Monday, March 12, 2012


There has been a lot of talk about the Avengers lately. The initial trailers have done a good job of stoking fan enthusiasm, and a clever advance marketing campaign constructed primarily on the recognizability of the primary characters is building what appears to be an impressive degree of anticipation for the film. It's worth noting that as recently as five years ago any reasonable observer would have concluded that the very idea of an Avengers film was practically improbable - all those characters, all those stars, all those special effects! This is to say nothing of the fact that - again, just as recently as five years ago - Thor and Iron Man were far from household names, the Hulk had but one underperforming dud of a film to his name, and CW had it that Captain America was simply too dated a concept to ever succeed on film. Now it almost seems as if The Avengers has more hype behind it than the new Batman film, to say nothing of the new Spider-Man film, and this on the face of it is simply preposterous.

I'm not going to talk about the legal or moral issues entailed in the success or failure of the film, and how they may or may not impact your own ethical decision to see or not to see the film. I don't want to downplay these issues in any way, shape, or form, but I would like to set them aside for just one moment in order to talk about another aspect of the film that I haven't seen discussed in very many other places: namely, the fact that the Avengers we're seeing on film don't really resemble the Avengers I grew up with.

Based simply on the previews and the significant amount of foreshadowing that's been peppered throughout the other Marvel Studios films, it appears as if the filmic Avengers will more closely resemble The Ultimates than the actual, original Avengers. As strange as it may seem, The Ultimates is almost exactly ten years old. Conceived as the Ultimate Universe's answer to the Avengers - who weren't actually called the Avengers because the Avengers brand was not (in the far-off world of 2002) deemed sufficiently commercial to sell such a high-profile release - the Ultimates was Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch's attempt to bring the idea of the all-star superhero team into the 21st century. Which meant, in practice, lots of sex, innuendo, gore, and general crassness. The main characters were all different shades of unlikeable, from Iron Man's callous alcoholism and womanizing to Captain America's jingoistic chauvinism right on down through the fact that the Hulk was a sexually prolific cannibal who spent half the series trying to kill Freddie Prinze, Jr. (If you've never read the book, you probably don't know that I'm not joking.) Thor wasn't necessarily as much of a shitheel, but he was a flakey New Age-messiah whose "Godhood" was generally assumed to be a convenient delusion. The characters were certainly all built on the recognizable foundations of their original 616 counterparts, but were in practice more fun-house mirror reflections of the familiar Marvel mainstays. All their negative characteristics had been tweaked out of control, and all the more noble attributes of heroism and friendship that defined their long relationships in the mainstream continuity were jettisoned in favor of something that more closely resembled Millar's run on The Authority, callous and violent with a grimy patina of quote-unquote "realism."

It's also worth pointing out that the original Ultimates series was also a hell of a lot of fun, not the least because one of its primary tones was high satire. This was the beginning of 2002, after all, right after 9/11 when we were just beginning to see the stirrings of the military-industrial complex's massive overreaction to the putative "War on Terror." It made a lot of sense at the time to read a book about the government spending a shit-ton of money on morally questionable superhero boondoggles. The fact that Captain America was a xenophobic asshole and Iron Man pretty much an indefensible cad was all part of the fun, and it fit the tone of the book perfectly. In terms of later Mark Millar, it's pretty much the last time he was able to accurately set the right balance between satire and the shrill obnoxiousness that has defined so much of his later work. It's also worth noting that Millar was later given the responsibility of more-or-less "Ultimatizing" the mainstream Marvel Universe just a few years later with the Civil War event, a story that was fantastically successful, and largely in proportion to the degree in which it rendered the core members of the Avengers less likeable.

The first issue of The Avengers hit stands in the summer of 1963, and featured the fateful first meeting of Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, Ant-Man and the Wasp. From the very beginning the major motor of the book's storytelling has been the interaction between so many disparate and seemingly incompatible characters. Whereas the Fantastic Four are a family and the X-Men (at least initially) were a school, the Avengers was a team of independent adults whose personalities often clashed. They had no intrinsic reason to be together other than the fact that they all believed it to be a beneficial idea to band together for the common good. The team first formed for the purpose of tracking down the Hulk - or rather, were tricked into fighting the Hulk, by Thor's brother Loki. They banded together after defeating Loki, but the line-up couldn't even stay stable for a single story - the Hulk got tired of the group and left at the end of the second issue. The Avengers' third mission was to once again track down the Hulk, who had teamed with the Sub Mariner in an attempt to be revenged on the surface world. The remaining four members found Captain America in issue #4, after which he joined the group and became the team's de facto heart and soul. Soon after that the remaining founding members left for considerable leaves of absence, leaving Cap to fill the ranks with Hawkeye, the Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver - one ex-criminal and two ex-terrorists, all of whom faced an uphill battle in terms of earning not merely the public's trust but each other's as well.

The point is that the Avengers is a book that's always been about the often-unpredictable dynamic between opposing personalities. There's no better example of this than the team's core three members: Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor. (Cap, though not a founder, has usually been allotted the status of a founder in lieu of the usually estranged Hulk.) The characters could not be more different and their dynamic defines the team: Cap is the stoic, idealistic leader; Iron Man the willful pragmatistic; Thor the noble warrior. It's not that these characters won't be represented in the movie, but that the movie itself doesn't look to be telling a story about the Avengers. The Avengers are a team of peers who come together of their own volition to do battle against foes no single hero can defeat; the Avengers in the movie seem to have been assembled by Nick Fury in his office as director of S.H.I.E.L.D. in order to do the bidding of government-sanctioned security forces. Do you see the difference here?

I'm sure there's more to it than we've seen so far - or, at least, I would hope that there's more to the movie than what is revealed by the previews and the plot points from previous films. But still, we're left with Nick Fury being the prime mover behind something called the "Avenger Initiative." The Avengers isn't some name the Wasp thought up on a whim because it "sounded dramatic" - it's a government program. The Avengers isn't a team of oddballs and outcasts coming together sometimes despite themselves, it's a government-formed special-ops team.

I said before that The Ultimates was intended at least partially as satire. That might be hard to discern now because the series and its approach were so successful that any pretense of satire was quickly subsumed. After Civil War, the main motor behind multiple years of stories in the mainstream Marvel Universe was essentially "who gets to be in charge of the super-heroes?" Who gets to be the man in charge of the government's superhero policy? The Avengers had always been in conflict with the government in some form or another - getting their security clearances revoked or their zoning permits pulled, dealing with uncooperative National Security Advisors and the shifting winds of political opportunism. But the Avengers were always an independent body despite all of this, and government problems were just another element of the book's ongoing soap opera, similar to Spider-Man having to struggle in order to pay the rent. But since The Ultimates the default mode for the Marvel super-heroes has been that of government lackey: a far cry from the strictly independent, fiercely individualistic roots of the Marvel Universe as a haven for the weird and the strange.

There are some very good reasons why the movie Avengers are being assembled the way they are: it's easier to tell a story where a man from the government brings everyone together and tells them what to do and who to fight than to write a story where five or six strong individuals convincingly come together of their own volition. Certainly, anyone reading Lee & Kirby's original Avengers story now can't escape the very strong suggestion that the whole thing is being hammered together with tape and glue for purposes of having a plot and having these characters agree to stick together for issue #2. But regardless, the idea that the characters had to be the prime movers in their own story was central to everything Lee & Kirby knew about making comics. The idea that these strong characters would ever willingly consent to be action figures in someone else's army would have struck them both as - if not strictly improbable - simply poor storytelling.

No comments :