After reading this and realizing I apparently missed what happened to, like, most of the team—11 of the 17 characters shown on The Avengers "machine" roster don't appear at all in the six issues collected in Avengers Vol. 6—I had to go consult the Internet to realize I missed a collection, Avengers Vol 5: Adapt or Die (Volume 3 was entitled Prelude to Infinity and Vol. 4 was entitled Infinity, so I just assumed Infinite Avengers followed those two; Hickman just really, really loves that word, I guess).
That said, this reads rather satisfactorily as a standalone unit. Yes, events in previous issues and story arcs are alluded to—mainly the one that occurred in New Avengers Vol. 1: Everything Dies, rather than any collection of Avengers—but generous flashbacks explain those events within the pages of this book, which is a good thing (as I forgot some of them) and makes this a much more accessible book than one might expect the sixth volume of such a dense series that's been so deeply entwined with other titles could possibly be.
Captain America is having troubling dreams, which it turns out, are actually memories. He remembers being invited to join The Illuminati—Tony Stark, Reed Richards, Namor, The Black Panther, Dr. Strange and The Beast, who Charles Xavier elected to replace him should he die, as he did in Avengers Vs. X-Men—and they find themselves faced with a difficult, even impossible moral dilemma. They refer to them as "incursions," but, essentially, alternate Earths from alternate universes are regularly coming into collision courses with the Marvel characters' world and, if the two come into contact, both worlds (and the universes those worlds belong to) will be destroyed. The only way to avert the destruction of both Earths and both of those Earths respective universes is to destroy one of the Earths, which means The Illuminati may have to destroy an entire Earth in order to save two entire universes (including theirs).
When the idealistic Cap comes into conflict with his more pragmatic (and, it's well worth noting, particularly for this story, infinitely smarter) colleagues, he convinces them to reform the Infinity Gauntlet and let him try to use that to stop an incursion. He does so, but at the cost of the Infinity Gems; all of them shatter, save the time gem, which disappears.
The others then wipe Captain America's mind via Strange's magic, and kick him out of their cabal. But his subconscious mind remembered, and revealed these events to him in his dreams.
He therefore assembles Black Widow, Hawkeye and Thor, and together with Hyperion and Starbrand, they break into Tony's lab to confront him. Fighting naturally ensues—Cap comes across as rather brutal thug in this scene, punching an un-armored Tony and threatening to beat him bloody for "using" him and contemplating or perhaps having already committed planet-wide genocide—but before either side wins, the broken time gem reappears and hurtles them all into the future.
The remainder of the book consists of the gem periodically appearing and hurtling the team further and further into the future. In each jump, they meet a new team of Avengers of some sort, and, during each jump, one or more of the initial team falls away from the gem, reappearing back in Tony's lab in the present, until, at the climax, it is only Captain America, standing face-to-face with a trio of characters (or versions of the same character, I guess) who exist outside time and have found a way to stop the time gem from shunting Captain America through time.
Hickman has rather often been compared to Grant Morrison, particularly since Hickman inherited the Avengers franchise from Brian Michael Bendis a few years back, and immediately started telling an incredibly ambitious story on a scale as vast as anything Morrison ever wrote for the Distinguished Competition involving their premiere superhero team. (One of the futures visited here is actually rather evocative of at least one aspect of Morrison's 853rd Century from DC One Millions, in which 20th century superhero symbol/sigils are passed down to others, with the accompanying names and powers).
Given that Hickman has also made use of DC analogue characters in his line-up, giving Marvel's Superman Hyperion a particularly large role, it occasionally seems like Hickman is writing Avengers as if he would rather be writing Justice League, an impression that his upcoming Secret Wars, which sounds so much like the climax of Crisis On Infinite Earths with a twist, should only further.
That thought crossed my mind while reading this volume as well, particularly as the other Avengers fall away and Captain America faces characters in the far-flung future alone. The entire conflict between he and The Illuminati revolved around his unwillingness to cross certain moral lines, to sacrifice the lives of many in order to save far more.
He refuses to choose the lesser of two evils and, in his big speech to the time-traveling immortals at the end of time itself, he finally unloads about how sick he is of all the "clever" people telling him that he's just not smart enough to understand:
I don't let people die because it's the lesser of two evils, or expedient, or because it serves the greater good...That sounds like a rather Superman-like thing to say, doesn't it? And a rather un-Captain American thing to say.
I don't compare the act against something else--I see someone who needs help...And I help. You think it's a weakness. You think it's simple...but you're wrong. It's what makes us human...which is exactly what we're supposed to be fighting for. I know who I am.
I rescue the helpless. I raise up the hopeless. I don't measure people's lives...I save them.
I understand Captain America fell out of the sky into frozen water and went into suspended animation before the United States got around to dropping atomic bombs at the end of the second World War, but Captain America was still a soldier in World War II; how on earth does he make a speech like that without sounding like a giant fucking lying hypocrite?
Nevermind everything he's done since being thawed out and working with the U.S. government and SHIELD, which he briefly lead for a while. Captain America, like America, is all about the lesser of two evils, of committing acts of violence to serve the greater good (In this very story he wasn't trying to "save" Tony from making horrible choices at the beginning, he was threatening to beat him bloody. When he confronts Tony and Tony asks him if he'd like to talk about the mind-wiping, Captain America cuts Tony off a few time sand, when he hears something he doesn't like, he punches him. Hell, at this very story's end, when he returns to the present, Captain America tells the assembled Avengers that they're going "to hunt down each and every member of Reed and Tony's secret society").
Certainly, I don't think Captain America or America itself has ever had to make lesser-of-two-evil choices on the scale that Avengers and New Avengers is forcing upon our heroes—that is, talking about killing billions to save trillions and trillions more—but it's weird to see Cap so virulently opposed to the concept itself. It would seem to be the scale, not the principle, that he's really opposed to, but he articulates it in the sort of absolutist terms of the black-and-white (pre-New 52) DC Comics superheroes, not the terms of the morally gray Marvel heroes.
Superman, faced with two bad choices, will always find a third way to save everyone. Captain America, Iron Man and Reed Richards used to be the same way, at least up until around the turn of the century and, even more so, House of M and Civil War, where dubious moral compromises became the order of the day.
Speaking of finding a third way, this story arc contains a major pivot that leads to the Avengers/Illuminati conflict of the next volume:
Ha ha, all of that was about the writing, wasn't it? I didn't even mention the artwork. This is a stereotypical review of a comic book on the Internet, isn't it?
Well, the art isn't too terribly interesting, I guess.
It's by pencil artist Leinil Francis Yu, whose work I really rather like, and inker Gerry Glanguilan, with Sunny Gho coloring all buy one issue (which is colored by Matt Milla).
Yu's action scenes involving multiple players are generally just weird panels where a bunch of people pose with their mouths open, but his storytelling is otherwise pretty strong, and he turns what could have been very boring pages, like a Bendisian 16-panel page in which superheroes have a meeting, into much more dynamic and interesting pieces...although I suppose such a page only looks good here if you've seen it done very poorly elsewhere, and Marvel has done a lot of superheroes-having-a-meeting pages very poorly in the past.
Hickman gives Yu a bunch of fun shit to draw, as the jumps to the futures start 48 years into the future and the second-to-last one occurs 50,000 years in the future...before the final issue, which is set outside of time in "Fractured Temporal Space."
Some of the futuristic versions of Avengers are kind of neat, like the holographic version (while others are a bit tired, like the giant mecha Avengers), and there's some weird, creepy stuff with technology going on, as when Captain America has a bug bomb shoved under his eyeball.
The back cover contains the words "Original Sin Comes Crashing Into Avengers Tower!", which seemed particularly strange to me after I read the volume, as it has absolutely nothing at all to do with Original Sin, although there are probably some parallels to be drawn between Nick Fury's address of moral dilemmas as posed and answered in that book versus Captain America's arguments against such actions as articulated here.
Looking up the original covers on comics.org, the covers of the issues collected herein apparently did bear the Original Sin logo and cover design.
Interestingly, trade itself reads as if Captain America's dreaming mind retrieved those memories, and makes no mention of The Orb, The Watcher, the truth bomb and exposed secrets. I wonder if anyone picked these issues up specifically because of their "Original Sin" logos and were disappointed to see nothing other than a rather vague, thematic connection between the two storylines.