May 1, 2012 Comics to screen: Marvel Avengers Assemble
by Matthew Turner
Warning: This post contains SPOILERS for Marvel Avengers Assemble (or The Avengers, if you live anywhere other than Britain) and is intended to be read after you’ve seen the film.
With the recent release (and what already looks like phenomenal box office success) of Marvel’s The Avengers, it seems only fitting to mark the occasion with a final Comics To Screen post. This will examine how writer-director Joss Whedon, closely supervised by Marvel Studios, has blended the now established movie universe (referred to, annoyingly but conveniently, as the Marvel movie-verse) with the classic comics themselves. Arguably, with the enormous success of the three key movie franchises (Iron Man, Thor and Captain America), it’s no longer really that important to cater to old-school comics fans, but it’s nonetheless interesting to look at just how much of early Avengers history survives into the new movie and to see which elements have been drawn from elsewhere.
The Avengers made their debut in September 1963, partly as a response from Marvel to the success of DC’s Justice League of America, created three years earlier. The founding members in the first issue are Thor, who had a mortal identity as weedy Doctor Don Blake and would revert to his fragile form if separated from his hammer for sixty seconds, Iron Man, in big clunky armour reminiscent of the first time you see the costume in the first Iron Man movie, the Hulk, Ant-Man, aka scientist Henry Pym and the Wasp, alias socialite Janet Van Dyne (the joke being that the Wasp really was a WASP), each of whom were already established in their own comics (sort of – the Wasp was essentially Ant-Man’s girlfriend in Ant-Man’s comic). The notable absentee from that list, as far as the movie-verse is concerned is Captain America, who actually joined the Avengers in issue 4, in March 1964 after the Avengers found him encased in ice during a battle with the Submariner.
The plot of the Avengers movie sees SHIELD director Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) bringing together Earth’s Mightiest Heroes – Iron Man (Robert Downey Jnr), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), along with ex-Russian spy the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and crack archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) – in order to battle Thor’s embittered half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and an invading alien army called the Chitauri. Having firmly established Loki as both the villain and a fan favourite in the Thor movie (and dropped a strong hint in a post-credits sting), it was inevitable that Loki would be the villain for the Avengers movie. This is entirely in-keeping with issue one of the Avengers, which has Loki attempting to manipulate the Hulk into battling Thor, but inadvertently ensuring that Ant-Man, the Wasp and Iron Man get involved too. When Loki is defeated (Ant-Man’s ants trap him in a lead-lined tank – don’t ask), Ant-Man suggests that they work well together as a team, the Wasp suggests a team name, the Hulk growls his assent and the Avengers are born.
Thankfully, Whedon resisted the urge to include the scene from Avengers issue #1 where the Hulk hides out at a circus in full clown make-up and pretends to be a robot. However, it’s interesting to note that the Hulk works better in the Avengers movie than he has in either of the two Hulk movies we’ve had so far. Perhaps that’s because Whedon has a better idea of just what makes the Hulk *fun* – at any rate, he gets all the coolest moments in the film, whether it’s destroying a fighter plane in mid-air (a regular staple of the early Hulk comics), laying out a giant alien creature with one blow, beating the crap out of Loki and muttering “Puny God” or sucker-punching Thor in Grand Central station.
The Avengers movie also differs from the early comics in several notable ways, not least of which is that Nick Fury and SHIELD have nothing at all to do with the Avengers, although he does occasionally call on them to help him out in a crisis in (much) later issues. The main difference is the absence of founder members the Wasp and Ant-Man (who, by issue 2, was calling himself Giant-Man – pay attention at the back there). They are replaced by the Black Widow and Hawkeye, both of whom became Avengers fairly early on in the comics – Hawkeye in issue 16 and the Black Widow guest starring on and off from around the same point before finally becoming a full member in issue 111. Again, what’s interesting is that the movie-verse has retained the Widow-Hawkeye connection – in the comics, the Widow starts off as a Russian super-spy and an Iron Man villain who manipulates Hawkeye after he falls in love with her. In the movie, Black Widow explains that she was indeed a Russian spy and Hawkeye was sent to kill her but “made a different call” – no doubt they’re saving that for a potential Black Widow / Hawkeye movie (it’s difficult to see them getting their own movie each, but their story could work in a single film).
In addition, there are other, smaller details that won’t mean much to newcomers but are guaranteed to give comics fans a nerdily enjoyable hit of recognition, such as the way in which Stark Tower in the movie becomes – or is strongly hinted to become – Avengers Tower, when the S, T, R and K are knocked off, leaving just the iconic A symbol. In the comics, Stark Tower is indeed the city base of the Avengers, though they usually hang out at Avengers Mansion. Who knows, maybe Nick Fury will buy them a house in the second movie? Avengers Mansion in the comics is also the home of the Avengers’ loyal butler, Edwin Jarvis (essentially ripping off Alfred in Batman), though that character is unlikely to make an appearance in future films, since Jarvis already exists as Iron Man’s seemingly sentient computer system, voiced by Paul Bettany.
As for the villains, it seems likely that Whedon and co. probably wanted to use long-time Avengers villains the Skrulls, an alien race of shape-shifters. The rights to those characters are tied up with the Fantastic Four (with a different studio), so they opted for the Chitauri, which, somewhat confusingly, are a version of the Skrulls from the Marvel Ultimates universe (a sort of rebooted Marvel Universe aimed at re-telling old stories in modern form, but that’s way too complicated to go into right now and anyway, that’s what Wikipedia is for). There are also those giant worm-like creatures that were initially thought to be either Fin Fang Foom or Avengers / Thor villain Jormungand, the Midgard Serpent but having seen the film, the creatures are never named and it seems more likely they’re just giant creatures the Chitauri have co-opted to act as their spaceships or something (I am willing to be corrected on this issue).
Perhaps it’s not surprising that long-term comics fan and occasional Marvel writer Whedon managed to get it all so right, but it’s still a mind-boggling achievement when you think of all the things that could have gone wrong. What I particularly love about the film is that he essentially answers a series of fan-boy questions that have been eating away at comics fans for generations. In the pre-internet days, the letters pages of the American and the British comics would be full of anguished speculations along the lines of, ‘What would happen if Thor’s hammer hit Captain America’s shield?’ and ‘Who would win in a straight fight – Hulk or Thor?’ Comics fans certainly get their answer to the first question and while it’s definitely a feature of the early comics to find reasons for various combinations of Avengers to fight amongst themselves, they’re usually being mind-controlled or something. Bickering in general is a staple of Marvel team comics and although the Avengers don’t do as much of it as either the Fantastic Four (bickerers par excellence) or the X-Men, they still do their fair share and Whedon captures that brilliantly, as well as allowing for various punch-up combinations (Thor vs Iron Man, Thor vs Cap, Black Widow vs Hawkeye and so on) throughout.
As for the eternal question of Hulk vs Thor, this collection of comic covers makes it clear that Marvel have thrown the pair at each other a number of times over the years but they almost always cop out when it comes to declaring a proper winner, with one or other of the characters usually weakened in some way – see also Hulk vs The Thing, Thor vs Hercules and many other evenly matched scraps. That said, there are a couple of staples to any Hulk vs Thor fight and, joyfully, the movie includes them both: firstly, the Hulk being surprised that someone can actually knock him off his feet with a punch (Thor punches him into a jet plane) and secondly, Hulk being unable to lift Thor’s mighty hammer, Mjolnir. I am slightly disappointed that the Hulk never calls Thor “Long-hair” at any point though. More talking next time, Hulk.
All that really leaves is to speculate over what future Avengers movies might bring. A mid-credits sting reveals classic Avengers villain Thanos has been manipulating Loki, so it seems like he’s a safe bet for the sequel in some capacity or other, though I’m hoping they bring in Kang the Conqueror too. Also, Marvel Studios honcho Kevin Feige has repeatedly stated that he wants future Avengers movies to introduce new Avengers alongside the established members, though he won’t be drawn on which ones.
It does at least seem as if Edgar Wright’s long-awaited Ant-Man movie will finally make some progress this year, so hopefully Ant-Man (or Giant-Man or Goliath or YellowJacket or whatever of his multiple identities they decide on) and the Wasp will be a part of the next film. Other than that, the list of potential new characters to choose from is extremely long but I would think the Scarlet Witch (mutant, witch), Quicksilver
(mutant, speedy, like The Flash) and The Vision (synthezoid, complicated) would have to be the front-runners, with Wonder Man (superstrong, ion-powered) and X-Men refugee The Beast (mutant, blue, furry, but owned by a different studio) close behind. Needless to say, I can’t wait for Avengers 2: Electric Boogaloo and the sooner they assemble, the better.
Tags: Avengers, Black Widow, Captain America, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Hawkeye, Hulk, Iron Man, Jeremy Renner, Joss Whedon, Mark Gruffalo, Marvel Avengers Assemble, Robert Downey Jnr, Samuel L Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Thor, Tom Hiddleston