Thursday, February 12, 2015

Not a team player (part 2)

(Part 1 here)

OK, so Sony had the rights to make Spider-Man movies and did in fact churn out five of them in the 21st century (using two different directors/casts and essentially recycling a lot of the same narrative beats between the first three and the last two) with hit-or-miss results. Marvel Studios, in the meantime, has been churning out numerous movies featuring slightly lesser-known (if not now, thanks to the flicks in question, at least arguably at the time they were first in development) superheroes, and those movies have been far more hit than miss. Marvel Studios has developed an approach and an in-house style of storytelling that may be formulaic, but that formula has been a proven success. Now, with Marvel Studios dominant and Sony’s latest attempt to cash in on the superhero boom resulting in a truncated, underperforming Spider-Man duology, the word is out that Marvel Studios will be getting the flagship character of the namesake comics company “back”. In what way is this anything but good news for fans of quality superhero movies, fans of Spider-Man, fans of fun in general?

Basically, it boils down to people not wanting Spider-Man to be an Avenger. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth to that effect flooded my Facebook feed this week, so much that the subject took over my brain and turned into this epic multi-part blog post. I kinda get where people are coming from, but I don’t really share their concerns. Thus I feel compelled to dissect everything here. Sounds totally fun, right?

First of all, all of this freaking out is a tad premature, to my mind. “Marvel Studios and Sony Reach Deal on Spider-Man Rights” is a pretty self-explanatory headline, but I dutifully clicked on a couple of links to read some details. The only concrete ones I could find were these: Spider-Man now legally can, and therefore will, appear in Marvel Studios films. He will show up at some point in some movie headlined by some other established Marvel Cinematic Universe character (most people expect this to be the third Captain America movie, but it really doesn’t matter), and then some time after that he will headline his own solo movie. That’s all that has been officially confirmed so far. No one has said he will appear in an Avengers movie, and no one has said that in that movie he will join up and become a dedicated full-time member of the team. Yet people are rolling their eyes and shaking their heads as if those developments for MCU Spider-Man are all set in stone.

Now, I went to great trouble in the first post to point out that in many ways the MCU and the Avengers are inseparable and indistinguishable. The Incredible Hulk movie and the Iron Man series and the first Cap and Thor movies all arranged the playing pieces on the board specifically to set up the plot of The Avengers. Announcements of future movies seem to show a consistent dedication to giving the Avengers a deep enough bench that the franchise could keep going even as the older actors decline to sign new contracts and their individual franchises wind down. All true, all very much creating the impression that All Things Serve the Avengers.

But as I also said last time, that was a choice Marvel Studios made when they decided to go for broke and make it Avengers-all-or-nothing because a lot of their other characters were spoken for elsewhere. When one of those prodigal properties is added to the mix, does it change the calculation, alter the strategy? It might, or it might not, but I’m of the opinion that either possibility could come to pass and assumptions are just that.

Still, for the sake of argument, let’s say the people reading the tea leaves are correct. The MCU is for all intents and purposes The Avengers and vice versa. (It’s really not, even before you toss in Spider-Man, but I’ll come back to that later.) So why, you may be wondering, does it matter? So Spider-Man makes some cameos and gets his own movie and becomes an Avenger, like Hawkeye or Black Panther. Why is that a bad thing?

Objection #1: Spider-Man is a loner

Apparently some of Spider-Man’s ardent fans, meaning people who’ve been reading the comics their whole lives, insist that this is true. That being a loner is essential to Spider-Man. If you put a character on a team with a bunch of other similar characters, he is by definition no longer a loner. Ergo, if Spider-Man becomes an Avenger, he loses something essential and is ruined, QED.

This is a pretty dumb argument, not least because it’s untrue. Spider-Man is not a loner. The Punisher is a loner. Ghost Rider is a loner. Spider-Man was not designed as a member of a pre-fabricated team, like the original Fantastic Four and X-Men were, but he quickly established a working friendship with one of the members of the FF, the Human Torch. He did the same thing with Daredevil, and the Black Cat, and various other superheroes, and not once did he have to be convinced to reluctantly join forces while grumbling “Spider-Man works alone.” You know, like a loner. One of my favorite Marvel comics from the 70’s and 80’s was a series called Marvel Team-Up, the ostensible premise of which was that two superheroes who are not teammates and don’t usually hang out together would get into a single, self-contained adventure every issue. And the pair of heroes would change every month. Except, in practice, 95% of the time one of the two heroes was Spider-Man. Of course it was, on a business level, because he was their most popular well-known character, and that vehicle was a great way to boost visibility of other books and their casts and whatnot. But narratively it made sense, too, because Spider-Man is one of the most cooperative superheroes ever, way more concerned with doing the right thing (great power/great responsibility and all that) than doing things his way.

So temporary alliances, that’s just built right into who Spider-man is. And it goes beyond the power duos of Marvel Team-Up, too. To beat my favorite horse, it’s not as though the masterminds behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe invented the idea of a shared universe, of different characters cameoing in each other’s stories, or of massive all-encompassing crossovers. That’s right out of the comics’ playbook. And Spider-Man was always a part of the big crossovers, because yet again, of course he was, why wouldn’t the face of the company be front and center? Marvel did a big (admittedly ridiculously dumb) crossover in the 80’s called Secret Wars, where a whole bunch of heroes (most of the Avengers AND the X-Men AND the FF AND Spider-Man) were abducted into space with a bunch of supervillains and forced into a planet-wide gladiatorial battle. A spiritual successor to that storyline in the 90’s was The Infinity Gauntlet, which was about Thanos gathering the Infinity Gems and all the Avengers/FF/X-Men/Spider-Man huddling up and banding together to take him down. If the second one sounds familiar, that’s of course what it looks like the MCU is currently building towards, with the various appearances of the gems and Thanos as subplots in different movies. So it’s not as though they’re now going to be forced to shoehorn Spider-Man into a story about everybody-versus-Thanos. Spider-Man was right there in the source material.

It might be more accurate, and I’ll generously concede that this may be what people actually meant, to say Spider-Man’s never been much of a joiner. That’s true up to a point, in that Spider-Man’s never been a member of a team for so long that it becomes closely linked to the character’s essence. But he’s joined some teams in his day, in the comics. Including … the Avengers.

Objection #2: Spider-Man as an Avenger has been done in the comics, and it’s always so terrible that they quickly revert him to the status quo of independence

This at least has the benefit of not being prima facie dead wrong. Terribleness is of course a matter of subjective opinion, but it can at least be demonstrated that, yes, Spider-Man’s periods of active Avengers membership have been infrequent and brief. Very few hardcore comics geeks would name Spider-Man as their favorite Avenger, or as a quintessential Avenger; some might be legitimately unaware he was ever an Avenger at all. I consider myself deep on Avengers comics fandom, if I do say so myself, and I can’t name a single Avengers storyline, classic or otherwise, that hinges on Spider-Man being part of the team and would fall apart without him. Though, on the other hand, I can’t think of a storyline utterly ruined by his membership, either.

Spider-man is not intrinsically a loner, but he is intrinsically an underdog. That’s unquestionably part of his appeal. He’s often overmatched by his opponents, and sometimes he only wins by sheer force of will and refusal to give up, and sometimes he doesn’t actually win at all, or his victories are Pyrrhic. And that, I concede, doesn’t really square with the Avengers, who were branded by Marvel Comics as the “World’s Mightiest Heroes”. Spider-Man has never been about raw might. (Yeah, neither has Hawkeye, but let’s not get distracted.)

Moreover, in the comics, being a member of the Avengers includes certain perks and privileges. You can live for free in Avengers mansion, sleep there, eat meals cooked by Jarvis the butler, work out in the gymnasium, do research in the lab, get anywhere in the world in minutes by borrowing a quinjet from the hangar, and if you happen to get in over your head somewhere you can call in reinforcements. (No lie, one of my top five all-time favorite made-up words for made-up technology comes from the Avengers; they all carried communicards, which were basically iPhones running Facetime but with the physical dimensions of a credit card. Introduced in the comics in 1977!) Spider-Man, by contrast, often has trouble paying the rent, or paying for medicine for dear sweet sick old Aunt May, or figuring out where he can wash his Spider-Man costume since using the coin-op laundromat means risking his secret identity. Being an Avenger solves those kinds of problems, but those problems are part and parcel of who Spider-Man is. Someone on Facebook compared Spider-Man as an Avenger to the last season of Roseanne, where the Conners won the lottery; still the same character having new adventures, but fundamentally off-model because one element was flipped. It’s not an unfair observation.

You could look at it from the perspective of intangible perks, too, the fact that the Avengers are loved and respected and trusted and some of them have public identities, while Spider-Man has that whole thing where cops think he’s a vigilante troublemaker and people wonder why he wears a mask that covers his entire face and J. Jonah Jameson is always gunning for him in editorials, so once again if you put them together you cancel out something that’s usually good fodder for boilerplate Spider-man stories. I’m not knocking boilerplate (in this case at least) because Spider-Man’s a great character and his running motifs are well-earned. These are all valid points.

My counter-objection, then, is that so far we have seen exactly one Avengers movie from Marvel Studios. Maybe we can re-open this angle of the conversation after we’ve all digested Age of Ultron, but for now, I think saying that Spider-Man as an Avenger in the movies is a terrible idea because Spider-Man as an Avenger in the comics is a terrible idea is a leap of logic too far, and requires a ton of projecting of expectations for the movie Avengers. There is no Avengers mansion in the movies. Nobody lives in their headquarters except Tony Stark. They don’t have weekly meetings or make public relations appearances. Jarvis is a computer program and doesn’t actually fix tea or clean and press uniforms. People appreciate that the Avengers defended New York from the Chitauri invasion, but they also know that was a joint effort between the Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D. and S.H.I.E.L.D. has been thoroughly discredited by HYDRA (as per Winter Soldier and last season’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) The MCU Avengers don’t have the material resources or the goodwill of their comics predecessors, so maaaaaaaybe it wouldn’t be quite so ruinous for Spider-Man to associate with them. Maybe?

And there’s a whole lot of wiggle room between associating with the Avengers, even on a recurring basis, and being a charter-signing, fingerprinted, retina-scanned, communicard-carrying, expense-account-approved member of the team. Yet every superhero in the MCU winds up officially joining, because All Things Serve the Avengers. Or not? I’ll pick up there next post.

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