On Comics Custodianism and the Illusion of Change

avengers-nowThe comic book news cycle has been ablaze over the past few days with news of some big changes coming to Marvel comics in the months ahead.  As part of what the publisher is calling their “Avengers NOW!” initiative, some of their flagship characters are having their titles relaunched with new issue #1 and jarring new status quos.  The biggest of these changes have merited announcements on mainstream media outlets.  The View revealed that Thor will now be a woman.  Then The Colbert Report revealed that the new Captain America will be black.

As one with any familiarity with the internet may have anticipated, this has already been met with much howling and gnashing of teeth from large segments of the comic fan community.  And of course, we all breathlessly anticipate the ultra-Conservative tin-foil hat brigade wading in to declare that this is some politically correct conspiracy by The Liberals to destroy comics and, by extension, America… somehow.  Plenty of people have already astutely pointed out that people seemed to have little problem with Thor being replaced by a frog, or a horse-faced alien, or another white dude in the wake of the recent Fear Itself event, but a woman taking the mantle is seemingly a bridge too far!  I’ve seen people spitting out with venom the idea that this is all a cynical ploy to pander to black people and women.  First, it seems there’s a certain breed of white straight male reader who defines “pandering” as anything that doesn’t pander directly and exclusively to them.  Second, I think such a status quo shift is going to appeal to more than just female and black readers, respectively, for reasons I’ll go into later.  And third, if this does pique the interest of women or black people who previously didn’t feel engaged by Marvel’s output, how is that a bad thing?

However, I don’t think that anyone who hates these relaunches is inherently racist or sexist.  Though some of them certainly are, it would be unfair to paint all with the same brush.  The comic fans I want to focus on more in this particular bit of commentary are the advocates of comics custodianism.  Allow me to clarify.  There’s a bit of a problem with a large chunk of Marvel and DC’s fanbase, something that prevents them from ever truly being happy with the product.  They’ll complain that the comics are stale, that some life and energy and good high-stakes storytelling needs to be injected back into their favourite superheroes.  But the dilemma is that, if you get a great writer and put them on a superhero comic, the tools they’d be most inclined to employ in order to tell the best story – new threats, shocking changes to the protagonist’s life, a genuine sense of peril and uncertainty over how the hero will be able to restore status quo – stand in direct contrast to what this segment of the fanbase actually wants.  They claim they want great storytellers in their comics, but what they actually want is a custodian.  They want their favourite heroes, static and forever unchanging, wearing the old clothes they always used to wear, fighting the old villains they always used to fight, hanging around with the same supporting cast they always used to hang around with, with nothing about their comfortable status quo changing in any notable way.  These readers don’t want the best story… they want comics comfort food.

And when someone does come in and make seemingly drastic changes… they get angry.  It doesn’t need to be a matter of the hero changing race or gender, any change seems to be enough to get them up in arms.  Peter Parker remained, physically at least, the white, male Peter Parker in Superior Spider-Man, yet writer Dan Slott received so many death threats on social media over the storyline that it made national news.  But these people never seem to learn, do they?  Because anyone with an ounce of rationality was able to say, “Of course Otto Octavius isn’t going to be Spider-Man forever, of course Peter Parker is going to be Spider-Man again in time for the movie.  It’s not a permanent change, it’s a storyline.”  These people were angry because the writer has succeeded in making then genuinely stumped about how the good guy was going to possibly triumph over evil, which is what he’s supposed to do!  These people must find watching a season of 24 unbearable: do they have to skip to the last episode where Jack Bauer wins?  I don’t know how long these people have been reading comics for, but they should know by now that a dead hero doesn’t stay dead for long.  Superior Spider-Man was about taking Peter Parker out of the role of Spider-Man for a while to illustrate how integral Peter is to the Spider-Man mythos through the void left by his absence, and by its end it was recognised as one of the best Spider-Man stories in years.  Just like how “The Death of Captain America” in Captain America a few years ago, where Captain America died for a while and was replaced by Bucky Barnes (who’s white, so people didn’t seem to mind as much), it became a story used to illustrate how integral Steve Rogers is to the Captain America mythos through the void left by his absence, and by its end it was recognised as one of the best Captain America stories in years.  Or “Black Mirror” in Batman, where Dick Grayson took over as Batman in Gotham City while a recently-resurrected Bruce Wayne established a global crime-fighting franchise, where the story was used to illustrate how integral Bruce Wayne is to the Batman mythos through the void left by his absence, and by its end it was recognised as one of the best Batman stories in years.  Are we beginning to notice a trend here?

If there’s a criticism to be made here, it’s that Marvel are going back to the well of what has proven to be a tried-and-true formula for success too often, and risk blunting its impact.  But if you’re out there and you’re outraged because you genuinely believe that female Thor or black Captain America are a permanent or even a long-term replacement?  Sorry, I don’t know a polite way of saying that you’re a fucking idiot, so I’ll just come out and say it: you’re a fucking idiot.

Amidst all the cries of fury about black people ruining Captain America and women ruining Thor, it’s amazing how few people seem to have actually read the small print of what’s actually happening in these various comics, story-wise.  Indeed, it seems a large number of the fans outraged by this haven’t even been reading the books, and just seek comfort in traditional, unchanging versions of these heroes as an abstract concept.  This was wonderfully exemplified by one outspoken user on Twitter demanding that Jason Latour be fired for writing Thor so terribly as to make him a women… when of course it’s Jason Aaron who has been writing Thor: God of Thunder (which is brilliant, by the way) and who will be carrying on through the Thor relaunch.  But if all these people bemoaning the loss of their favourite heroes actually took the time to look into the story and the context, they’d see that they actually aren’t losing their favourite heroes at all!  The original Thor and Captain America aren’t dying, which in itself makes this status quo shift less drastic than many.  Let’s take a closer look at each one.

First, female Thor.  Yes, Thor is relaunching, and yes, the new God of Thunder and holder of Mjolnir is a woman.  But while the designs of the new masked female Thor have been widely distributed, this image has been shared less frequently:

thor-unworthyYep, it’s the same male Thor we all know and love.  And if you read Jason Aaron’s interview over on Comic Book Resources, he makes it abundantly clear that Thor remains a main protagonist in the series going forward.  Indeed, the central thrust of the plot is that plot machinations have caused Asgard to turn on Thor and deem him “unworthy”, stripping him of his hammer Mjolnir and removing him from their pantheon.  So now a humbled Thor must fight to regain his mantle and unlock the mystery of the mysterious woman who has replaced him.  Surely any level-headed person could read that and think, “That sounds like an interesting Thor story.”

Now let’s look at All-New Captain America.  After seeing Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a lot of people talked about Sam Wilson, AKA Falcon, deserving his own series.  But it seems some of them didn’t want that coming at the expense of Steve Rogers.  The story seems to go that the Super-Soldier Serum is wearing off on Steve Rogers, and he’s no longer able to continue being Captain America.  And so his close friend Sam Wilson steps into the role in his stead.  But again, let’s look at some Marvel promotional material:

Avengers-Now2Black Captain America is in there, but to the right of the shot we have an elderly blonde man.  Surely this is Steve Rogers, and that suggests that Steve Rogers will remain an active character in this All-New Captain America comic.  I would imagine that a major element of the book will be, after decades of being a man out of time, suddenly he’s placed in a position where time is catching up with him, and how does he deal with that?  Again, as a fan of Captain America, I think that’s an intriguing story to tell.

Meanwhile, Marvel have also announced Superior Iron Man, where Tony Stark moves to San Francisco and starts engaging in some morally dubious activity.  If the “Superior” tag is anything to go by, I imagine the twist in this tale will be that Tony is being controlled by a villain.  And if we’re talking movie synchronicity here, my money is on Ultron.

All this is coming together to paint a bigger picture of what “Avengers NOW!” is shaping up to be.  It’s a time leap narrative of some sort, it seems, where after a gap our main characters find themselves in drastically altered circumstances, and part of the fun is figuring out both how they got into these situations and how they’ll eventually get out of them.  And it all seems to be tying into Jonathan Hickman’s big climactic Avengers storyline “Time Runs Out”, which brings all these status quo shifts together and adds another big one.  It seems like Thanos is now the leader of The Avengers:

ThanosTimeRunsOutAnd this is where we get down to there being two different types of reader.  There are those who want comics custodianism, and they’ll be fuming at all this upheaval, all this shattering of status quo.  And then there are readers who like high stakes and surprises in their storytelling, who are viewing these as stories and are intrigued.  I know I’m interested, and that I’ll be picking all these up.  I already read Thor: God of Thunder, but after grabbing the early issues I’ve fallen behind on the Iron Man, Captain America and Avengers titles.  This will make me jump back on.  And I’m not black, I’m not a woman, I’m just a fan of good stories and good characters.  When you look at these characters as being more than just their specific costumes and power sets, you should be able to recognise that these storylines are actually potentially great fodder for Thor Odinson, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark as characters.  And it’s a real shame people can’t see past the “THOR IS A WOMAN!” and “CAPTAIN AMERICA IS BLACK!” buzzwords.

REVIEW: The Avengers

It’s been a long road to The Avengers.  I’m sure the comic fanboys reading this can remember like it was yesterday that initial squee of excitement upon sticking around for the post-credits scene in Iron Man, when Samuel L Jackson showed up as Nick Fury and spoke of “The Avengers Initiative”, but since then we’ve actually had 4 years of build-up leading to this film.  When it was first announced, it was a hugely ambitious project, the kind that previously seemed like it could only exist in geek dreams: establishing numerous superhero film properties, all existing in the same universe and becoming increasingly linked, building to a massive crossover film uniting all these characters in a blockbuster superhero spectacular on a scale unlike anything seen before.  It seemed like The Avengers was going to be the biggest film ever.

But in those intervening 4 years, a lot happened to deflate that initial rabid anticipation.  While Iron Man has held up to multiple repeat viewings and is still highly enjoyable, Thor and Captain America (and even The Incredible Hulk, which came out a mere few weeks after Iron Man when that Avengers buzz was still fresh) were closer to good than great.  And the disappointing Iron Man 2 was heavy on Avengers prelude, but light on making the world of S.H.I.E.L.D. seem particularly engaging.  The mystique of The Avengers had been tarnished a bit.  Behind-the-scenes drama further dampened proceedings, with Ed Norton’s departure from the role of Bruce Banner/The Hulk removing arguably the second biggest name in the crossover ensemble from the table, and rumors of Marvel Studios’ dodgy dealings with talent suggesting that things weren’t too rosy in this shared universe.  More recently, on an admittedly subjective level, I’ve been left underwhelmed by the trailers for The Avengers, which made it seem like pretty generic summer action fluff.  Factor into that the looming shadow of The Dark Knight Rises, and I went into The Avengers (in 3D IMAX!) with moderate expectations.

Well, I can say those moderate expectations were blown out of the water.  The Avengers (which I’ll continue to call it, I refuse to use that lame Avengers Assemble title the movie got here in the UK) is easily the best film to come out of Marvel Studios, and while it doesn’t quite topple the reigning titan of the genre The Dark Knight, it has breezed into that upper echelon of Nolan and Burton’s Batman films, the first couple of Superman movies and X2 to be ranked as among the all-time great superhero movies.  For me, the story of Marvel Studios’ cinematic output has long been amazing potential, not quite realised.  It’s realised here.  And who do we have to thank?  Joss Whedon.

I talked a bit about the various ways Marvel decreased my excitement about The Avengers, but I should mention the one key way they increased it: the announcement that Joss Whedon would be writing and directing the film.  I’m a big Whedon fan, and I was confident that this would prove to be a canny move on Marvel’s part.  I was right.  With a proven knack for impeccable structure, deftly handling large ensembles, snappy dialogue, and the depiction of strong women, Whedon seemed like a tailor-made choice to address some of the nagging flaws often holding back Marvel’s previous films, and he more than delivers with some of his strongest work in ages.  Whedon’s touch is all over this film.  As a director, he handles himself well, with plenty of stylish flourishes and ambitious camera setups, and an increased comfort with framing action sequences that arguably leads to better fight scenes than we’ve seen in any other Marvel film thus far.  But it’s as a writer that Whedon truly shines.  The plot is steeped in reverence for what came before, and everyone’s dialogue is all utterly in-character, but it has that added Whedon sheen fans of Buffy, Firely and the like will instantly recognise.  What everyone loved about these characters in the earlier films is still there, only moreso, amplified and enhanced under Whedon’s pen.  Indeed, when I first left the screening, my initial Facebook post summing up the film was, “All the fun of the other Marvel movies, with the added benefit of a Joss Whedon script.”  And that remains the best way to describe this film’s appeal.

As much as The Avengers succeeds as a culmination of all the previous Marvel Studios films, on another level this also works as a spritual successor to Serenity and even Whedon’s acclaimed TV work.  This is a film where everyone does their job well and their is plenty of credit to go around, but I won’t hesitate in saying that, more than anyone else, it’s Joss Whedon who makes this film soar.  It’s his movie, and after Serenity so sadly and undeservedly tanked, the guaranteed success of The Avengers should hopefully give Whedon some well-overdue glory on a larger scale.

The pace of the film is absolutely relentless.  We start, and are launched into the action and drama almost immediately, with only a bare minimum of setup.  From there, could luck finding a quiet spot for a bathroom break at any point in the 2-hour-plus running time.  But despite the plot rampaging along at breakneck speed, The Avengers is simultaneously a very character-driven film.  And even with the big (some feared overcrowded) cast, every major character has an arc, and is given something substantial to do.

Of course, Robert Downey Jr continues to excel as Iron Man.  Even the flawed Iron Man 2 was kept afloat largely (and at some points solely) by the charm and engaging charisma of his Tony Stark, and remained watchable throughout thanks to his presence elevating every scene.  So imagine how great the character is in a film that matches his performance!  Joss Whedon and Robert Downey Jr was always going to be a match made in heaven, and indeed they fit together like hand-in-glove.  Stark gets to fire out rapid-fire zingers at all the major players – Loki gets called “Reindeer Games”, Thor “Point Break”, etc, etc – and his irreverent treatment of his all-star peers is where the film derives much of its many laughs.  Downey Jr also gets to rekindle his fantastic chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow, with Pepper Potts unexpectedly showing up for a few welcome scenes.  But Tony Stark isn’t just here to serve as a joke machine.  He gets a compelling dramatic arc, based around an accusation from Captain America that he’s not a real hero, that for all his showboating and self-aggrandising, he’s the kind of person who’ll fold when it comes to making the hard, self-sacrificial choices a real hero has to make.  While admittedly, it seems like Tony Stark goes through arcs of learning to be less self-serving and a better, more mature human being almost as often as Jeff Winger on Community, here Downey Jr does a particularly good job at wrestling with his mixture of arrogance and self-doubt, and the journey comes to a satisfying, dramatic conclusion…. while still allowing for some laughs.

I remember in the early stages of the Avengers cast, there was a fear among some (me included), that it could become the Robert Downey Jr show, with him acting everybody else off-screen.  Thankfully, that is far from the case, with Downey Jr’s performance complementing rather than overshadowing his castmates with how he plays off them.  As Steve Rogers, AKA Captain America, Chris Evans works well as the yin to Stark’s yang: earnest where Stark is playing things with a wry smile and a wink.  This leads to the two quite often coming to odds, and at some points nearly coming to blows, though as they find respect for one another they end up making a good team in battle.  A lot of it is left unspoken, but we get the sense that Captain America is more invested in this group than any of the other heavy-hitters, that perhaps he has more need of it.  He’s a man out of time and without a world, and so he throws himself into this new mission.  As he naturally assumes the role of strategic leader, there’s a tangible sense of Captain America finding his new place in the world.  The film does a good job in portraying how Captain America inspires people, both by having Agent Coulson (whose hero worship of Cap leads to some cute, funny moments) outright say it, and showing how people respond to him at various points in the narrative.

Thor doesn’t show up until a little later, but when he does, he makes an impact.  The presence of Loki and Dr. Selvig perhaps makes The Avengers more of a follow-on from Thor than anything else (though the film is skillfully able to feel like a follow-on from all the previous films), and perhaps this is why, more than with any character, Whedon acknowledges the journey Thor went through as a character in his solo film and continues the development from there.  Chris Hemsworth portrays Thor here as a man (or god, if you prefer) who has come from a place of pride and arrogance to increased maturity and nobility, but who at times struggles to keep that old temper and pompousity in check.  At a glance (perhaps because he doesn’t get the same “moving from the solo world of my film universe into the larger Avengers universe” setup scenes as the other major characters), it might seem like Thor has less to do than the “big two” of Captain America and Iron Man, but he actually has some pretty meaty character work, which results in some of my favourite dramatic scenes in the film.  The dynamic established is that Thor is on Earth ostensibly to capture Loki and return him to Asgard to face justice, but in fact wants to bring his brother home and attempt to rehabilitate him.  Thor still loves Loki, and while everyone else sees Loki as pure evil, Thor sees him as essentially good, but lost in a haze of madness that could yet still be temporary, and so he may not be beyond redemption.  The film cleverly teases and goes back-and-forth on whether or not Thor is correct, but we’ll talk more about that later.

It could be easy to view the trinity of Iron Man, Captain America and Thor as the film’s major players, when previously it might have been a four-way split, had Ed Norton returned to his role as Bruce Banner.  Hulk fans be thankful, then, for Mark Ruffalo, the first actor to play both Bruce Banner and (through motion capture magic) The Hulk, who ensures that – despite the recasting – The Hulk remains an equal partner amongst his more tenured co-stars.  I’m not the biggest Hulk fan, and have said as much before.  But this film has done more than anything before to make me a fan.  The character serves as the uber-badass of the group, and is surprisingly hilarious, getting some of the film’s biggest laughs.  Watch out for the Loki VS The Hulk battle, possibly my favourite part of the whole film.  But perhaps the real revelation is Ruffalo as Banner.  Eric Bana and Ed Norton are both great actors in their own right, but as Banner, Bana felt wooden, and Norton felt cold and distant.  Neither were quite able to nail that character and make him click with audiences in a way that Robert Downey Jr did with Tony Stark.  Mark Ruffalo does.  He brings a warmth and likeability to Banner that makes you emotionally invested first in him not losing control and unleashing The Hulk (he’s been “on the wagon”, if you will, for over a year as the film begins), and later in him learning to control this burden, and make it a gift rather than a curse.  In paticular, Ruffalo plays off Downey Jr well, and more than any other two members of the cast you get the sense that Stark and Banner could be good friends.  It’s reportedly unlikely to happen, but I for one would be happy to see Ruffalo’s Hulk get his own solo movie.  Going into the film, people might have been wishing Ed Norton was playing The Hulk in The Avengers.  Going out, I suspect they’ll be left wishing Mark Ruffalo had played The Hulk in The Incredible Hulk.

Another character who fares much better in The Avengers is Scarlett Johannsen’s Black Widow.  Underwritten in Iron Man 2, here Whedon’s penchant for strong, nuanced female characters pays off in spades.  Not only does Natasha kick more ass in her fight scenes, but we are given glimpses of a dark past and sins she is struggling to compensate for.  Much of her role in the film is tied into her complex relationship with Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye.  I can’t say much about Renner’s role in the film without veering into spoilers, but while I was worried the character could have come across as a bit of an unnecessary third wheel, he is in fact given plenty to do, and slips effortlessly into the fabric of the film.  As far as the rest of S.H.I.E.L.D. goes, Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson continues to be the relatable face of the super-intelligence organisation and almost our access character that connects us to each of these disparate universes, while Cobie Smaulder’s Marie Hill gets a couple of cool moments despite having little to do than support Nick Fury.  Speaking of Nick Fury, Samuel L Jackson is more Samuel L Jacksony than ever, which is most certainly pleasing, and the script allows for some of that notorious Nick Fury duplicity to come into play, while still allowing Fury to reside firmly on the side of the angels.

But what of the side of the devils?  A superhero movie is only as good as its villain, and thankfully The Avengers has a cracker in the form of Loki.  Probably my favourite Marvel character, I was more excited to see what Loki would be up to than any of the assembled heroes, and he did not disappointment, probably stealing the show in a film full of worthy performances.  Tom Hiddleston was already the best thing about Thor, and once again he gives us a slick, enigmatic Loki who always keeps us guessing at his true motives.  But Loki is darker now, and we get the sense he has been through the wringer since we last saw him at the end of Thor, that all the resentment and bitterness accumulated in that film has been festering and eating away at him in the intervening time inbetween.  In spite of this, Hiddleston still deftly weaves in flickers of doubt, fleeting glimpses in his eyes that suggest regret, or hesitation, even if they don’t stop him from doing whatever bad thing he’s doing.  It continues to be a mesmerising performance.  My only niggle is that the whole “Loki possessing Dr. Selvig” beat teased at the end of Thor seems to have been dropped and forgotten about, with Loki introduced back into the fold in an unrelated way.  But that’s a forgivable oversight, I’d say.

One aspect that gives Loki plenty of fresh fuel in this film is that he spends it on Earth.  While in Thor Loki was largely confined to Asgard and interacted solely with his fellow Asgardians, here Loki interacts extensively with the people of Midgard, and the result is almost like a twisted mirror image of Thor’s “fish out of water” Broxton scenes in their solo film.  Loki’s initial response is contempt, of course, but as these lowly humans continue to challenge and occasionally even best him, Loki becomes by turns confused, flustered, and ultimately bordering on throwing a childish temper tantrum.  In this respect, Loki seems to channel that classic trait shared by many of Whedon’s “Big Bads”: the increasingly harrassed, put-upon villain, who you almost sympathise with when things start to go wrong for them, because they handle it in a petty, but relatably human way.  I won’t tell you if I was pleased or disappointed, but I was watching The Avengers hoping that Loki would survive to stir up trouble in another film in the coming years.  Tom Hiddleston’s star continues to be on the rise, and he handles himself incredibly well against the star-studded team opposing him.

I’ve said this before, but I think perhaps the biggest lesson to be learned by Marvel Studios from the success of Loki as a villain here is that a performance by a good actor is always going to trump a special effect.  I think the third act problems in the likes of Iron Man, Iron Man 2 and The Incredible Hulk stem partly from the fact that, while the villains are played by great actors, by the end they’ve donned CGI robotic costumes or become CGI monsters, and are uniformly less compelling in this form than they were when giving an actual performance.  Loki is an actual performance, and as such makes for a more tangible, engaging villain.  The same can’t be said for the Chitauri, a rather anonymous alien race who serve as the main threat to be overcome in the film’s climax.  And while this extended end battle is exhilerating, if there’s any criticisms to be made, it’s that the Chitauri themselves feel like a rather nebulous, indistinct threat, and a match for The Avengers only in sheer numbers rather than any real individual formidability.  Indeed, they are so disposable that at points it feels like we’re watching a video game, with our heroes as expert players effortlessly knocking off foes as they progress through a level.  Fortunately, Loki’s presence keeps us invested in the threat.

My excitement for the Marvel film universe may have diminished going into The Avengers, but now I find it expanded once more, perhaps to greater heights than ever before.  Based off this brilliant film, I’m more excited than ever for Iron Man 3, Thor 2, Captain America 2, and after that post-credits scene (stick around for it, folks!), whatever sequel to The Avengers comes down the line.  Marvel Studios has been rejuvenated, and The Avengers have never been more awesome: I was left wishing that the comics could be as rewarding as this.  If you’ve loved Marvel’s films up until now, you’ll love this more.  If you’ve been disappointed in Marvel’s previous films, this will win you over.  The Avengers is the first in a summer of big-time superhero movies.  While I might have thought this was going to be overwhelmed by The Dark Knight Rises, after seeing The Avengers, now I think it’s Christopher Nolan who’s going to be feeling the pressure to deliver.  He’s going to have to work hard to top Joss Whedon.