Monday, October 1, 2012

The Avengers

The inception of the Avengers is not one of those original, creative moments. DC Comics had been having success for over three years with its band of heroes – the Justice League of America – and so it made good business sense for Marvel to come up with its own version. The characters selected for this had all appeared in earlier stories. As of issue one of The Avengers, published in September of 1963, they were Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, Ant-Man and the Wasp. Having come together in rather accidental fashion to fight Thor’s nefarious brother Loki,

the group resolved to form a permanent alliance in time for the last panel.

The plot of that inaugural issue bears a very vague resemblance to that of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers – in that it also involves Loki, and an attempt to turn the Hulk against the rest of the team – but notice, more importantly, how the meta-reference to the Marvel Galaxy of Heroes in the epilogue matches the careful inter-weaving of the Marvel Studios films, which set the expectations of what’s to come in the next instalment as well as making explicit the relationship of the individual films to the larger narrative.

Thus the current wave of films inspired by the Marvel superheroes is faithful, and deftly so, to the overt commercial drive of the original series, the explicit calls to read the next issue or witness the birth of a new hero or villain. However the key concept is the Marvel universe, that is to say the idea of a unified, coherent set of stories with its own aesthetic and narrative tropes.

This universe was still more or less recognisable when I started reading superhero comics, in the mid- to late Seventies. It had also matured from the era of that original Avengers story, for the peculiarity of these titles is that they developed along with their readership, becoming progressively more sophisticated and grown-up. Reading those early stories now, it’s hard not to be struck by how infantile they are, how naïve and exclusively pitched at pre-teen males. The Marvel Universe had very few women in those days and they were heavily stereotyped, like the insufferable Wasp, a character whose powers were becoming quite small, having the hots for Thor and adhering to a ten year old boy’s ideas of what a grown woman who wasn’t his mother might be like.

From issue #4
Then there was Captain America’s creepy serial attachment to various teenage sidekicks.

The Avengers #9
Plus lots of general silliness, including, but not limited to, a character who could shrink to the size of an ant and grow to the size of a giant by taking a pill whose effects were so instantaneous he sometimes used it to dodge an incoming blow or missile.

The Avengers #2
And the rather wonderful and ornate descriptions of what was happening while it was happening that our heroes were able to engage with in remarkable unison.

A unique and exciting literary device: the collective action monologue (#8)
There was, nonetheless, more than a little artistry in these stories. The proof isn’t strictly in the fact that they have now become the subject of vastly more successful entertainment products – I personally regard this as something of a cultural historical accident, as I will argue later – but rather in their sometimes genuinely ingenious dramatic structure, and most of all in Jack Kirby’s very accomplished artwork, which made the characters seem dynamic no matter how clunky Stan Lee’s writing would sometimes become.

The Avengers #4
Even the best critiques of Joss Whedon’s adaptation, by contrast, seem to me to have missed the main point, which is this: it is an astonishingly, almost unaccountably boring film. It takes no creative risk. It has no artistry, no genuine invention. It gives you nothing to marvel at. It just fills the time, albeit in admirably efficient fashion, deploying all of the tricks and the requisite whizzbangery. But of course the problem, or at least one of the problems, is that as soon as Iron Man takes off or Bruce Banner becomes the Hulk the films morphs into one of those animated sequences of a videogame that you soon learn to skip by pressing ESC. Except this time you can’t. (I confess here that I got so fidgety during the middle hour of the screening that I took out my wallet and compiled a shopping list. I wouldn’t have, had there been anybody else in that afternoon session at the Embassy Theatre, but still, that’s how bad things got.)

You couldn’t accuse Stan Lee of this. Of being boring, or lifeless. His genius perhaps was to live at a time when the cultural conditions were in place for him to invent a super-hero universe. He wasn’t a pioneer in this respect either, but he applied himself, he made full use of the creative freedom that is afforded most easily within the confines of genre. A boy is bitten by a radioactive spider and acquires the proportionate strength and dexterity of an arachnid. Four astronauts return from space with four different sets of powers as a result of being bombarded with gamma rays. An evil robot creates another robot that can fly and walk through walls but then he – the creature – develops a conscience and renounces evil.

The Avengers #57
This is no longer Stan Lee, actually. By 1968 the task of writing The Avengers had fallen Roy Thomas. Lee was the editor, John Buscema the artist. We must have lagged behind by a few years in Italy because that story is one of the first I remember, and the Vision grew to become my favourite character. By this stage the stories had become more sophisticated. They were growing along with the audience. Some attempts were made to write complex female characters and grapple with psychological and even existential/philosophical issues. Not always successfully, mind. Or subtly.

The Avengers #58
However the period I remember best is when Jim Shooter was in charge as editor and writer, thus the stretch in the late Seventies (or early Eighties by the time the stories were translated into Italian) that culminated with the Korvac saga. The stories had this point were firmly pitched at young adults, and included the timid exploration of the characters’ sexuality. Also: so much cleavage. I can't remember what the story with Moondragon was exactly, but one of her ancillary powers must have been related to ensuring that the dress didn’t slip off in battle.

The Avengers #176
I recently tried to read some of these more mature stories again but frankly they haven’t aged so well. Unlike the very early issues, they are not good in places and so bad they are good in others, just uniformly overwrought. And this is pretty much were I left the world of Marvel superheroes, other than following Walter Simonson’s brilliant reinvention of Thor for a few issues, when they became available locally in English. Now I see that the Marvel universe has split into several alternative continuities, some pitched at the younger readers, some at adults. There seem to be for instance five or six titles featuring Spider-Man at any one time.

This is partly to say that it wasn’t cinema that invented the remake and constant recycling of these characters and stories. They happened in the native medium first, with each major franchise going through at least one radical reinvention and several minor ones. Just today I took a peak issue #528.1 of The Avengers. I’m not even sure what the .1 in the numbering means. We’re using decimals now? The premise in this one is that Vision, who was killed years ago, has been repaired and brought back ‘to a brand-new world’. The group includes familiar characters alongside two who are overtly derivative of classic ones (Spider-Woman and the Red Hulk). Meanwhile Captain America, even discounting the fifteen years he spent frozen in a block of arctic ice, must be well over 80 years old. But I’m sure there’s an explanation for that as well. The artwork is so much more contemporary, darker, sometimes slipping in an almost tortured realism. Look at us. See how we have grown.

And yet the time for invention is over. It’s not that Stan Lee was a visionary, it’s that he lived at a time when you were allowed to make up stories – stories that would later be recycled into modern myths to be sold not to children but to life-long adolescents, that is to say the public for top-end global entertainment that cinema has cultivated so successfully since at least the time of Star Wars. They – we – are only too happy to trade in these myths, in spite of the fact that we would likely deride the originals if they were served to us instead. Yet those stories form the necessary background, allowing us to create endless variation on a theme that is already familiar.

The first incarnation of the Avengers lasted a little over a year. Kirby stopped drawing the stories after issue #8, Thor started chasing other adventures and a peculiar ennui took over the rest of the original cast, who finally decided to leave in issue #16.

That’s how little it took for the formula, for the characters themselves to become tired, and for a sense of weariness to creep into Stan Lee’s writing. It was less than four years since the creation of Spider-Man, less than five since Lee had taken over the lead writer role at Marvel. Golden ages are never as long as you remember them.


Philip said...

Believe a man can CG-fly
And we will up the amp;
For superheroes never die -
They only get more camp.

merc said...

I can't help feeling the hero myth has passed. Despite the need we have for mythos, logos has survived it. However ill fitting that may be.

Ben said...

I re-read a bunch of them a year or so ago. One of the big things that struck me was that every 4th or 5th issue they seemed to have an issue dedicated to talking about who was going on leave and who was going to form the new avengers roster. Odd.

I don't think the hero myth has necessarily passed. The imaginative ones have just got ... dirtier. Smaller films like Chronicle are popping up. Some of the big films like the 1st Iron Man or Ed Nortons Hulk are entertaining.

Along side the good though we have to cope with the inevitable average and bad. Whedons Avengers was average (odd considering his track record) just as not a number of the print stories are average (or bad). There's so many now, there almost has to be a curve.

Giovanni Tiso said...

The Marvel films are at the stage of playing it straight, so straight you don't even mess with the costumes. It's like the Peter Jackson school of dullness. DC films are a couple of cycles further ahead it seems. Still, both are pretty much equally successful at the box office so it must be possible for those two quite distinct phases to coexist.

Draw said...

I get a bit sad when I read these reviews because I had a good time I want to believe it was a 'good' film. I want to ignore all the problems I don't want them spelt out to me. On a side note I preferred it to his other film The Cabin in the woods.

I went to the midnight screening at the Embassy. The atmosphere was electric full of heaps of over excited fans. I watched it again recently I had a good time. What struck me is how the end climax is pretty much the same as Transformers 3 An American City; A portal to close; Alien Mooks to destroy and a giant space snake thing.

According to this site:
12 superhero movies of various budgets this year. I'll admit it I'm looking forward to Judge Dredd.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I imagine that a crowded and enthusiastic theatre would add quite a bit to the experience. Like I said, I was the only one there by the time I got around to seeing the film. It can't have helped. I was naively curious, though, I thought they might do something a little bit interesting with this one.

Samuel said...

Can confirm that a buzzing, full theatre added immeasurably to the fun. Probably also helped that I hadn't seen or read anything Avengers related before, so the effect of slavish faithfulness you experienced didn't happen for me (same reason I found LOTR fascinating but couldn't get through all of King Kong awake).

Megan Clayton said...

Hold me tight, marvellous man.
A steadying hand at the throat
saves choking on myriad grains of sand.

O thou, my lovely boy, my toy;
my plentiful waste of time, my dear,
my Thor, my two-buck Chuck,

frankly, we haven't aged so well.
Who will avenge us? No supra-
hero, no every-man; hell in

high heels or ants in their nests.
Webs, magogs, hulks: dead
last, fools at best.

Montag said...

Thanks for the memories.