#4 – Annihilation: The first major pillar of Marvel’s mid-2000s cosmic renaissance, Annihilation lays the foundation for the eventual formation of the Guardians of the Galaxy, the tensions that would lead to the War of Kings breaking out, and the eventual invasion from the Cancerverse in The Thanos Imperative. Annihilation opts to place some of Marvel’s stranger cosmic heroes and villains in the spotlight, with tales centered on Drax the Destroyer, last surviving Nova Corps member Richard Rider, shamed warrior Super Skrull, lawful extremist Ronan the Accuser, and the many heralds of Galactus. Annihilus and his insectoid army seek to devour everything in the galaxy, and with the events of Civil War playing out on Earth, Richard Rider must (reluctantly) step up to the plate as the champion and leader the galaxy needs during one of their darkest hours.
#3 – Inhumans: One of Marvel’s more bizarre cultures, The Inhumans’ future-tech and medieval hierarchy saw a revival in the late 1990s. This series, spearheaded by Paul Jenkins and Jae Lee, focuses on the Inhuman society and the way the royal family keeps the city of Attilan in order, far away from the prying eyes of mankind and other superhumans. The Terrigen Mists proves a weird, but compelling rite of passage for young Inhumans once they reach maturity, and what lies in the future of each Inhuman is a greater unknown factor than even the mutants of The X-Men face on a regular basis. This Inhumans series is brilliant for its uncompromising choice to focus almost exclusively on its titular culture – Reed Richards and Namor both have minor cameos, but the remaining ninety-five percent of this story is focused on conveying just how secretive the lives of the Inhumans are, and what desperate measures a gun-jumping military division will go to in order to try and topple the fabled city of Attilan.
#2 – Venom: Reinventing one of Spider-Man’s most popular villains/rivals is no small task, and the Flash Thompson-led series (penned by Rick Remender, and later Cullen Bunn) is a bold new vision for the symbiote soldier that pays off in spades. Having returned from his military service, and having lost both of his legs in the line of duty, Flash Thompson spends many of his nights emptying bottles of alchohol, until he is presented with a highly-classified opportunity to make use of the Venom symbiote’s powers as a black-ops super soldier. Flash is sent in to the most hostile of hot zones, ordered to rescue civilians caught in the cross fire and quash enemy forces, but it isn’t long before he discovers the involvement of sadistic supervillain Jack O’Lantern, and subsequently picks up a thread that will eventually lead him to a criminal organization so closely tied to the missions Venom is tasked with putting an end to. Venom is very smart in its writing, and hones in on the difficult balance of Flash Thompson’s personal life and romance with Betty Brant, with his tactical operations as Agent Venom, ever-aware of the fact that his employers have placed a kill-switch on him in the event that the Symbiote gains control and runs rampant. Venom is one of the best examples of Marvel taking a character of relatively minor importance, rounding them out, and giving them their own series wherein they are not only consistently human and imperfect in nature, but where they emerge to stand so tall in the company of long-established heroes and villains.
#1 – Age of Ultron: An alternate history where Ultron bested the Avengers in one fell swoop, few heroes remain to challenge the vengeful A.I. The remaining Marvel heroes are battered, beaten, and have practically no plans for taking down Ultron, until Captain America comes up with a desperate plan. I found the cast of Age of Ultron a wonderful mix of the more mainstream heroes and some of the less iconic Marvel characters. Age of Ultron does not present a ‘who’s who’ of the most physically powerful of characters in Marvel history, rather a collective of the most quick-witted and capable during the descending mechanical apocalypse, or those who simply lucked out in not being at the epicenter of Ultron’s attack. Gone are Hulk, Thor, three members of the Fantastic Four, and the majority of the X-Men. Tony Stark’s sanity begins to slip, Cap’s faith in his own leadership abilities waver, and an uneasy alliance is struck between Red Hulk, Black Panther, and Taskmaster. Age of Ultron paints a bleak picture, a seemingly unwinnable scenario, and the extreme measures that these heroes are willing to go in order to return the world to some semblance of its state prior to Ultron’s takeover.