I can sum up my interest in Marvel heroes in a few words: Selfless, smart, strong, vulnerable and real. Peter Parker embodied those qualities in The Amazing Spider-Man, which my Dad and I read for decades. Well, a decade, but that’s a long time for a comic hero.
From that point I watched bits and pieces of the various animated series that were produced during the 1990s and early 2000s. The comics were what I remembered most, so when Fox produced the first Spider-Man film, of course I was on board. It was over the top, somewhat campy and unrealistic (it didn’t even seem to try), but it was also best production at that point.
Spider-Man 2 spelled trouble, though, getting little things wrong, like Doctor Octopus. Willem Dafoe as Harry Osborne was pure genius, but the writing didn’t hold water. What was wrong about Doc Ock? I don’t remember feeling anything about the guy. Next to the Molecule Man, he was one of Spidey’s most deadly foes. He possessed a fearsome intellect and formidable will to survive that put Spidey on his heels on many occasions. Not in the movie! [Un]fortunately for the movie franchise, it all petered out from there.
No, I’m not apologizing for that pun. You can go make your own. To this day Peter as a goth is easily just as absurd as that ridiculous upside down kiss. That’s about as sexy to me as a canker sore — no apologies for that, either. I’m pleased to see Marvel’s new take on “Mary-J”, which is part of my point here. Fox’s versions of characters I’d grown up with were completely forgettable, whereas Marvel grabbed my attention with their relatable character driven writing.
Though, not right away. The Hulk was an impressive movie on many levels, but emotionally poignant it was not. It certainly didn’t grip me. Over the years I’ve been drawn toward angry characters; of the TMNT bros Raphael is my all time favorite. I grew up harbouring a lot of anger, so yeah, I personally understood that struggle. That’s why Iron Man/Tony Stark was my way back into the superherodom. I didn’t “get” Captain America, until The Avengers came along.
Yes he’s steady guy, but his personality was pretty dry — like Scott Summers — until Joss came along and injected him with a dose of humour and vulnerability. The follow ups — Winter Soldier and Civil War — managed to keep up the flow until we bumped face first into the marketing wall that is Infinity War. How are we supposed to click in with a guy like Steve? They tried, and I’m not going to say Captain America was a bad movie, but I’m not going to say it was at all interesting, either.
Faults ground these incredible superbeings in reality for us and make them believable. No, I don’t do the things Tony does, I sure grok his arrogance-to-self-defeat-failstate. You know, thinking you’ve got everything in hand because you can understand a lot until it all crumbles at your feet because of something you didn’t anticipate? It certainly was possible for the Capsicle and Green Rage Monster to hit me in the feels with their origin tales, but again, the writing just wasn’t there.
Good writing is always insightful character writing regardless of the situation or premise. How well do we relate to R2-D2 when he’s just an Astromech? A whistling tin can with blinking lights? We do, though, because of what he goes through. George Lucas might not know how to handle budding romance and soul distorting vengeance, but he sure can amuse us with the Laurel and Hardy antics of Star Wars’ metallic comedy duo.
As the saying goes, they’re our way in. We understand as much as they do in what is now called A New Hope, so they’re an analogue for our introduction to this new universe. Who does that for us in Iron Man? Why, Tony does. He’s the bigger than life billionaire genius philanthropist whose bravado — even hubris, at times — becomes a stumbling block that brings him crashing down to reality.
What reality, you ask? That our talents, gifts and skills can accomplish a lot, but are limited in their capacity to solve our problems, and that distractions — drinking, sex, whatever your poison happens to be — won’t always make them go away. It doesn’t stop us from trying, and doesn’t mean we’re incapable of acting bravely, even nobly, when it is required of us.
The key to each of the Avengers origin stories is, as I’ve said, the finding of their purpose. Why become a hero? For Tony Stark it’s the guilt of loss, which is similar to Steve Rogers, and one of the many reasons they butt heads. Bruce Banner, however, well, no one really knew his purpose until Joss began to figure it out. He stopped short of the answer, but he did explain what “his secret” was. Peter’s reason for becoming a hero was, at first, selfish, until negligence resulted in the death of his uncle.
Amusingly, “You won’t like me when I feel guilty” doesn’t make a very good tagline in spite of how common it is. Tony doesn’t overcome his guilt in a fell swoop, admitting in Iron Man 3 to being a being a “hot mess”. Which was a blast, thank you very much, compared to the dark and dreary story in the comics. How else were they supposed to make such a harsh premise palatable for mass appeal? Of all the options available, levity is the smart choice because it enabled them to deal unreservedly with the relevant issues of terrorism and genetic manipulation.
Comics are a playground for artists and writers, who get to see what works for an audience and what does not. Lest we forget, Superman’s blue lightning superpower phase lasted all of what, one year? I only read one issue, so I’m really not sure, and since everyone’s forgotten… well, that’s rather my point. I recently watched all three Iron Man movies back to back and enjoyed them every bit as much as the last few times I’ve seen them. If nothing else that’s my cue that Marvel succeeded in their goal of making superheros worth watching again.