Superhero Complex

From the days when they were first lumped into a comic book, the Avengers have struggled to fly

Illustration by André Carrilho

I was 13 when the debut issue of The Avengers was published, and if I remember correctly, it sort of sucked. Right from the cover—one of the dullest that Marvel Comics’ titanic illustrator Jack Kirby ever drew—everything about the project was perfunctory; and if at first glance The Avengers was a rip-off of rival DC Comics’ blue-chip Justice League of America, a closer examination revealed something even more calculated: a scrap heap of characters not very appealing on their own and without the clout to carry their own magazines. Thor, Iron Man, and the Wasp were consigned to the pages of Journey into Mystery, Tales of Suspense, and Tales to Astonish, and except for an occasional appearance, Captain America has been in mothballs since 1950. Only the Hulk had a title; tellingly Spider-Man, Marvel’s biggest star, was nowhere to be seen among the Avengers’ ranks. From the second issue on, other characters were swapped in and out, an indication of how dispensable they were and how cynical the enterprise was. But the gambit worked: The Avengers became a popular book, and soon Thor and Iron Man were rewarded with their own vehicles. The strategy was the reverse of what Marvel has done for its blockbuster feature The Avengers, which has been preceded by the characters’ individual films—vessels approaching the mothership. But while this has allowed for more development and investment on the part of filmmakers and audiences, as creations the characters around which the entire scheme revolves aren’t any more inspired.

Now I think we can fairly conclude that writer-director Joss Whedon didn’t make The Avengers for me. I left behind the comic book about a year after the first issue was published all those decades ago; I remember the moment with disproportionate clarity. I just had asked a girl to a dance and been turned down, and in my black mood, as I stared at the newsstand on that long walk home, suddenly comics got set aside along with other things I perceived as childish. Later my interest resurfaced fitfully with the ’80s/early-’90s renaissance of The Dark Knight Returns, Love and Rockets, American Flagg!, Swamp Thing, The Sandman, Sin City, and most notably Watchmen, the Ulysses (or maybe I mean Gravity’s Rainbow) of graphic novels. Watchmen was the Avengers and Justice League of a parallel moral universe, a meditation on the irresistible fascism of a superman myth that smacks of benign elitism at best and Nazi claims of racial superiority at worst; at the same time, calling Watchmen an indictment of the form would ignore the affection that writer Alan Moore had for it, too. Nonetheless Moore’s superheroes were damaged megalomaniacs—sociopaths on their way to becoming monsters—and the book’s revelation was that the superman is a grown-up’s fantasy rather than an adolescent’s, with the messianic resonance of 2,000-year-old religions. The original superhero, sent to Earth by a celestial father to save mankind, might be considered Christian if he weren’t the creation of two Midwestern Jewish teenagers in the depths of the Depression (with Nazism on the rise in Europe). The Kal-El story, introduced in 1938 in Action Comics and continued shortly thereafter in Superman, became the template, with tropes that became familiar in subsequent superstories with subsequent supercharacters: the violent breach between child and parents, the troubled duality between alter ego and secret identity, the impatient chasm between feckless man-made justice and divine retribution as administered by a figure of inhuman power.

The ’80s convergence of comics’ new adult sensibility with the movies’ advancing technology was bound to catch the attention of even slow-on-the-uptake Hollywood, and this particularly was true when Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns became phenomena. Both Moore and Dark Knight’s writer-artist, Frank Miller, posed the obvious question: Isn’t someone dressing up as a bat or an owl or any other vaguely pagan figure in order to avenge parental deaths half a lifetime ago a little peculiar? Hollywood, of course, either missed this finer point or ignored it, Miller’s nihilism giving way to Tim Burton’s whimsy in 1989’s Batman; in the unhandsome counterintuitiveness of his casting, Michael Kea-ton proved a very interesting Bruce Wayne (less compelling in the Batman Returns sequel for how much screen time he ceded to too many villains), but the aging and bitter vigilante of Miller’s version would more naturally have been played by a middle-aged Clint Eastwood. With Burton’s films and the adaptation of Watchmen three years ago—the latter no less a botch for all the years Hollywood spent squabbling over how to make it—a paradox presented itself that now seems inevitable: Narratively and tonally, the comic books were more like movies and the movies were more like comic books.

t the age that I was when I stopped reading comics, and with a set of talents that would seem to mark a future comic-book auteur, my son has had only a passing enthusiasm for the medium. This interest gained some intensity around the time he was ten, before he vanished into video gaming’s yawning abyss. When I ask Miles about superhero movies, he says that they’re all lame (is that a shudder that just ran through the boardrooms of Disney, Warner Bros., and 20thCentury Fox?) except Batman and Spider-Man, and when I ask why they’re exceptions, he answers, “Because they have issues.” By which he means that what’s true for all great characters is as true for those who fly and smash stuff and dispense justice: They come alive and engage us through their contradictions, maybe especially the ones who fly and smash stuff and dispense justice. I should add that since my son is young rather than Jung, he retains the values of a 14-year-old, finding the last X-Men a little too heavy on character at the expense of action; this is the delicate balance that can elude even Christopher Nolan, who directed the more recent Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and the fanboy-in-chief behind the Spider-Man movies, Sam Raimi, not to mention those filmmakers who made the doomed likes of Thor and Green Lantern. Counting The Avengers, in the last nine years three different movies have taken three different approaches to the Hulk, a Jekyll-and-Hyde man-beast who clearly has issues but may simply defy seriousness every time he turns green (and in the process replaces an actor with a computerized creation).           

While the first two parts of Nolan’s BatmanDark Knight trilogy (with its conclusion to come this summer) are a bit overrated, they set the bar for superhero pictures because Nolan patronizes no one, aspires to connect with people who care nothing about comic books, and appears determined to plumb the story’s bleakest potential very much in the spirit of the Miller comics. These films notwithstanding—and giving the Iron Man movies their due for star Robert Downey Jr.’s élan, and allowing Captain America certain virtues as a period piece—the rest of the superhero movies feel as if Hollywood makes them only because it can. For all I know, the upcoming Amazing Spider-Man is a cinematic landmark, but otherwise it’s hard to imagine why Peter Parker is being brought back barely five years after Raimi’s last installment other than to retell an old story rather than tell a new one; the superhero in movies has completely become a function of Hollywood’s hunger for franchise motherships and the computer-generated imagery that can realize comic-book visions more spectacularly than comic books. Don’t get me wrong: The Dark Knight Rises is the film this summer that Miles and I share a great desire to see, and Avengers writer-director Whedon has a track record of infusing TV shows like Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer with wit and heart. That aside, I’m afraid the only thing that keeps me from rooting for The Avengers’ failure is the livelihoods it might cost not executives but craftsmen lower on the food chain, and my suspicion that, along with Whedon, some of these people probably worked hard to make as good a movie as they could. I can’t help sympathizing with any creative endeavor at least a little bit. Convince me, on the other hand, that the craftsmen will be left to better jobs on better movies, and I might answer that the true beneficiary of such a collapse would be moviemaking itself. With superheroes having gone the way of the western, Hollywood can move on to something new, like vampires and zombies.