The Long and Winding Slippery, Muddy Road
Some time passes: Rick Jones’s time on stage is complete (much to his relief), and Captain America returns him (behind the scenes) to the Hulk, presumably on his way back to Avengers Headquarters in New York (ahead of the West Coast Avengers who are still preparing to rally with the East Coasters). Additionally, enough time has passed for the Avengers to rendezvous with Quasar (leaving Starfox and the captive Kree tomb-raiding twosome at HQ) and send an away team to respond to the emergency broadcast from Starcore. This brief reconnaissance trip produces an important secondary effect: Eric Masterson, the newly-made Thor, gets to test his powers and succeed at something – though he still needs more practice both in wielding his powers and coalescing with the Avengers (an already testy bunch at this point, considering all the things they have been going through in recent issues, though nothing of their recent encounter is mentioned here). Though at first the away team (Vision, Quasar, Sersi, and Thor) cannot find the astrophysicists, Quasar soon uses his quantum power to locate their escape pod: everyone is safe … at first. Of course at the moment the Avengers ascertain the Starcore crew is safe, the Shi’ar create another space rift, this time with an entire armada of warships on their way to the Kree Empire. The main Shi’ar vessel identifies the Avengers and, after some intriguing philosophical and ethical debate, opens fire. Quasar sends the escape pod to further safety, and the latest battle commences in full.
Meanwhile, the impending conjunction of both coasts of Avengers fills everyone with discomfort. Crystal is uncertain which worries her more: intergalactic war or “being reunited with [her] estranged husband’s sister,” to which Dane Whitman, the Black Knight, responds for us all: “It’s nice to know you can keep things in perspective. Then again, choosing between an angry Scarlet Witch and a space battle with little green men, I think I’d vote for the battle.” Understated mistrust and dissension runs through the team before they even leave home. Cap, too, is unsettled at the thought of so many Avengers together, lamenting the long-gone days of a small team and simpler problems.
The latest battle continues the impressive ability of the creative teams to make each battle unique: this time, the four Avengers in outer space combat a Shi’ar warship, an unusual pairing for a fight. The commander of the warship, the one advocating attacking the Avengers in the first place, turns out to be the shape-shifting Hobgoblin of the Shi’ar Imperial Guard, complicating the issue even further. During the battle, Dane’s humorous remark about Wanda is frighteningly applicable to Sersi: she has every intention of moving in “for the kill,” disturbing Quasar with her sheer brutality and threats.
As can be expected, Captain America’s response to learning of Sersi’s threat is less than delighted. Before the war is commenced, Avenger is pitted against Avenger, morality succumbing to pragmatism. “It’s a slippery, muddy road once you being making death threats and incarcerating people … and I don’t want to see the Avengers … despite the best of intentions … get caught in the muck,” he says. Hank Pym has shrunk Dr. Minerva, Captain Atlas, and the crew of the Shi’ar warship (after the praetor, who never wanted to fight in the first place but was tricked by the false commander, took the better part of valor and surrendered) down to portable size. (Presumably, the crew of Starcore has also been rescued by now.)
Once the tempers cool, the Avengers get down to business: getting the Shi’ar and the Kree to stop their war. Mockingbird raises the good point: what right do the Avengers have to tell those races how to live (the parallel to the first Iraq War becomes clear, though it wasn’t clear to me reading it for the first time when I was 11). The Avengers, though, have an impeccable reason for urging the cessation of the conflict: the sun will go nova if the war continues. Instead of just acting like the police officers of the galaxy, the Avengers are compelled by pragmatism more than a personalized version of morality (this makes it easier for the creative team to prevent philosophical or religious backlash, though it would have been interesting had they sent the Avengers to do it simply “because it was the right thing to do”).
After much behind-the-scenes deliberation (most likely while the space quartet brought the Shi’ar warship back to Avengers headquarters), Cap separates the Avengers into three teams: one envoy to the Kree, one to the Shi’ar, and a reserve team to guard the home front. After an odd side scene of part humor and part antagonism, Hawkeye finds a way, thanks to Hank Pym, to switch from the home guard to the Kree team, much to the chagrin of U.S. Agent, who now has to stay behind, adding to the dissention in the ranks. Quasar, despite his power, stays behind to send the two teams safely to their interstellar destinations and resume his overarching position as Protector of the Universe (and keep an eye on the stargates).
Continuing the pattern of ending with a shocking epilogue, we oscillate for the first time to the Shi’ar homeworld (maintaining the Shi’ar focus of the issue). Fans of the X-Men are certainly familiar with Lilandra, Empress-Majestrix of the Shi’ar Imperium, and the burden of rule she constantly bears. Though she, too, expresses dissatisfaction with having to go to war, she, as most rulers seem to do, can find no alternative. We still don’t know what particular issue is driving this conflict, considering the Kree and Shi’ar more often populate different orbits in the Marvel Universe, or to what act of vengeance Lilandra refers, but the weight of the no-longer-impending conflict is about to reach its tipping point. The shocking epilogue this time is the arrival of Deathbird, Lilandra’s older sister, hinting at mysterious failsafe devices Lilandra not-so-covertly has up her long, metallic sleeves and offering a more palatable conclusion to the conflict in ways only the conscious-unencumbered Deathbird can provide. The winds of war just got quite a bit chillier. It's a pragmatic sort of issue, featuring arguments about pragmatism and fulfilling the function of an intermediary issue, drawing the exposition to a close, setting the stage for the main conflicts ahead. Considering all the tensions among all the combatants, we know it is going to be a powerful ride.