Monday, April 30, 2012

Tips for Assembling the Avengers

As an employee of Marvel Entertainment, I had the good fortune to see “Marvel’s The Avengers” a week early and in 3-D on a big ol’ screen last Thursday. For this lifelong comic fan, seeing Earth’s Mightiest Heroes huddling up in a circle as chaos reigned down on New York City, I can without a shred of corporate bias say my expectations were met and exceeded. It’s a fine film that you should see not just because of its quality but because it will likely rewrite civilization as we know it not unlike the renaissance and you don’t want to get left behind. Do you?

(Last sentence hyperbole aside, see my sincere sentiments from the previous sentence and double those to compensate)

The movie had a not entirely unexpected but interesting lineup, with the requisite Captain America/Iron Man/Thor triumvirate on top, Avengers fixture Hawkeye along for the ride, comics founder but short-term member The Hulk as the wild card, and finally Black Widow—a former team leader who has logged her fair share of avenging—to round out the group with Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. in a support role. It’s the template Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch used for the Ultimates, but it’s also just a solid mix of personalities, powers and temperaments that makes for great action as well as solid drama.

It got me thinking about what makes a good Avengers line-up. Honestly, any roster can be pretty good or even great with the right creators and stories, but the Avengers perhaps more so than the X-Men, Teen Titans or JLA have been able to alter their line-up through the years and shuffle members in and out; along the way I would say something resembling a formula for success has developed.

Here are the things I feel make for an optimal Avengers team…

They don’t need to get along
The Fantastic Four are a family, the X-Men are a school (or a faculty), the Teen Titans are childhood friends—these are the conventions we’re used to (even if they’re sometimes altered, they tend to be resilient). The Justice League and the Avengers are professionals; they’re highly powered, highly motivated individuals coming together to do a job in the same way any corporation or small business does. Of course you don’t always
like everybody you work with, even if you’re very successful in what you collectively do. While refinements have been made over the years, the very first Justice League stories in many cases ring hollow because it’s half a dozen people who get along famously from the moment they fight their first starfish. The Avengers more realistically bicker and clash when thrust unwittingly into working as a unit and it’s not until down the line that familiarity and kinship does indeed lead to friendship and respect. Nowhere was this more evident than on the original team, where The Hulk quit after one issue and everybody was coming to blows constantly, even after Captain America joined the team (somewhere along the way many people have come to believe Cap was some sort of quick fix, but he was leaving the team every few issues after getting into it with Hawkeye for some time). Even today, there are personality clashes (and the occasional Civil War), though there is also deep and abiding affection forged from years of saving the world together. If you think about your workplace, it’s likely you may not have been enamored with all your co-workers when you started, but somewhere along the way, you bonded, be it through shared victories, sheer proximity, or a combination of both and more (or you all still detest one another, but you put it aside to get home by 7:00; either way). We may not be able to relate to thunder gods or super soldiers, but a tense workplace environment is pretty familiar to most.

Soap opera doesn’t hurt
That said, all work and no play, yada yada yada. I like a healthy dose of pathos and interpersonal drama as much as I like punching and laser blasts in my comics (I grew up on 90’s X-Men, don’t blame me). As much as I love the Kree-Skrull War, Under Siege or Avengers Forever, I’ve got just as much affection for the unique courtship of The Vision and The Scarlet Witch. We’ve seen just about every romantic pairing imaginable in comics, but the beautiful yet outcast mutant gypsy who found love with the synthetic man and made him feel human remains among the most poignant to me. Beyond doing a lot for those two characters, this development mushroomed out to engulf other members of the cast, whether it was breaking Hawkeye’s heart or driving Quicksilver near insane. You would think I’d have gone wild for the Crystal-Black Knight-Sersi triangle during the 90’s, but in that case I’d say the soap opera took over a bit too much, as those three seemed to be the only ones any of the plots revolved around while Captain America, Black Widow, Hercules and the rest were just there to beat up bad guys. Striking a balance between the mission and downtime is key to any successful super hero team dynamic, but with a group like the Avengers, where that mission can be so vast and imposing, finding time to sprinkle in stuff like flirtations, weddings or even just friendship (Wonder Man and Beast!) goes a long way.

Give new characters a chance
It’s simple marketing, really, but if you’ve already got a solid core of proven A-listers on a property like Avengers, taking the risk to bring a lesser-known player into the mix and have them siphon some of that spotlight just for a bit can reward you with a brand new star. Throwing Beast in with a respectable line-up that already had Captain America and Iron Man transcended him from just being an X-Men also ran into being a true fan favorite. In her admittedly derivative earliest incarnation, She-Hulk had trouble carrying a solo series, but being part of the Avengers helped bring out a fresh and likable personality as she played wonderfully off the more established Wasp and Hawkeye. For decades, Luke Cage hovered on the fringe of being a true mover and shaker, but as the x-factor among surefire superstars including Spider-Man and Wolverine in New Avengers, I’d argue he’s become among the most beloved characters in comics over the past decade and finally broken past cult status. Going back to that workplace analogy, it can be tough to break in a fresh face on a book like Teen Titans where readers are often looking for familiarity and comfort, and additions to the X-Men tend to be newly discovered mutants rather than established characters seeking a push (with obvious exceptions), but offices hire new people all the time, and just like real people can benefit from employment by a prominent brand, so can the Avengers elevate those who have potential.

POV is key
It’s always nice to have an everyman (or woman) on the Avengers. I mean, really you can use a relatable character on any comic book team, but with the group that’s supposed to be the best of the best, it’s nice to have a way in as a reader. Probably the go-to guy here has always been Hawkeye, and that’s, of course, a big part of his charm. There’s something very cool about a dude with a bow and arrow who can hang with the biggest guns in and of itself, but it’s also a window for us to think that if we persevere hard enough, we can not only accomplish our goals, but earn the respect and admiration of those society would see as our superiors, but whom we can become peers with if we try. Decades later, Justice gave another spin on the POV Avenger, as he possessed tremendous telekinetic powers, but his hero worship would often stop him in his tracks. Vance Astrovik was a great addition to the Avengers (and not just due to being a New Warrior) because he represented the closest approximation to how a real life fan would probably act were they somehow transported into the Marvel Universe and ascended to this role. Justice had a nice journey to boot, as he never fully lost that stage fright in front of his idols, but he worked hard to get on as equal ground as he could and ended up a true asset to the team. More recently, the original everyman, Spider-Man, has served capably as the guy in awe of sharing living space with Captain America. Most recently, Venom the newest Avenger, has hooked up with the group he’s aspired to being part of since he was a teenager, and I’m looking forward to experiencing his initiation along with him.

Take chances with leadership
Some of the best Avengers chairpersons have been the ones you never would have picked. The Wasp, for years, was the flighty mascot of the team, but after suffering through personal tragedy, she channeled her energy into her work and became one of the most elite leaders the group ever had, her affability and understated toughness providing a different style that worked wonderfully. Luke Cage was, for years, the quintessential loner, and even a guy who took cash to do good deeds, but it truly marked his maturity that he could rally his squad the way he did during their darkest hour. And even though she may only have been team leader for a relative eye blink, Monica Rambeau proved that heart (and Roger Stern’s awesome writing) can be just as valuable as experience.

They should always be Earth’s Mightiest Heroes
At the end of the day, the thing you really have to think about when crafting an Avengers roster is if they would be the people every other hero or civilian in the Marvel Universe would want as the cavalry, because that’s their role. Yes, it’s no doubt a relief to have the X-Men, Fantastic Four or Defenders backing your play, but when you hear “Avengers Assemble!” you should sigh a sense of relief, knowing whatever menace is afoot, it’s no match for the combined might of Earth’s Mightiest. Not to make it an Avengers/JLA thing, but the weakest incarnations of the Justice League surely did not inspire this sense of confidence; when Vibe and company arrived to pull Firestorm’s fat out of the fire during Legends, I can’t imagine he was really breathing easy (and of course half the team died shortly thereafter). However, even with the near-forgotten short term Avengers line-up that came together during Inferno, you still had half the FF, Captain America in a badass black suit and freaking Thor coming to your rescue (also, Gilgamesh). Even when Doctor Druid somehow swindled his way into being team leader, the tri-towers of Hercules, She-Hulk and Namor were around to wreck shop. Even when Captain America got left with three inexperienced former villains…ok, honestly, if I were Spider-Man, maybe I would have a little nervous were I battling Doctor Doom and got Cap’s Kooky Quartet as back-up, but doggone it, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are plenty powerful, Captain America can intimidate even the lord of Latveria, and you better believe Hawkeye’s got a trick arrow for that. If you’ve got the Avengers on your side, it’s game over for the opposition—period.