I've been reading a lot of 1960s Marvel comics lately, letter columns and all. I did this once before, with just Spider-Man comics, which was a lot of fun. This time I'm skipping around more from title to title, getting a feel for the way the universe gelled, and how the constant stream of feedback from readers contributed to that process. It's really given me a sense for what Marvel did differently back in those early days. For a while there, they could almost do no wrong -- "what they did differently" was more or less synonymous with "what they did right."
Know what else I've been doing a lot lately? Seeing Joss Whedon's Avengers movie. Well, okay, just twice, but that counts as "a lot" in my movie-watching book. The movie is everything I wanted it to be. It was even more satisfying the second time around. Like those early Marvels, it makes the right call pretty much every time. Really: just like those early Marvels.
In 1961, when the Marvel Universe as we know it began, comic books were disposable, not collectible. There was no expectation that whoever bought issue #41 would necessarily have bought issue #40 or have any intention to buy issue #42. Consequently, each one was required to be self-contained, with one story, or even multiple stories, that began and ended within its covers. That's a bit of an oversimplification, but the general expectation was that a comic book contained at least one complete story. Sure, there were motifs that continued from one issue to the next, but they were more or less in the form of an established status quo. Clark Kent always works at the Daily Planet. Lois Lane never gets any closer to figuring out his secret identity. Jimmy Olsen is always just as young and eager and boneheaded as he ever was or ever will be. Stories that deviated from this status quo always made sure to return to it before the issue was over.
Many early Marvels followed this pattern too, though their internal status quo was a fair bit more interesting. However, it quickly became apparent that the stories they wanted to tell were too complex to be contained within a single book. Not only that, they seemed to be attracting older, more sophisticated readers, who might be more reasonably expected to buy a title consistently. So, in many books, "continued stories" became the rule, and whoever read issue #41 might in fact need the previous one or the next one, or several iterations thereof, to get the full tale.
Oh, the complaints that readers sent in about this! The company was accused of greed, insensitivity, poor storytelling, and more. In fact, the hue and cry was so great that at one point Marvel actually abandoned continued stories and tried to keep all issues self-contained. The (predictable) result? Duller, more superficial stories. In fact, it may have almost been a calculated move on their part -- by the time they did it, the Marvel Universe had already been established as an enormous tapestry of characters whose lives regularly interwove, collided, and separated again. To write the very kind of stories they had made obsolete may have been their way of saying, "Oh, this? Is this really what you want?" Needless to say, continued stories returned soon afterwards.
In 2012, the majority of movies are self-contained, but there are plenty of franchises in which each sequel moves the characters along a larger arc. However, what we hadn't seen yet is a movie that ties together multiple franchises in the way that The Avengers does. There are four different lines of movies, each with its own sequel trajectory, that come together in this one. Four sets of stories feed in, and this story will resonate along at least three lines in the future. (I'm not sure if there are going to be any more Hulk movies, though no doubt the success of Avengers makes that outcome more likely. Heck, maybe even Black Widow and Hawkeye will get their own franchises.)
This is an immensely powerful position for a movie to occupy. In the comics, a shared universe gets you several great things:
- If you're following multiple lines that come together, you get to feel like an insider when the collisions happen. The more lines you follow, the more satisfying this can be.
- The coherency of each strand is enhanced by its participation in a greater coherent whole. When Spider-Man bursts into Stark Industries, he may wonder why Iron Man isn't showing up. Those of us reading Iron Man know that he's trapped by a villain in another part of the factory, and knowing this lets us feel that both Spidey and Stark are a legitimate part of a larger, grander story.
- When personalities do come together, especially if they clash, the drama of the encounter is greatly enhanced when each character is fully fleshed out with a detailed background and a story of his own.
These people do not get along
As I said, Marvel set up a fictional universe in which its superheroes were constantly running into each other. And when that would happen, inevitably, they would fight at least once. Fans loved seeing the good guys square off against each other, if only from the geeky desire to take the measure of each hero. And so Stan Lee would contrive some sort of misunderstanding or unusual circumstance that would force the heroes into conflict. Letter columns were always full of people eager to know who would win in a fight: Hulk vs. Thor? Thing vs. Iron Man? Spidey vs. Black Widow? Hero vs. hero conflict gave those fans a little satisfaction, though not always as much as they wanted, given that the story often took a left turn before either hero suffered a full defeat.
The Avengers takes this cue and runs with it. And, uh, now it's probably time for the SPOILERS ASSEMBLE! warning.
The movie gives us so many awesome hero vs. hero matchups:
- Black Widow vs. Hulk, twice. She dominates him strategically as Banner, he dominates her physically (of course) as Hulk
- Thor vs. Iron Man vs. Captain America
- Hawkeye vs. everybody, which was a great way of establishing Hawkeye's badass credentials. (Casting Jeremy Renner didn't hurt either.)
- Stark, Banner, and Cap piercing Fury's subterfuge, leading to a great 6-way argument and a lovely Whedonesque camera move, inverting the heroes and placing the Staff Of Bad Influence in the foreground
- Thor vs. Hulk
- Black Widow vs. Hawkeye
Moreover, the physical conflicts help the movie express the characters' underlying philosophical conflicts. Superhero stories, at least when they're done well, are metaphors writ large. So when Thor fights Iron Man, it isn't just Thor fighting Iron Man -- it's the Mythical/Ancient/Pastoral at war with the Modern/Scientific/Technological, and it's not accidental that the image of Idealized Patriotism and Selfless Heroism is defeated by neither and brings both together.
Finally, the conflicts move the plot along, which is far from a given in modern action movies. Heroes fighting each other does everything from achieving key turning points (such as when the Widow administers a "cognitive recalibration" to Hawkeye, switching him back to the side of the angels) to subtly filling in explanatory details (such as when Banner finds himself holding the Stick of Psychic Malevolence as he's getting angry.)
How do you solve a problem like The Hulk?
In fact, this last one helped me understand something about the movie that puzzled me the first time around. I've mentioned before that although the Hulk exists in a world of superheroes, he's not a superhero himself -- he's a monster. Unlike everybody else on the team, he's not necessarily here to help. This is a hard problem to solve for any story that includes him as a protagonist, and the first time I saw The Avengers, I thought the film hadn't quite solved it. Why is he all "SMASH BLACK WIDOW!" the first time he appears and then all "SMASH ONLY BAD GUYS AND CATCH IRON MAN AND GENERALLY HELP OUT!" the second time?
Then my friend Tashi suggested this interpretation to me: Banner's revelation during the climactic battle ("I'm always angry") indicates that he has figured out that suppressing his anger is the wrong way to go. So instead, he lives with it all the time so that it doesn't blossom into rage, and tries to atone for his past damage by helping the helpless. (Boy, sounds Whedonishly familiar, doesn't it?) He believes that he might be able to control "the other guy" now that he's learned to live with his anger, but he'd rather not take the chance if he doesn't have to.
Then he gets tangled up with the whole SHIELD thing. He finds himself aboard a massive airship -- as he comments when it takes off, that's a worse place for him to be than even a submarine. Loki's whole plan is to get the Hulk to wreck everything once he's aboard the Helicarrier. Well, that and also get Hawkeye to wreck everything from outside the Helicarrier. So, using the remote magic of the Nasty Pointy Spear Of Malefic Intent, he manipulates Banner's mind (as indicated by the "put down the scepter" scene), weakening his mental control so that when Hawkeye strikes, the Hulk is in rampage mode rather than "I'm at peace with my anger" mode. Then, later, when Banner motors up for the final battle, he's himself again, and can drive the beast enough to be a hero.
I love this explanation, and I think it's supported by the film. It's certainly better than anything Stan Lee figured out in the 60's. His Hulk was constantly hunted, and his Banner was far from reconciled with his anger. (That is, once it was established that anger is what triggers the change. At first it was actually nightfall that did it, like a werewolf. The anger/stress thing set in pretty early, though.) He tried pills, and he tried locking himself away. He tried staying out of stressful situations. You can imagine how well all that worked out. The comics Hulk was often well-intentioned, but always misunderstood.
There wasn't a trace in this movie of Thunderbolt Ross-esque anti-Hulkism -- on the contrary, the government is looking for Banner to enlist his help, despite knowing he could potentially Hulk out. You don't get much of that in the early comics, though they repeatedly attempted to cast the monster as a hero. In fact, he was even a charter member of the original Avengers... but he was out of there by the third issue. He's really not much of a team player.
Homage and better
Having the Hulk be present for the founding of the movie Avengers is just one of the many lovely ways this film pays respect to its source material. Just as in the comics, Loki is intimately involved with the Avengers' formation. Just as in the comics, the early Hawkeye and Black Widow are a couple, albeit one frequently beset by misfortune. Just as in the comics, the Avengers bicker and argue and crack wise, although the players and personalities are a bit different in the film from how they work in the original stories.
The movie is far from a literal recreation of those early Avengers issues. Instead, like the first Iron Man movie, it faithfully absorbs the spirit of the comics, but compresses, abridges, and enhances to make a coherent story that fits together like an exquisite puzzle. Thank you Joss, for mining the gold from an enormous vein, then shaping and polishing it so beautifully for us. And by the way, that really long sequence shot that went from hero to hero during the third act was JUST AWESOME. Mmmm, I think it's time to see this movie again.