We return to the Avengers with the recent Time Runs Out volumes that paved the way for the current Secret Wars mega-event.

Warning, SPOILERS ahead.

Time Runs Out Volume One (Avengers vol. 5, #35–37 and New Avengers vol. 3, #24–25)

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Eight months after the conclusion of the previous arcs in Avengers and New Avengers, the world was a different place. The Avengers and Avengers Tower had fallen under the purview of S.H.I.E.L.D., run by an age-advanced Steve Rogers and tasked with hunting down the Illuminati. The Illuminati, whose ranks had expanded to include Captain Britain, Yellowjacket and Amadeus Cho, were on the run with several members missing. Cannonball and Smasher returned from a stay on the Shi’ar Throne World with a new, rather special baby. A “New” Avengers faction formed under Sunspot, who assumed control of A.I.M. via a hostile takeover(!) and retasked them for non-evil purposes, based in the Savage Land. Reed Richards was Public Enemy No. 1 and his own wife, Susan, had joined S.H.I.E.L.D. Susan, however, turned out to be a double agent.

Meanwhile, Namor turned to Doctor Doom for help, heartsick over the brutality demonstrated by the rest of the villainous Cabal in destroying worlds. Doom refused to help Namor, but soon revealed (to readers) his own operation looking for a solution to the incursions, with both the Mad Thinker and Molecule Man in his employ. The U.N. had turned Wakanda over to the Cabal. Black Panther and his sister Shuri attempted to steal back some of the Illuminati’s weapons; Shuri sacrificed her freedom to allow her brother to escape. Sunspot sent Thor Odinson, Hyperion, Starbrand, a de-aging Nightmask, Abyss and the Ex Nihili on a suicide mission into the crumbling multiverse in search of their ultimate enemy.

Jonathan Hickman entered the homestretch with this arc, as the stories of the two sister series became mostly integrated. He did some strong character work, especially with Steve and the Panther. The spotlight provided to Reed and Sue Richards belied fan speculation that Marvel wanted to deep six the Fantastic Four members. The prominence of Sunspot and Cannonball was heartening, seeing how much the duo had developed since their long-ago debut in New Mutants. This wasn’t the first time that factions of heroes were set against one another (and surely won’t be the last), but it felt much more logical and organic than other recent examples.

The art side saw a small army of big names involved: Jim Cheung, Paco Medina, Nick Bradshaw, Dustin Weaver, Stefano Caselli, Valerio Schiti, Kev Walker and Mike Deodato all made contributions. Though their styles could diverge, each artist seemed the right fit for his part of the story. The crucial member of the art team was colorist Frank Martin, whose shrewd approach to the story’s palette proved decisive in creating unity among the disparate styles on display. Time Runs Out Volume One is an important milestone for Hickman’s Avengers opus and a crucial part of the lead-up to Marvel’s line-redefining Secret Wars event.

Time Runs Out Volume Two (Avengers vol. 5, #38–39 and New Avengers vol., 3 #26–28)

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Iron Man, having broken with the other Illuminati, was a prisoner of the Cabal in Wakanda, where he had a tense exchange with the Black Swan. Black Widow and Spider-Woman, recent defectors from the S.H.I.E.L.D. Avengers, snuck into Tony’s prison, but his arrogance prompted them to leave him where he was. After a discussion with Valeria Richards, Doctor Doom attempted to focus the unstable Molecule Man on helping him determine the cause of the multiversal collapse. In Antarctica, Sunspot’s New Avengers had unlocked the secrets of the “origin bomb” sites created by Ex Nihilo and how to potentially harness them. Sunspot plotted to position his New Avengers as a bridge between the S.H.I.E.L.D. faction and the Illuminati, in hopes of reuniting the larger team.

The Avengers who’d plunged into the multiverse, led by Hyperion and Odinson, fell into a conflict with the Black Priests. Using the alternate universe hammer of the unworthy Thorr, Odinson regained his former powers, only for his team to discover the Black Priests worked for Doctor Strange. Strange had used the order as a “scalpel,” to eliminate dying worlds and save healthy universes. With two main combatants (the Ivory Kings and Rabum Alal) both seeking to destroy everything, the multiversal Avengers and Black Priests coordinated attacks on both. Doom continued trying to unravel Molecule Man’s secrets, detecting a connection between their own Earth and the origin of the multiversal threat, before Molecule Man spirited them both away. The Illuminati lured the S.H.I.E.L.D. Avengers in to what they knew was a trap and a fierce showdown ensued that grew to include the New Avengers, the sociopathic alternate universe Hulk and the Mighty Avengers. Medusa, Black Bolt and Namor arrived on the scene, as Mister Fantastic determined to get all the heroes back on the same side.

Hickman continued to move his pieces around the chessboard. He pulled in numerous elements from previous Avengers and New Avengers stories as he continued to set the stage for a massive final conflict. With so much going on, characters struggled for spotlight, but a few managed some strong moments. Hickman painted a disturbing portrait of Tony Stark’s mental state. Sunspot and Thor/Odinson both stepped up in important ways. And demonstrating their importance to the Marvel Universe, Mister Fantastic and Doctor Doom both had some good moments.

The art remained a tag team free-for-all. Caselli, Walker and Deodato were all back for chapters and Szymon Kudranksi and Mike Perkins contributed, as well. The varying styles stopped just short of clashing, though once again Frank Martin on colors (except for Kudranski’s issue) provided a unifying element. There were a lot of ideas and plot moments that Time Runs Out Volume Two had to manage. For the most part, Hickman and his artistic collaborators did a strong job keeping everything on track. There were lots of little payoffs for fans who have read all the prior parts of Hickman’s greater opus, but anyone without that background would be hopelessly lost.

Time Runs Out Volume Three (Avengers vol. 5, #40–42 and New Avengers vol. 3, #29–30)

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A truce between Cap’s S.H.I.E.L.D. contingent and the Illuminati allowed the eggheads to explain themselves and alert their estranged allies to the fact that the multiverse was down to less than two dozen alternate realities. Namor agreed to lead Thanos and the Cabal into a trap on another doomed Earth, but some last minute revenge from Black Panther made that scenario go awry. Hank Pym, whom the Illuminati had dispatched into the multiverse in search of Rabum Alal, returned with another discovery: the identity of the Ivory Kings, the beings ultimately responsible for the multiversal collapse. Hank related witnessing the Ivory Kings exterminate powerful celestial beings.

On the Ultimate Earth, the twisted young Reed Richards used S.H.I.E.L.D.’s resources to take care of various incursions all on his own and wound up hosting the Cabal. Back on the main Marvel Earth, the heroes put aside their personal issues to attempt to construct a cosmic life boat to save humanity from the coming destruction. As the heroes focused on that project, the coalition of galactic empires that the Avengers saved during Infinity massed an invasion fleet to destroy Earth, hoping to save the rest of the universe.

With Volume Three, Time Runs Out hit a sometimes awkward penultimate phase to its grand saga. While there were a few important beats and some nice character work, a lot of this story felt like treading water while Hickman finalized the playing field for the finale. The already massive cast ballooned further with the addition of the Imperial Guard, Guardians of the Galaxy and some Ultimate characters. Several key players from previous Volumes didn’t even show up in these stuffed pages. The Black Panther/Namor scenes paid off a plot element Hickman had been teasing throughout his New Avengers run and the addition of Ultimate Reed made for an intriguing contrast to his older counterpart. Hickman took a couple of crucial steps forward in the grand plot progression, but overall Volume Three couldn’t help but feel like set-up, albeit well-produced, classy and often diverting set-up.

The merry go-round on the art team continued, with Stefano Caselli, Kev Walker, Mike Deodato and Dalabor Talajic all making contributions. As with the previous Volumes, there wasn’t really a significant stylistic outlier, so the changes, while noticeable, weren’t an issue and colorist Frank Martin continued to be the glue holding the visuals together. Time Runs Out Volume Three was competent and often enjoyable, but is strictly for readers who have already read at least the first two Volumes, if not Hickman’s entire Avengers saga.

Time Runs Out Volume Four (Avengers vol. 5, #43–44 and New Avengers vol. 3, #31–33)

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Jonathan Hickman’s grand Avengers saga reached its climax in Time Runs Out Volume Four. Leading the Black Priests across the multiverse, Doctor Strange finally came face to face with Rabum Alal, none other than Doctor Doom. Thor and Hyperion’s team confronted the Beyonders, the beings ultimately responsible for the multiversal destruction, with devastating results. Doctor Doom and the Molecule Man unraveled the Beyonders’ plan and Molecule Man’s key role in it. That revelation also pointed the way toward the destructive universal incursions. Doom, Strange and the Molecule Man made a desperate assault on the Beyonders, wiping out most of the remaining universes in the process. With time running out, the various Avengers factions united to repel the alien armada prepared to destroy Earth. The Illuminati devised a plan to save some key people to re-start society. With only the main Earth 616 and the Ultimate Earth left, those two worlds headed for a collision. And as everything crumbled around them, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark engaged in a violent, emotion-packed final confrontation.

Fans who had found Hickman’s run hard to follow need to read Time Runs Out Volume Four. The writer managed to pull the far-flung plot strands of his two-plus years of dense stories together into something that not only made sense, but felt exciting and dangerous. Hickman really wiped out the Marvel multiverse (for a little while at least), while planting the seeds for the massive Secret Wars event. He made clever use of concepts and characters that had been around for many years (the Beyonders, the Molecule Man) and dovetailed them with his own feverish contributions. Hickman also did some really strong character work. His Steve and Tony scenes were the main event, the fulfillment of the saga’s emotional throughline. But many others, including Mister Fantastic, Thor, Doctor Doom, Nightmask, Abyss, Doctor Strange and Smasher, got some nice moments as Hickman did a Herculean job of tying up the various character beats he’d been exploring.

Hickman was joined by a squad of top artists who’d made major Avengers contributions over the prior couple years, including Mike Deodato, Kev Walker and Stefano Caselli. While the stylistic shifts were noticeable in collected format, the work was often quite strong and always expressive. The Time Runs Out finale proved beyond doubt that the true hero of the art team was colorist Frank Martin. His work was the unifying factor that held everything together, with bold, inspired choices that brought out the drama and power of each page.

Time Runs Out Volume Four was a strong finish to Hickman’s inspired Avengers run. You have to have read everything that came before, but this ending makes that effort worthwhile.

Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on July 8, 2015.

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting

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