Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Your Avengers Primer

There's a movie coming out May 4 called "The Avengers," which is the culmination of a very clever bit of world-building that's run through all of Marvel's recent films, including "The Incredible Hulk," "Iron Man" 1 and 2, "Thor," and "Captain America." Those movies took place in the same fictional universe, with the common thread of Samuel L. Jackson's character Nick Fury, head of the super-spy organization SHIELD, woven through them. All those characters, plot points, hints and portents will come together when those heroes unite in "The Avengers."

My wife Karen enjoys superhero movies as much as I do, but she didn't spend her youth obsessively scrutinizing pulpy four-colored phantasmagorias like I did (I almost wrote "waste her youth" but caught myself--mine wasn't wasted at all). Consequently, one of the first questions she asks as we leave the theater is, "Was it like the comic?"

Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. The Hulk and Captain America movies were about half-faithful to the comics, Thor about one-hundredth. Iron Man set my gold standard for fidelity. The filmmakers updated Tony Stark's heart-stopping (heh!) misadventure from 1963's Southeast Asia to 2008's Middle East, made some superficial changes I liked (in the comics, the chest beacon that protects Robert Downey Jr.'s heart and powers his armor was little more than a seldom-used headlight), and otherwise played it pretty straight. Best of all, Mr. Downey showed more personality and charisma in five minutes on screen than Tony Stark had in 45 years in print.

But if there's any comic book movie whose authenticity I'm qualified to judge, it's "The Avengers." I knew them when. Specifically, I knew them in early 1972 at the age of 12, when I bought issue #100 while making a Greyhound bus trip to Klamath Falls, Oregon, and got off at the next stop to buy issue #99 so I could find out what had happened the previous issue. I'd unwittingly stumbled into an amazing introduction to the team: a special anniversary issue featuring every hero who'd ever been an Avenger (at that time numbering about 14) invading Mt. Olympus to fight the ancient Greek gods to save their amnesiac member Hercules. The Hercules. How cool is that?

It was my first exposure to Marvel's unique mash-up of ancient mythology, which I already knew and loved, and angsty superheroics, and it hooked me good. Furthermore, issues #99 and #100 were drawn by the extraordinary artist Barry Windsor Smith, who soon after this storyline pretty much abandoned superhero comics for sword-and-sorcery fantasy. I began buying new Avengers as they came out while collecting the back issues I'd missed, until I eventually had a complete collection of the entire series.

A lovely two-page spread by Barry Windsor Smith from Avengers #100.

So you see, when it comes to the Avengers movie, I feel a bit like a Beatles fan who discovered the lads at the Cavern Club in 1961 and turns up his nose at those 60,000 screaming girls at Shea Stadium. Where were they when the Avengers fought the Man-Ape, the Space Phantom, or Valkyrie and her Lady Liberators? Where were they when the X-Men were a hundred times cooler, and the only Avengers anyone knew were John Steed and Emma Peel (about which the comic-book Avengers occasionally joked)? Oh, I paid some dues, pal. I paid.

Terrific Avengers, just not my Avengers.

Avengers Assemble!
The upcoming Avengers movie takes one inspiration from the comic-book origin: the team was inadvertently united by Thor's evil brother Loki. In Avengers #1 (1963), Loki tricks the Hulk into destroying a train trestle to lure Thor into battle. Thor hears the the radio call for help, as Loki planned, but so do Iron Man, Ant Man and his fiancee the Wasp, who also respond. They fight the Hulk for a bit until they discover and defeat their true enemy, Loki. Ant Man suggests they form a team, and the Wasp proposes the name "Avengers" because it's "colorful and dramatic." Not because they actually intend to, you know, avenge anything.

As that thrilling climax suggests, those early stories by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby have a naive charm that just wouldn't fly today. In the first issue, the Hulk hides from his pursuers by masquerading as a circus clown and juggling elephants, a truly impenetrable disguise. The Avengers capture Loki by dropping him through a convenient trap door into an even-more-convenient lead-lined nuclear-waste disposal tank. Hey, it was the Cold War; those things were everywhere.

Although Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk and Loki are in the Avengers movie, Ant Man and the Wasp have yet to appear in any of the Marvel films.

The Avengers comic hit a game-changing home run with issue #4 (1964), which reintroduced Captain America to modern comics. The character was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1941 for Timely Comics, which later became Marvel. Cap fought through World War II before his book was cancelled during the medium's post-war crash in the 1950s. Now, a decade later, Lee and Kirby brought him back with the explanation that he'd been frozen in an Arctic glacier since the end of the war (ignoring the stories published into the Fifties, an oversight other writers cleaned up later) and defrosted by the Avengers. This brilliant device established Captain America as a man out of time haunted by the death of his young partner Bucky, a characterization that defined him for decades. I'll be looking for that in the movie.

The core team of Thor, Iron Man, Ant Man (who gained the power to grow and became Giant Man), the Wasp and Captain America enjoyed a solid year of derring-do through issue #15 (the Hulk got tired of committee meetings and lit out early in issue #2). Then in #16, Lee did something that made for neat storytelling but must have been a risky business decision: the big-name characters with their own books--Thor, Iron Man, Giant Man--quit the team, leaving Captain America to recruit and train three relatively low-powered unknowns.

They were the mutant Scarlet Witch, whose sketchy "hex power" caused bad things to happen to her enemies (it was later defined as an ability to alter probability, so that if a bad guy had a 1% chance of misfiring his gun or tripping over a shoelace, she could make it 99%); her brother, the super-fast mutant Quicksilver; and the world's best archer, Hawkeye.

Hawkeye's in the new movie, having already appeared briefly in "Thor." The other two haven't been seen yet.

Captain America, the Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and Hawkeye meet their temporarily-adoring public.

All three of the new Avengers exemplified one of Lee's favorite tropes: a misunderstood outsider lured or tricked into crime, only to be redeemed by their inherently noble nature. The Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver had fought the X-Men as members of Magneto's Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Hawkeye was a hot-headed ex-carnie manipulated by the Soviet femme fatale Black Widow (a-ha!) into fighting Iron Man. The next several issues focused on Captain America molding these untrusted outcasts into a team, and are regarded by many as a high point of the entire series. The Black Widow similarly reformed, and contributed her martial arts expertise to the Avengers years later.

Two notes: The Black Widow is in the movie (and was already in Iron Man 2, played by Scarlett Johannson) but doesn't seem to be a Soviet/Russian spy anymore. Also, it's hard to imagine that a guy who shoots arrows ever took on Iron Man and lived. But that's part of the appeal of Hawkeye, who often tops readers' "favorite character" polls: he's got no superpower except the cocky gumption to stand toe-to-toe with gods and monsters, and he usually survives (he died once, but got better). I'll be looking for that roguish arrogance in the movie, too, as well as any hints that he and the Black Widow might have some history.

Hawkeye and Black Widow in the movie (above) and a recent animated incarnation.

Writer Roy Thomas succeeded Stan Lee in the mid-Sixties, and worked with artists like Don Heck and the great John Buscema to bring more modern characterizations and plots to the Avengers as members came and went. One of Thomas's most significant creations was the Vision, a red-skinned android who longed to understand human emotions and eventually found love with the Scarlet Witch (until he went crazy and got disassembled and rebuilt but lost his emotions and then they had twins who turned out to be imaginary and then she went crazy and ripped him in half and oh it's all just so depressing . . .). From the late Sixties through the Seventies, the Vision tapped the same wellspring of alienation and repressed passion that Mr. Spock did in "Star Trek," making him the coolest comic book character around, at least to alienated and repressed adolescents.

Avengers #57 (1968), which introduced the Vision (left), and my homage to that cover in Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorow?

Thomas climaxed his Avengers run with a storyline considered a landmark not just for that book but for comics in general, the Skrull-Kree War, which lasted nearly a year through 1971--an unprecedented length at a time when a really long story might span three issues. The war involved two ancient interstellar empires, the Skrulls and the Kree, with Earth caught in the middle and different groups of Avengers fighting on several fronts. Many of the Skrull-Kree issues were beautifully drawn by Neal Adams and inked by Tom Palmer; one of them, the double-sized #93 in which the miniaturized Ant Man takes a dangerous "Fantastic Voyage" inside the android Vision to repair him, is an absolutely stunning piece of work. (One measure of its quality is that its value in most collectors' price guides is several times that of issues immediately before and after it.)

Thomas ended his opus with the most audacious deus ex machina ever, in which an ordinary Earth teen, Avengers hanger-on Rick Jones, saves the universe by tapping into the latent mental powers that lay dormant inside every human to freeze all the combatants in their tracks. That's why aliens are always so interested in primitive Earthlings, you see: our godlike potential both fascinates and frightens them (another recurring theme in "Star Trek" as well).

I mention the Skrull-Kree War mainly because I've read speculation--nothing substantial enough to merit a spoiler alert--that the upcoming Avengers movie could reference it. In any event, Thomas capped the war with the Mt. Olympus story that completely seduced me, then soon turned the book over to writer Steve Englehart, who did some excellent, trippy, character-driven stories that brought great new heroes and villains into the fold.

After that . . . well, in my opinion the 1980s and 1990s got pretty bleak. Part of my ambivalence may be because I'd gone to college, gotten married, gotten busy, cultivated other interests. I realized I was buying current issues of the Avengers, which were full of characters I'd never heard of and didn't care about, and boxing them up without even reading them.

It's possible I simply outgrew comic books, but I think it's more that the plots, themes, characterizations, styles and tones favored by later creators just didn't appeal to me. Everything became grim and gritty and cynical. I don't do "cynical." Stories became more "adult," but only in the most juvenile, crass, sniggering sense of the term, which is to say less adult than the thoughtful whimsies Lee and Kirby spun. I got the sense that many (not all!) of the people making comic books then didn't have much respect for their medium or their readers.

I prefer to say that I didn't leave comic books, comic books left me. Ultimately, Marvel's decision to reboot their entire universe and halt the Avengers' continuity at issue #402 (1996) gave me the perfect excuse to stop collecting or caring. Marvel immediately restarted the series--in fact, they have several different lines of Avengers going now--but I haven't missed it a bit. No one I know or love lives there anymore.

Is It Like the Comic?
To save Karen the trouble of asking (not that she's going to read past the first paragraph of this post):

YES: Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, and Captain America (I'll give them a pass on Cap not being in issue #1) form the Avengers to fight Thor's brother Loki. The characterizations of all of them feel right to me--not exactly as they are in the comics, but as close as you could get with human actors playing the roles. Their costumes are different but that's what happens when you translate paper and ink to real people and materials on screen, and I mostly approve.

Captain America is a particular bellwether: his uniform has the potential to look absolutely ridiculous in real life, and the sincerity and earnestness of the actor playing him (Chris Evans) has a lot to do with whether it works. I'm reminded of how Christopher Reeve sold the Superman suit: when Superman told Lois he'd come to fight for "truth, justice and the American way" and believed it, you believed in him. Same with Captain America. I'll be looking for Cap to be portrayed as a take-charge battlefield strategist. That's his thing: he's weaker than Thor, Iron Man and the Hulk but they respect him enough to follow his lead.

In the comics, billionaire Tony Stark provides the Avengers' airplanes, spaceships, submarines, laboratories, supercomputers, etc., and even loans them a Manhattan mansion to meet and live in. (One of the neat conceits of Marvel comics is that they happen in actual places rather than Metropolis and Gotham City. Avengers Mansion is on New York's Fifth Avenue across from Central Park, where the Frick Museum is in our universe.) It looks like he plays a similar role in the movie.

NO: The movie introduces Hawkeye and the Black Widow as founding Avengers way too early. More importantly, it shows the team being organized by a skulking Nick Fury, with Hawkeye and the Black Widow as SHIELD operatives. I'm not saying that can't be a good story; it's just not how it happened. (Digression: in the comics, Captain America and Nick Fury were old friends from World War II. In the "Captain America" movie, remember that international team of crack commandos who helped Cap liberate the POW camp and attack the train? In the comics, Fury led that team. When Marvel revived Cap in 1964, that worked. Fury would've been just 20 years older. Today? Sadly impossible.) I'd appreciate some wise-guy attitude from Hawkeye and any personality at all from the Black Widow (not much in evidence yet).

When I first heard that Marvel planned to make an Avengers movie, I couldn't imagine how it could work. Now, having been primed by the films already released, gotten comfortable in the reality they've built, I'm still dubious but much more optimistic. Maybe an Asgardian god, a World War II super-soldier, a gamma-radiated monster and a rocket-powered knight can stand side by side on the same screen without looking laughably absurd. I'd love to love this movie and would hate to be disappointed. I mean, gee, if this movie stinks, the value of my 402-plus "Avengers" comics--not to mention my 40 years of memories of them--could take a hefty hit.

I'd also squeal like a 12-year-old if Captain America shouts out "Avengers Assemble," surely the least inspiring battle cry ever ("Assemble?" Really?) but one that I think could still send a shiver down my spine.


R said...

I can't wait for "The Avengers" to come out! And now what to look for, though from my perspective if they keep Iron Man and Captain America the same as their individual movies the movie's going to be awesome no matter what.

Darrin Bell said...

I'm going to take my time reading this, but just wanted to point out that (if I remember correctly), the world building was actually in Louis Letterier's "The Incredible Hulk," not "The Hulk," which was Ang Lee's take on it that came out a few years earlier.

Thanks for this walk down memory lane, Brian. Can't wait for the film, although I'm a little conflicted about supporting Marvel given what they're doing to the creator of Ghost Rider.

Brian Fies said...

R., we'll see! I'm optimistic, as long as they have a little time to showcase the characters and not just non-stop action.

Darrin, corrected with thanks. Thanks also for looking in, I'd love to hear your thoughts after digesting if you have any.

There's always an ethical component to these things, isn't there? James Sturm wrote a passionate essay about why he's boycotting The Avengers (basically, their treatment of Kirby). I take his point but don't know where to draw that line: never enjoy Superman again because Siegel and Shuster sold him for $130? Is it fair to judge business standards of the past (work for hire) against ideals of the present? I admit I'm more wobbly on it than Sturm, and look forward to giving Marvel my Avengers money. Ghost Rider's different partly because Gary Friedrich is still alive and fighting. Luckily, I'm not interested in seeing it anyway. I can be very moral when it's convenient for me.

Jim O'Kane said...

I have scattered buckshot opinions about Marvel Comics on-screen, the choices of which characters are being put to film, the omissions, and a host of other nonsense, so this post is going to be quite random. Apologies in advance.

1) Joe Johnston was the perfect choice for directing "Captain America." He understands the look, feel, and *emotions* of the 30's and 40's comic book superhero, as evidenced in the epic Disney film "The Rocketeer." He told a story that could have come across as ridiculous with depth, passion, humor, and eye-candy. Johnston is a great director who doesn't let special effects overtake a compelling narrative.

2) Praise for Cap's movie aside, I really never liked Dum Dum Dugan of the Howling Commandos. There's something horribly wrong about a guy fighting while wearing an Oliver Hardy bowler with chevrons on the front of it. And casting Neal McDonough just reminds me of what a bad actor he was in "Star Trek: First Contact." He'll always be a poor Borg victim.

3) Yet another Hulk onscreen. I know, I know he was an Avenger, but he's about as unnecessary as Aqua Man in the Justice League. Hulk is anything but a team player.

4) Joss Whedon as director scares me. I expect Scarlett Johansson will suddenly be revealed as a teenage kickboxing prodigy. He's an adequate filmer of action movies, but horrifyingly predictable in scripting.

5) I forget what point 5 was but I'm sure it was apt and piquant.

Jim O'Kane said...

oh yeah! I remember Point 5 now:

5) Why oh why has nobody made a "Damage Control" movie? Besides "Not Brand Ecch," it was my favorite Marvel comic - - - it could have been as successful as Barry Sonnenfeld's "Men in Black" film series. Hollywood never asks my advice. :(

Brian Fies said...

Jim, I always appreciate your thoughts and didn't know you were that much of a fan! Totally agreed on Joe Johnston, the Rocketeer was an overlooked gem and Captain America hit many of the same nostalgic notes. I liked McDonough and the Commandos, and didn't even mind him as Hawk in Star Trek, obvious cannon fodder that he was. It'll be interesting to see how they handle the Hulk; he's had so many different treatments in the comics that there's a precedent for almost anything. And on your Point 4, you may recall that the Marvel movies already depicted Ms. Johannson as a kick-boxing savant when she kicked Happy Hogan's butt in the training ring in Iron Man 2 ("I want one."). And I have yet to read Damage Control but hear good things.