After the events of Secret Invasion #8, Norman Osborn became America's top-cop and a media darling all at once. The New Avengers, however, have faced a much different public perception. They're currently living on the other side of the law and are using Captain America's hideout in Brooklyn as their place of refuge.
In New Avengers #50, Norman used the Hood's syndicate to strike against the New Avengers and after that attack, Clint Barton had finally had enough with the new status quo. Barton (formerly Hawkeye now operating as Ronin) went on television bashing Norman Osborn and outing him as the Green Goblin. Norman quickly issues damage control, as seen in Dark Avengers #5, squashing Barton's personal attack. But Osborn's beef with the former Avenger is not settled...
And so it begins, Dark Reign The List.
The story begins with Ares, God of War and Dark Avenger, seeking out Norman Osborn to ask him a simple question, "What are we doing today?". Norman offers up a comprehensive response as he delineates his major gripes with the world's current status quo. Calling out everyone from Spider-Man to Nick Fury, Osborn resolves that things must change and that it's time for him to make a 'must-do list'.
Meanwhile back at the New Avengers hideout, Clint Barton watches the news and learns of the X-Men's retreat to their Utopia. The media, clearly controlled by Osborn, reports that this 'Utopia' is actually a mutant prison camp and the X-Men (and all the other inhabitants of that island) are viewed as a threat to the American way of life. This tips Barton over the edge, and he decides that it is time to kill Norman Osborn. Spider-Man steps up as a cool, calm voice of reason toward Barton (albeit after getting in a few jokes first), warning him that killing Osborn is not the answer. Barton's rationale is that killing is not always wrong and he claims, "if you could go back in time and kill Hitler, wouldn't you?" Eventually the rest of the New Avengers side with Spider-Man as they all realize that killing Osborn isn't a full plan because what they'd do after that is still uncertain. Barton realizes that he is on his own for this task and he storms out of the room, Mockingbird soon follows him out. With the Brooklyn Bridge (how appropriate!) and the Dark Avengers Tower in sight, Mockingbird tells Clint she'll go with him to kill Osborn and they decide they'll do so in the morning. But Barton is restless, and he leaves for the Avengers tower on his own in the middle of the night.
Barton, now fully garbed as Ronin, stakes out Avengers Tower and waits for the appropriate time to strike, ie. when the Sentry leaves the premises. Barton then scales the walls of the building, breaks in and makes quick work of some of the Dark Avengers. He tosses Mac Gargan out though a window, fills Bullseye with bullet holes, and shoots an arrow through Daken's head. The security alarms are now going off and Osborn is alerted to the intruder, he immediately orders the residential floors to be locked down. Amid the melee, Karla Sofen (formerly Moonstone, now the Avenger Ms. Marvel) confronts Barton and he tells her his plan to kill Osborn (remember the two shared a brief love-connection way back in Thunderbolts #30). Sofen is tempted by his plan but soon realizes that the security cameras are recording everything and that she must display her loyalty to Osborn. She unleashes energy projections toward Ronin, but luckily for him the security lockdown that Osborn ordered created a force field around Sofen, sealing her off from Ronin.
Barton eventually reaches Osborn and he's even able to get the drop on him. With the vulnerable Osborn in sight, Barton fires a shotgun blast at Norman, but to no avail. Apparently, Norman's new position has given him access to all kinds of toys, including Nick Fury's personal force shield. With Osborn unscathed, Barton resorts to the old fashioned way of fighting, fisticuffs. But this attempt is thwarted by Ares, who quickly tosses Barton aside. Ares then readies his axe to cut off Barton's hands, but Osborn tells him not to do that because Barton's hands will be an excellent bargaining chip. The story ends with Barton being placed under arrest by Norman Osborn.
This was a really fun read and an excellent lead-off batter for the Dark Reign The List series. A few things to comment upon though...
Let's start with Spider-Man, because even though he only played a small role in this story his mindset was pivotal. I don't want to criticize his portrayal too harshly because at the end of the day I think he took the appropriate position against Barton. The problem with Spider-Man (and the rest of the New Avengers for that matter) is that they never generate an alternative plan to dealing with Osborn. I agree that killing Osborn outright is wrong, but they failed to come up with some other way of handling him. Sitting in that hideout around the dinner table chatting is not helping either, so I can clearly see where Barton's angst was coming from. This criticism is not limited to this one-shot, throughout Dark Reign Spider-Man's efforts to take down Osborn are minimal at best, and I'd expect more from Osborn's chief adversary.
In terms of the Dark Avengers, you get a great taste of how much each component part of that mixture is worth. Barton waits for the Sentry to leave, because clearly he's the biggest threat by a long shot. Daken, Gargan, and Bullseye are almost non-factors and Sofen's loyalty is questionable at best. Ares and Sentry are the two big guns and really the only guys you need to truly worry about when dealing with Dark Avengers. This begs the question as to why Norman put the others on the team at all. The obvious answer is that he needed more bodies to be able to mimic the classic Avengers, but that seems like a really high and unfavorable risk/reward ratio.
One of my favorite aspects of Norman Osborn's Dark Reign are the slight ambiguities that are created when dealing with Osborn's motives and actions throughout the various titles. Point being, at the onset of the story Norman lists his grievances with the world's status quo and the 'renegades' running around unchecked. Norman wants the Hulk taken down, Tony Stark placed on trial for his war crimes, etc, etc. Are those really bad or evil things to want? I don't think so, one could certainly argue that the Hulk is a menace and that Stark should be held accountable for his actions. So Osborn's Dark Reign puts intentions to the side and makes the tactics the point of contention. In this way, Norman can be viewed in a similar fashion to the Punisher, but I'd doubt anyone will be calling Osborn an anti-hero anytime soon. Bendis exploits this ambiguity marvelously, especially by having Clint Barton attack Norman Osborn and not the other way around.
Also, I have to write this in one of the Dark Reign reviews, because this whole 'Barton going public against Osborn' storyline is a little weak. How much of a news flash is it really when the whole world saw Norman outed publicly back in The Pulse #5? I can't believe that there are that many civilians who would have been surprised/shocked by Barton's allegations. His rant seemed to have little affect on the public's perception of Osborn and if they've already accepted him knowing that Norman killed Terri Kidder in cold blood, what are Barton's words really gonna do?
One last point to bring up and it's a little bit on the goofy/nerdy side, but I have to mention it. I'm not sure how Nick Fury's personal force shield can stop bullets but cannot stop a hand-to-hand combatant from kicking your ass. Truthfully, I would have been very interested to see what would happen in a heads-up battle between Clint and Norman, no weapons no tricks. I'd be willing to bet big time that Norman could've kicked his ass without Ares' help...but I guess we'll never know...
Djurdevic's art is top-notch and the cover art of this story is, imo, within the top five of all the covers produced during Dark Reign. Djurdevic's pencils are not as sensational as his painted cover art is, but they were solid nonetheless throughout the story.
Bendis writes an excellent part one to the series and even gives a brief shot-out to the Sofen/Barton affair from back in the day (that's something I would've criticized had Bendis brought the two together and not mentioned their history). What keeps this from being a '5 webs' rating is poor use of Spider-Man and the rest of the Avengers to generate some kind of plan instead of constantly sitting around and talking. Anybody who's read or is reading the New Avengers knows that is something that happens all too often and with Spidey and Norman's history, I just find it unsettling.