From comics to the big screen
Assembling the Avengers
By Andrew A. Smith
Avenger fans assemble! It’s the best year ever for “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes”!
Marvel’s premier super-team stars in more than a dozen titles in April, including the massive “Avengers vs. X-Men” crossover. TV cartoons based on the Avengers appear on both Disney XD and Disney Hub. Avengers toys and paraphernalia, from Thor hammers to Captain America bottle openers, fill store shelves.
Not to mention the hotly anticipated, star-studded, big-budget Avengers movie, premiering May 4. It stars Black Widow, Captain America, Nick Fury, Hawkeye, Hulk, Iron Man, and Thor, brought together by the machinations of Loki, the Norse god of evil.
How much is identical to the comics? That’s a tale in itself.
“There Came a Day, Unlike Any Other …”
The Avengers began on a golf course.
Actually, all of Marvel Comics could be said to arise from a 1961 contest on the links between Jack Liebowitz, the co-publisher of National Periodic Publications (the forerunner of today’s DC Entertainment), and Martin Goodman, the publisher of Atlas Comics (which eventually became Marvel Entertainment). This legendary tale quickly involves Stan Lee, who was then the Atlas editor and chief writer (and Goodman’s relative by marriage).
“While playing a game of golf with Martin Goodman, [Liebowitz] let slip he had a hot seller in the Justice League of America,” Joe Simon wrote in his book, The Comic Book Makers. “Goodman, always ready to follow a trend, hastily tipped his caddy and rushed back to the office. He ordered Lee to fetch up a superhero group book.”
Goodman suggested reviving Captain America, Human Torch, and Sub-Mariner, the company’s three biggest sellers from the Golden Age, which had enjoyed a brief but unsuccessful resurrection in the mid-1950s. But Lee told Roy Thomas in an interview in Comic Book Artist #2 (Sum 98) that he never seriously considered that suggestion. Instead, he teamed with legendary artist/writer Jack Kirby to come up with an entirely new team, the Fantastic Four. And when the Cosmic Quartet began soaring like a stolen rocketship, Lee & Kirby quickly created a new roster of heroes, all living in a shared reality that came to be known as the Marvel Universe.
By 1963, Goodman’s two-year-old request for a book of super-stars like Justice League of America finally became a possibility – and then a reality. Three of the characters who found the team in Avengers the movie were also founders in The Avengers #1 (Sep 63): Bruce “Hulk” Banner (who had debuted in Incredible Hulk #1, May 62), Thor (Journey into Mystery #83, Aug 62) and Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Tales of Suspense#39, Mar 63). Their comic-book origins were streamlined for the silver screen, but are similar enough to not require further explication here.
The Super-Soldier and the Super-Spy
“Wait a minute!” you say. “Where’s Captain America? He’s a founder!”
Well, yes and no.
As all True Believers know, Steve “Captain America” Rogers joined The Avengers in the team’s fourth issue (Mar 64), after being thawed out of an iceberg where he’d been hanging since 1945, following a battle with Baron Zemo. (Actually, Captain America’s Golden Age adventures continued until 1949, and there was that brief revival in 1953-54 mentioned above. Marvel initially ignored all that, and eventually explained it away.)
But, let’s face it: The Avengers and Captain America are now virtually synonymous. So, despite the Living Legend of World War II not being present for the first three issues, the team has awarded Captain America founder status.
No, that really doesn’t make any etymological sense. You just have to roll with it.
Meanwhile, the movies have streamlined this story too, with Cap getting frozen in battle with The Red Skull (eschewing the redundant Baron Zemo) and placing Steve Rogers at ground zero as the team is formed by a one-eyed black espionage agent named Nick Fury. Which, incidentally, is pretty much how The Ultimates, the Avengers of Marvel’s alternate “Ultimate” universe, were formed (in The Ultimates #1-5, Mar-Jul 02).
“Ah,” you say. “Nick Fury. He was around in 1963, as well, wasn’t he? Surely he helped found The Avengers.”
Nope. Nick Fury was introduced in Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #1 (Mar 63), which did indeed have a cover date that preceded The Avengers #1 – but was set in World War II, before Fury lost his left eye. Fury didn’t make it to the Avengers era until a cameo as a still-binocular CIA agent in Fantastic Four #21 (Dec 63). A couple of years later he returned with the familiar eye-patch in place in Strange Tales #136 (Sep 65), in his best-known role, as director of the counter-espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D. (which originally stood for Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law Enforcement Division). And, yes, the original Nick Fury is white – the U.S. military wasn’t integrated during WWII, so African-Americans were a rarity in combat.
So unlike the movie, the comic-book Nick Fury has virtually nothing to do with The Avengers. Well, in the “normal” Marvel Universe, that is. As mentioned, the movie takes a page from the Ultimate Universe, where the black Nick Fury forms the team. On the other hand, the Ultimate Nick Fury is a product of the Super-Soldier program just like Captain America, an element that seems absent in the movies. So Movie-Fury is a sort of combo of the Marvel Universe-Fury and the Ultimate Universe-Fury.
As is the team’s movie origin. In the Marvel Universe, the team forms to combat Loki. In the Ultimate Universe, they fight off an invasion. In the movie version, as seen in the trailers, the team fights both Loki and an invasion. It’s a cinematic mash-up!
Meanwhile, we still have a few other movie characters to discuss, including Black Widow, Hawkeye, and agents Phil Coulson and Maria Hill of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which, in the movies, stands for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division).
We can actually dispense with Coulson right away; although popular among movie aficionados (especially for two direct-to-DVD movie shorts), Coulson has never appeared in print comics. The unflappable, efficient, and dry-witted agent has, however, appeared in two digital comics created by Marvel.
And Agent Hill doesn’t have much of a print history, either. She was introduced in New Avengers #4 (Mar 05), replacing a disgraced Fury as the new director of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which now stands for Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate). But her career hit a few snags after that – she was demoted to deputy director when Tony “Iron Man” Stark was made director at the conclusion of “Civil War,” and was kicked out altogether when Norman Osborn became director after “Secret Invasion” and reformed the organization as H.A.M.M.E.R. (which doesn’t stand for anything). She is currently working with various Avengers teams under the command of Steve Rogers.
Hill wasn’t initially much of a fan favorite, as she was as hard-bitten and decisive as Fury, but had no connections to any of the heroes or their respective teams. Her strong personality was interpreted as hostility – a negative, not a plus. But her subsequent actions in life-threatening missions on behalf of Stark and the Avengers has earned her a modicum of respect. What her role in the movie will be is unknown, but her presence in the trailers has earned an unexpected amount of applause.
Meanwhile, back in the 1965 Avengers, changes were afoot.
“Stan Lee has admitted that by this period the intertwined tales of the Marvel Universe were beginning to confuse even him,” wrote Les Daniels in Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics. “Keeping top heroes like Thor active in The Avengers without contradicting information in Thor’s own series was becoming a chore. A changing of the guard was the result for The Avengers and Captain America was leading a motley crew of reformed villains like Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and The Scarlet Witch.”
Which segues us to Hawkeye, initially a wannabe hero who ended up on the wrong side of the law (and Iron Man), in his debut (Tales of Suspense #57, Sep 64). What kept him wearing a black hat for a while was that he fell in with bad company: A beautiful Soviet spy named Natasha Romanoff, code-named “Black Widow,” seduced the quiver off him.
There’s not much more to say about Hawkeye, who didn’t even get a civilian name (“Clint Barton”) until The Avengers #64 (May 69). The former carnival trick-arrow marksman was egged on into combat with Iron Man a few more times by the Black Widow in Tales of Suspense before chucking it all, reforming, and joining The Avengers (in issue #16, May 65). In the Ultimate Universe he is a crack sniper for Fury’s secret, black-ops team of Ultimates, which Fury calls – wait for it – “Avengers.” In the movies, he had a cameo in Thor and will apparently be an Avengers founder.
Deadlier Than the Male
But Black Widow, as you’d expect about a spy, has a much more complicated history.
As noted, she was a Soviet “honey trap” in the early 1960s, tasked with destroying Stark Industries, which produced weapons for the Pentagon. In her first appearance, in Tales of Suspense #52 (Apr 64), she was teamed with The Crimson Dynamo. She tried again in the next issue, without the Dynamo, in the aptly named “The Black Widow Strikes Again!” Then she latched on to Hawkeye (as noted above), and used her feminine wiles to control him.
But in Tales of Suspense #64 (Apr 65), Lee & Kirby dispensed with Romanoff’s femme fatale persona, and decked her out in a blue-and-gray super-villain outfit. Still teamed with Hawkeye, this Widow more closely mimicked her deadly namesake, with the suction-cup gloves and boots for wall-crawling, a “widow’s line” for swinging, and a "Widow's bite" weapon.
This launched the character in an entirely different direction – one that eventually led to the character being completely re-imagined.
Initially, the new amped-up Widow followed Hawkeye over to the pages of The Avengers – but she remained a villain, whereas her former lover played for the other team. (Oh, the angst! The drama! The sad thought balloons!) Eventually, of course, she had to reform and immediately joined the team.
No, wait, she didn’t. She did reform, but didn’t join. Despite The Avengers being mostly comprised of ex-villains at that point, an ex-spy raised too many hackles and founder Hank “Goliath” Pym blackballed her. But that changed in The Avengers #45 (Oct 67), when she and Hercules were both invited to join on “Avengers Day” in Central Park.
Um, wait, she didn’t join that time, either. She had been injured (in combat with her ex-husband, Soviet superhero Red Guardian), and had decided to retire. “Originally, we intended to bestow this honor upon two,” said Goliath at the induction ceremony. “But, the lovely Black Widow has stated that she will fight in costume no more!”
OK, you know that didn’t last. Instead, the Widow returned to harness and eventually adopted a sleek black outfit in, of all places, Amazing Spider-Man #86 (Jul 70). This outfit, or some variation of it, has been her uniform ever since. Then she hooked up with Daredevil (when he was living in San Francisco), whereupon both were invited to join the team in The Avengers #111 (May 73). This time the Widow did sign up, while Daredevil begged off (only to join 38 years later, in New Avengers #16, Nov 11).
Not that Natasha hung around long. She was gone after The Avengers #113 (Jul 73), and went bouncing around the Marvel Universe, working for S.H.I.E.L.D., founding the short-lived Champions in Los Angeles, enjoying an even shorter solo series in Amazing Adventures, hanging out briefly with The Defenders, and so forth. She even returned to The Avengers now and again, at least once as leader.
But here’s where the fun begins.
In a series of significant guest spots and mini-series, the Widow’s past has been extended back to a 1928 birth, with her age retarded due to “government treatments” while being trained in hand-to-hand combat and other spy/super-villains skills in “The Red Room.” So, as it turns out, she has a realllllly long history, and has always been a superhero-level fighter, making it possible for her to have fought with Captain America in World War II, meet Wolverine during various times in his long life, and work with (and date) Cap’s WWII partner James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes, when he was a hypnotized Soviet agent called the Winter Soldier in the 1950s. In addition, the “Red Room” training has resulted in the idea that Black Widow isn’t simply Natasha’s code name – it’s a title, and there are other Black Widows now and in the past. Also, she is no longer Natasha Romanoff (or Romanov, as it was occasionally spelled) – her name has been established as Natalia Alianovna Romanova, with “Natasha” as a nickname. I can’t explain that last change -- especially since she remains Natasha Romanoff in the movies -- but there it is.
Currently, “Natasha” is back with Bucky, who is again called the Winter Soldier, and the two are black-ops agents once again, this time for the U.S. In the Ultimate Universe the Widow was an early member of The Ultimates who betrayed the team (and is very dead). In the movie, she’s a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent – who, from the trailers, looks like she might mirror her comics counterpart in having a professional relationship, and perhaps more, with a certain archer.
When Titans Clash
As noted in the intro, the comic shops are currently awash in Avengers titles, including five monthlies: Avengers, Avengers Academy, Avengers Assemble, New Avengers and Secret Avengers. There are seven more, if you count Avenging Spider-Man (wherein the web-spinner teams with a fellow Avenger each issue), Captain America’s two titles, Thor’s two titles, Invincible Iron Man and Winter Soldier (starring Bucky and Black Widow). The Ultimates is an ongoing Avengers title in that universe, plus various one-shots and mini-series in both the regular and movie continuities are at your comic shop now.
But the big news is “Avengers vs. X-Men,” which started in March. The premise is that the Phoenix Force is returning to Earth, which the X-Men think will save the mutant race, and the Avengers think will destroy the world. This pits Marvel’s two biggest team franchises in a knock-down drag-out that will last 13 issues in its own title (including a zero issue), and six issues of Versus, which Marvel Executive Editor Tom Brevoort said at the “Avengers vs. X-Men” panel at WonderCon would be virtually 99 percent fighting, with very little plot.
Given that the X-Men are half of the story, “Avengers vs. X-Men” will slop over into some X-titles as well, such as Uncanny X-Men, Wolverine & The X-Men, and X-Men Legacy. The cosmic hero Nova will star in a related story in Marvel’s new Infinite line as well.
Avengers vs. X-Men will ship twice monthly, so it will end at the same time as Versusin September. The story is structured in three parts, with John Romita Jr. drawing the first third, Oilvier Coipel doing the second, and Adam Kubert wrapping it up.
Marvel Senior Vice President David Gabriel told ICv2.com that the company will mount a huge marketing campaign for AvX. “This is the biggest marketing investment that we’ve ever put into a series or an event,” he said. “You’ll see that online, through social media, and there’s going to be a radio and television component as well.”
Brevoort has said, both at WonderCon and on Twitter, that the story has been in the works since at least “House of M.” Avengers uber-writer Brian Michael Bendis has said that this is the climax of his tenure on the franchise, and that virtually everything he has done since “Avengers Disassembled” has lead to it. When it’s finished, so is Bendis, who will leave the Avengers titles.
And after that? One result revealed at WonderCon is that Carol “Ms. Marvel” Danvers will be taking on a new role – and receive a new ongoing title – with Captain Marvel #1. Other than that, all Brevoort would say at the WonderCon panel is that there won’t be a reboot, like DC’s The New 52, and that things will be “upside down” afterward. And Marvel TV honcho Jeph Loeb added that the story that comes after is even “more amazing.”
And whatever it is, you can imagine that the Avengers will be at the heart of it. From a single title in 1963, it has become Marvel’s largest franchise, eclipsing even the X-Men line. It’s good to be an Avenger – and better still, to be an Avengers fan.