Happy Birthday, Jack Kirby?

jack_kirby__spanToday is the birthday of Jack “King” Kirby.

He was born on August 28, 1917, in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

And, if you don’t know who Jack Kirby was than you have no business reading comics, going to superhero movies or probably even reading this blog.  In fact, if you DON’T know Kirby, then I don’t want to know you.

Jack Kirby is the reason we have comic books today.  Jack Kirby is the reason we have blockbuster movies like CAPTAIN AMERICA, IRON MAN, THOR and THE AVENGERS that make corporations millions of dollars every year.  Jack Kirby didn’t just make ‘worlds’… he made UNIVERSES!

And if you think this is going to be yet another post about how badly Kirby has been treated, then you’re right.  Because as much as I’d love to sit here and praise the glory that is Jack Kirby’s work, it is tainted by the exploitation and greed of others.

Let’s get one thing straight before we go any further: I’m a Kirby ‘guy’.  When I was growing up, comic fans were divided into factions much like the street gangs of Kirby’s youth.  There were DC fans and Marvel fans and then there were Kirby fans and Ditko fans and Adams fans but, oddly, not too many Stan Lee fans.  You had your favorites and you wore them proudly.

But, for me, there was simply ‘Kirby’.

Kirby created comics as we know it.  He created the Marvel Universe which we see constantly now in video games, cartoons, movies and everywhere else.  Kirby made Marvel.

Now some may question this and state that Kirby and Stan Lee co-created the Marvel Universe.  Well, I’m not going to rise to that bait because, quite simply, Lee couldn’t have done it without Kirby or Ditko.  Both artists were geniuses of their form and created something amazing from the ground up but, make no mistake, Lee couldn’t have done it himself or with anyone else.

And Marvel crapped all over Kirby.

Not just once but several times.

And they continue to do so.

When you buy a ticket for that latest blockbuster movie based on Marvel’s characters (many of whom Jack created), not a penny goes to his heirs or estate.  When you buy that fancy hardcover reprint of FANTASTIC FOUR, Kirby gets nothing.

It all comes down to legal questions of ownership which have been argued back and forth in courtrooms for years.  I remember the 1980’s when Marvel, despite returning artwork to many other artists, refused to give Kirby back his pages.  The comic community back then stood up and would not allow this outrage to stand so Marvel eventually gave in and returned some of the pages.  Now, while the Kirby estate fights to regain copyrights, fans are strangely silent.  Or, even worse, call Kirby’s heirs ‘greedy’ and side with the corporations.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and if Kirby could have foreseen how profitable his work would become, he’d have fought for better rights.  But part of the reason he didn’t was the very medium itself.  Comics were thought to be worthless, disposable.  In 1963, 50 years ago, who would ever have thought comics would become this vast, money-making environment?

So, today, on Jack Kirby’s birthday, let us thank him for all the wonder and joy which he brought us and let us also remember how horribly he was treated (and continues to be) by an industry that he essentially created.  Let us exalt his work as we point to these executives and corporations and say, “See this?  This is genius.  No matter what you do, no matter what you say, you can never take away from the genius who created this.  You can never extinguish the creative fire that was Jack ‘KING’ Kirby!”

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Some things never change…

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(Note: This is a sample pic and NOT the comic store I visited.)

I had some extra time the other day so I did something that I rarely do now… I went to a comic book store.

Now, keep in mind that not only was I a part owner of a comic store years ago (circa 1988) but there was a time when I would go to comic stores several times a week.  At one time, roughly around 1993 or so, there were about 12 comic books stores within quick driving distance from me in Rhode Island.  Now, I think there’s about 5 (and two of those are owned by the same person) so the economy hasn’t been the best for comic stores.

Anyway, I bitch and complain a lot (as anyone who has read these blog posts realize) about how there’s not much good worth reading for comics these days.  So, every so often, I make the trip and stop in at my LCS to see if I’m not just being a whiny old comic fart.

Sadly, I wasn’t.

During the 70s and 80s, I read EVERY Marvel and DC that came out… even the bad ones.  Yes, I read all of Marvel’s NEW UNIVERSE titles and even such illustrious DC fare as PREZ and BROTHER POWER, THE GEEK.  I knew all of the characters, all of the history, even all the obscure trivia.  This time, I looked over the selection of Marvel and DC comics and did not see ONE comic that interested me or made me want to pay the expensive price they demanded.

There were a few independent comics that looked interesting but, invariably, the store only had the 2nd or 3rd issue or it was the 14th issue and there was no way I could afford to pick up the 13 previous issues even if the store had them.   Clearly, stores could no longer afford to stock a lot of the independents either as the selection was spotty and a completist’s nightmare. And if stores don’t stock the titles, how will anyone discover them?

As I looked through the stacks, desperate to find SOMETHING to buy, longing for that same connection that had sustained me through my youth, I could hear the conversations taking place around me.  The speakers were young men, probably around early to mid 20’s, and they were standing around the cash register much as I spent time so long ago.  And I heard conversations that brought back memories and, at the same time, disturbed me.  They were discussing who was ‘hotter’: Black Cat or Scarlet Widow.  Some relatively racy dialogue was sprinkled through which I’ll spare you here.  Needless to say, if you’re a guy who grew up reading comic books, you’ve probably had this conversation yourself at one time as I’ve had.

That’s when it hit me: I was out of place.  I didn’t belong there anymore and that shocked me.

You see, comic stores were my domain when I was their age.  Other guys strutted through bars or gyms.  I strutted through comic stores.  That was where I had the most confidence I’d ever had and could talk to others who felt the same.  It was my Cheers, my Arnold’s, my Pop’s Chock-Lit Shoppe.  But somewhere, at some time, that had all changed.

I was the one thing that I thought I would never be in a comic store: the outsider.

I didn’t fit in.  They were discussing the NEW DC or Marvel’s AGE OF ULTRON and I was about as clueless with them as other kids had been around me in grade school.  I’d lost my mojo.  I’d become the “old man comic fan” who I’d seen in my own shop so many years ago.

Quickly, I made my retreat.  As I drove away, I realized that this was the same feeling that had come over me the last few times I’d been to major comic conventions.  I couldn’t relate to the comics or the people.  These were the new fans, the ones that all the comic companies are fighting to attract.  The comics were tailored to what they wanted to see with the mindset and attitudes they admired and emulated.  And they were not mine.

I haven’t been back to a comic store since then.  I probably will at some point but, in a way, I lost a little something that day.  Something that, barring a time machine, I may never feel again.

Don’t Get Me Started! #1

jjjI used to love comic books.

For a long time, they were really one of the most important parts of my life.  I practically LIVED for each week’s new shipment of comics.

I have two brothers who are older than me (10 and 9 years older, respectively) and they were into comics so, when annoying little brother came along, it was inevitable that I’d get into comics too.  And I was voracious!

I read everything!  I read Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Thor, Flash, House of Mystery, Chamber of Chills even NIGHT NURSE!  If it was Marvel or DC, I read it.  And I read anything else I could get my hands on.  Comics from Charlton, Gold Key, Dell, Archie, Harvey, Tower, anything and everything.

Not only that, but I studied comics.  I wanted to know everything about them.  “Who was that character in Brave & the Bold last month?”  I could tell you.  Who created Superman and how and when?  I knew it.  I wanted to know everything about comics not just the stories and the characters but the people who created them.

That’s when, I think, things started to sour a bit.

For those who aren’t aware, comic books have an awful history.  I won’t even get into the allegations that the mob was behind much of the early days of comic books and their distribution.  Nor will I talk about the shady deals and the unfounded lawsuits.  I won’t even talk about the comic book censorship of the 1950s that essentially shut down EC comics and stripped comics of virtually all of their creativity and relevance.  But I could (and just might someday)!

In the 70s, there really wasn’t anything you could call a “comic news network”.  There were a few fanzines but nothing like it is today.  Most of what we did have was concentrated around the stories and characters with not a lot of creator background.

That began to change in the late 70s and really gained speed in the 80s.  The first time I remember really taking notice of the way comic companies treated their creators was during the Siegel & Shuster incident.  As Warner Brothers was making the first SUPERMAN movie in 1978 (with Chris Reeve) and preparing for a massive PR campaign, I started hearing little news items.  It seemed that the original creators of Superman (Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster) were living in virtual poverty as a movie that would make millions was preparing to come out.

I was only 15 at this time and didn’t really know a lot about the behind-the-scenes life at comic companies despite having a brother who, by that time, was actually working in comics.  Long story short, the fan community (led, in part, by Neal Adams who was then a creator with a lot of clout with fans) revolted against DC and eventually Siegel & Shuster were awarded lifetime pensions and credit for their creation. (You can read more about this case online and a brief overview here.)

That day made me proud to be a fan.

And when Marvel Comics tried to keep from returning Jack Kirby’s artwork and the fans were there to support Kirby, I was proud again.

We fans had the creators backs and they, and the comic companies, knew it.

I’m not proud to be a fan anymore.

The reason is because, when issues like Kirby and Shuster come up now, the fans take to the internet and social media to express their anger and outrage.  But not against the comic companies.  They’re angry at the heirs of Kirby and Shuster for daring to not only ask for credit or compensation but for daring to risk the end to their beloved comics.

The vitriol I have seen expressed online is truly depressing.  And it’s not even just against heirs of deceased creators either.  Example: Ken Penders recently filed suit against Archie Comics for rights to characters he created for the SONIC comic book.  (You can read about the newest update on that case here.) Many comments on this case again side with the publishers.

There are many other cases like this happening where many of the fans are not on the side of the creators.  They appear, for all intents and purposes, like junkies worried that someone might shut off their supply.  Somewhere, somehow, comic companies have managed to win fans over to their side and I just can’t figure out when that happened.

There are a couple of reasons why I don’t buy and/or read new comic books from Marvel & DC anymore.  This is one of them.  I’ll talk about the other one, and why I feel guilty looking at my bookcase of high quality hardcover reprints, next time.

(“Don’t Get Me Started” is an editorial by Sam Gafford.  All views expressed are simply my own and do not reflect any other staffers here at the L.O.D.G.E.)

Joe Kubert (1926-2012)

Joe Kubert

Joe Kubert has died.

For many readers of DC comics in the 1960s and 70s, Kubert was one of the most recognizable artists of the company.  You literally couldn’t pass the comic rack in those days and NOT find a comic that he either drew or did the cover.  His accomplishments were many and legendary in the field not the least of which is the fact that he created the only school to specialize in the teaching of “Cartoon and Graphic Art”.

I never met Joe Kubert personally.  I never had the pleasure of working with him.  Despite my fondest desires, I never attended the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art.  All I did was read his comics and be a fan.  Because of his decades of work in the field, I don’t think there was ever a time when I did NOT know who Joe Kubert was.

I was born in 1962 and don’t have many clear memories of the 1960s.  Oh, sure, I remember my friend’s names and playing games with them on our street in New Milford, CT.  I have vague recollections of television shows (like STAR TREK) and the toys I had and major events like the Moon Landing and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.  What I remember most of all were the comic books.

I grew up reading comics.  I think I probably started when I was about 5 or 6 years old and mostly because my older brothers (9 and 10 years older than I) used to read them.  My oldest brother, Carl, had a massive collection that he had started around 1959 or so and allowed me free access to all of them.  By the time I was 10, I had read his collection through at least 2 or 3 times.  Even though he had a great collection of Marvel comics, I was drawn to the DC comics.

And many of those that drew me in were drawn by Joe Kubert.

I started with the early Silver Age appearances of Hawkman.  I had no idea who the hell Hawkman was or that there had been another Hawkman decades earlier or that the same artist had worked on both.  All I knew was that those comics were amazing and, even at 10, I knew that they were cool.

The artwork drew me in immediately.  It stood out from the usual art in the Superman and Batman books.  It had a gritty ‘realism’ to it that I hadn’t seen before.  This hit me the hardest when I eventually moved onto Kubert’s war comics like Sgt. Rock and Enemy Ace (soon to become one of my most favorite characters).  This artwork wasn’t safe or clean like what I was used to seeing in superhero comics.  It was tough and earthy.  You could almost smell the sweat on Sgt. Rock and feel the noble dignity of Enemy Ace as he cursed the war he fought.

Throughout the years, as I would find more and more of Kubert’s art, what struck me most was the integrity.  No matter the project, Kubert gave it his all.  One of my first exposures to Tarzan came when DC began their TARZAN comic book with, of course, Kubert doing the art.  I devoured those comics.  Others will talk about how Burne Hogarth or Hal Foster were the best Tarzan artists but, for me, Kubert was THE Tarzan artist.  He defined how I saw the character and, when I close my eyes, Kubert’s artwork is what I see.  Because of those comics, I sought out the TARZAN novels and then the John Carter of Mars novels and so many more.

One of the sad realizations of today is that we are losing or have lost many of the great comic artists.  Kirby, Kurtzman, Buscema, Joe Simon, Eisner, Toth, Swan, Heck, Colan… the list goes on and on.  These were giants who walked among us and left us tales of gods and men.  Their like will never come again.  Today, I will sit down with a stack of Sgt. Rock comics, the hardcover collection of VIKING PRINCE and the SHOWCASE edition of ENEMY ACE and I will remember the greatness which Kubert left for us on those pages and be thankful that, for a brief time, he shared these with us.

Godspeed, Joe.

Founding Women of The Avengers : 1960 vs 2012

I have numerous philosophical problems with how women are so often presented in media, including sports and entertainment.  For example, I don’t collect risque photo shoots of women athletes.  I believe very strongly that successful women athletes should be celebrities because of their abilities and not have to resort to the sex symbol formula.  I’m rational enough to realize these women do these shoots because the are damn proud of their physical bodies, but it nonetheless rubs me the wrong way.  To me, sport is purer without the sexuality.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not preaching about using women as sex objects.  In the past I have bought playing cards or calendars based on the scantily clad beauties.  My concern is whether or not there is a place in athletics for sex symbols.  I simply don’t like my favorite athletes selling their sexuality.

And I also carry the same view with comic books.  Far too many depiction of women in comic books is “cheesecake”.  So many of our comic book heroines show way too much flesh.  I feel that these women are part of our modern heroic mythology and throwing as much cheesecake as possible on the page does not further that goal.  And so I come to the founding women of the Avengers, The Wasp of 1963 and Black Widow of 2012.  Take a look at these pictures:

Black Widow 2012 and The Wasp 1963

Neither of these women are in cheesecake mode. These are good looking women wearing uniforms that are sharp but utilitarian.  I love this.

The Black Widow of the modern film has much in common with the 1963 Wasp.  Neither has the big splash powers of their male counterparts.  Black Widow is very, very good with weapons but Hawkeye is godlike with his bow.  She is also a sound small unit combatant but she doesn’t have the battlefield brilliance of Captain America.  So in my opinion she is MORE COURAGEOUS than her male counterparts because she is going into a fight to the death with less resources.  Despite fewer resources, it is the Black Widow that closes the gate.

The Wasp in the 1960’s was written as a little ditzy.  Her powers were often belittled when compared to Hank Pym and her mood was more of that of an adventurer.  By all measures, the writers made it clear that she wasn’t as powerful as her male teammates.  But that doesn’t stop her from saving the day her fair share of times.  In one absolute must read (Avengers #8, Sept 1964), it is her quick thinking and tenacity that defeats Kang.  The men have Kang pinned down in Kang’s spaceship but can’t break through his forcefield.  The Wasp flies to Hank Pym’s lab, spots a weapon she thinks would be the right one for the job and then cybernetically commands some flying insects to carry the weapon back to the battle.  Her guess is right on the money and Pym uses the weapon to destroy Kang’s uniform – which unfortunately for Kang is the generator of his forcefield.  Kang flees.

I have always been a huge fan of The Wasp in comics.  Over time she grew into an excellent chairperson for the Avengers.  My favorite moment for her in the 80’s is during Secret Wars.  She is technically chairperson of The Avengers and yet she defers leadership to Captain America.  She knows that they are in deep doodoo and that the Captain America’s power of “Heroic Icon” is more important than the skills she brings, regardless of how superb they are.  It takes wisdom too realize when to relinquish command, and it is contrasted nicely in that series by Storm chafing at being outranked by Cyclops and Prof X.

Scarlet Johansson’s portrayal of Black Widow was phenomenal.  She has mad skills and she uses them effectively throughout the film.  When do or die time comes, she realizes that she is closer in power to the people she is trying to save compared to her male teammates.  But while she frets, it doesn’t interfere with her giving it her all and showing that even a mere mortal without enhancements can help save the day.  Her move to get to the gate is pure heroism.  She goes based on the simple premise that if raw power can’t close the gate, so perhaps finesse can.  And because she decides to go the finesse route, she is the perfect person to send.  She won’t be one to waste time trying powers, get a straight answer out of Selvig is the plan.

These are the portrayals of women I crave.  These are highly competent women without the gee-whizz powers.  Yet they are mission critical because of their heroism.  And they do so without having to show a bare midriff, huge expanses of cleavage or more thigh than you can shake a stick at.  Make no mistake, these are beautiful women and their beauty is part of their selling point.  But it is heroism and beauty they are selling to us, not sexuality.  This preserves the purity of the mythology and for this I am so pleased to have been able to soak in both.

Loki: 1960’s Comics vs Today’s Films

Loki in JIM #92, 1963

In 1963, the villain whose scheme pulled the Avengers together was Loki.  This holds true of the recently released film as well.

In the comics, Loki first appeared as a foe of Thor one year before The Avengers came out.  In the four appearances of Loki, the creative team established that:

1)  Loki is Thor’s adopted brother and his nom de guerre is “God of Mischief”

2)  Thor was responsible for Loki’s longest imprisonment on Asgard (trapped in a tree)

3)  Odin is really lousy at imprisoning Loki.  Loki can do all sorts of magic even while wrapped up in chains selected by Odin himself

4)  Loki wants to humiliate Thor more than he wants to destroy him

5)  Thor cannot hammer his way to victory against Loki, he has to outwit him

Only by the fourth appearance is Loki ready to dabble in a takeover of Asgard or the Earth.  But a couple months later, in the first issue of The Avengers, the stakes are raised.  Loki is now “God of Evil” and intends to defeat Thor once and for all.  To do so he needs to manipulate The Hulk and the Teen Brigade (a group of teens that work with Rick Jones to monitor and calm down Hulk).

And so here is my first peeve with the 1960’s.  Loki as the “God of Mischief” is quite in keeping with the original mythology.  The original mythology has Loki committing acts of mischief and often times committing trickery against giants or dwarves to atone for his misdeeds.  For example, it is from a consequence of some of Loki’s mischief that Mjolnir is forged in the first place.  Loki in myth is really helpful to Asgard on some occasions.  It is not until his worst crime, the death of Baldr, that Loki becomes outlaw and ends up imprisoned in a cave.  The 1960’s lack this evolution of the character from mischief maker to outright evil schemer.

The last two films with Loki explore how a guy can go from being a jerk to being a really dangerous evil genius.  For the Thor movie, Loki is pushed from mischief to evil because he finds out he is a child taken from the Frost Giants.  This startling revelation makes Loki rage.  He feels that his second fiddle status to Thor the entire time they are growing up is due to his heritage; a heritage that was hidden from him.  Once Loki falls into the abyss, he further blames Thor.  It should come as no surprise that in his wandering of the abyss that he finds someone more powerful that is also more evil and falls in with them.  It takes years of comics to come and go before they explore the rage of Loki as completely as the two movies do.

My second peeve with the 1960’s is how forced the episodes are that trick Loki into defeat.  In the first issue of The Avengers, it is Ant-Man who outwits Loki, and he doesn’t outwit him so much as get lucky that Loki is standing on a trapdoor.  Now it makes sense that Ant-Man be the one to out-trick Loki.  Ant-Man in the early Avengers comics was a thinker much more so than Iron Man who was hiding his Tony Stark identity.

But there’s way too much deus ex machina to tricking Loki.  In one issue of Journey Into Mystery, the Asgardian’s pose as members of the United Nations General Assembly.  How they convince a bureaucracy like that to take a powder in such a short time strains the suspension of disbelief.  On the other hand, Hulk crushes Loki because of a simple flaw in Loki’s way of thinking.  To Loki, Hulk is a dumb brute and should be too simple to be a threat.  Unfortunately for Loki, it is the fact that Hulk is so simple that gives Hulk the edge.  Hulk doesn’t debate, he doesn’t take offense and retort.  Hulk smash!

There is much about the 1960’s comics that I like, compared to today’s comics.  But there is even more I like about the films.  The films seem to give me the proper balance between too simplistic of schemes and too complex.  Part of the charm of the films is that they don’t have five decades of backstory, sometimes cool sometimes not, that hang on a character.  The comics have to tell new stories, and with five decades of storytelling these new stories will be major departures from the old stories in order to keep interest.  But instead of inventing new characters, which happened in the 1960’s, they hang on to decades old characters and twist them this way and that.  Loki is an excellent example of a character who in the comics has been twisted this way and that, even to the point of being transplanted in a female body.

There is a freshness to the films, a similar freshness that the 1960’s have.  A film has to retell the origins of all the characters because not every movie-goer is a comic book aficionado.  I accept that and look forward to it.  The retelling of Loki’s motivation is one of the highlights of this current crop of films.

Avengers Movie Vs Avengers #’s 1-3 : An Overview

Avengers: The Movie

The Avengers movie has grossed $1.4 billion world wide.  That is a superheroic amount of money.

But I seriously doubt this amount of money was ever envisioned by the creative team and managers of Marvel Comics in 1963.

I am happy to own the DVD-ROM called 40 Years of Avengers.  I also own the first few Marvel Masterworks featuring the Avengers.  I love these 1960’s comics – I also own some omnibuses of Iron Man, Hulk and DC Archives of The Justice League of America.  I enjoy reading the comics of the 1960’s and much of what I enjoy about the 1960’s is also present in the Avengers movie.  On the other hand, there are aspects of the Avengers movie that I find superior to the 1960’s.  This post is the first of several where I will be comparing and contrasting the movie to the first three issues of the Avengers comic book; Sept 1963 to Jan 1964.

Avengers: The Comic Books

The first three issues of the comic books has one particular theme that ties them all together – How Does The Incredible Hulk Fit In?  This is a big difference from the movie, which is about stopping Loki.  As can be seen from the covers, this story arc actually ends up using three different villains, namely Loki, The Space Phantom and The Submariner.

And this brings us to the first major point to ponder.  Which do you prefer more, a villain that has a grandiose scheme and needs to be stopped or a villain that is working out some personal issues with the heroes?  In issue #1, Loki manipulates the Hulk into destroying a bridge in front of a train.  Loki’s goal is to generate enough news that Thor will come out of semi-retirement to stop the Hulk’s rampage, whereupon Loki can spring a trap on Thor.  Issues #2 and #3 also lack any world shattering schemes.  The Space Phantom and The Submariner have decided to attack the Avengers simply because they are not the Fantastic Four and the villains hope they can score an easy victory.

The point of the comic books was to explore how very disparate heroes such as Iron Man and Thor can come together and work as a team.  Both of them had already had a few adventures as solo heroes before this book was published.  Ant Man and The Wasp had their own adventures as a duo.  So it makes sense that these first three issues explore what it takes to be a team.  The three comic books gives each hero a chance to show how his/her super powers can help, a chance to be humbled as his/her weaknesses and vulnerabilities are exploited and a chance for each hero to help cover and make-up for the vulnerabilities of their teammates.

Issue #3 is a marvelous telling of how as a team they are greater than the sum of the parts.  In the first half of Issue #3, Hulk wants to escape Iron Man, Thor and Giant Man/Ant Man.  Each of these heroes individually takes a crack at Hulk but fail to corral him.  In the second half of the issue, Hulk teams up with The Submariner to challenge the Avengers.  This time the Avengers work as a team instead of taking turns as individuals.  Thus they succeed in overcoming the combined might of Hulk and The Submariner.  It reminds me of a Bruce Lee film;  every time a gang attacks Bruce Lee their timing is such that he can take each thug out in turn.  The Avengers get past a similar shortcoming by attacking in twos or threes.

The movie also explores what it takes to make a team.  Iron Man and Captain America begin the film at odds and it takes a major sacrifice by a supporting character to get them on the same page.  As the movie moves into its climactic battle, the three headstrong powerhouses (Hulk, Thor and Iron Man) realize that Captain America has a handle on the grand tactics of the battle and they need to listen to him.  So the film does more than the early comic books, it explores both team making and also gives us a big juicy villainous plot.

I plan to tackle the nature of the big juicy villainous plot versus more immediate, personal plots in later posts.  Stay tuned as I ponder how one can make an Avengers movie that has the personal investment of the first Rambo movie, First Blood.

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