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.

What’s next for costumed heroes?

Where do superhero movies go from here?  For all that I love about seeing my favorite comic book heroes leap off the page, I worry about the narrow range of storytelling.  After seeing The Amazing Spider Man I began to wonder if there is a saturation point for costumed heroes who continue along standard action plots. Whether it is Iron Man, Superman, Batman, Thor, Green Lantern, Captain America, The Avengers, in all cases the movies follow very standard action plots.

Yet, comic books are not all about the flash.  It is as if they have taken a medium defined by a collaboration between writer and artists and only taken the “artist” part onto the screen.  With a few exceptions, The Watchmen for example, these movies are failing to explore different kinds of stories.  We need to see more urban and street level heroes, a dive into other cultures of the world. I am ready for mysteries and thrillers and dramas filled with these characters.  I am ready for tragedy and depth, for introspection and thought. Where is the crime and detective stories?  How is Marvels newest announcement, Guardians of the Galaxy, going to bring something new to the screen? I will keep an open mind, and I hope for the best, but I feel I can already see the script.  Good guys group up, they bicker, someone bad is doing something bad. They chase them a bit through a few good battles with great effects until they have one final battle that is bigger and badder than the mini-battles earlier.  And then they win. I think I’ve already seen this movie.

I am amazed to say that my best hope seems to be the upcoming The Wolverine. Set in Japan, the movie already has a nice cultural feel with a cast that includes Hiroyuki Sanada (The Last Samurai) and Hal Yamanouchi (The Way Back), Tao OkamotoRila Fukushima and Will Yun Lee as Silver Samurai. The infusion of a crime family story alongside an authentic cultural background might be something exciting in the world of superhero movies.  Let’s hope for some success and originality that will support more projects that break out of the standard action stories we seem to have on infinite repeat.

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