Posted by: Doc Comics | May 8, 2012

Whedon’s AVENGERS and Marvel’s missing Excelsior?

This past weekend has Joss Whedon’s AVENGERS movie breaking all kinds of records and basking in critical acclaim as a summer blockbuster $uccess. Marvel’s AVENGERS is also breaking the mold and reimagining democratic if slightly dysfunctional superteams, even as it offers a subtle critique of militarization common in today’s movie militainment, which post-credits teasers suggest may become a future storyline (Civil War? Infinity Gauntlet?). Some critics, however, just aren’t fans of the blockbuster genre and lament the muddled gender politics of this post-9/11 Superhero Zeitgeist. Although I think Whedon’s treatment is predictably sophisticated yet limited in its adaptation, despite calls for a boycott due to Kirby’s legacy, what the movie gets right is also an interesting object lesson in the missing Marvel magic from today’s comics. Whedon’s ‘dysfunctional family’ flick captured some of the Silver Age FUN of superteams, whereas contemporary Marvel comics seem unable to answer the energy and success of DC’s bold 52 initiative.

I’m sure to take a lot of heat for a summer class on superhero mythology that is not going to include trades of iconic Marvel stories (even if they will be examined in context and discussed). Its been a tough decision hewing down a 5 week course but doing it has highlighted some persistent problems with Marvel Comics, particularly in terms of their continuity mythos and recent post-Disney buyout malaise. Don’t get me wrong, as past blog entries attest, I’m a huge fan of “The House of Ideas” and their undeniable contribution to innovative comics storytelling, but there are a few uncomfortable truths about Marvel’s nagging Achilles heel: spotty collected trades of ‘classic’ storylines within an often confusing continuity. As the Avengers example illustrates, Marvel has some characteristic flaws that make it difficult to introduce a college class (about half of whom are new to comics) to maddeningly complexspace operastorylines scattered across a bazillion titles, prone to gimmicks and events as much as enduring storytelling (despite notable exceptions), and sparse trade collections that force students to industry-killing online retailers rather than nurture our local comic shop. It’s an illuminating exercise to sit down and chart the must-read Marvel stories suitable for scholarly examination, weigh their merits against other comics for a 5 or 15 week class, then try to figure out how to get them in the hands of students. Consult any Top 10 Comics list and debate is sure to follow, not unlike discussion over which Avengers storyline could make good fodder for a movie franchise. This challenge of attracting new readers and fans is certainly a central one, but also pressing is the issue of visionary storytelling beyond product tie-ins and marketing gimmicks that retrofit comics to movies. Whedon seems to be ushering in the failed Heroic Age of Marvel, but it raises interesting concerns that Marvel under the Mouse is now more interested in film franchises than comics.

These aren’t all only Marvel problems, true enough, and endemic to superhero comics generally. But the fact remains that the once-upstart “House of Ideas” has become the status-quo torchbearer for many of these troubling trends. End of editorial, but hopefully the start of an engaging discussion about what’s right and what’s wrong with Marvel Comics today. How to restore the Excelsior, true believers?


  1. While I am certain discussions about this will be made within the class room setting, my personal problem with Marvel has always been their emphasis on characters. I have always enjoyed Marvel characters whom have never enjoyed the spotlight as much as other Marvel characters. I am not a fan of the founding class of Avengers (save Hank Pym). I have always enjoyed Iron Fist, Daredevil, and Moon Knight the most of Marvel’s characters. While I always enjoyed the X-Men, the insane continuity twists and muddled attempts at making X-Men into relavent cinema have left a clear distaste in my mouth. However, I have never been a huge Marvel fan, choosing to spend my time in comics with DC, so my viewpoints and statements are subject to my inherent favoritism for the other side.

    • Well, I think characterization (esp dialogue) is exactly what Whedon gets right in AVENGERS, the same conflicted SuperAntihero that Marvel pioneered. The superteam’s differences cause conflict yet become an asset and maybe fosters democratic deliberation for problem-solving. Problem is, the formula can also devolve into spectacle fights, winking one-liners, and a “boy’s club” mentality that subverts potential for visionary storytelling and cultural critique. But sometimes it can do both, and in Whedon’s hands it’s all trotted out, warts and all.

  2. More on Marvel Comics:

    “Marvel Comics Gay Wedding: Marvel Plans Wedding For Gay Hero Northstar”

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