When I was young my father gave me this comic book:
Fantastic Firsts, a massive paperback full of first issue and origin stories for the heroes of the Marvel universe. By this point, just about anyone could name the characters on this cover, but at the time that knowledge was still fairly obscure. Some of it still is! The man in gold right in front of the Hulk is Iron Man!
In his origin story Tony Stark was captured by the Vietcong during the Vietnam War and suffered a deadly injury. He was able to prevent shrapnel from getting to his heart by building a full size vest that magnetized them away, then from there built an armored suit that allowed him to break free and become a hero.
I rather liked that origin story, then in 2008 I saw the first picture of this:
I had heard an Iron Man movie was coming, but I didn’t expect them to recreate the homemade suit from the comics! The X-Men movies wore leather instead of their costumes, Daredevil had his silly zip-up, and Batman was running around with his nipples exposed. But this movie, the more I saw in the trailers, used the comics origin story as a template for a more modern superhero story.
Then I saw the movie, and this logo for the first time:
I had seen Marvel before in front of a movie, but never Marvel Studios. I didn’t really know what a studio was! I was 14! What followed was a very good superhero movie that bucked a lot of traditions in the genre, and as I left while the credits rolled I was content. That would be the last time I ever left a Marvel Studios movie during the credits.
In the next few days people told me about a scene after the credits. I didn’t believe them. We tried to find a clip of it on YouTube. Easy to do now, but not then. Which meant I had to go see Iron Man again and sit through the credits to get to this:
I lost my god damn mind. See I had been reading a series called the Ultimates. It was a more 21st century take on the Avengers and in those comics Nick Fury, traditionally white, looked like this:
He looked exactly like Samuel L Jackson. He looked like Samuel L Jackson and someone actually cast him to promise there was more to come, to promise not only SHIELD but the Avengers. I was locked in.
Then over the next three years I watched the movies fulfill the makeup of the original Avengers comics (give of take an Ant-Man and The Wasp). The Hulk, Thor, and Captain America all got their movies and a promise at the end of their credits.
They Will Return in The Avengers
The Avengers was, in no uncertain terms, a cinematic event. The first of its kind, a team up superhero movie that was also better than anyone could have hoped. The movie climaxed with a moment that still resonates to this day:
Oh yeah, that movie also changed big budget franchise film making forever. Despite the small fact that literally nobody else has been able to pull it off.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has an edge over other wannabes like the DCEU, the X-Men, the already dead Dark Universe, and the Monsterverse (that’s the one with Godzilla and King Kong, the second best connected universe right now). Marvel Studios does only this. WB, Fox, Universal and Legendary are massive movie studios with many projects on the table. Disney may own Marvel now, but they keep hands off and allow the studio to do it’s own thing. It’s own thing, by the way, is tell increasingly complex stories about its characters.
Tony Stark’s arc has taken him from an arrogant weapons dealer to a peace keeper to the man willing to sacrifice himself for the world. Then in phase two, that sacrifice left him traumatized and, when that trauma was stoked, he created something he couldn’t control to protect the world that wound up putting everyone in danger. Coming off of that he surrendered control of himself to the governments of the world, the opposite of where he stood in Iron Man 2, and nearly killed one of his closest friends in blinded rage. Of anyone’s his story is the most complex. While the movies may not have gone all in on his alcohol addiction they’ve given him another one, super heroics. He tried to quit at the end of Iron Man 3 but a call from the Avengers brought him right back. This will probably kill him.
Steve Rogers went from the shrimp who didn’t like bullies to the super soldier who could actually defeat them, and gave up everything to do it. Only he didn’t die and woke up 70 years later to a world he couldn’t recognize but had to live in. For him, World War II never ended, which is why when Hydra revealed itself within SHIELD he found a new opportunity to finish it. At a point he couldn’t see the human he once was, only the super soldier, until his best friend Bucky appeared in the present as the Winter Soldier. For that last tie to who he was he shoved back against the world and gave up his place in it. One wonders if he’ll ever find peace.
Thor’s story is by far the simplest of the founding Avengers. He was poised to take the throne, walking down the path among his people, braggadocios and bold. His father humbled him and sent him to earth where he learned to be mortal, fell for the world and of course Jane Foster, then gave both those things up to stop his brother from exterminating his old enemies. He found his calling as a hero, but refused to take the throne when it was offered to him. Instead he chose to continue his own fight as a hero. Right up until his father died, leaving the throne in the hands of his evil sister. Sometimes greatness is thrust upon us, and after sacrificing Asgard to defeat Hela, Thor once again makes the long walk to the throne. This time, however, he’s solemn and regal. Unlike Cap and Iron Man, his arc is complete. He could fly off into space safely if it weren’t for Thanos’s massive ship bearing down on him.
For these three their stories are likely to come to an end in Avengers: Infinity War and its sequel. Whether by death or retirement we may never see them again. But with them they’ve brought so many more heroes into their world. The MCU has slowly trained its audience to understand heroes and comic book logic to the point that the Vision could just appear in the final third of Avengers: Age of Ultron and nobody has to tell you what he’s capable of. You just kind of roll with it.
That’s the other great strength of the MCU. The sheer power of the brand means that characters who would otherwise never get the spotlight can take center stage with ease. Would we ever see a Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, or Black Panther movie if they weren’t part of this universe? It’s unlikely. They don’t have to explain how their powers work, they just have to get the characters right and we buy into the rest. They didn’t even have to retread Spider-Man’s origin story for the third time in 15 years, they just put him in the world. Thank god.
For a movie studio to have released almost 20 blockbusters in 10 years that are all, at the very least, surface level enjoyable is unheard of. The scope of it all is insane, especially when its thrown into stark view in that class photo header image. (Check out the high res version)
The greatest thing to happen in my life has been watching my interests somehow become, not only mainstream, but a driving force in pop culture around the world. At the end of Iron Man 2 I had to explain to everyone what a hammer in New Mexico meant. At the end of The Avengers I had to tell everyone who Thanos was. At the end of Thor: Ragnarok I didn’t have to tell anyone what that ship meant. I expect I won’t have to explain Black Panther’s tag either. We’ll see today.
Over these past holidays I found that comic, Fantastic Firsts, and brought it back home with me from my parents house. Flipping through it, there aren’t many classic characters for Marvel to adapt after Phase Three. In whatever comes next they’ll have to look to the present, in newer heroes like Miles Morales as Spider-Man and Kamala Khan as Captain Marvel, Riri Williams as Iron Heart and Kate Bishop as Hawkeye. I cannot wait for that.
Marvel Will Return
PS, I recently rewatched a bunch of old Marvel trailers, so don’t be surprised if a massive Marvel marketing piece comes out down the line. Maybe I’ll save that one for Avengers 4.