Dennis Hopeless and Alessandro Vitti's "Avengers Arena" #4 pits Chase and Nico from the Runaways against three of the Avengers Academy students, after an attempt to team up goes horribly wrong. The result leaves everyone worse off than when the issue started, and Chase makes a dramatic transformation.
The high-concept pitch for this series is interesting, regardless of how many versions have been seen before. However, the execution of "Avengers Arena" leaves something to be desired. The formula seems to require back-story info dumps in each issue as a way to force readers to care about whatever character the issue focuses on. When the character is already well known by the audience, it's boring. When they're not, it isn't quite enough to grab onto and invest in. In fairness to Hopeless, he tries his best to put an interesting spin on Chase's history. Chase's feeling about his ability to survive just about anything is a great spin, but it still lands the reader in two exposition-laden summary pages on page two of the issue. It just feels awkward and uninspired.
Putting teenagers in an arena and forcing them to kill each other is perhaps the most perfect excuse ever dreamed up to learn about a character simply by seeing how they behave in that high stakes environment. Other books using this concept -- from "Battle Royale" and "Hunger Games" to "Deathmatch" (from BOOM! Studios) -- have an advantage in that they are all "new" characters. Fans aren't likely to be up in arms about death (or behavior) in those books than when dealing with beloved established characters. Additionally, editorial surely has a heavy hand in what's allowed and not allowed with regard to the fate of these characters, which is naturally uninteresting. There's a lot of speculation on the Internet that this "is all a dream" or "will somehow all be reset" and it's hard to imagine a way in which that is not the case with characters already being killed off.
Despite the logistical issues of the exposition-laden storytelling and the likely creative handcuffs, Hopeless does some nice things with his characters. I'm not sure all the voices are exactly right -- little things like Nico's lack of trust in Chase seems off after all they've been through, and Laura (X-23) warming herself by the fire, seems decidedly un-Laura like -- but he had to hit the ground running with a huge cast, and there are bound to be some seams. The strongest thing in this issue is Hopeless' take on Chase, as a character and as a player in these "games." There's a lot of potential there and it's one of the reasons I find myself wishing we wouldn't just jump to a new POV character in the next issue.
Kev Walker is off this issue and Vitti steps in on art duties. Judging by the solicits, Walker and Vitti will alternate for the next few months, which is disappointing from a cohesiveness standpoint. Vitti doesn't have a bad style for this book and some of the exaggerated looks he went for with Chase were really fun. His storytelling was also quite strong, especially when he paired up the two reluctant teams. He does a good job of finding some nice moments for each group. Unfortunately, characters were not very consistent, feeling on-model in on one page and then badly off on another. Nico's hairstyle looked like she was going out for haircuts between panels and if not for easily distinguishable costumes, it would have been difficult to tell faces apart.
There's a ton of potential in "Avengers Arena," but I find myself wishing that Hopeless was writing a completely out-of-continuity book, and maybe not even a Marvel book, so that he really could let loose and be bold in his choices. As it is right now, some issues are more enjoyable than others, but already the series feel too formulaic and rote.