"Avengers Arena" #3 by Dennis Hopeless and Kev Walker is the latest issue of what might be Marvel's most controversial book -- a "Hunger Games"/"Battle Royale"-inspired superhero title which sees teen heroes pitted against one another, with a guaranteed death in every issue.
On a gut level, it's hard not to kick against that concept, because it seems derivative and gratuitous -- but issues like this one prove that there's more depth to the series than its one-line pitch suggests. Focusing on Cammi, a teen sidekick of the Guardians of the Galaxy, it paints a complex picture of a girl who, more than anything else, doesn't want to be normal. The problem is that because she's trapped in an arena with other superhumans, she can't ever forget that she is.
Technically, it's a good book. Kev Walker's art is fantastic. Characters seem to fly across the page when they move, and their expressions convey a multitude of emotions. Hopeless, meanwhile, delivers his third entertaining and illuminating character study in a row, while at the same time managing to eke out a compelling plot: with the lines drawn, someone is aggressively targeting heroes, and appears to claims the lives of up to two reasonably long-standing characters in this issue.
Although issue #2's death was played for dark comedy, Hopeless has managed to ensure that the other two matter in the context of the issues they were published. We, the readers, are given reasons to care about the characters before they die: we like the protagonist, and character marked for death is the only one who shows them any compassion. It's a simple trick (straight out of the Joss Whedon playbook) but an effective one that stops the series being a parade of meaning-free deaths.
That said, there's something about the book's concept that feels off. On the surface, it's entertaining, but it lacks depth. When comparisons are drawn with the stories it's directly influenced by, there's nothing like "Battle Royale's" social satire, or the "Hunger Games'" skewering of the media. The plot is compelling and the characters are developed well, but ultimately it's lacking the strong metaphor that underpins other stories in this genre. Perhaps that will arise over time, perhaps it'll continue on its character-driven path -- but unless it finds something to say with its characters and setup, it's never going to escape accusations of being an imitation, regardless of quality.