Superheroes don’t seem to deal with surprises too well. It’s not uncommon for the heroes, early in the story, to be ambushed by the villains and react poorly, unable to cope with the shock of the bad guy jumping out and yelling “Gotcha!” Only when the heroes have been beaten down and given time to think and to plan, that they manage to defeat the villain. The Avengers vs. Norman Osborn (the rematch!) isn’t much different. For the premier superhero team on the planet, they’re taken off the board fairly easily. It may be predictable in the structure of the story, but Brian Michael Bendis and Renato Guedes still entertain as the heroes fall one by one in this issue.
A combination of smart characterization and skill in making the events of this issue feel big and important is what sets “Avengers” #21 apart from any other ‘heroes ambushed and taken down one by one’ issue. The way that Bendis structures the issue helps: he begins with Spider-Woman, a character he knows and writes well, and ends with a high risk air fight involving Captain America and Vision. The weakest of the segments, the takedown of the Red Hulk and the Protector fighting an Iron Man not controlled by Tony Stark, are put in the middle, making sure both the beginning and end of the issue leave good impressions. That doesn’t excuse Bendis’s continued bland, flat use of Noh-Varr on the team or the utter lack of drama in his attempt to stop Iron Man without hurting Tony inside, but it does give the issue an overall stronger feel than another order of events might have.
Spider-Woman is such a strong personality that her trying to trick H.A.M.M.E.R.'s Spider-Hulks into thinking she’s a double-agent starts the issue off on the right note. We’ve seen her pull this trick before, but its failing demonstrates how prepared Norman Osborn’s forces are. The final scene allows Bendis to show off the abilities of the Vision and play up the stakes with Captain America and Maria Hill in danger of capture or death. Out of the scenes where H.A.M.M.E.R. attacks the Avengers, it’s the one that comes off as the most substantive, showing the Avengers as capable and not frozen in the headlights at a surprise. It also also makes H.A.M.M.E.R. more formidable. They're not simply lucky punks with the element of surprise on their side.
Renato Guedes is a welcome surprise on art. Daniel Acuña’s time on the book was too short and Guedes comes on strong, delivering clean and energetic pencils. Leading with the Spider-Hulks lent well to his style, since he provides a very chiseled-yet-dark look to the various Hulks he draws. They’re distinctive, and having them appear right away puts his art in the best light. The way he changes up his compositions through the issue is also impressive. The final air battle features distinct layouts that reflect the scene with tall, thin panels that lend to a quick cut feel.
H.A.M.M.E.R. attacking the Avengers and catching them off guard isn’t an original idea, and, yet, Brian Michael Bendis and Renato Guedes pull it off through intelligent pacing, structure, characterization, and good art. It goes to show that, even if something has been done before, good execution can win out.