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AVENGERS ANNOTATIONS ASSEMBLE!

Here’s one of the advantages of living in New York City. On the last Saturday in April, shortly after my birthday, I attended the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art’s annual Art Fest, celebrating independent and small press comics. Then I headed down to the Tribeca Film Festival to watch the red carpet entrances for its closing night gala: a screening of Disney/Marvel’s new movie The Avengers, directed and scripted by Joss Whedon. Many times crowds in New York are so big that I have gotten shut out of events. Take this year’s Free Comic Book Day, for example. By the time I arrived in Manhattan in the afternoon, major comics stores were out of copies of most of the free comics, which had already been snapped up by fans who waited in line in the morning. But there were fewer people than I expected at the sight of The Avengers screening, and I arrived early enough to get a good place to stand, and sighted Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), and even Robert Downey, Jr. (Iron Man).

This was far easier, less time consuming., and less stressful than waiting to see them in the dreaded Hall H at the Comic-Con in San Diego. The New York Comic Con is rapidly getting equally crowded; I couldn’t get into the packed auditorium for Hiddleston’s appearance with some other Avengers cast members at the con last fall. But, you see, I’ve found a way to see Avengers actors in person without the convention hassle!

Moreover, for the first time in my life I now live within only a short walk of a movie multiplex. It’s even better than that: I can walk in one direction to one multiplex, and in the opposite direction to another, each near a train station. Disembarking from a train at 11:30 PM the night of May 3, I was puzzled to see people walking to the multiplex next to the station; the theater isn’t open that late on weeknights. Investigating, I discovered that there was a midnight screening of The Avengers, the first of opening day. So of course I went. I had been fired up with anticipation for weeks after seeing the dynamic and exciting trailers for the film. Those trailers should serve as object lessons for the makers of the trailers for the new John Carter movie (which made the film look dull) and the upcoming Dark Shadows movie (which make it look like a farce, as we shall examine in a future column).

My eager anticipation for The Avengers movie was not misplaced. Although it began slowly and conventionally, it built in interest and momentum, and the final act was like nothing I have ever seen on screen before. That climactic battle between the Avengers and Loki’s invading forces, in the heart of New York City, captured the fantastic spectacle and visceral excitement that the superhero genre can create more fully than I had ever imagined seeing in a live action film. Longtime Marvel comics aficionado that he is, Joss Whedon did not let the rest of us Marvelites down. The Avengers movie has established itself as one of the peaks of the superhero genre on film.

There is so much to say about this movie that my discussion of it will extend over more than one edition of “Comics in Context,” and I will break it down into individual subtopics. And, as always, there will be spoilers, so consider yourselves warned: you should see the movie first.

THE BLACK WIDOW: I’ve always imagined the Black Widow speaking with a Russian accent, No, I didn’t want her to have an accent as thick as the one voice actress June Foray gave that more famous Natasha in The Bullwinkle Show, but still, being Russian seemed essential to the Widow’s personality. So I was surprised and disappointed when Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow turned up in Iron Man 2 minus a Russian accent. Oh, yes, if the Black Widow is a master spy, then she would have learned to speak English with an American accent. But still, though she is given her Russian name (with an Americanized ending)—Natasha Romanoff—in the film, moviegoers who were unacquainted with the comics would think she was American. They also wouldn’t know she was called the Black Widow, since, as we shall see elsewhere, Marvel Studios seems unduly skittish about using superhero names. (Look, Marvel, if Batman and Spider-Man are hugely popular in the movies, then the mass movie audience clearly has no problem with superhero names and costumes.)

But otherwise I have no problems with the onscreen Black Widow. Okay, I have imagined the Widow as being taller than Scarlett Johansson, but that’s not important; she looks the part and exudes a real life sexiness that her comic book counterpart cannot match. Iron Man 2 gave the Widow an astonishingly dynamic fight scene in which she quickly and singlehandedly overpowers a large number of male attackers, capping it off by incapacitating one adversary with what looks like a spray of Mace without even bothering to look at him. ” It couldn’t have been done better, I thought.

But then in The Avengers, Whedon and his collaborators manage to top it, with the Widow bound to a chair and still managing to overcome her captors with with incredible force, speed and seeming ease. Moreover, in this scene she gets to speak Russian, complete with a Russian accent. Here Whedon seems to be signaling the comics buffs that he is well aware of the Black Widow’s background in the comics. Reportedly Marvel Studios is planning a Black Widow movie that will be set in Russia and explore her origin.

The movie equips the Black Widow only with guns as weapons, not with her “widow’s sting” from the comics, though it seems to me that her “sting” is not unlike a real life taser. In the climactic battle against the alien invaders, she seems the least powerful of the Avengers, lacking either super-powers or special weaponry. But Whedon and company succeed in finding a way for her to hold her own, notably in her astonishing acrobatics in getting aboard one of the alien skycraft. Moreover, throughout Iron Man 2 and Avengers Scarlett Johansson succeeds in projecting the impression of being truly formidable, so much so that it seems credible that she could even confront Bruce Banner, who could transform into the far more powerful Hulk.

The movie Black Widow’s Russian accent may come and go, but I am content.

HAWKEYE: I wish that Marvel Studios had more faith in such tropes of the superhero genre as the characters’ superhero aliases. Unless I’m mistaken, Hawkeye is referred to in the movie once as “the Hawk,” and never as “Hawkeye”; instead he is usually called by his real name, Clint Barton, which is rather drab. What’s wrong with the name Hawkeye, which seems appropriate for an archer, as well as alluding to the original bearer of the name, the hero of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans?

Of the six superheroes in The Avengers movie, Hawkeye is by far the most disappointing,. Beyond being a highly capable professional in the use of the bow and arrow, the movie Hawkeye seems to have little personality. In the comics, of course, he is known for his irreverent humor and, in the early days, for his rebelliousness and resentment towards authority figures like Captain America. Maybe the problem is that the movie version of Tony Stark/Iron Man has taken over these personality traits. Still, Robert Downey Jr. plays Tony Stark as flippant and fast-talking, whereas Hawkeye has struck me as being either angrier with his jibes, or later, after he became more emotionally mature, more laid back and easygoing in his humor. At first in the Avengers comics Hawkeye seemed hostile to his leader, Captain America, but evolved into the Captain’s loyal friend and supporter. But in the movie Iron Man is resentful towards the Captain, whereas Agent Coulson takes over the role of his admirer. In the comics Hawkeye and the Black Widow were romantically involved for years; that might have given the movie Hawkeye more to play. But my impression is that the film versions of Hawkeye and the Widow were colleagues but not lovers. Even when he is under Loki’s mental control in the film, Hawkeye isn’t particularly sinister. I’m glad the character is in the movie, but he lacks a distinctive personality in it. If only the movie Hawkeye could have called the long-lived Captain America “Methuselah,” either mockingly (as in the mid-1960s) or affectionately, the way he used to in the comics!

NICK FURY: When Marvel introduced a version of Nick Fury who resembled actor Samuel L. Jackson into its Ultimates line of comics, I was surprised, but later came to think it might be a good idea. Since the Ultimates line depicts an alternate version of traditional Marvel Universe continuity, why not make changes? That’s why I applaud the recent introduction of Miles Morales, an African-American, as the Ultimate universe’s new Spider-Man. It makes more sense to me to have a different Spider-Man in this alternate reality than to have Marvel publishing the adventures of two different Peter Parkers.

It was the Ultimate universe version of Nick Fury who started turning up in the Marvel movies, played by the real Samuel L. Jackson, who is a comics fan and apparently approves of his lookalike in the comics. Once Jackson started appearing on film as Fury, perhaps it was inevitable that his version of Nick Fury would supplant Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s original Caucasian version, even in the “mainstream” Marvel Universe comics. And that is what has just happened: the original Fury is being revealed to have had an African-American son, who looks like Jackson in the movie, complete with eyepatch, who will go by the name of Nick Fury. Fortunately, Marvel is not killing off the original Nick, who will continue to appear, if not quite as much as his son. (Besides, as we should all now realize, such “deaths” almost never prove to be real or permanent anyway.) This is a clever solution that enables both versions of Fury to co-exist in the mainstream Marvel Universe.

Just what is the personality of Lee and Kirby’s Nick Fury? It seems to me that of all the classic Marvel heroes of the 1960s, Nick Fury may be the hardest for subsequent generations of writers to understand. When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the comics series Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD, they were obviously responding to the immense popularity of James Bond in the 1960s, which had spawned all sorts of imitations and variations, including television series like The Man from UNCLE and British TV’s The Avengers. Making Nick Fury the hero of their superspy series was a brilliant stroke by Lee and Kirby. Instead of the sophisticated figure of a James Bond, with his tuxedos and connoisseurship of drinks that were shaken, not stirred, Lee and Kirby substituted Fury, with his rough language, hot temper, cigars, and permanent five o’clock shadow. Fury was still very much the former army sergeant who had grown up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the Great Depression, who now found himself heading up this super-spy agency, SHIELD, with its futuristic technology. He seemed like the proverbial fish out of water. Yet he brought with him a streetwise common sense, a soldier’s dedication, and his personal incorruptibility that made him exactly the right man to head this vast organization in its war against adversaries like the high-tech terrorist army known as Hydra.

Moreover, I expect that Lee and Kirby may have particularly identified with Fury because he was, like them, a member of the “Greatest Generation” of the Great Depression and World War II who now found himself in the very different world of the 1960s, when the entire culture was going through radical changes. Fury’s situation both paralleled and diverged from that of his contemporary, Captain America. In Lee and Kirby’s stories, Captain America, like Rip Van Winkle, had awoken from years-long sleep to find a world that had changed tremendously, in which he felt an outsider. Fury had lived through the two decades since the war, but rather than feel lost, he took command of SHIELD, drawing upon his wartime experiences to lead agents both his own age and younger in combat against modern foes. Indeed, Hydra was really a high-tech costumed version of the Nazis, something that writer/artist Jim Steranko later made explicit by casting Fury’s wartime archenemy Baron Strucker as Supreme Hydra.

In the mid-1960s Nick Fury would only have been in his forties, like Lee and Kirby themselves; all three were middle-aged men who were proving themselves to be successful and effective in the changing world of the 1960s. Later, Howard Chaykin and Walter Simonson would introduce the “Infinity Formula” as a means of keeping Fury relatively young as the decades passed. By introducing the Samuel L. Jackson version of Fury, who was not around during World War II, the Ultimate line and the Marvel movies do not have to worry about explaining why their Fury does not look as if he is in his 80s or 90s.

The key to Lee and Kirby’s Nick Fury is that he is an outsider who became the ultimate insider in SHIELD; he is still that tough World War II sergeant, without a college education, but with a strong moral code, a Greatest Generation everyman who became the unlikely leader of this futuristic spy agency. He is not an establishment figure, does not share the values of the political and corporate elites, and does not abide strictly by the book. In the Lee and Kirby SHIELD stories Count Bornag Royale of A. I. M. (Advanced Idea Mechanics) even tries to turn the government and public against Fury before A. I. M. is exposed as a secretly subversive organization.

Following Lee and Kirby on the SHIELD in the late 1960s, writer/artist Jim Steranko spectacularly heightened the series’ resemblance to the James Bond movies while remaining faithful to Fury’s basic personality. Yet it seems to me that in subsequent decades writers have repeatedly lost track of what makes Fury work as a character. Since the 1960s Fury has only starred in short-lived series; he more often appears as a guest star. There has been a tendency for writers in popular culture to depict intelligence agencies like the C. I. A. as amoral or ruthless. As director of SHIELD, Fury has often been depicted as an authority figure who will hand down harsh decisions, manipulate people, or even violate individual rights, in the name of a higher justice. But in fact Lee and Kirby intended him to be a rebel himself, who holds firmly to his moral code even within the huge security bureaucracy he commands. This still comes across when Fury stars in his own series, such as Nick Fury vs. SHIELD and Secret Warriors, as the honest and moral spymaster who contends against corruption within SHIELD and the security establishment.

In The Avengers movie Whedon and Jackson play Fury both ways. The revelation that SHIELD is planning to use the Tesseract as a weapon against alien invaders is met with disapproval. But in the movie Fury seems mainly to be steering the moral course he thinks best. Whedon introduces into the movie the shadowy SHIELD governing council, which has appeared previously in the comics, and to which Fury reports. The council ends up representing the dark side of the intelligence establishment, while Jackson’s Fury follows his conscience and best judgment. He seems somber, perhaps somewhat world-weary, but nonetheless patient and persistent in pursuing what he believes to be the right path. The council disapproves of the superheroes; Fury acknowledges that they are “unstable” (which seems to me to be an unduly harsh description, except for the Hulk) but nonetheless believes they can be shaped into an effective team. At the end of the film the council warns that the Avengers are “dangerous” and objects to Thor taking the “war criminal” Loki off to Asgard for punishment. Fury, who trusts the Avengers, defends the decision to let Thor take Loki, and claims the Avengers have dispersed to places unknown., That doesn’t seem entirely believable: we know that Tony Stark is in Stark Tower, and the Black Widow and Hawkeye are SHIELD agents. But Fury clearly wants to keep the Avengers free from government control, while assuring his superiors that they will reunite if need be to combat new threats. In the movie Fury’s finest moment comes after the council orders a nuclear strike on New York City to stop the alien invasion. (Just who are the members of this council, and who gives them the authority to make such a decision?) Fury goes out and shoots down the plane taking off to attack New York! Now that is an action very much in the tradition of the Lee and Kirby version of Nick Fury. Bravo!

AGENT COULSON: I was puzzled by SHIELD Agent Phil Coulson when he first appeared in the first Iron Man movie. Why create a new SHIELD agent when there were so many from the comics to use? Jasper Sitwell, who had a long run as a supporting character in Iron Man’s comic, would have been my choice. He had a distinctive personality, which Coulson did not. That made it even more of a surprise to me when I realized that Coulson had an enthusiastic fan following. Why? The character seemed to me to be little more than a blank. Even actor Clark Gregg, who plays Coulson, says in interviews how surprised he has been that Coulson keeps coming back.

Finally, in the Avengers movie Joss Whedon gives Gregg and Coulson a significant role to play. Coulson turns out to be a devoted admirer of Captain America, and, indeed, a fan, who even has a set of Captain America trading cards. The movie could easily have mocked Coulson as a fanboy, but doesn’t. Whedon and Gregg are themselves comics aficionados, and through Coulson they seem to be saluting devotees of the superhero genre. When Coulson tells Captain America how much he admires him, Whedon and Gregg portray Coulson with dignity and seriousness. One can sense the character’s genuine dedication to Captain America, who may have served as a role model for Coulson in joining SHIELD.

Indeed, Coulson follows the example of Captain America and other superheroes by sacrificing his life in a courageous attempt to stop Loki in the battle aboard the helicarrier. Before his apparent death, Coulson predicts that his demise will give the superheroes someone to “avenge.” Indeed, Nick Fury uses Loki’s killing of Coulson as a means of motivating them into continuing to battle Loki and his forces. That justifies calling the team “the Avengers.” In Lee and Kirby’s Avengers #1, the Wasp comes up with the name, seemingly because it sounds cool to her; the team isn’t really avenging anyone or anything.

Presumably Coulson really is dead. If he isn’t, and turns up alive in a subsequent film, that will retroactively reduce the dramatic impact of his supposed death scene in Avengers. We know that they’re not going to kill off the superheroes in The Avengers movie; it’s dramatically necessary that someone significant die in the helicarrier battle to emphasize the impact of the Avengers’ defeat. Still, it seems odd that Coulson dies in the movie when he is regularly appearing in the new Ultimate Spider-Man animated TV series and has turned up in the comics. Maybe this is just another reminder of how meaningless death has become in the superhero genre at Marvel and DC these days.

THE TESSERACT: This is an example of the movies taking a strong concept from the comics and watering it down into something much less memorable. Longtime Marvel comics readers will recognize the Tesseract as the Cosmic Cube, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the Captain America series in the mid-1960s. Perhaps Marvel Studios thinks the name “Cosmic Cube” is too corny, but they should trust Lee and Kirby’s knack for names. The alliterative “Cosmic Cube” is much catchier, more memorable, and more evocative of great cosmic forces than the dull, mathematical name “Tesseract.” Nor does the scientific name “Tesseract” make this power object sound like it comes from the mythical realm of Asgard, where magic is dominant, as it does in the movies.

And that is another problem. The movies treat the Tesseract as a seemingly infinite power source, not as a magical device, so why establish that it comes from Asgard? And why would the Asgardians leave such a powerful object unguarded on Earth, as the Captain America movie established? In the comics the original Cosmic Cube was created by the criminal scientists of A. I. M. (Advanced Idea Mechanics) and was eventually established as a matrix that captured great cosmic energies; this makes more sense.

To Whedon’s credit, he has characters in The Avengers movie refer several times to the Tesseract as “the Cube.” Moreover, in the movie he describes the Cube as channeling great forces of the universe, as if it is science fictional rather than magical, even if he has Thor take it back to Asgard at the end.

But the biggest problem with the Tesseract is that it doesn’t do what the Cosmic Cube should.

It is treated as if it is a generator of energy without limit. But in the comics the Cosmic Cube is a device that transforms thoughts into reality: whatever its bearer wishes will come true. It is like a super-scientific version of Aladdin’s lamp. This is a much more powerfully mythic concept. In the comics Thanos is one of those who has wielded the Cosmic Cube. Perhaps if and when Thanos turns up as the main villain in a Marvel movie, he will get hold of the Cosmic Cube and use it according to its proper function.

NEW YORK CITY: From the Golden Age of the 1940s onward Marvel has set superhero stories in New York City rather than fictional metropolises; over the last half century Marvel stories have even included specific locations in New York, like Central Park, the Empire State Building, Times Square, and famously after the 9/11 attack. The site of the World Trade Center.

Just as the gods of ancient Greece lived atop Mount Olympus, it seems appropriate that superheroes should be found amidst the towering skyscrapers of Manhattan. New York City remains America’s greatest city; this is where the superheroes should be found.

New York City is practically a character in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man film trilogy. One can always tell when a movie set in New York City was actually shot on location in New York City and not in Vancouver or some other location. Up until The Avengers, the movies produced by Marvel Studios have not emphasized New York City as a setting. When Stan Lee wrote Iron Man, it was set in New York, but Denny O’Neil moved Iron Man out to Silicon Valley, and then David Micheline moved Tony Stark to Southern California; similarly, the first Iron Man movie is set in southern California. However, though Tony Stark himself is based in southern California in Iron Man 2, much of the movie is set in New York City at the Stark Exposition, which is clearly inspired by the New York World’s Fair of the early 1960s. The Unisphere, the symbol of that World’s Fair, still stands in Flushing Meadows, Queens, and is prominently seen in Iron Man 2.

The Thor movie was set in the Southwest, like J. Michael Straczynski’s recent run on the Thor comics; presumably this was a less expensive place for Marvel Studios to shoot the film. The Captain America movie starts out in New York City, with the young Steve Rogers established as a Brooklynite (In the comics he grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side but lived in Brooklyn as an adult), and memorably has Rogers, revived from suspended animation, finding himself in the center of 21st century Times Square. Most of the movie, however, is set in Europe during World War II, though at the climax Captain America has to save New York City from being blown up by the Red Skull.

Marvel Studios and Whedon did a week or so of location shooting for The Avengers in the real New York, and apparently used CGI to create Manhattan backgrounds for other scenes. The result is that this is the first Marvel Studios movie in which New York City takes center stage. The film’s primary Manhattan location is Stark Tower, a fictional skyscraper set in a real location. It looms behind Grand Central Terminal, which is on East 42nd Street; the nearby Chrysler Building is visible in numerous shots set at Stark Tower. Loki’s Tesseract-powered device atop Stark Tower opens a wormhole in the sky above Manhattan, enabling the alien invasion force to come through. On ground level the Avengers battle alien invaders on Park Avenue South in the low 40s, directly in front of Grand Central Terminal. This is a spot in Manhattan that is very familiar to me, and indeed is just a short walk from the old Marvel offices on Park Avenue South and East 27th Street, where I used to work. I expect that comics fans who visit New York City may want to visit this spot in front of Grand Central, the real life battleground from The Avengers movie.

Of course such superheroic battles royal in Manhattan have long been featured in Marvel stories. In staging the Avengers’ battle against the aliens so spectacularly, Whedon and his collaborators have thus powerfully captured this trope of Marvel superhero stories.

But in the post-9/11 period, such an extraordinary battle scene, on and above the streets of Manhattan, takes on an emotional resonance beyond the thrill of sheer spectacle. Whedon emphasizes shots of terrified New Yorkers fleeing from the warfare in the streets, horrified New Yorkers watching the attack from their skyscraper office windows, and Captain America and other Avengers rescuing people or guiding them to safety. Before the 9/11 attacks, the catastrophic attacks on New York in Marvel stories seemed to be pure fantasy, something that could never happen in real life. Now the alien attack in The Avengers movie comes across instead as a fantasy version of the sort of terrorist attacks that have taken place in real life and that we know can happen again. Loki and his alien allies thus seem more realistic, and the Avengers become the heroes we wish for, powerful enough to fight back against enemy attacks.

THANOS: Loki obtains his army of alien invaders through bargaining with a character identified as “the Other.” Viewers of Marvel movies now know to expect a post-credits sequence which sets up concepts for forthcoming Marvel movies. In The Avengers the first of these takes place after the initial part of the closing credits. The Other is reporting to his master about how formidable the Earthmen proved to be in repelling the invasion. In the cleverest line in Whedon’s screenplay, the Other advises his master that to battle the Earthmen “is to court death.” The master displays a sinister grin, and though he is not identified, Marvel readers will recognize him as Jim Starlin’s creation, the mad Titan Thanos. (When I saw the movie I heard a gasp from the audience; someone there besides myself recognized him.) Starlin’s Thanos was in love with Mistress Death, the personification of mortality, and was willing to obliterate all life in the universe to please her. No wonder that in the movie Thanos smiles at the double meaning of the phrase “to court death.”

Is this scene meant to set up Thanos as the villain in the next Avengers movie, which is at least three years away? He’s a good choice, but that’s a long time to wait. I’ve seen it suggested that Thanos might actually be intended to be the villain for the next Thor movie. After all, he is a sort of god, and if Mistress Death appears, she would fit better into a Thor movie, which deals with the supernatural.

If Thanos will indeed be the villain in Avengers 2, then I fear we have quite a long wait to see either of the two archvillains who are most associated with the Avengers in the comics: the robot Ultron, who could easily be done as a CGI animated figure, and Kang the Conqueror, who would provide a good role for a major actor.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

When Chris Hemsworth recently appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman to promote The Avengers movie, Paul Shaffer and the band cleverly played the theme music to the other Avengers: the British adventure series about secret agent John Steed, played by Patrick Macnee, and his serries of partners, most famously Mrs. Emma Peel, a pioneering action heroine, as memorably portrayed by Diana Rigg. For those of us who grew up in the 1960s this series was a classic. It was continually in reruns on American television until about a decade ago, it is available on home video, and there was a bad movie version, starring Ralph Fiennes as Steed, Uma Thurman as Mrs. Peel, and Sean Connery (!) as the villain, in 1998.

But as far as I know, The Avengers has been off American television since its run on BBC America several years ago, even though it would seem a natural choice for the new retro TV networks like Me-TV and Antenna TV. Most articles and reviews I have read about the Marvel Avengers movie do not mention the other Avengers in popular culture, with A. O. Scott’s review in The New York Times being a prominent exception. (Scott, who hates the superhero genre, said he wished that the new Avengers movie was a new version of the British series instead!) It seems as if the British Avengers has quickly faded from popular consciousness in the United States.

But I suspect that it hasn’t in the United Kingdom, where the new film is titled Marvel Avengers Assemble, presumably to avoid confusion with the Steed and Mrs. Peel version. And maybe the series isn’t as forgotten as I fear in the United States, either, since the official title of the new movie is Marvel’s The Avengers.

I have long wondered whether the fact that the Marvel superhero team and the English adventure series share the same name is merely a coincidence. The Avengers did not come to television in the United States until 1966, years after Marvel’s Avengers comic debuted in 1963. However, the television series premiered in the United Kingdom in 1961. Stan Lee’s wife Joan is British, and though she moved to the United States long before The Avengers debuted on British television, is it possible that she could have heard about the show from friends or family in England?

After all, in the context of the first issue of Marvel’s Avengers comic, the title doesn’t make sense. Just what are they avenging? Marvel’s Avengers are usually battling to stop villains from committing crimes, not to take vengeance for their victims. So why did Stan Lee (or Jack Kirby?) name the team the Avengers? Just because it sounds cool?

The similar names are probably coincidental, yet the character of Mrs. Peel, a liberated woman, who often wore a black catsuit in combat, and used martial arts to subdue male opponents, seems to have had an influence on American superhero comics. Perhaps Mrs. Peel was the template for DC’s remodeling of Wonder Woman in the late 1960s into a woman without super-powers, who dressed in contemporary fashions and used martial arts instead. When the Black Widow debuted at Marvel in 1964 she had black hair and wore conventional clothing. Subsequently, she wore a mask and costume that resembled a combination of a black swimsuit and fishnets. Then in The Amazing Spider-Man #86 in 1970 her visual appearance was revamped into her familiar current look, with no mask, red hair, and a skin-tight black catsuit. In other words, she looked like the auburn-haired Mrs. Peel. Thus, paradoxically, Marvel’s The Avengers movie features a character who seems to have been visually modeled after the most celebrated heroine of the British Avengers television series.

THE MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE

Previous Marvel movies have included post-credits sequences that set up Marvel films to follow. The movies make allusions to other films in the series (For example, a character in Thor wonders aloud if the Destroyer is one of Tony Stark’s creations.), and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and Clark Gregg as SHIELD Agent Coulson keep turning up in Marvel movies. But it is The Avengers movie first fully establishes the concept of the Marvel Universe onscreen, and in more than one sense. Jaded comic book fans, who have long grown used to Marvel heroes crossing over into each other’s comics, may be less impressed than the far larger audience who know the Marvel characters primarily from the movies. The latter have never seen anything like this before. After all, DC’s Superman and Batman have yet to appear together in a live action movie; Warners’ attempts to do a Justice League movie have so far been in vain.

The idea of teaming up superheroes from disparate series did not originate at Marvel. DC Comics started the idea with the Justice Society of America in the 1940s, as well as with the regular team-ups of Superman and Batman in World’s Finest comics; editor Julius Schwartz revamped the Justice Society idea into the Justice League of America at the start of the 1960s. Marvel’s Avengers comic followed in the JLA’s wake a few years later.

But what happened in Justice League in the Silver Age of the 1960s rarely had any connection to events in the individual members’ series. One of Stan Lee’s great achievements in the Marvel revolution of the 1960s was to integrate the various superhero titles more closely with one another. Heroes, villains, and supporting characters from each series continually made guest appearances in other series as well. For example, in the first issue of Amazing Spider-Man the title character tried to join the Fantastic Four. Soon Stan Lee created the impression that the Marvel roster of superhero titles were telling one multifaceted story that spread through all the books, and hence the truly committed Marvelite should read them all. The many Marvel superhero series were all set in the same fictional shared universe, the “Marvel Universe.”

In the past Marvel licensed the movie rights to different superhero series out to different movie studios, so now Sony/Columbia has the film rights to Spider-Man, while Fox controls the film rights to the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and Daredevil. Marvel Studios, which is now owned by Disney, retained the movie rights to Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor, as well as to the Avengers concept, and regained the movie rights to the Hulk from Universal, thus making it possible to do an Avengers movie including all four of these original Avengers. For the foreseeable future, Disney/Marvel will not be able to use the heroes that were licensed to Sony and Fox, and hence will not be able to integrate them into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in live action films. But that is not that disappointing. Despite the long run of Marvel Team-Up and his current membership in the Avengers in the comics, Spider-Man still works best as a loner, as does Daredevil. The Fantastic Four are already a team, and a movie combining them and the Avengers would likely seem overcrowded. As for the X-Men, in the comics that series has spawned so many spinoffs in the comics to have created an “X-Men Universe” within the Marvel Universe. I expect that now that Disney owns Marvel, Disney will not allow rival studios to obtain the film rights to other Marvel heroes, so who knows who might turn up in his or her own Marvel movies in the future, or as guest stars in other characters’ films, or as team members in future Avengers movies? I see that in a recent interview Stan Lee has already suggested that Ant-Man and (more promisingly) Doctor Strange join the movie Avengers.

Has there ever been anything comparable to The Avengers in movie history? The closest thing I ca think of are movies with “all-star” casts, in the tradition of Grand Hotel or Dinner at Eight in classic Hollywood, or even It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World with its army of celebrated comedians. Top stars get so much money these days that such “all-star” movies have become a rarity in contemporary cinema. But The Avengers movie is not so much about teaming stars as it is about teaming up the characters that starred in their own blockbuster action films. It’s as if, say, James Bond, Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker, and Harry Potter teamed up in a movie!

Again, moviegoers who know these Marvel heroes principally from the movies, not the comics, must be astounded to see these characters appear together on film. Moreover, they are seeing how these characters’ disparate worlds—Captain America from World War II, Iron Man from the world of cutting edge high technology, and Thor from a mythical realm of magic—can all fit together into a single consistent fictional universe. We longtime comics readers may indeed be used to such crossovers and team-ups. But Whedon and his collaborators have done The Avengers movie so well that it should even give us something of the same sense of wonder, joy and excitement that the first readers of the Justice League and Avengers comics must have had at seeing their favorite superheroes team up for the first time.

The Avengers movie also establishes the Marvel Universe in another sense. Previous Marvel Studios movies were set in familiar locations: New York City, southern California, the American Southwest, Europe during World War II. The Thor movie went far beyond this by adding the otherdimensional mythical world of the Norse gods, Asgard, as well as Jotunheim, the dimension of the frost giants, and alluding to the rest of the “Nine Worlds” of Norse mythology. The Avengers movie goes still further, by bringing in an extraterrestrial race, the Chitauri. Then the first of the post-credits sequences is set amidst the vastness of outer space, introducing a menace from another world (the moon Titan in the comics), Thanos. With this stroke the Marvel Cinematic universe expands far beyond Earth into the universe itself. Once again, longtime comics fans may be too jaded to realize the effect this must have on people who know Marvel mostly from the movies: their jaws must be dropping as they realize that the term “Marvel Universe” is no exaggeration.

There’s a lot more to say about The Avengers movie; I haven’t even gotten to the Big Four characters yet. But they will have to wait for a “Comics in Context” column in the near future. The next “Comics in Context” will be my review of the next major summer release, Tim Burton’s take on Dark Shadows.

“Comics in Context” #243
Copyright 2012 Peter Sanderson

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