Welcome back to “Before You Go,” the segment where I fill you in on all the necessary (and some unnecessary) background that you may (or may not) need in order to enjoy the latest nerd movie. Today’s topic: The Avengers.
And there came a day
According to legend (also known as Stan Lee’s version of events), the Marvel Universe began in 1961 on a golf course. The publisher of Marvel Comics was playing a few rounds with the publisher of rival DC Comics when the DC guy mentions what a big hit they had with a new title — “Justice League of America” — that starred all the company’s big heroes (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc.).
Marvel guy went back to the office and told his lackeys to get to work on a superhero team book. Unfortunately, Marvel wasn’t publishing superheroes at the time so there was no way to create an all-star book like the JLA. Instead, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created “The Fantastic Four” and the rest is pop culture history. The FF were followed by HULK, Spider-Man, Thor, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Iron Man and Dr. Strange.
Unlike any other
Within two years Marvel had enough characters to launch their all-star superhero team. In September of ’63 the company published the first issue of “The Avengers,” starring Thor, Iron Man, Ant-Man, Wasp and HULK. It was Marvel’s answer to the Justice League, but it really wasn’t the Justice League at all. If you’re wondering just what is the difference between the Marvel and DC universes, the answer is found in The Avengers.
In the DCU, all the superheroes were friends — Super Friends, if you will. At DC, a truth-justice-and-the-American-way guy like Superman could be best buds with a darkly disturbed vigilante like Batman and nobody batted an eye.
But Marvel? Marvel was more complicated. Did you notice any significant heroes missing from the original Avengers lineup? Spider-Man, you say? Yes, when it came time for Marvel to publish an all-star comic, the company’s No. 1 hero was left out. Why? Because it wouldn’t make sense. Spider-Man was a loner, an outcast and a teenager. Putting him in The Avengers would have toppled his character’s status quo. So despite the fact that they would’ve sold a lot more comics with him in the book, Stan and Jack left Spidey out, and he stayed out for decades.
But now you’re saying, “What about HULK? He’s more antisocial than Spider-Man.” True. Which is precisely why HULK left the team after the second issue.
In fact, Lee was so intent on making sure his superhero world made sense, that after 16 issues he kicked Thor and Iron Man out of the book because he couldn’t reconcile how they could be running around having adventures with The Avengers and in their solo titles at the same time. (Oh, how times have changed.)
Some Assembly Required
The Avengers has always been a team in flux. HULK left after two issues, Captain America joined in issue 4 and all the originals were gone by issue 16 — to be replaced by a former Iron Man villain (Hawkeye) and two former X-Men villains (Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch).
With this major lineup change, The Avengers were clearly no longer an all-star team. There were two reasons for the change, neither of which had anything to do with increasing sales (oh, how times have changed). As mentioned earlier, Stan didn’t want characters in two places at once. But just as important, by now Stan had figured out a key ingredient to Marvel’s success — soap opera. A Marvel superhero’s personal life was as much a part of the story as beating on the villain of the week. And nothing important in Thor’s character development could happen in The Avengers, it would have to happen in Thor. And so The Avengers became populated with characters without their own books so that their lives could play out in this setting.
By the early ’70s Stan relented and allowed Thor, Iron Man and Captain America (aka The Big Three) back on the team. According to my counting of Wikipedia’s accounting, 86 superheroes have been inducted into The Avengers (Wikipedia wisely does not count the Dark Avengers, who were villains pretending to be The Avengers. If Norman Osborn says you’re an Avenger, you’re not an Avenger.)
The Avengers Sell Out
The “New Avengers” brought Marvel’s biggest stars — Spider-Man and Wolverine — onto the team alongside Captain America and Iron Man (Thor was dead at the time).
It didn’t make any sense in terms of the logical workings of the Marvel Universe, but it catapulted the Avengers ahead of the X-Men and Spider-Man in terms of sales. The Avengers became the company’s leading title and has since turned into its own franchise with multiple titles published every month.
Ready for your closeup, Mr. Stark
In the beginning, Marvel wasn’t in the movie business so they sold off the rights to several characters (X-Men, Spider-Man, Daredevil, Ghost Rider, Punisher, Blade) to different studios where they met various levels of success.
In 2004, Marvel Studios decided to start making their own movies. In 2008 the first film in the deal was released — “Iron Man.” Not only was it a big hit but it laid the groundwork for the next four films — “Incredible Hulk,” “Iron Man 2,” “Thor” and “Captain America.” The next film would bring all these characters together in the first cinematic superhero crossover event: “The Avengers.”
And if you don’t know who Iron Man, HULK, Black Widow, Thor, Hawkeye and Captain America are by now, well, (a) you haven’t been reading the Report, (b) it’s too late for me to help you now, and (c) you’re probably not reading this in the first place.
And that’s all you need to know: Before You Go.