Why the Avengers Matter Now
How did the old school, more sombre, more tired Avengers of the '80s and '90s become the hip Avengers of the new millennium? Posing the question, and attempting an answer delineates some crucial insights into the perpetuating longevity of pop culture.
In 2004, when Brian Michael Bendis took over writing The Avengers, the X-Men had been ruling Marvel Comics’ world since the early to mid-1980s. The X-Men’s mutants had been the cool, edgy, fashionable team for two generations of comic-reading youth; the Avengers by contrast, led by World War II veteran Captain America, were the older, solemn, traditional group. The X-Men regularly had about ten titles per month devoted to them and their various offshoot groups, the Avengers as a team had only the one regular title left. The X-Men, even had a successful movie franchise.
However, when Bendis switched from writing the Avengers to the X-Men last year, this balance had clearly changed, even if the X-Men franchise continued to remain relatively successful. The Avengers was the top-grossing movie of 2012. And with the announcement of the new Mighty Avengers title, there will now be eight titles featuring ‘Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’. How did this happen? How did a team that seemed like it was set to become primarily a specialist pleasure for a dwindling readership come to matter?
One point to keep in mind through all of this is that the Avengers comicbooks themselves have primarily become more popular in a relative sense rather than an absolute sense. According to sales figures at the Comichron website recent average sales figures per month for the Avengers titles are barely higher than they were back in 2003, and well below where they were from the 1960s to the 1980s. But of course the movie was a big success by any measure, and the various Avengers-related ‘event’ titles (such as ‘Civil War’ and ‘Age of Ultron’) have consistently sold well. At the least, the moniker ‘Avengers’ has become seen as a method of boosting the sales and profile of a title in the same way ‘Spider-Man’ and ‘X-Men’ were during the ‘80s and ‘90s. So, again we need to ask: how did this happen?
The obvious point for Marvel fans to make is that, under Bendis, more of the company’s popular characters were included in the team. In Bendis’ first few months after taking over the Avengers, he ‘disassembled’ the old line-up, including (supposedly) killing off a number of long-time Avenger fan favorites. A new title was then launched–the New Avengers–with a line-up that included Avengers stalwarts Captain America and Iron Man, and more controversially, Marvel’s (arguably) two most popular characters in Spider-Man and Wolverine.
This move to an ‘all-star line-up’ has been considered as the main impetus for the success of the new title--similar to the success of Grant Morrison’s Justice League book at DC--but the explanation may not be as simple as that. There have been many titles with Spider-Man and/or Wolverine that have failed to ignite; indeed in the early 1990s John Byrne tried an Avengers line-up of Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Thor that failed to gain much notice. Hence, Bendis’ relative success, while it is probably in part due to the inclusion of the stars, seems to also be due to a difference in approach.
Bendis’ existing popularity as a writer and the launch of a #1 issue certainly helped gain New Avengers some initial notice amongst fans. In my view though, apart from this, the first ‘New Avengers’ storyline was actually a pretty good read. (Sidebar: It was a common occurrence during Bendis’ time on the Avengers’ titles that his first storyline for a new Avengers title would often be his best. This included the Ultron storyline for Mighty Avengers, the Kang/Ultron’ storyline for the relaunched Avengers title in 2010, and probably even the Morgana Le Fey storyline in Dark Avengers, which I thought was consistently his best Avengers title.)
Bendis and artist David Finch created a looser and shadier version of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes than what had come before. But related to this, and perhaps the more important point here is that, under Bendis’ watch, characters that had traditionally been on the ‘outside’ of the Avengers’ universe fitted more easily into it. This included not just new members such as Spider-Man and Wolverine, Spider-Woman and Luke Cage, but also non-members (at least at the time) such as Daredevil, Doctor Strange, and the X-Men. In particular, Strange and the X-Men played major roles in Bendis’ second New Avengers storyline (about the Sentry), and would pop up again soon after in Bendis’ first company-wide crossover involving the Avengers, ‘House of M’.
‘House of M’, while not necessarily a standout story, was pivotal in cementing the Avengers as the centre of the Marvel Universe. The Avengers nominally shared top billing for the crossover with the X-Men. However, the Avengers’ advantage in terms of company-wide ‘events’ soon became clear. When Marvel’s heroes gather to contemplate the threat of Magneto and his family, they do not meet at the headquarters of Magneto’s traditional foes the X-Men, or even those of the Fantastic Four. Instead, they gather at the fairly newly established Avengers Tower, which seems perfectly logical given that so many of the major heroes, including the X-Men’s most visible member Wolverine, are now connected to the group.
The conclusion of the story is even more important in establishing the Avengers’ prominence. In the midst of battle Magneto’s daughter and former Avenger the Scarlet Witch uses her reality-warping powers to enact her proclamation that there will be ‘no more mutants’. This does not entirely happen, but the mutants’ numbers in the Marvel Universe are substantially reduced, and the X-Men are cordoned off into their own, largely separate section of Marvel, dealing with their own threats and own ‘events’ (for example: ‘Messiah Complex’). The Avengers, meanwhile, would become the centre of every Marvel company-wide ‘event’ for the next decade, including ‘Civil War’, ‘Secret Invasion’, ‘Dark Reign’, ‘Siege’, ‘Fear Itself’ and ‘Age of Ultron’.
However, this shift in focus for the Avengers was not without side-effects that some readers -- particularly long-term readers (including myself) -- might have viewed as less than positive. During the events/crossovers, the actual Avengers titles became auxiliary, providing either back stories (as in ‘Secret Invasion’), or focusing on a minor side-plot about one or two members while the larger story happens elsewhere (as in ‘Civil War’ and ‘Fear Itself’). Further, there feels like there is a continual pattern of the team going through an event, followed by a shake-up of the roster, which hardly seems to have time to establish itself before the team goes through another event and roster shake-up. While this is used to intriguing effect post-Civil War when the team splits into the pro-superhero registration Mighty Avengers and the anti-registration New Avengers it becomes rather tired by the time following ‘Fear Itself’ when the X-Men’s Storm, and Quake, are added to the roster (a change that, naturally, does not last long at all).
This points to another potential problem, that is, with the addition of dozens of new members over the decade, it became harder to identify who the Avengers were. During the peak of Morrison’s Justice League era it was clear that the League was, at its core, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and Martian Manhunter. For Bendis’ Avengers, who was the core? Captain America and Iron Man might be considered part of it since they were both key members of the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Avengers.
However they were also the leaders of the two opposing factions in ‘Civil War’, and following that story Captain America disappeared for a long stretch during which he was presumed ‘dead’. Thor too was absent for a long period. Luke Cage, Spider-Man, and Wolverine became stalwarts, but many old time fans considered them interlopers, a view that was reinforced when none of them appeared in the Avengers film. On the other hand, perhaps this fluidity worked in Marvel’s favor in that, unlike the JLA, it could spread the Avengers brand more widely by only requiring a few ‘top’ members to be present in a given book for it to be considered an Avengers title.
But that Bendis’ repositioning of the Avengers goes beyond placing them at the centre of the Marvel Universe; it also involved repositioning them as the ‘hip’, the ‘now’ group, which is the position that had been held for two decades by the X-Men. Many of Marvel’s traditional flagship characters -- Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, the Fantastic Four -- were conservative men in their 30s or 40s, and it was this generation that the ‘old’ Avengers had been built around. By contrast, many of the characters that Bendis built his team around had, like the X-Men, risen to prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s -- Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Ms. Marvel, Spider-Woman, and Wolverine -- while Spider-Man was easily Marvel’s most prominent hero during that era.
Beyond this generational change, quite a number of Bendis’ Avengers scenes revolved around the group hanging around their headquarters like a group of costumed college students, exchanging rapid-fire, irreverent barbs. (This tendency was brilliantly summarized by writer Dan Slott in an issue of Amazing Spider-Man, who claimed that all the Avengers did was sit around and eat Chinese takeout.) This is not to imply that Bendis’ Avengers were removed from adult concerns; for one thing, Cage’s and Jessica Jones’ baby injected a large dose of adult responsibility into what is generally a childless superhero world. But Bendis did lean towards emphasizing that these characters were still mostly in their twenties and early thirties, no longer a generation removed from their core audience. (Part of this change was, of course, because the core comicbook reading audience has become older.)
Of course, for most people, the Avengers only came to prominence with the release of their wildly successful movie in 2012. The path by which the Avengers became Hollywood stars–starting with the success of Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man– was for the most part independent from their renaissance in the comicbooks. However, developments in the comicbooks had some influence–most notably the movie did share some similarities with Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s alternate take on Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, The Ultimates, which involved a quasi-military S.H.I.E.L.D. essentially gathering the heroes together as weapons. (More obviously, The Ultimates had a Nick Fury that looked like Samuel L. Jackson; the Avengers film had a Nick Fury that was Samuel L. Jackson.)
Further similarities arise in that the elements mentioned above that elevated Bendis’ Avengers to popularity are present to some extent in the film. Like the comics, the Avengers movie is the centre of Marvel’s film franchises, with preceding films like ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ and ‘Thor’ being to a significant extent set-ups for the eventual Avengers flick. Also, one could easily imagine characters like Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man and Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk bantering away in a Bendis book. With The Avengers Earth’s Mightiest Heroes have definitely reached their cultural peak, teaming with Christopher Nolan’s Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises to rule the box office in 2012. Whereas once Hollywood had been the end goal for superheroes, now superheroes were the end goal for Hollywood.
How long the Avengers can keep the ascendancy is debatable. Marvel has created few new superstar characters in the past 30 years (arguably, Wolverine—who debuted in 1975—was the last one), and so the relative novelty in the comicbooks of teaming all of the stars together is probably fast approaching the point of becoming stale, if it is not already.
Similarly, in terms of the film franchise, there is probably a limit to how many times actors like Robert Downey Jr. will suit up -- and moviegoers who only know the Avengers through the films will probably have far less patience than the comicbook readers. But even if the Avengers’ peak in popularity is nearing an end, it has had almost a decade of prominence after it looked very much like its time was well and truly past. Now, if mainstream comics are on their last legs, the Avengers will not be the first on the scrapheap.