Editorial: Avengers and Other Comic Movies from Then to Now

If you listened to the podcast, or even if you haven’t, you can probably guess I’ve seen the Avengers.

This is one of the most anticipated films in the MARVEL film catalogue to date. It combines the power houses; Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America together with the two-time lackluster Hulk into one huge movie. I was so geared for this, but I was prepared to see it fail. Which, if you’ve kept up with superhero films, isn’t a stretch or shock to believe.

When we talk big superhero films, we think of the Batman franchise, the Superman franchise, the Spider-Man franchise, etc. These movies made a lot of money in their time, which meant sequels were assured. For Superman, the franchise suffered the loss of Richard Donner and a ton of bad writing afterwards. The third movie was a vehicle for Richard Pryor vs. for Christopher Reeve. I think we can figure that it wasn’t the way to go, given that the title character is supposed to be the big focus. The movie should’ve been called Gus Gorman. I will digress from that and only mention that Superman IV was a train wreck of a film that I only have enough fond memories for because I was a kid when it came out. I saw it in theatres at a very young age, so it stuck with me a bit. These days, I find it a lot easier to spot the sadness in everyone’s eyes as they returned to a much beloved series, knowing that this was the death-knell. There wasn’t that spark of greatness to it any more, this was the final nail in a bankable franchise. Even though Superman Returns tried to bring back that feeling of Donner’s greatness, it only managed to stir up the nostalgia. It never truly gave the world a new Superman to latch on to. Such is the price you pay when returning to an older franchise with a re-quel (remake/sequel)

The Batman movies, or should I say live action Batman movies, have suffered a great deal throughout the years. The Burton films I enjoyed, but they’re a guilty pleasure. I still maintain Batman does not kill, nor does he allow people to die if he can prevent it. In all the Bat-films starting with Burton, Batman’s body count is astounding. Bad writing is always going to be something to overcome, that’s just a given. Let’s face it, in the nearly 75 years he’s been around there are bound to be some bad stories available. And it can be argued that Batman never had a problem with killing, but that was all the way back in 1939. Anything else was based out of Elseworld tales, which tells the stories that aren’t based in a mainstream continuity storyline. That gives most writers carte blanche to do with characters as they will because it doesn’t effect anything. Let’s also make sure that we understand, after a mandate from the powers-that-be, Batman stopped killing people after his first year. The reason was because they viewed him too much like the Shadow. Not hard to believe, as Batman was carrying around pistols at the time. So outside the confines of the story; no more guns and no more killing. Inside the story; Batman has a pathological hatred to them. His parents were killed by them, he would learn all he could about them, and help to make sure not another person would live through that same night. He would break them, he would batter them, he would make sure to give the criminal underbelly something to fear, but he would always give them the option to rehabilitate.

Two animated stories gave me the biggest example of this. The first one was an episode of Batman: The Animated Series. The episode title was Day of the Samurai. It was a sequel episode to Night of the Ninja, which introduced us to Kyodai Ken. Kyodai was a student of the teacher who taught TAS Batman martial arts. I won’t go into heavy detail about the episode, only to say that the end result of it has Batman and Kyodai standing in the open maw of a volcano. Batman tosses a line to Kyodai, in an effort to save this man’s life. Kyodai had learned a death touch move with the intent on killing Batman. Kyodai kicked away the line, and bowed at his opponent just before another explosion came up and presumably ended his life. No body means no way of knowing if this is true or not. Still, Bruce Timm had no further plans with him so it was safe to assume his death was planned for. Bruce talks to his sensei about how much that Batman was a ninja in his own right and is immediately corrected. He is told that Batman has the very spirit of the Samurai, because instead of wishing to see his opponent dead, he tried to save him. Kyodai accepted his fate, but Batman tried. Batman always tries to save lives.

The other animated example is Batman: Under the Red Hood. In this, Batman has to deal with a new Red Hood (the original in this story being the Joker) and his mysterious knowledge of Batman and his practices. All is revealed when it turns out to be long-thought-dead partner; Jason Todd. The climax of the film there is an exchange between Todd and Batman:

Jason Todd: Ignoring what he’s done in the past. Blindly, stupid, disregarding the entire graveyards he’s filled, the thousands of who have suffered, the friends he’s crippled. You know, I thought… I thought I’d be the last person you’d ever let him hurt. If it had been you that he beat to a bloody pulp, if he had taken you from this world, I would’ve done nothing but search the planet for this pathetic pile of evil death-worshiping garbage and sent him off to hell.


Batman: You don’t understand. I don’t think you’d ever understood.


Jason Todd: What? What, your moral code just won’t allow for that? It’s too hard to cross that line?


Batman: No. God Almighty, no. It’d be too damned easy. All I’ve ever wanted to do is kill him. A day doesn’t go by I don’t think about subjecting him to every horrendous torture he’s dealt out to others and them end him.


Joker: Aw. So you do think about me.


Batman : But if I do that, if I allow myself to go down into that place, I’ll never come back.

It’s such an eloquent way of saying something I’ve tried to say so many times over. And yet words fail me where this script worked so well.


The other issue that I have with the latter Bat-films is the same problem I have with Spider-Man 3. Too many cooks in the kitchen, and not enough time to resolve it all in. Let’s take Spidey 3 for the example this time, shall we? If you haven’t seen the movie, then here’s a quick rundown of the characters: Spider-Man, Green Goblin II (Harry Osborne), Sandman and Venom. Of course, you’ve got Mary Jane, J. Jonah, and supporting cast. Despite Mary Jane’s constant involvement, she little to do with much other than girl hostage and badly played chess piece. The movie was two films in one. The story between Peter and Harry was enough to keep it going. Sandman and Venom were practically shoehorned in, although Venom more so due to studio interference. Sony was trying to make sure if they didn’t get Sam Raimi back to direct another one, they wanted to get more bang for their buck. Venom is a popular character, at least he was at one point in his career, and so they knew it would drive up the box office. So they dropped in an unknown alien slime symbiote, let it attach to Peter who starts acting like some sort of evil car salesman John Travolta, gives Spidey a nifty black costume (the comic version was way better), and not much point for being there at all. Eventually Peter realizes he has alienated everyone and nearly killed Harry by tossing a pumpkin bomb back into Harry’s face. Yes, Harry did try to kill him first, but he’s a hero for cryin’ out loud. Have some perspective! He sheds the costume with some help from a huge cathedral bell (because it doesn’t like sounds) and it finds a Peter Parker Hate Club member at the bottom and attaches itself to him. Of course, it’s none other than Topher Grace! Ashton Kutcher was busy at the time… (yeah, that’s a joke.) Sandman is randomly thrown in and is only there for the big fight at the end where he and Venom “team-up” to face Spidey. Eventually, Harry pulls his head out of his can and decides to help Peter to defeat the two villains. Ugh… I watched this with some spellbound silence, and after the credits rolled I remember yelling at the screen; “What the hell was that?!”


The point of all that is when you’ve got multiple characters like this, you have to ask yourself what the point is to it? Troy and I often say it’s “Captain Cameo Disease”, which means it’s all put in there for the wink to those who know to look for it. Extended cameo disease is worse because you know there should be more to it, and there isn’t. In the last Schumaker Bat-film, he managed to cram in three heroes and three villains. None of which I’d have given you a wooden nickel for. Of course, I know I don’t stand alone on this. Again, it shoehorns in at least 3 characters that were pointless to the story, if there was a point to it at all. It train-wrecks into exactly what it became; a neon one-liner festival of mistakes. I’m not even going to bother with finding out how long it was, it’s not even interesting to note it.


Now what does this have to do with Avengers? Well, here’s the simple answer: it is the antithesis to all the negative points I’ve brought up. What this film manages to do is an amazement to my very eyes and ears. I found myself applauding, laughing, and cheering on the heroes as the went forth through this incredible tour-de-force. To be completely honest, I expected this film to fail miserably. I know most people that know my arguments think that it has everything to do with Joss Whedon. To that, I will say again; I like it when he works on other people’s projects. It’s his own material I’ve never truly cared for. That’s a matter of taste, and you can argue which one of us doesn’t have it at your leisure. In this case, the reason I didn’t expect it to win over is because of the immense cast it bolstered and having them work together in a cohesive manner in a two-plus hour film. There’s a tendency that some have to rewrite characters to fit molds that they need. Characters seemingly out of place because they’ve let something slip from their personalities. That’s a hard job to do for anyone. It’s become more apparent by the year as I look towards all the remakes and reimaginings come to theatres and TV screens. What Whedon did was sheer brilliance, and all that was because he let the characters be who they were. The personalities were established in other films, and he let that work itself out. Cap, Thor and Iron Man worked in their confines without the need to try to cram something in or fake something that wasn’t there. With the Hulk, I give Whedon and Mark Ruffalo much credit for straightening out what two lackluster movies managed not to do. Banner wasn’t on the verge of tears every few minutes, he didn’t look consummately sad, but he did have an awareness of what he was. This was a scientist that had gone through the motions and had to accept that for the time being he was living with a monster inside. He doesn’t want him, he doesn’t love being him, and he tells everyone that there are bad ideas at play by involving the two in any plan, but he’s there and does his best to hold it together. The best part is that when Hulk comes out, he’s big and destructive. The Ferrigno roar was a great call back to a different time. It gave the fans what they wanted in Hulk, and hopes that better may come our way.


As of now, the Avengers is well over the $700 million mark. To me, it’s not hard to see why. It lends itself well to a mythology. Every character there can look each other in the face and we all know exactly what they’re seeing and loving every minute of it. I look at the current Warner Brothers/DC projects and know that it could never happen. The Dark Knight Rises is soon to make its way to the screen and not too long after that they’ve already planned to reboot the franchise. Man of Steel is well on its way to being put into theatres, and it too gives me grim pause to realize that WB is going to wrong direction. Zack Snyder is an impressive director to me. I love his work on 300 and on Watchmen, but I see this and realize that in spite of the impressive cast list and good director, the body of this film is written by the same people that gave us Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises. I’ve heard a lot of people tell me to wait and see the finished product. I was concerned about the Avengers and look how well that turned out! Well, this is much like the Michael Bay Ninja Turtles fiasco. Though I now know he’s not the director, he is however the producer. As the producer, he’s making a lot of bad decision concerning TMNT that I’d rather not see. To put it in another way, I’ve seen the train wreck that was Transformers and I know better. It’s not too far off degrees of separation between that and this. Maybe less explosions, but they’ve already admitted that the third act was jacked up. They wanted Snyder to fix it and make it all work. Um… okay, isn’t that why you have a WRITER? Well, they hired David S. Goyer for that. So much for writing. I remember a time when I thought he had talent. Flash in the pan, I guess. Hollywood can tell me otherwise all they like. What I have gotten out of reading about this film is that it sounds like another Superman is feeling alienated because of his powers. He’s an alien that feels like he’s an alien. It’s a modern retelling of the Man of Steel origin which makes perfect sense, right? Well, after having read many stories along this line I don’t think it’s necessary. His genetic parents gave up their only son in hopes that he could survive and do great things where they sent him. His adopted parents molded him into a well-rounded man and never made him feel any different. When he had questions and concerns, he could fall back on their teachings.


I know it seems I’ve drifted off point again, but really this affords this question? Considering a reboot of Batman and this new Superman, is WB considering maneuvering their characters into a Justice League movie? Whedon proved it could be done. If so, can these heroes look each other in the eye when its over and done with? Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman are not only the big 3 but they are the morals of the League. Batman is allowing people to die left and right in his films, can he look Superman in the eye knowing this? Does Superman approve? Again, if this were the 30s the answer would be maybe. By the evolution of the character, not at all. As a matter of fact, Superman and Batman both have had this discussion at length as to why it’s wrong. Wonder Woman has been known to kill, but then she’s also had to be pushed into the position with no way out. She will not just kill for killing’s sake. She is an Amazon and the Ambassador of Peace after all. With the Avengers as the example, I knew everyone could look at each other and know where their moral ground stood and separated. I didn’t expect everyone to agree on every point, because their personalities wouldn’t allow that to happen, but when it came down to business they got it together. It wouldn’t have made a great JL film, but it made a hell of an excellent Avengers.


As you can see, I was impressed with what they managed to put on screen. Hard not to be really. Joss Whedon put out a movie that will stand up with the greats of the genre. With a spectacle such as this, it’s all I could hope for. It raises a bar on the films to come, and makes me look forward to a time when Avengers 2 hits the big screen. I hope that they learned from the first one and will let it build up to that second feature. It’s great to get them all together, but the reason it worked so well is because you got to love what they were apart from each other. It helps to build up the story into something far greater. If they can tell the story that doesn’t need all the build up, then I say even better. Doctor Who has proven time and again why we shouldn’t have continual linking story arcs. There are plenty of big things that can be told without the need of it. However, I will give this credit as it showed a lot of little things leading in each that lead into the next, but it never necessarily had to lead to this film. The little sections from here to there came together cohesively in Avengers. The Tesseract, Loki, or any other tidbit separately could’ve caused enough of a headache to bring that team together. They did a lot to show us how to piece this puzzle and have teased us with what is to come. It’s storytelling done correctly, and that’s all I’ve ever asked for.


As this movie stands in success, my hope is that others will start to make comic films in a different light. Updating doesn’t mean forgetting. Stories like these are updated all the time, but there is still connective tissues there that evolve them into something even more special than before. Are the Marvel films that lead to this picture perfect from the comics? Hell no, but they kept a spirit alive. Raimi’s first two Spider-Man films and Superman: the Movie caught that magic. They brought forth something extra special to the fans out there. I want them to pick up this trend at WB, but until then; make mine Marvel!