Sunday, August 14, 2016

Why the MCU Is Cool: The Heroes I Like

[This is the second post in a new series.  You may want to begin at the beginning.  Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

So perhaps one of the reasons I like the MCU is just plain that I like superheroes.  Which, in some sense, I do.  But I’ve never liked all superheroes equally: I don’t believe anyone does.  Some you like, and some you like a lot, and some you don’t care much for at all, and some you really despise.  It’s like anything: Shakespeare plays, Beatles albums, Stephen King novels ... anything that has sufficient variety, you’re going to like some, dislike some, and be distinctly “meh” on quite a few others.

I used to find it hard to describe what sort of superheroes I like, until I realized what the pattern was: even when it comes to comic nerddom, I’m still a non-conformist.  I like the lesser-known heroes: the more obscure, the better.  With a few exceptions, when it comes to the big names, I’m not that big a fan.

On the DC side, that means I hate Superman, and most of the others I can take or leave: Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash.  The only big name I even sort of liked was Batman, and honestly the best thing about Batman was that, without him, you couldn’t have The Brave and the Bold, and that’s where a lot of the really obscure guys showed up: Creeper, Deadman, the Metal Men, Metamorpho, etc.  On the Marvel side, I thought Spider-Man was okay, but Captain America was nearly as bad as Superman, Hulk was practically cliché, Thor was boring, the Fantastic Four were annoying, and Iron Man was utterly useless: a knock-off Batman with better armor.  The only really big name I really liked was Wolverine, and I’m nearly positive that that’s just because I liked him before he got super-popular.  I can distinctly remember buying Giant-Size X-Men #1, which wasn’t the first appearance of Wolverine ... but it was the second.1  It’s emblematic of my comic buying habits: I saw a cover with a bunch of heroes I didn’t recognize at all, so of course I had to have it.  New superheroes!  Is there anything cooler?  New people with new powers, new costumes, new personalities ... I’m one of those schmucks who is easily seduced by the new, the different, the revamped, the reinvented ... gimme something fresh and I’m a sucker for it.

So, when it came to Marvel, my favorites were always the more obscure folks: I liked Moon Knight, Ghost Rider, Warlock, Son of Satan, Hellcat, Moondragon, Power Man and Iron Fist, Tigra, Cloak and Dagger, and a billion other guys, most of whom you will have never heard of (unless you’re as big a comic book nerd as I am).  Probably the biggest (Marvel) name I can say I really liked was Doctor Strange, and that was mainly because Doctor Strange gives us the Defenders, which had a membership so fluid that there was practically someone new every issue.2  And, as much as I liked the Defenders, I also liked the Avengers.

Okay, now it’s time for a brief diversion on comic book publishing philosophy.  Let me stress that I don’t have any inside info: this is all based on things I’ve read, things I’ve heard, and a lot of observation.  The first interesting thing about comic book publishing philosophy involves a story about a lawsuit.  I’ve never been able to find out if this is actually a true story or not,3 but I read about it in some book about the comic industry, and it certainly seems true, in that it neatly explains a universal principle.  The story goes that, decades ago, when there were a lot more than 2 comic companies, company A had a hero, but they retired him.4  Some years later, company B made a new hero that resembled company A’s hero in some way: same name, similar costume, identical powers ... I don’t remember exactly how they were alike, but that’s not that important to the story anyway.  So company A decides to sue company B—again, I can’t remember if this was a claim of copyright infringement, trademark dispute, or what.  But, again: not that important.  The point of the story is, the court ended up ruling that, sure, the heroes were similar, but company A wasn’t using the hero any more, so therefore the similarity of company B’s hero wasn’t costing them any loss of revenue.  Therefore, no damages.

And, supposedly, this is why every comic company ever regularly trots out their old heroes, no matter how stupid (and let’s face it, some of those older heroes are pretty damn stupid5), even if they really don’t want to: because they’re trying to make sure their rights don’t lapse.  Titles like The Brave and the Bold were excellent for this sort of thing, because you had a big hero (in this case, Batman) to sell the issue to the masses, and you’d have a minor, or resurrected, or maybe even a long-forgotten, hero who’s just appearing to stay in circulation.  If the minor character happens to achieve some reflected popularity, that’s just bonus.  Mainly, you keep the guys in there, in the public eye.

This concept of using the big guys to sell the little guys crops up again and again, and especially in the “supergroups.”  In music terminology, a “supergroup” is when a bunch of successful musicians from other bands all get together and form a new band.6  In comic terms, all groups of superheroes are in one sense a “supergroup.”  But to use the term in the musical sense, there are two basic supergroups: one for each company.  DC’s is of course the Justice League of America, and Marvel’s is, naturally, the Avengers.7  Oh, sure: there are many, many groups of superheroes.  But most of them, such as my favorites the X-Men and the Legion of Superheroes, were created as a complete unit: in other words, X-Men members Cyclops, Angel, the Beast, Iceman, and Marvel Girl (a.k.a. Jean Grey) didn’t exist before the X-Men existed.  They were created specifically for that group.  But a true supergroup gathers heroes who were previously appearing in their own solo titles, as separate, pre-existing heroes.

The original Justice League, for instance, was Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and the Martian Manhunter.  If we were playing “one of these things is not like the others,” I think you’d see the odd man out here.  But let’s look at the original Avengers: Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, and Ant-Man and the Wasp.  (That’s right: Captain America is not an original Avenger, although he did come along just 3 issues later.)  See the pattern here?  They always throw in a minor character or two, because that way the big guys help sell the little guys.

This pattern is generally taken to an extreme in the supergroups: the minor character(s) end up being crucial to the team, because otherwise the audience can’t figure out why the writers keep them around.  So, in many incarnations of the Justice League, J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter, is the guy who stays on the satellite and coordinates the missions for all the other members.  On the Avengers side, Hank Pym, a.k.a. Ant-Man, a.k.a. Giant-Man, a.k.a. Goliath, a.k.a. Yellowjacket, is pretty crucial to the history of the Avengers.  This creates a rather serious dilemma for the architects of the MCU, as on the one hand you need Ant-Man, and, on the other hand, Ant-Man is pretty stupid.  I mean, he shrinks and talks to ants.  Not exactly exciting as superheroes go.  You can get more action of Aquaman, with a decent writer.  But let’s explore that in a future installment.

The point here is that the Avengers, like the Justice League, always appealed to me for exactly the opposite reason that they appealed to most people.  I never cared about the fact that the greatest heroes of the Marvel universe were all there: Iron Man and Hulk and Thor and Captain America.  Because I never particularly cared for those guys.  I loved the Avengers because of the little guys: Ant-Man may be stupid, but Hank Pym is actually very interesting, and Wasp is very cool.  Then there’s Scarlet Witch and Vision and Beast and Hawkeye and Black Panther and Black Widow and Tigra and Jocasta and Hellcat and Wonder Man.  The Justice League seemed to follow a strict formula of one or two A-listers and then fill out the mission roster with the lesser-known guys, but the Avengers would often do entire storylines where the “Big Four” would never show up at all.  So, while I was in general more of a DC man than a Marvel one, it’s definitely true that I liked the Avengers more than the JLA.8

But that’s difficult to translate into the MCU.  The whole function of the MCU is to sell movies (and TV series).  To do that, they need to push the big names: the Big Four, of course, and Daredevil to a lesser extent (because he’s a lesser known name, if still bigger than most of the folks I liked), and they’ve finally managed to bring Spider-Man home, who’s probably the biggest name of all.  But those are not the guys I care about.  So what’s really interesting to me is how successful the MCU has been at integrating the smaller names.  We’ve only had two Avengers movies, and already I’ve gotten to see Black Widow, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, and Vision.  Now, with the advent of Civil War, they’ve added Black Panther.  Over on the Netflix side, Power Man was introduced in Jessica Jones, and he’ll be getting his own series in just a little over a month, plus Iron Fist is also in the works.  And, speaking of Jessica Jones, that opened the door for Hellcat, of all people, who is one of the most interesting comic stories of all time, and another one of my favorites.  Hell, they even managed to devote an entire movie to freaking Ant-Man, which I swore was impossible—or, if possible, could not possibly be any good.  But it was all right.  (They had to go the Scott Lang route and relegate Hank Pym to a side role, but, again: we’ll look at that angle in a bit more detail in an upcoming installment.)  Point being: the MCU has really done pretty well—surprisingly well, even—with bringing out the lesser known heroes.  And those were always the ones I loved.

So there’s one reason I’m so enamored of the MCU.  But there others.


1 Unless you count the teaser panel of the issue before his first proper appearance.  Which I don’t.

2 Although, to be fair, I also had a great affinity for the mystical superheroes, who were fulfilling my comic book requirements and my fantasy requirements simultaneously.  And Doctor Strange is pretty crucial to the mystical storylines, at least on the Marvel side.  Back on the DC side, it would be Dr. Fate and Phantom Stranger, along with some other lesser known guys (Spectre, Demon, Deadman, Ragman, Zatanna, Blue Devil, etc).

3 And I did some extra research while writing this post, only to come up completely blank.

4 Or her, but let’s face it: that far back, it was probably a “him.”

5 Exhibit A: B’wana Beast.

6 Being a child of the eighties, my go-to example of a supergroup is Asia, composed of former members of Yes, King Crimson, Emerson Lake & Palmer, and the Buggles.

7 We could discuss other supergroups: the Justice Society of National Comics (the predecessor to DC), the Invaders—originally known by the unimpressive moniker “the All-Winners Squad”—of Timely Comics (the predecessor to Marvel), the Crime Crusaders Club (another terrible name) of Fawcett, even the Mighty Crusaders of Archie Comics (yes, Archie had superheroes too).  But the big two are the only two left, for all intents and purposes.

8 Don’t get me wrong: the JLA had Firestorm and Zatanna and Red Tornado and Black Canary and Phantom Stranger.  So they had fun times too.  Just not as many.

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