Thursday, February 25, 2021

Defenders To Ashes...

Having gained a respite in their conflict with their fellow member, Moondragon, who had given herself over to a demon entity in dragon form and then viciously lashed out at them, things look grim for the new Defenders, who may not be able to save their comrade, or even themselves, if and when she renews her attack. In Part Two of this story, we learned that Moondragon had gone underground half a world away--visibly enraged at her circumstances, having surrendered herself to the Dragon of the Moon and admitted to it (and to herself) her willingness to embrace the evil it represented. There seems little if any redemption to salvage for this woman, who has had a stormy history with those she allied herself with and now has come after the last of those allies with a vengeance.

Back in New Mexico, the Defenders attempt to pull themselves together, their mansion a virtual shambles after the fierce battle while one of their members, the Angel, remains blinded from Moondragon's prior assault--but they have pressed on, reaffirming their commitment to the team even in the face of their past performance which has endangered local communities. In the time since, their newest member, Cloud, has departed, her origin having been solved at last--while the Atlantean warrior named Andromeda has replaced her in their ranks. But now, the arrival of the stranger known as the Interloper heralds danger anew, particularly in light of the appearance of his "disciple"--Manslaughter, a psychotic who very nearly killed all of the Defenders at one time but who seeks to stand with them at this, their darkest hour.

There's still little that the Defenders know about either the past or the intentions of the Interloper--but since shedding the persona of Barbara Norris and regaining her true form, the Valkyrie is perhaps the best the Defenders have to judge his character and willingness to help. And so if her initial defensive posture toward this stranger has eased to one of caution (no easy leap to make if this man is vouching for Manslaughter), it's probably a given that the Defenders are willing at this point to accept his assistance against the more looming threat of the dragon and its mortal vessel, Moondragon.

Even so, it's beginning to look like the Defenders' final stand--and the one-sided pleasantries with Moondragon, such as they are, only heighten the tension of the moment, even as the Interloper moves to the forefront to challenge the dragon itself.

Readers of this book have already been tipped off by an unceremonious note in a prior letters page of its cancellation, though if you connect the dots it's not difficult to piece things together and reach that conclusion. This double-sized issue comes just one issue on the heels of another double-sized issue, as if the book's outstanding plots were being wrapped up with dispatch; in addition, there was the upcoming launch of X-Factor to consider, a team which would comprise the five original X-Men--three of which would need to be relieved of their Defenders obligations, with a fourth being brought back from the "dead" to rejoin them. Since flying without a net after the book was weaned of its original members, the new Defenders arguably have made a good show of it with a lineup that admittedly could have been more inspired than including the three castaways of the X-Men (Angel, Iceman, and Beast), but managed to provide an intriguing continuing storyline featuring the Valkyrie and Moondragon (the latter practically stealing the show). Whatever writer Peter Gillis has in store for their ultimate fate is yet to be revealed--but Gillis perhaps deserves credit for juggling the plates that he has in order to get us to this point.

Yet, what of Manslaughter? Twice he has proven to be a threat to the entire team of Defenders, willing to murder them without compunction after first toying with them to elevate their consternation. Even more than the Interloper, he is the odd man out in this story, the one person who doesn't really fit with the theme of rallying the Defenders against the dragon; but his sadistic, twisted thoughts have been the bane of Moondragon, and it seems the Defenders aren't about to look a gift horse in the mouth.

(And you've only seen a sampling here of this man's assault on Moondragon.)

With the dragon and Moondragon having at least temporarily withdrawn, it's well past time that we learned more of the Interloper--and while some, like the Beast, would question the wisdom of teaching a man like Manslaughter how to enhance his mental abilities ("mental" surely being an apropos way of referring to Manslaughter), the Interloper has at least proven to be a bastion against the incursions of the Dragon of the Moon. Yet what he proposes doesn't sit well with the Defenders.

As for Moondragon, we're forced to wonder at this point if there is any path back for someone who has chosen her path here (if under duress). But elsewhere, in a valley a few miles away, she paints a pitiable picture of herself, having broken down and cringing in indecision, fear, and anger as a result of not only Manslaughter's mental battery but in wrestling with the judgments of two of her former comrades who saw her as evil. The dragon, failing to console her, resorts to tempting her with the one thing sure to sway her back to its embrace and influence--an influx of additional power, a promise which leads to the appearance of the Beyonder (hell of a time for a tie-in with Secret Wars II), who is intrigued at the prospect of Moondragon becoming his disciple and grants her a portion of his might before departing.

Needless to say, given her fervent embrace of the power which will allow her to crush her former friends and comrades without mercy, any sympathy we might have had for this deluded woman falls by the wayside.

Nor does Moondragon hesitate to launch her attack--starting with a shameless deception which deprives the Defenders of one of their most powerful members and turns his suddenly soulless form against them.

From that point, things do turn worse for the Defenders, and quickly, as Moondragon splits the team down the middle by spiriting away the Beast, Iceman, and Angel, where Warren Worthington finds his sight restored so that he may witness along with the others the imminent, fatal death traps she's prepared for their civilian friends and loved ones, fates which the three heroes are helpless to prevent--unless they agree to refrain from interfering while the rest of the Defenders fall to the power of Moondragon and the dragon. It's an impossible choice for anyone to make in such a position; but they are only allowed time to express their anger, before Moondragon returns them to where the team faces off against the pair (along with their new slave, the Gargoyle, whom the dragon controls)... and the final battle begins.

The only individuals who stand apart from the fray are the same three who continue to wrestle with the circumstances that have tied their hands--a disappointing choice only in the sense that, unlike other such scenes which have played out in comics, they make no attempt to come up with any sort of plan, any options which would allow them to avoid being bystanders to the deaths of the others. "What should we do? What can we do?" is a response one might expect from the members of Power Pack, not from three seasoned X-Men, when even the New Mutants would likely put their heads together to think of some way out of this.

Instead, it falls to the others to stand alone--and the situation has become so dire that they can only make the ultimate sacrifice to destroy the evil they face.

If this scenario rings familiar, it's one that's been repeated in a number of fictional climactic moments in various mediums (and no doubt more than a few comics stories) where the forces of good have been combined either spiritually or telepathically (or what have you) to vanquish evil. One that comes to mind offhand is from 1979:

But for the Defenders, there is no marionette to focus our attention on--there is only the impassioned plea of the Valkyrie, which also acts as a farewell to those left behind.

"We can't leave you! There has to be a way!" While you may want to bitch-slap* the Beast for only now finding the conviction to grope for some sort of alternative solution, go they do, thanks to the searing force which engulfs their friends (and their enemies) that allows them to race to the rescue.

*Ye gods--that's actually in the dictionary.

Yet when the group and their safe charges return to the scene, they discover not only the ashes of those who remained, but that there may have been more at work here than reticence and indecision on the part of the Beast and the others--and more to Moondragon, if only to some small degree.

As much as the story's ending attempts to coax some measure of sympathy for Moondragon, it's difficult to reconcile her "gift" with the lost lives of five people who fought to stop her rampage--but on the flip side of that point, it was the heroism of those people which was likely meant to bring the saga of the Defenders to a hopefully meaningful and memorable close.


This issue's cover painting by Frank Cirocco.


Anonymous said...

To be fair to Moondragon, Comicsfan, its not as if those five lives were lost for long.


Comicsfan said...

Well, sean, we can extend some of that fairness to her victims by saying it wasn't for her lack of trying! :)

lordjim6 said...

And thus ended my favorite comics team.