A Team-Up Worth Watching: Why “The Avengers” (might) Rock
*Quick note: This week marks the launch of a new feature here on Wha Happen? Trek-A-Day, where I endeavor to watch an episode of Star Trek a day from the first episode to the last, commenting along the way! Here are the first two posts! “e1: The Man Trap” “e2 Charlie X“
I am hella excited about the Avengers movie: not because of the trailer, or the cast (both of which are superb) and in spite of the fears raised by the lackluster Iron Man 2 and Thor and my general apprehension about super hero team-ups; but because The Ultimates by Mark Millar and Brian Hitch proved how awesome The Avengers can be, when treated properly. Regardless of how the film plays out, Millar made a true believer outta me and I’m here to bring his word to you.
And that word, is Horny Hulk.
But before we get to that, let’s unpack the super team a bit and why I generally have a bias against them.
I was always of the school of thought that super hero team-ups suck. The occasional cameo from another hero in the same universe? Cool, but an actual team always left me feeling like I was getting watered-down versions of my favorite characters. Justice League? Batman’s douchey-ness gets dialed way up, Superman becomes a one-sided leader voice box (this happens to Cyclops frequently as well), Wonder Woman is mysteriously super important though being generally ignored otherwise…flip the universe and you get the same in Marvel: Captain America is the boy scout, Iron Man is the lovable rogue/loner, and suddenly Thor, the god of thunder, has nothing better to do than be on-hand to fight whatever random threat could probably be dealt with by a regional team like the Fantastic Four or The X-Men? Bullshit.
So why am I so damn excited about the Avengers movie other than that the cast rocks and it’s directed by Joss “I-Can-Do-No-Wrong” Whedon?
(These are Nathan Fillion of Castle and Firefly and Felicia Day from The Guild, Buffy, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog and my dreams.)
Well, much like many of my childhood assumptions and prejudices about comics, lately there have been a slew of great books that have completely shattered my bias like The Hulk smashes puny humans. In this case: Mark Millar and Brian Hitch’s The Ultimates which basically curb stomped by hatred of super teams by brining each character a voice and story worth listening to and some of the most outrageously awesome moments I’ve ever read in a super hero comic. I read it last year and was grinning like a kid through most of it the same way I did the first time I got to play as Venom in Maximum Carnage on SNES.
Between this and the soundtrack by Green Jelly, I was sold.
The Ultimates is a part of the alternate Marvel Ultimate Universe, which was launched as a way to create a fresh, new, accessible world not weighed down by the 40+ years of storytelling that proceeded it. Neat. While the Ultimate Universe eventually fell into old habits (to the point they had Magneto kill off most of it) when it launched, it brought some awesome new ideas, one of which was: let’s figure out what Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, and lesser known Ant Man and Wasp (the former apparently getting film treatment from Edgar “Hot Shaun Pilgrim of the Dead Fuzz” Wright…awesome.) look like in this new universe. A key factor of this universe is that it is all being created together, with all franchises aligned from the start (rather than getting mashed together later in their runs) so for instance: 1) An attack by Magneto is the first super villain attack in this universe EVER. 2) Mutants: hated and feared, the way they started out. 3) Heroes like Nick Fury weren’t running around in World War II and still looking like they did in the 40’s (instead, he’s Samuel L. Jackson.)
Also, none of these characters have ongoing comics to contend with; they only exist and are introduced in The Ultimates. I think this is the single best feature of this series as it dodges the awkward “But wait a sec; Batman is lost in a subterranean labyrinth this week in his book, but in Justice League he’s on a space station and everything is fine? WTF?!” This allows for one, epic, introductory mega-story with one voice, one vision, and the result is a cinematic level of precision. The Avengers film is mostly in the clear here too, as Marvel has been moving their entire film franchise toward it since Iron Man, meaning the film won’t appear out of thin air (amazing how much groundwork you can lay in two minute scenes after the credits). This is a good sign.
The two story lines of the first volume are both awesome showcases of how the team works together (or against each other, as the case may be): the first involves the much bullied Bruce Banner taking his Hulk serum to avenge his wounded pride and finally get to bone Betty Ross (Millar infuses the ego-only idea into the super hero equivalent of Mr. Hyde leading to some of the best Hulk lines of all time, featured below; Hulk is particularly angry that Betty is on a date with Freddie Prinze Jr.)
Something Hulk and Sarah Michelle Gellar have in common.
This dynamic is a lot of fun and reminiscent of the good old’ “Occasionally you have to fight the Hulk” days of comics and is hinted at in the trailer; looks like Stark is going to be a dick to Banner a lot…could the heroes have to fight the Hulk? Awesome.
The secondary plot is a good contender for the film and a favourite of Marvel: alien infiltrators. The Skrulls, a race of shapeshifters have been villains in a lot of Marvel arcs, and in this case stage an Independence Day (or ID4 as we super hip kids of the ’90s called it) style super invasion. Big set pieces, lots of action, and a finale which involves unleashing the Hulk and hilariously telling him that the aliens insulted him, leading to a good old’ fashioned alien smack down and ending with the almost unkillable former Nazi (they were headed up by Skrulls looking to weaken the planet for invasion) with the single most epic Captain American panel ever (including the lead up page):
Now granted, you need to take this with a shot of Apple Pie and Freedom Fries, but this was just after 9/11 and there was still a pre-Iraq War need to feel good about being American again and what better way is there to do that, then punching a Nazi alien in the face while insulting the French?
Between these epic stories, we get the emotionally charged ‘man out of time plot’ for Captain America (see below) and the heartbreaking and sickening domestic abuse of Ant Man (also below) to create a super hero epic in the truest sense of the word.
Because of its isolation from ongoing series, The Ultimates runs a lot like a film: the plot arcs link up, the characters are introduced and given moments to shine or be scummy, there’s wit, adventure, and genuinely awesome action sequences. It’s a team book that makes sense, rather than just a reason to have all these characters do things together. It’s The Fellowship of the Ring rather than ‘Elf, dwarf, and human fight fantasy things’ (starring Jeremy Irons, here). It’s given me hope for a team-up movie, particularly since it’s being handled by Whedon who knows damn well how to tell a multi-character story:
And you’ve got at least four actors who perfectly embody their characters (Chris Evans as The Human Torch-I mean, Captain America; Robert Downey “I am actually Tony Stark in Real Life” Jr; Chris “No longer just Captain Kirk’s Dad” Hemsworth as Thor, and Samuel L. Jackson, rocking out as himself, oddly having his name mispronounced as “Nick Fury” throughout the film.) and some awesome supporting hold overs (Jeremy “I’m every action hero” Renner, Stellan “Eric from True Blood‘s father” Skarsgaard, and that guy who plays Loki!) and Scarlett “…” Johansson, who still has yet to prove herself as the Black Widow (Unless her arc involves falling in love with Bill Murray in Japan, in which case she fits the role perfectly).
So, The Ultimates:
This version of Captain America is pretty much the Cap we see in the film, a little more bad ass than I’m used to seeing, but in a great way.
Proving Boot beats Science every time.
Millar begins the story with an epic war scene and we get a good, healthy dose of Captain America the super soldier rather than super hero. It evokes the tone and flavour of Marvels in all the right ways, making him feel like a cameo in Band of Brothers rather than a brightly coloured super hero punching Hitler every few pages. Like his film counterpart, he’s got a little more edge, Millar also gives him a bit more of a bad ass action hero feel.
This is all layered nicely with some genuinely touching ‘man out of time’ moments, like when his sweetheart from the war (now elderly and married to his best friend) won’t meet him because he still looks the same, whereas she is ashamed of her age. It’s a heartbreaking scene and cuts a nice contrast to the action.
Pretty much the Tony Stark of the films. He’s Downey Jr, through and through-which is particularly entertaining given the Downy Jr. jab featured below:
The sense of humour and swagger are well entrenched and Millar also set the groundwork for the playboy millionaire elements of Stark used in the first film; this includes everything from Stark proudly declaring that if he wasn’t drunk for the big final fight he might have called in sick, to him being AWOL at one point, because he had flown Shannon Elizabeth to the International Space Station for her birthday. It’s a really fun Tony Stark and one that Downey Jr has been able to carry so damn well in the films.
Guess Tony Stark saw American Pie as well…
The Son of Odin represents the 99%. Occupy Asgard was a rousing success.
This is all kinds of awesome. Free of having to work in the whole Asgard angle, this Thor is an environmentalist who claims he can control the weather. No further explanation is given in The Ultimates and Thor staunchly refuses to help the team until his environmental agenda is met by the US government. Awesome. He’s a wacky, rogue-ish figure who gives about as much of a shit about stuff as Han Solo in A New Hope. And yes, he still wields epic thunder.
Also known as Giant Man, Hank Pym is a longstanding (heyoooo, …cuz he’s giant) member of the Avengers, but Millar epically catapults him from second string hero to show stealing super asshole. Pym is mostly responsible for bullying Banner into trying the Hulk serum and also emotionally and physically abuses his wife, Janet (who in this mythology is a mutant who is hiding in plain sight because Pym covers for her, saying a serum of his gave her powers). This is one of the most shocking and emotionally raw moments I’ve seen in a book: after slapping her around the room, Janet turns into her Wasp size and flees under a dresser. Pym’s horrific response is to unleash an army of ants on her, which are seen gruesomely swarming her as giant Hank coldly utters:
The death of Gwen Stacy shows a super hero failing to save the girl, this shows the super hero becoming a real world villain, like William Stryker of God Loves, Man Kills, this is far scarier and poignant than any ‘take over the world scheme’ typically associated with comic villains. And he’s supposed to be one of the good guys.
Side note: Janet does survive, and Captain America royally wrecks Pym’s shit in an epic super hero beatdown with higher stakes than any of these weird ‘wouldn’t it be cool if this hero fought that hero?’ fights Marvel keeps throwing together (this year: The Avengers vs The X-Men. Whoop-dee-dee. Sure hope no one dies; I would hate to have to wait three whole issues for them to come back to life…)
Here’s my favourite. When Stan Lee came up with the idea of the Incredible Hulk, he wanted to flip the idea of Jekyl and Hyde or Frankestein’s monster by saying, “What if this guy were on our side?” Neat. But after 40 years, done. (Case in point, in the mainstream universe Bruce Banner and the Hulk are two separate entities during it out.) So instead, Millar brings us back to the glory days, when pretty much everyone had to fight the Hulk at some point because he was unstoppable and had a hard-on for smashing things. But instead of heroic, tortured Bruce Banner, we get sniveling, bullied Bruce Banner; full of pathos, but also an angry, bitter character (who, incidentally, reminds me a lot of Harold Lauder from Stephen King’s The Stand). Banner has science envy against Pym and is generally teased and bullied by the other Ultimates, including this brilliant scene which sums it up:
When he eventually Hulks out, the Hulk is single mindedly hunting Betty, starting out with one of the best lines of all time:
Horny Hulk. Priceless.
To an increasingly desperate Hulk begging her not to leave Banner; it’s the ego at it’s rawest, all insecurity and desire but personified by the Incredible freaking Hulk. He is also pretty well determined to eat people; the final effect is a wildly scary monster made of a character we’ve known for a long time. Here’s hoping he shows up in the film.
Hawkeye and Black Widow:
Are introduced as the black ops agents of The Ultimates, their opening scene a loving homage to The Matrix where they show up like ballets in black trench coats and sunglasses and kill a tonne of aliens in an office building.
We’ve already had a taste of these characterizations in Iron Man 2 and Thor, which is another big hint as to the tone of the Avengers film in relation to The Ultimates. Renner has proven he’s naturally awesome (hence taking over the Bourne franchise from Matt Damon and being groomed to take over the Mission Impossible franchise from Tom Cruise) and Johannson, who has disappointed in past, is the only female lead in a Joss Whedon film, which should mean she’s incredibly well written and given lots of opprotunity to be awesome: the real test will be if ScarJo can rise to the occasion. We’ll see.
Despite how many signs there are that The Ultimates will be the primary influence on the Avengers, there are a few other things at work in the current Avengers mythology that may well impact the film; epitomizing Marvel’s love of hero vs hero scenarios was Civil War, an ideologically fascinating scenario weighed down by too many tie-ins and writers, which lead to a messy, bloated affair. However, the core conflict is worth a look:
The government decides that super heroes need to be registered, secret identities made transparent along with powers, gear, etc so they can better be policed and controlled. Tony Stark, long having been an ‘out’ super hero is fully supportive of this act, whereas Captain America (also very publicly Steve Rogers) determines that this is an infringement of super hero’s rights to privacy and thus goes rogue…and Marvel’s super heroes go to war with each other. This includes family divides amongst the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man revealing his identity (don’t worry, it gets written out in One More Day) and siding with Iron Man (for a bit) and all sorts of other hijinx. The issues range from writers favoring their own character (Depending on the writer, Tony Stark is an arrogant fascist or Captain America is a simple minded douchebag) and plot holes (in his main series, Daredevil was in jail…one of the other series writers included him in a fight in their book…whoops?) and a whole jumbled mess of ridiculous, culminating in the arrest of Captain America and his subsequent assassination (by a brainwashed Black Widow, no less…) The only real lasting consequence of this has been a shift in the relationship between Captain America and Iron Man; since his resurrection Cap and Iron Man have sorted their shit out a bit, but the basic ideological difference has become a permanent facet of their relationship and will doubtless be present in the film (whether this leads to blows is anyone’s guess). Whedon has always had a flair for opposing viewpoints (Buffy and Faith, for example) so it should be a solid dynamic. Again, we’ll have to see.
So ULTIMATELY (see what I did there?!? lolololol!) I’m excited for the Avengers film because frankly, I’ve already read a fantastic one. The Ultimates is a popcorn action flick, interspersed with some incredibly quiet and nuanced character moments (such as Captain America meeting his aged sweetheart and Hank Pym’s remarkably scary domestic abuse); it’s a team-up where every character makes sense and brings a genuinely unique power set to the fight. They all get moments of brilliance (even cameo characters like Quicksilver, who proudly declares that if you slow down the footage of the final fight against the aliens, you’ll see that he was actually the key factor in victory, met with a collective rolling of eyes by his teammates) and to my mind that’s what a good team needs. Weirdly, The Expendables managed this really well, giving each character a moment to shine, while still keeping the focus on the main two personalities (in this case Iron Man and Captain America).
Whedon is also one of my favourite writers and directors, and while he certainly isn’t being given complete freedom (Downey Jr is insisting he’s going to improve the script through ad libbing) and he’s working for the Disney-owned Marvel Films, he’s the right guy to try and pull all these factors together. Whether or not he succeeds, I feel confident that a failure by him would be a noble one, rather than an insulting mess (like X3 or Blade Trinity).
It’s a super hero team up that I think can work…I sure hope Whedon and team prove child me wrong, the Millar and Hitchens did.
It can be done, it has been done…let’s just hope it can be done on film.
Recommendation: Essential. It’s just a damn good time and a great, fresh take on the characters.
The Ultimates 2: I haven’t read this yet! Same creative team playing with a much more established Ultimate Universe. Follow-up to come.
The Ultimates 3: Who Killed the Scarlet Witch?: Avoid at all costs. After the Ultimate Universe fell into old habits and sales started dropping off, Marvel tried this as a lead up to Magneto destroying most of the world. It ranks amongst people’s worst of the worst…look forward to a review of the one at some point too.
Civil War: A friend of mine read each an every issue over the span of a week once and was left very frustrated; there’s some great stuff going on in this arc, but the aforementioned inconsistencies and problems hold back all of the good stuff and leave the reader with very little to be happy about. Boo-urns.
The Expendables: This is an old school, over-the-top ridiculous action film…but knows it, which is awfully refreshing. Remember when everyone in an action film was kinda awesome (see: Argyle, the limo driver who helps save the day in Die Hard); Stallone, who to be fair knows action films, does a great job of juggling the characters, he gives them each some time to shine without diluting the story by doing so. It reminds me of films like Predator where we got a good taste of who each mercenary was before they started getting killed. To my mind, it’s a fine example of how to make each hero matter, if only for a few minutes. (Tarentino does this well in Inglorious Bastards as well, but sadly doesn’t give us enough time with each…they’re all deeper than The Expendables and often worthy of their own films.)
Toy Story: This speaks volumes of Whedon’s ability to write minor characters; I can tell you a little bit about every single character in this film. They’re memorable and fully of personality, so even a minor moment such as Hockey Puck’s little shrug tells an engaging story. So damn good.