Assembling the Avengers
by Patrick Lugo
"And there came a day, a day unlike any other, when Earth's mightiest heroes and heroines found themselves united against a common threat. On that day, the Avengers were born—to fight the foes no single super hero could withstand!"
While not the actual opening words written by Stan Lee in issue #1 of THE AVENGERS back in 1963, that sentence appeared on page one of the vast majority of AVENGERS comics printed throughout its nearly fifty-year-long publishing history. Once past the bombast of an exploding caption stating "The first in a Star-Studded series of book-length super-epics featuring stories of Earth's Greatest Super-Heroes!" the narration presents itself with the seriousness of a news magazine show "The Place: Asgard, home of the Norse Gods! The Time: The Present!" Granted, any pretense of seriousness is dispelled when the setting is established to be the Isle of Silence in above-mentioned home of the Norse Gods. It is a comic book after all, and in the 1960's they were still intended for children.
Flash forward to spring of 2012 and the vast majority of people reading comic books in North America are adults, probably with children of their own. Many of them will likely be taking those children to see MARVEL's THE AVENGERS and probably hope to be transported back in time themselves. Perhaps back to a simpler time or perhaps a time where the epic battles of gods and men meant more to them than just a good time. However, these are not the Avengers of their childhoods.
Back in 1963 Marvel comics seemed to have perfected the means of capturing lightweight in a bottle, perhaps with the help of a certain god of thunder. Jack Kirby and Stan Lee's Fantastic Four #1 appeared on newsstands in the autumn of 1961 and was quickly followed by Spider-Man, Ant-Man, The Incredible Hulk and Thor the following year. By 1963 Marvel comics also published Iron Man, among others, and were now looking to present their readership with an equivalent to their distinguished competition's flagship titles THE JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA.
Comics, like movies, are a visual medium and with illustrator Jack Kirby behind the designs of these iconic characters, Stan Lee's idea to bring them together under a single title was a likely formula for success. It might also explain the absence of the character Spider-Man, a creation much more closely associated with artist Steve Ditko. It should be noted, that among comic enthusiasts, it's widely believed that Jack Kirby was treated badly by Marvel comics. Left to die poor and destitute, there was no cameo appearance as retirement plan available to that half of the Lee/Kirby partnership. This has resulted in a portion of comic-book fandom, those mostly considered a guaranteed audience, to propose the moral stance of boycotting THE AVENGERS movie as a protest against corporate abuse of creator rights. Owned now by Disney, Marvel comics and the much newer Marvel Studios is unlikely to even register such sentiment.
One need not delve so far into the history of comics to discover the true secret origin of this movie. Merely a decade ago, Marvel comics set out to launch a new line of comics aimed at a much more modern audience. This new imprint was dubbed the ULTIMATE line of Marvel comics and features such titles as ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN and ULTIMATE X-MEN. In 2002 Marvel set out to publish their ULTIMATE version of The Avengers in a 13-issue series titled THE ULTIMATES.
Artist Bryan Hitch redesigned the lead characters with one eye pointed towards and extreme sports aesthetic and the other pointed at movie costume and set design. His design sense was so rooted in an approximation of real world manufacturing his influence is plain to see in most of the movies MARVEL has produced over the past few years. The most obvious being the casting of Samuel L. Jackson (a comics fan in his own right) as S.H.I.E.L.D director agent Nick Fury who, up until the debut of MARVEL's ULTIMATE line, has been a WWII era white man; played once by David (Baywatch) Hasselhoff.
Writer of THE ULTIMATES, Mark Millar re-imagined the team of flawed yet heroic super-beings as an elite military squad of super-soldiers, spies and spin doctors. Along with Samual Jackson's Agent Fury, Scarlett Johansson's Agent Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow and Jeremy Renner's Agent Clint Barton / Hawkeye owe their onscreen presence more to THE ULTIMATES than to their original appearances as adversaries of IRON MAN. It was here where the invading aliens were first named. Millar's skill for pitching comic books as movies would pay off well for him with big screen versions of his comics WANTED and KICK-ASS arriving in theaters in the years following.
MARVEL's media conscious experiments with their line of ULTIMATE comics would bring other successes. Most significantly for them would be the IRON MAN movie whose financial success lead directly to MARVEL taking a more direct role in movie production than even DC comics, a Warner Bros. subsidiary. This spring's opening of THE AVENGERS represents the culmination of a nearly decade long plan to recreate the publishing model which brought about THE AVENGERS comic, only with a series of movies.
Director Joss Whedon earned his geek-cred amongst martial artists back when he had Buffy the Vampire Slayer practicing Tai Chi in 1998, he has since had the good sense to include solid martial artists as stunt doubles and coordinators. He did the same for comic book fans in 2004 with the debut of MARVEL's ASTONISHING X-MEN #1, a series written by Whedon, conscious of the growing X-Men movie franchise. Like any decent martial artist, Whedon has been training for this latest challenge for years. He also loves his geeks and there is a lot of geek-love on display. Techies will lavish in the design of S.H.I.E.L.D. jets and Helecarrier computing or there's the Stark Phone. Comic fans might want to keep an eye out for Kirby-tech and will surely enjoy the iconic moments and the traditional pre-team-up brawl.
For the martial artist, Whedon makes good use of fight coordinator Jonathan Eusebio, former instructor at the Inosanto Academy and a self-professed fanboy; he's also a trainer to action stars at the 87Eleven Action Design gym in southern California. He's working with stunt coordinators R.A. Rondell and Hank Amos – one is an alumnus of THE MATRIX trilogy and the other of THE EXPENDABLES. Together, they expand look and feel of the FX-heavy martial arts that have since been found in such movies as NINJA ASSASSIN. Set in a world where myth walks alongside science-fiction the range of power on display is huge, how would a single martial artist hope to survive an encounter with the Hulk? Eusebio and company have obviously spent time contemplating such questions and their answers are given good screen time.
There is something to be said about the range of specialized skills on display in the movie as well as within the story. This also translates to the fight scenes which initially seem obligatory, but reveal themselves as a significant facet to the characterization for most of the characters, a trick Whendon seems to have brought with him from his days on Buffy. Just about each Avenger arrives with a weapon of choice, something which defines them visually and allows their nature to be revealed in action: Thor's hammer, Captain America's shield, Iron Man's armor, Hawkeye's extreme archery and Nick Fury's "cool," well, really it's all his cool gear and massive resources. The two exceptions are the Hulk and Black Widow. One has the massive strength and the other, massive skill (good kung fu).
Back when Chris Hemsworth was filming THOR he made mention of the fighting style developed with fight choreographer and National American Sports Karate Association (N.A.S.K.A.) Champion Gary Ray Stearns. Among Vikings of old, the hammer was typically a two-handed weapon used to smash shield walls, but when Jack Kirby designed the comic character Thor's hammer became more an extension of the character's fist. Perfectly suitable for the extreme foreshortening that was characteristic of Kirby's style of art. Translated to film, the hammer acts alternately as the ultimate karate chop or as a sort of flying fist or maybe even a meteor hammer. THE AVENGERS builds on Thor's fighting style testing him against a range of opponents.
In contrast, Captain America doesn't come off as having a specific fighting technique. Trained by a WWII era army it's doubtful even Judo was a part of his curriculum. With the majority of the character's experience derived from running across the battlefields of France there is a distinct Parkour feel to his movements. Not to the extent as would be seen in DISTRICT B13 but it seems to inform the character's action and underscores Steve Roger's fearlessness. He also goes through plenty of heavy bags.
Devoted practitioner Rober Downey Jr. does not get many opportunities to flex his Wing Chun. As the only character making a third appearance (fourth, if you count the post-credit sequence MARVEL's 2008 THE INCREDIBLE HULK) Tony Stark shows up as a well-established character who gets in his fair share of repulse-powered pak saus. He also plays the human who seems to take the most beatings and that must count as some sort of iron body accomplishment. With the recent news of China's co-production of IRON MAN 3 one might expect another upgrade in the depiction of super-human kung fu is just on the horizon.
The Hulk is probably the best Hulk to hit (or smash) the big screen. Played by Mark Ruffulo as older and more experienced than previous depictions, his CGI-generated alter ego, the big guy, might as well have been modeled on UFC heavyweight champ Brock Lesnar. Extensive use the motion capture technology in creating the Hulk kept Ruffulo in the production's Albuquerque, New Mexico stunt-training gym along with Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner and Tom Hiddleston reprising his role as Loki, god of mischief and the inadvertent catalyst behind the formation of the team both in the comics and the film.
There's criticism of the accuracy in depicting Haweye's super-archery skills online. Others question the point of Hawkeye's inclusion in the movie at all, wondering why trick arrows would be any use in a world of super-weapons of mass destruction. Readers of the comic series would intuitively understand that a series like The Avengers could not offer major character development for characters like Thor or Iron Man as they had their own series where these things happen. Instead, the secondary characters would experience defining moments and significant changes. It's a convention that is put to good use in the movie, both with Hawkeye and Black Widow. Added to that, there's something interesting happening this spring; starting with THE HUNGER GAMES, THE AVENGERS is the second movie to feature archery. These will be followed by Pixar's BRAVE in June which will likely be the final word on the art of archery in the movies, at least until Hawkeye returns in the sequel.
Without a signifying weapon to define her character, Scarlett Johansson continued the wushu training started with Eusebio on the set of IRON MAN 2. This time she added some weapons. Of the training she says "We definitely embraced Wushu a lot, and there's definitely more weaponry. It was a bit complicated because I could pick up all the hand-to-hand movements pretty well, but then he would say, 'Oh yeah, here's this giant staff you have to be holding while you're doing the movements.'" She added "I have to be honest—the first time I saw what they had in mind, I was like, 'I'm never going to be able to learn this.' So it's just a lot of failures until you get it right, but boy do those failures hurt sometimes!" In some cases that staff shoots lasers but any comic reader familiar with the character continues to hope a Rope Dart would shoot out of those bracelets of hers at some point.
It's no secret that Whedon adores his female protagonists and was considered a perfect choice to write and direct a Wonder Woman movie, which has since been lost to the underworld of development hell. Fans of Whedon would enter the movie with high expectations of Johansson's performance both as an actress as well as an action star. "She came to the stunt gym on a regular basis and really worked hard with Heidi (her stunt double) and Jonathan (fight coordinator) to learn all of the new moves and fighting techniques" says stunt coordinators R.A. Rondell. It's training which plays well on-screen.
Also devoted to his wushu training, was Tom Hiddleston who as Loki not only had Thor as an opponent, but Captain America, Iron Man and the Hulk as well. He was tasked with learning the most fight sequences, each one different depending on his foe. More so, the fights were key to Hiddleston's process of acting. He went as far as to say "I started going through the movements and as I did more and more, I started reconnecting to the character because I believe how you move informs everyone of who you are." He goes on philosophically "All you have to do then is add in the emotion of throwing or catching a punch, and it almost becomes a very Zen-like experience." Without the long spear which was Loki's weapon of choice in THOR, he's armed with a new weapon. While vaguely reminiscent of a Pudao, its origins are more cosmic and vaguely Kirby-ish, a challenge to the astute fan. Whedon's throwing down the gauntlet and promising an infinitely more entertaining sequel to what is already a gem of a movie. The Audience need only assemble.
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About Patrick Lugo:
Patrick Lugo has written and designed for Kung Fu Tai Chi for over 15 years. He has also just illustrated his first children's book, LITTLE MONK AND THE MANTIS based on a kung fu legend.