolt decides to do, Namor detonates the bomb.
This doesn’t mean that Namor is death, while the rest of the Illuminati (except Doctor Strange) is life. Their hands are all dirty in this, since they all built the bomb that Namor has detonated. But certainly Namor is more guilty than the others here, and destroying one world makes him willing to destroy more. Another incursion occurs, and as the rest of the Illuminati refuse to do anything about it, we see Namor “save” the day by creating the Cabal:
Death simply leads to more death, as the Cabal goes public with what the Illuminati has done. They take their case to the United Nations, who signs off on their mission to destroy other worlds. At the same time, we see Captain America regain his lost memories and drive the Illuminati underground as he hunts for them. But death wins again, as the Illuminati manipulate the fractured Avengers teams towards a temporary peace, and a plan to kill the Cabal, which ultimately fails.
But with the Illuminati spending so much time on the run, they are unable to find a way to stop the incursions, so, as promised, everything dies. Cap finally gets his chance to get revenge on Tony Stark, and we see them beating each other to a bloody pulp as the final incursion destroys the last two universes in existence. Seemingly, all that remains are two life rafts, on with the Illuminati on board, and the other with the Cabal on board.
All hope resides in Doom
Doctor Doom proves to be the wildcard in this equation. He shares the same kingly worldview as Namor, explicitly stating that “everything dies,” so there’s no question that he’s on the side of death. And it is he who kills the Beyonders and takes their power for himself, using it to piece together the few scraps of land that survive the incursions into Battleworld and rule over it as its god.
We should not take this action to mean that Doom is on the side of life. “Something lives” is far different from “everything lives,” and Doom has created a world that only exists as long as he literally holds it together. Although Secret Wars is still ongoing, at this point we know it can’t last forever. Both life rafts have crashed onto Battleworld, bringing death to Doom’s world, and one of these forces will find a way to take Doom out of the picture and kickstart a new Marvel Universe (and more likely, a new Marvel Multiverse).
Now we’re up to speed on Secret Wars, and we can finally tackle the original quote we started with. Hickman ends his Avengers series with the full version of this quote:
Hickman’s run on Avengers makes it plain and clear why Tony Stark is death. It reminds us that at his core, Tony Stark builds weapons designed to kill. And this train of thought pervades every action he takes and his world view. He wants to protect the world by having the biggest guns at his side, to deter anyone from taking him on. And while he can’t actually pull the trigger on the world-destroying bomb, what matters to him is that it’s his choice not to do so. It’s in his power not to pull the switch. It’s all a matter of control for Tony Stark.
So when this control is taken away from him and the Cabal steps into power, using his bombs to destroy other worlds, he challenges their entire team by himself. He builds bigger and better weapons, and while he loses this fight, he regains control one last time to use Sol’s Hammer (the energy weapon powered by his Dyson Sphere) to save the world, by trivially murdering an invading alien armada.
We show who we really are when pushed to our limits. For Cap, his ideals come first, and he cements himself as life. For Tony, his own life comes first, cementing himself as death.