Monday, July 17, 2017

The Scarlet Centurion Strikes!


The 1968 Avengers Annual featured a top-notch story by Roy Thomas that pitted the original Avengers against their replacements, thanks to the machinations of the Scarlet Centurion--a time traveler who stops off in our century after his defeat in ancient Egypt as Rama-Tut and plots to rid the Earth of everyone who's invested with super-powers. And while there isn't a plethora of super-powered beings in '68, the Centurion still has his work cut out for him--so to facilitate his plan, he conscripts, of all people, the Avengers, who at this point in time are about to see one of their most powerful members, the Hulk, angrily depart from their ranks. That is, until fate materializes in their midst.




The Avengers, as Captain America later puts it, have of course been sold a bill of goods by the Centurion. We learn later in the story that the Centurion was also using "mildly hypnotic aura and vocal devices" to help convince the Avengers of his sincerity (and there will be a revisionist twist that sought to strengthen that part of Thomas's plot); so despite the very real possibility that the Avengers have been duped, and the fact that they haven't insisted that the Centurion substantiate these "flawless calculations" of his that conclude that those with super-powers must be neutralized before paradise can become a reality for the Earth, the team proceeds with their treacherous mission.




And once the Avengers have eliminated the heroes on their list in a virtual blitzkrieg of attacks, the world's villains are targeted and dealt with.



Mission accomplished, the Avengers move to ensure that no other super-powered humans appear on Earth in the future--though at this point, you'd probably be hard-pressed to find anyone left in the world who still regards these five as "Avengers," or even heroes.



The Centurion speaks of the five Avengers--Captain America, Goliath, the Wasp, the Black Panther, and Hawkeye--who have been displaced in time and are now at large in this altered past. Having already confronted and escaped the Avengers who had "gone bad," the group discovers the details of how the original team became corrupted and resolves to use the components of Dr. Doom's time machine in an attempt to set things right. In the process, they're forced to again battle their predecessors and, through resourcefulness and knowledge of their foes' capabilities and tactics, prevail. That left the Centurion to deal with, whom they learned was the mastermind behind their appearing in the past--reasoning that the newer team of Avengers might successfully manage to overcome the more powerful lineup and thus be a less formidable team of Avengers for the Centurion to dispose of. And though the Avengers' battle against the Centurion looks grim at the outset, they manage to activate the time machine and send the Centurion helplessly adrift through (you guessed it) the centuries.

Everything works out for the Avengers, who return to their own time with no memory of what had happened (thanks to our resident buttinsky, the Watcher, whose habit of interference makes him a laughing stock in his profession). But a 1981 What If story picks up this ball again when it asks the question:


And this time, we'll hear from the original Avengers on the subject.



You may feel that the cover title seems redundant in light of the fact that, in the Avengers story which spawned this follow-up, we've already seen what happened when the Avengers defeated everybody: basically, all the Earth's heroes were no more, and the Centurion subsequently double-crossed the Avengers. Inside, however, on the story's splash page, we're graced with a title that's more intriguing, given that this time the Avengers will face the consequences of their actions on their own:



In the more recent story, the Centurion never arranges for Cap and the others to be diverted to the past and thus come into conflict with the original team of Avengers--and so the story involves only those Avengers the Centurion makes his pitch to. As a result, in order to have the Avengers give more deliberation to what the Centurion is proposing, writer Steven Grant adds supplemental material to Thomas's flashback scenes that serves to give more focus to the original Avengers while also giving more weight to the decision that would have them betraying their fellow heroes.



There's still no "proof" to speak of in this explanation--images that could have been easily manufactured by the Centurion, with still no evidence of a direct link between the holocaust he describes and the proliferation of super-beings. Yet it's also revealed that the Centurion is able to sway the Avengers so easily because of modifications to the same will-sapping ray he used on the FF while in Egypt. And so the Avengers once more undertake their mission in order to bring about a new Golden Age, and again they meet with success.

But when the time comes to vanquish the last five super-beings, the Centurion of course has no second team of Avengers who can dispose of his primary threat of Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, and the others for him--and so he must hope that these last five heroes still have enough trust in him to fulfill their end of the bargain and voluntarily decide to step down. But there is one among them who has never trusted the Centurion, and he has no intention of complying.




With the Hulk out of the picture, that leaves the four other Avengers to see this mission through to its end. Yet there's another twist that serves as the linchpin in how this story will play out from this point. In the prior story, it was presumably the Avengers who took custody of and incarcerated those they defeated, while neutralizing their powers in order to comply with the Centurion's conditions; here, however, it's clearly the Centurion who retrieves those who had fallen, which means that the story is over once the Avengers decide to surrender themselves. And so instead, Grant simply has the Avengers disband and go their separate ways--Thor returns to Asgard, Iron Man discards his armor and resumes his life exclusively as Tony Stark, and Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne marry and live as civilians. None of which, by the way, satisfies the Centurion's conditions for bringing about a millennium of peace, though Grant appears to have no choice here. We can't realistically expect either Thor or Stark to allow themselves to be incarcerated, nor is Thor likely to agree to his identity and power as Thor being "neutralized," assuming it's even within the Centurion's capabilities. (The best Kang was able to achieve in that respect was to forcibly shift Thor to his identity as Donald Blake.)

And so the decision the Avengers come to may not be ideal for the Centurion or for the story that Grant has structured up to now, but it's probably the best that the Centurion can hope for under the circumstances, when normally he would have insisted that the Avengers submit to the same neutralizing procedure that rendered the others powerless.




Unfortunately for the Centurion, this development leaves him with a problem he managed to plan for and overcome previously but isn't available to him this time around:  the fact that, disbanded or not, he now potentially has the more powerful lineup of Avengers to deal with when he makes his power play.



It would be unrealistic for the Centurion not to expect the Avengers to return and move against him, especially since they would be sure to feel responsible for the danger that they've unleashed on the human race. Indeed, Thor has apparently been keeping an eye on Midgard, which is unusual in itself--after all, Thor was completely on board with the Centurion's plan, and showed no signs of misgivings when it was all over. Why wouldn't he tend to Asgardian affairs, content with the knowledge that humanity was about to benefit from the Centurion's font of knowledge for mankind? But when the Centurion shows his true colors, Don Blake is practically standing at the ready to reform the ranks of the Avengers, with their mission this time to avenge those they had been duped into betraying.





It looks like the Centurion's gamble has paid off, since his armor's weaponry has proven to be effective against the Avengers--especially with the Hulk no longer being a factor to contend with. But the Centurion isn't allowed any time to take a victory lap, since there's one Avenger left to face--one who no doubt feels he has a great deal to make up for.






With Thor triumphant, it's understandable for Iron Man to want to see the Avengers reunite, since his life as Stark was bereft of the thrill and gratification he experienced in his armored identity. Yet the point the Centurion originally made about the inherent danger present in super-beings, though voiced as part of a scheme, still rings true for some in the group, particularly in light of how the Avengers have conducted themselves in this matter; and since the Avengers have no way of knowing that their behavior has in part been the result of technological manipulation, they decide to remain disbanded, feeling that they've abused the trust placed in them. And with the many lines the Avengers crossed, and no way to undo the damage that's been done to those who once had super-powers, it's hard to argue the point.




It's interesting that the authorities now have the Centurion in custody, to say nothing of having in their hands an advanced ship that can travel through time to reverse engineer--and no super-heroes to take the decision out of their hands and launch it into the sun or some other means of disposal. The Centurion will never go on to become Kang, and will probably find himself detained at Area 51, Project: Pegasus, or some other high-security facility that, needless to say, allows him access to nothing more sophisticated than a toothbrush and a Commodore 64.

BONUS!
Have a look at the Centurion's stockade, where Earth's heroes were sent for "rehabilitation."


I had trouble identifying those figures tagged with a question mark.
(But I did manage to spot a certain "sailor man" with a fondness for spinach.)

What If #29

Script: Steven Grant
Pencils: Alan Kupperberg
Inks: Al Gordon
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I notice Snuffy Smith and Lil' Orphan Annie aren't up there.
I think the green guy is Diablo, and the guy in white is maybe the Plunderer, who had a white costume. Hard to say.
"I am the Scarlet Centurion! He who ever treads the endless millennia to give aid where he may."
Who'd fall for that? I'd be telling him to get lost, and fast.

M.P.

Comicsfan said...

Actually, M.P., those were essentially the first words out of Thor's mouth! :)

George Chambers said...

Given that the Avengers were coerced into doing the Centurion's bidding, whether they knew it or not, I still question the wisdom of taking out the heroes before the bad guys.

Comicsfan said...

George, I suppose it might have given the heroes a heads-up on the Avengers' aggressive course of action, making it more likely that they might look to their own preparations and planning just in case the Avengers had some sort of agenda they weren't willing to disclose. From what we've seen, it wasn't likely to have done them any good to watch their backs--the Avengers obviously planned well and moved quickly.

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