Undoubtedly, one of the most anticipated films of summer 2012 is the long-awaited superhero flick, The Avengers[i]. This movie is the culminating effort of Marvel Studios to create a shared cinematic universe for many of their major characters. Iron Man, Iron Man 2, the 2008 Incredible Hulk movie, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger were one small part of a much larger puzzle, and now at long last movie goers will get to see Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, Hawkeye, and Black Widow together on the big screen. In a similar fashion, many fans also wait to see if Marvel’s rival DC Comics, will ever release a Justice Leaguemovie that would bring together Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash and Green Lantern.
What is the fascination with the super-hero team-up? Why is it that fans get such a charge out of seeing a group of superheroes working together? Why would Marvel invest in this huge cinematic endeavor, one that many people thought of as risky to begin with? Why would DC Comics want to try and emulate that same success?
Part of this goes back to our most ancient of legends. Long before any superhero would ever make their debut, the old heroes of ancient myths and legend would often team-up for a greater cause. Gilgamesh teamed up with Enkidu to fight off the many monsters that plagued their land. During his labors, Hercules teamed up with Jason and The Argonauts on the quest for the Golden Fleece, and later Hercules would work with Theseus to recover the girdle of Hypolyta of the Amazons. The bravest of Greek Heroes, Achilles, Odysseus, Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Ajax fought side by side in the Trojan War of The Iliad in an attempt to recover Helen of Troy. The gods of Asgard of Norse Mythology would very often go on quests and adventures, concluding in their fighting in the final battle of Ragnarok. In the British Isles, King Arthur assembled the bravest of Knights, Lancelot, Galahad, Percival, Gawain, Ecter, Bors, Kay and others, around his aptly named “Round Table” in Camelot fighting for the causes of Chivalry and defending all Christendom.
For the modern day superhero team, it has its beginning back in the Golden age of comic books. Superman, Batman and Robin frequently teamed up on the pages of World’s Finest Comics, and The Man of Steel and the Dark Knight were given honorary membership into the Justice Society of America alongside Wonder Woman, The Specter, and the Golden age versions of such characters as The Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Red Tornado, Black Canary and Dr. Fate. Timely Comics (now called Marvel) had something similar with the All-Star Squadron that consisted of Captain America, Bucky, Namor the Submariner, The Golden Age version of Human Torch, and a number of other characters that slipped into oblivion. In many of these adventures the heroes would be taking on various spies from the Axis Superpowers, saving the world from these dreaded foes. In many ways bringing together these heroes reflected what was going on in the world with Great Britain, Russia, and the United States joining forces with each other to take on the forces of Hitler, Hirohito, and Mussolini.
For the readers there was something else that made it exciting. All along they had the idea that maybe these heroes existed in the same world, and now at last they had the proof. It’s like what my friend Mark’s wife Becky said when he first introduced her to the Justice League, “There’s a team of superheroes!”
Through out the 1950s a number of external forces sought to shut down the comic book industry. However, with the dawning of the Silver Age of comic books, new heroes entered the scene that reignited the two companies. New men took up the mantels of The Flash and Green Lantern, The Martian Manhunter arrived on Earth, and Marvel unveiled such titles as The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Thor, Iron Man, and The Incredible Hulk. They even brought Captain America out of retirement.
With the coming of new heroes that meant that before too long these heroes would team-up. Julius Schwartz at DC commissioned his writer Gardner Fox to come up with a new Superhero team. He didn’t like the word “Society” as it sounded too snooty, but he liked the word league as it evoked the idea of a team. The tag line at the end of their first adventure read “Just Imagine: Your favorite heroes together all in one book.” For the readers they felt like they could get adventures of five characters for the price of one.
The title proved to be a big hit and soon Marvel published the Fantastic Four. Sometime afterward, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby unveiled another team of heroes called “The Avengers.” The tag-line from their first adventure summed up perfectly what was happening:
“And there came a day, a day unlike any other, when Earth’s mightiest heroes found themselves united against a common threat. On that day, the Avengers were born to fight the foes no single super hero could withstand.”
In the comic books, that “day” begins on Asgard. Loki, imprisoned in a barren isle underneath Asgard is plotting revenge against Thor. Loki’s magic powers allow him, like Satan in the book of Job, to go “to and fro and up and down in the world”, in hopes of finding a way to defeat The Mighty God of Thunder. First he spies, Dr. Donald Blake, Thor’s human form. Blake is busy tending to an injured patient. Quickly Loki passes on attacking Blake as to him such a victory would be hollow. He wants to defeat Thor. That would be the only way to satisfy his thirst for vengeance.
He observes the Earth for hours until at last he sees the Incredible Hulk. He knows of his strength and his simple mind and knows he will be perfect for his plan. He makes Hulk believe that a train is in trouble. When Hulk’s naïve mind perceives the distress he leaps quickly into action, destroying the tracks. The engineers on the train believe that he tried to kill them and soon the press is announcing that Hulk is on a rampage.
Rick Jones, Hulk’s only friend reads this news and realizes two things: One, if the hulk is innocent he will need help. Two, if the Hulk is guilty then no branch of the military could stop him. It would take something more powerful then the Hulk to do that. In order to insure both possibilities, he sends a message to the Fantastic Four. Loki knows that the Fantastic Four would only ruin his plans, so he jams the signal and deflects it to Donald Blake. Loki is overjoyed as he sees Blake transform into Thor.
However, it is long established in fantasy, sci-fi, mythology and comic books, that villains, especially ones so consumed by pride as Loki, will fail to take into account the smallest and most insignificant of details. In this case, he didn’t think that his deflected signal could be picked up by other heroes. The message was picked up by Iron Man, and two other heroes, Ant-Man and Wasp (who hhave high-tech devices that enable them to shrink down to the size of their insect name-sakes).
The heroes engaged in a battle against the Hulk, and soon learned the truth. They then engaged in a titanic struggle against the god of mischief and won. Four issues later Captain America was found floating in the ice in the Arctic Circle. The Sentinel of Liberty was alive and only needed to be revived. He was thawed out and joined the Avengers in battle against Namor. After that battle, Steve, Tony and Thor swore an oath on Mjolnir that if ever any of them were summoned they would respond.
However, even superheroes need a rest. Desiring to get back to their own work, Iron Man, Ant Man, and Wasp decided to take a leave of absence .This meant there were vacancies on the team. It was around that time that the archer, and reformed thief, Clint Barton AKA Hawkeye joined their ranks. He sought them out hoping to join them and use his impressive skills for a good cause. In order to demonstrate this ability he fired three arrows with one shot to untie Tony Stark’s butler.
He was also joined by Wanda and Pietro Maximof, the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. The two of them, as it turned out were mutants, and what is more they were the children of Magneto. They were not really evil, and the X-Men were more then aware of this. Wanda and Pietro left the Brotherhood of mutants and searched for a better way to use their powers and hopefully, use them for a good purpose. Their membership into the team, as well as the later involvement of X-Men members Beast and Wolverine, unintentionally helps fulfill the dream of Xavier : mutants fighting side by side with normal humans for the same cause, and what is more they are treated as equals. Later, former Soviet Spy, Natasha Romanov aka The Black Widow joins the team.
The Avengers fought against many other incredible foes. They found themselves, and the Earth, caught in between an interplanetary war between two alien races: The Kree and the Skrull. They fought against Thanos the Lord of Death. Kang the conqueror, a time traveling war lord, bent on ushering in his version of the future. One story-arc featured the team facing a group of twelve super-powered villains called “The Zodiac”. The Fear Itself story had not only the Avengers but every hero in the Marvel universe fighting against Sin, the daughter of Red Skull, and the god of Fear who had bestowed to several individuals hammers of destruction. When Spider-Man villain Electro sprung himself and some of the other more dangerous prisoners from jail, the Avengers took them on. Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Iron Man, Wasp and Hawkeye were even among the heroes chosen by the Beyonder to take part in The Secret Wars, an epic battle that pitted the Greatest of Marvel’s superheroes against the worst of the villains. The heroes even fought against each other for the sake of Superhuman rights.
More heroes joined their ranks, including the likes of Spider-Man, the Thing, and Wolverine. Some times, the roster had grown so big it was confusing, and they caused more harm then good with their massive numbers. In order to better manage the team they were broken down into a small team with several sub groups, like the New Avengers, West Coast Avengers, and the Secret Avengers. To be asked to join this team is considered by everyone in the Marvel universe as the biggest honor any hero can achieve. It means they have stood against countless foes and can hold their own alongside the rest of Earth’s mightiest heroes.
Despite this, the Avengers have been dedicated to saving the world from a foe that no single hero can face on their own. That is usually why it is so difficult to bring them all together. If you have a powerful character like Thor, or Hulk, it is very difficult to find a character that can bring any of them to their knees. Then you can also have a character like Captain America or Hawkeye who has no real discernible super-powers and you have to bring them to the table besides those who are like gods.
Moreover, they come from radically different worlds. Captain America is the product of The Great Depression/World War II era, best called “The Greatest Generation.” Thor comes from a world of myth and fantasy. The Hulk comes from a world of loneliness and isolation. Iron Man comes from the high-tech 21st century and a post 9-11 world, one steeped in reality TV and tabloid news.
It goes beyond just super-powered abilities, but personality traits. Steve Rogers summarizes it best:
“Our President asked me what the world needs now; I told him the world needs what it always needs. Heroes. Not S.H.I.E.L.D agents…Avengers. Now, maybe more than ever. But what does that mean in this new world? One huge team of heroes? A handful of teams? That was the question… what ingredients would inspire this country… the world. And I think I know, and for this I have picked you.”
As he goes through the heroes he has selected to be on the Avengers, he lists the things they each bring. For Thor it is nobility and strength. Hawkeye brings cunning and bravery. Spider-Man, despite his youth, brings power and responsibility. Wolverine brings ruthlessness and selflessness. Bucky, having taken up the mantel and shield of Captain America at that time, brings the symbolism of the values of an entire nation. Spider-Woman brings savvy. Last of all, Tony Stark, the Invincible Iron Man, brings a clear view of the future.
Moments like these are a great equalizer as it forces the very powerful to stand side by side with those who are mere mortals. In many ways it is a perfect illustration of the idea of community. Community comes from the Greek word Koinonia, which means, “Coming together.” Something that happens very often in a superhero team. That team is something huge, even bigger then one single member. As Nick Fury tells Tony Stark at the end of the first Iron Man movie,” Did you think you were the only superhero ? You have taken a step into a much larger world and you just don’t even know it yet.”
Joss Whedon, the director of The Avengers movie, and the man behind such cult hits as Firefly, Dollhouse, Buffy, and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog, even said, “It was a story about broken people. It was a story about what we’ve lost what we used to have culturally, in terms of the sense of community, this sense of helping one another, this sense of self-sacrifice. ”
To come together means to set aside your own wants, needs, egos and agendas for a common goal. The crisis the heroes face is a great equalizer. When faced with global destruction, someone has powerful as Thor needs to rely on the combined skills and abilities of Hulk, Captain America, Iron Man, Hawkeye and Black Widow to save their planet. The destruction that the world is facing threatens them all.
Tony Stark summarizes this perfectly to Loki in a TV spot for The Avengers movie, “We have two world class assassins, a super-soldier, and a demigod. And you managed to *&%$ off every last one of us.”
“But I have an army,” replies Loki.
“But we have a HULK.”
Perhaps that is why for all of us, once we learn of such a team we can’t help but love this very idea. The idea that these heroes exist in the same shared universe and fight side-by-side to take on the foes that they can face alone. It reminds us all that we live in a much larger world and that we must stand together to fight the foes that we ourselves can’t face alone.
Now, why would these studios take such a risk? It’s for the fans of these cahracters .The people who ahve been waiting for years to see something like this. Sure there is money to be made, but it is for the fans. Also, it’s just awesome!
And this summer, we’ll get to see just that when Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Hawkeye and Black Widow form The Avengers on the big screen!
The only thing I have to say in closing is this….
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Bendis, Brian Michael, and “Breakout.” New Avengers #1.
Bullfinch, Thomas. Bullfinch’s Mythology.
Busiek, Kurt and George Pérez “Too Many Avengers!” Avengers #4. 1998. Marvel Comics.
Evanier, Mark. Kirby: King of Comics.2008. Abrams Books.
(Film) Favreau, Jon (dir.) Iron Man. Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, Terrance Howard and Samuel L. Jackson. 2008. Marvel Studios/Paramount Pictures.
Fraction, Matt and Stuart Immomen. Fear Itself. 2011. Marvel Comics.
Grossman, Lev and Joss Whedon, “The Hero Whisperer: Hollywood’s iconoclast takes on The Avengers.”Time Magazine. Vol., 178. Issue no. 18. May,7 2012
Hamilton, Edith. Mythology.
Lee, Stan and Jack Kirby, “The Coming of the Avengers!”[ii]Avengers #1. 1963.
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Lee, Stan and Jack Kirby. “The Old Order Changeth”. Avengers #16.
Lee, Stan ( interview) “Stan Lee’s Soapbox”. 2005. Beuna Vista Home Entertainment.
Lee, Stan and Kevin Smith. “Stan Lee’s Mutants, Monsters &Marvels”. 2002. Creative Light Video/ Sony Pictures.
(Documentary) Marc Carter (Dir.) Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics 2011. Warner Bros. Entertainmet
Millar, Mark and Steve McNiven. Civil War. 2005. Marvel Comics.
Shooter, Jim and Michael Zeck Marvel Super Heroes: Secret Wars May, 1984. Marvel Comics.
Thomas , Roy and Neal Adams “This Beachhead Earth” Avengers #93 November, 1971. Marvel Comics.
The Avengers are created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
This blog is not authorized, endorsed, approved, prepared or affiliated by any persons involved in the making or ownership of the Avengers movie or comic books. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are strictly those of the author and do not in any way reflect Marvel Comics, Marvel Studios, Paramount Pictures or Walt Disney Pictures.
2012 Marvel Comics, 2012 Marvel Studios/paramount Pictures/Walt Disney Studios.
[i] Not to be confused with the British TV series about the pair spies of the same name. It is actually for that very reason why in the British Film Market the superhero movie is re-titled “Avengers Assemble” to avoid confusion.
[ii] First appearance of the Avengers.