Avengers #40 marks the beginning of the end in Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers epic. There have been many significant moments in the series story spanning Avengers, New Avengers, and Infinity, but some of the events of this issue feel both conclusive and truly irreversible. Those moments make Avengers #40 stand apart despite some weaknesses beyond its focus.
The significance of these events is not due to the extraordinarily high stakes and incredible power involved with what is occurring, but the relationships involved. There have been a few relationships that have formed the emotional heart of this series from the beginning and Hickman brings one to an inevitable end here. Even early in the issue it is clear where everything is headed. There’s no coyness about how this will play out, flashbacks create dramatic irony and provide a sense of dread.
Hickman doesn’t allow plot to drive the climactic sequence. The two characters focused upon in Avengers #40 define both the story and themselves through their action. In a story that is often plot-driven, it’s refreshing to see these two take hold of their own destinies even if the decisions they make seem like follies. Their actions reveal who they are: flawed humans attempting to do the right thing and failing. Whatever your feelings on their individual paths, if you have followed this tale for almost one hundred issues now this will feel monumentally tragic.
The focus on this central relationship is significant because the rest of the issue that surrounds it is often lackluster. Hickman’s story has ballooned to such an enormous size that individual issues read more like a few moves within a chess match rather than any significant portion of the game. There are so many characters with disparate motives that much of the story remains plot-driven. There is an attempt at levity with Cannonball and Sunspot cracking jokes for an entire page, but it feels out of place and tonally jarring within this issue.
Stefano Caselli continues to be one of the best artists to grace the pages of the most current run of Avengers and is an exceedingly good fit for the events of this issue. He provides sharp line work that adds an edge of speed to both his figures and their actions. In particularly tense scenes, the pointed, strained faces of characters ratchet up the emotion. Screams and grimaces are all portrayed with ample pain and fury emoting directing from the page.
There are some opportunities for striking individual panels as well. Everything in the final pages works like gangbusters. One long panel portraying three characters in a semi-silhouette manages to slow the reading experience and capture this one important moment in slow motion as the story changes forever. Another series of panels focused entirely on one character’s face draws readers into the inky red colors and pain of the moment. Earlier in the issue are some missteps including a splash page that feels posed and lifeless, but the raw emotion captured at the end quickly removes these memories.
For those invested in Hickman’s Avengers epic, this will be a significant issue bound to shock and awe readers as much as the heroes witnessing these events. Despite some flaws on the periphery, Avengers #40 is the story of two characters and the conclusion of that story is executed perfectly. It is tragic and raw and signals the beginning of the end for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.