There have been two very different Hulks (Eric Bana raged out in Ang Lee’s angsty version, while Edward Norton went green in Louis Leterrier’s smash-mouthed follow-up), a couple of Iron Man films with a pair of Rhodeys (the War Machine armor didn’t fit Terrence Howard, so dapper Don Cheadle stepped in), a thunderous alien prince with god-like abilities and Shakespearean aspirations and a fittingly scrawny weakling who grew into an American captain of note. It is the same misunderstood bunch, but the behind-the-scenes drama eclipsed the narrative tension inherent in assembling such a collection of super-sized egos.
The super teams of Marvel Comics always had interpersonal issues. The Fantastic Four juggled their, well, fantastic powers within the dynamic of a loving family of disparate individuals constantly at odds with one another. The Uncanny X-Men took matters even further, channeling the urgent civil unrest of the 1960s into the conflict between Homo sapiens and Homo superiors, the mutant super-race borne from accelerated genetic evolution. It was broad and gutsy to go in such a politicized direction with comic book characters, but it made even more sense when, in the hands of director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil), the outsider metaphor of the X-Men was updated to include the more contemporary angle of the acceptance of the gay, lesbian and transgender communities.
But the Avengers were always (and continue to be) a unique outfit in the world of superheroes.
One of their rallying cries — “Avengers Assemble!” — speaks to the very essence of what makes them so distinct and what might make future film installments such a challenge. The team is an ad hoc committee. In a universe of Rock stars, The Avengers are a super group with players constantly rotating and trading instruments in the studio, like The Traveling Wilburys in spandex tights.
It is actually unfortunate that the realities of the fractured studio rights (Marvel Studios proper has teamed up with Disney to distribute The Avengers, while Columbia Pictures and 20th Century Fox have a few key supes in indentured servitude) prevents, at least for the foreseeable future, the kind of crossover that occurs on the page because every two or three years a new Avengers dream team could rampage into theaters. Imagine Spider-Man, Wolverine and The Thing (from the Fantastic Four) clobbering Thanos or being forced to choose sides in the highly anticipated faceoff between The Avengers and The X-Men with the build-up jumping from television to film in an all-out media onslaught.
Yet, the real question (for the moment) is, are these Avengers the right ones for our current American society, the socially networked, reality freak show watchers that we are? I believe they most certainly are. Marvel always had a leg up on the DC comic world, in that Marvel never attempted to create a fictional alternative with generic names for their urban landscapes. So the Avengers Mansion takes up residence in Manhattan, meaning that at some key point down the road, The Hulk (played by a thirtysomething Josh Hutcherson) and the crew (which might include a sexy red She-Hulk, a black hero or two and a few alien beings) could pop over to the Jersey Shore for a wild night. That could, of course, somehow get captured on video and posted on the new intergalactic version of YouTube where Thor (having finally gotten over his daddy issues and claimed the throne) and the Asgardians could sit back and laugh at how pathetic we humans remain, but we wouldn’t care because everyone knows those old heads across the bridge are just bunch of long-haired snobs.
And we can thank cool comic book nerd Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel) for popping up these kernels of cultural dissonance into a patriotic reflection of our not-so-deep desires. You know, red state vs. blue state, rich vs. poor, when faced with a common foe, America, despite all internal opposition, can assemble its best and brightest to smack down a CGI foe.
It’s too bad The Hulk, Iron Man, Thor and Captain America can’t smash a depressed economy or the debate over civil unions. Who do we need to get together to handle that stuff?
THE AVENGERS opens Friday. Visit citybeat.com for reviews of DAMSELS IN DISTRESS and Marley, which also open Friday.