by Brian Michael Bendis (writer), John Romita Jr. (pencils), Klaus Janson (inks), Dean White (colors), and Cory Petit (letters)

The Story: Parker Robbins makes his stand against the Avengers in attempting to gather all of the infinity gems.

The Review:  Wow.  Art-wise, this is simply gorgeous.  Both Romita Jr. and Dean White go all out this month, putting out what may very well be the best looking issue of this series thus far.  Romita and White go old-school crazy on us in their depiction of the astral plane, Thanos, and the cosmic powers of the infinity gems with high-powered combat that is explosive fun.  Everything glows, carries an epic but gleeful cartoony tone, and is just so much fun to look at.  Clearly, putting Romita and White on a story like this was a good call, as it really lets them shine.  It’s clear that the artists are having a really good time, and that carries over to the reader.

Unfortunately, not soon after the issue begins, Bendis sort of spoils this by putting a completely foul tastes in the mouth of pretty much every reader.  Last issue’s Thano’s cliffhanger was awesome in an “oh no you didn’t” sort of way.  Well, this month, we learn that Bendis….actually “didn’t” after all.  I hate, hate, hate it when comic book writers pull cheap bait-and-switches like this.  They serve absolutely NO purpose other than to create a quick shock at the end of an issue.  They serve little to no narrative benefit and, honestly, this whole Thanos ruse proved to be utterly pointless.  It wasn’t an overly vital tactic on the part of the Avengers.  It was just a cheap move to get a rise out of the reader, which only led to crushing disappointment this month.

And worse still, if this is all a bait-and-switch, why have the Hood be in heavy dialogue with “Thanos” for five pages at the start of this issue?  That borders on sadism and it really just makes the ensuing wound all the more painful.

On the plus side, while this trick put a damper on the issue as a whole, Red Hulk does really shine this month.  By focusing on Red Hulk the most and having him seemingly lead the charge against the Hood and take him on in single combat, beating on Parker both physically and intellectually, Bendis nicely cements Rulk’s place on the team while also garnering support for the character.  This bodes well for the series in the long-term while also providing someone to cheer for this month, as well as a decent bit of character-work.

Also, while the first few pages of the issue may be weak, the way the issue ends is really, really good.  That things are still left in play and the story secretly left open-ended is a nice bit of work and the best way for this arc to end.  Having the gems simply be destroyed would’ve been, well, too simple.  More than that though, the final page is a total shocker and one that deserves being talked about as a huge moment for the Rogers/Stark conflict.  It’s a massive shift in that arena and, unlike last month, it’s not the sort of thing that could be a cheap stunt.  It’s a fascinating and truly surprising character moment that really caught me off guard and almost, almost made up for the Thanos bait-and-switch.

Conclusion:  While Bendis treats the readers like chumps at the beginning of the issue, a fantastic ending and excellent art just barely manage to carry the day.

Grade: B –

-Alex Evans