Watching: Avengers: United they Stand (1999)

On the start of any kind of discussion about this 1999 Marvel venture, this cartoon was universally deemed an average at best television show. Avengers: United they Stand serves as an example of how the flaws of an aesthetic work serve as interesting aesthetic features.

 

I knew of this show when it was originally out but I had little interest in it. In an age nearly 15 years later where there’s a big cultural interest in comic characters and franchises/intellectual properties/money-making commercial properties (delete as appropriate), the Avengers: United they Stand (UtS) serves as a lovely obscurity.

 

After I finished episode 13 I then found out that was actually the final episode. I was then reminded of a discussion in the TV series ‘Toast of London’ (starring Matt Berry [a subject for a future blog post I’m sure]) in which the titular character, Steven Toast, wrote a book without an ending. The literary agent loved the book but said that it couldn’t not have an ending. Toast made this decision to write a well considered feminist novel but left it without an ending. As if its incompleteness left it complete.

 

I feel the same about this show. The premature ending with the unresolved plot lines and even an unresolved episode arc was a masterstroke of story. There was an unresolved romantic storyline between Vision, the synthetic lifeform created by Ultron (one of the main villains); and Scarlet Witch.

 

It is certainly true that the female characters left much to be desired in terms of developing a back story or sense of an inner world, but as far as 1990s kids shows went, it fared a hell of a lot better than most. The gender ratio was about 3:5 or 3:4 (if you consider vision as normatively male – which technically you shouldn’t as a robot is genderless). The flaw of having poorly developed female characters was not so much an issue of poor gender representation but poor representation of the character roster in general, as almost all of them hardly had much back story.

 

Perhaps the big thing that people point out was the obvious thing: How can you have an Avengers lineup that does not include Captain America, Iron Man or Thor? This notion made me think really hard. In recent comics (Uncanny Avengers, Uncanny X Men, All New X Men, Avengers, or in their unique cases: Wolverine and the X Men and Secret Avengers), characters such as Wolverine and Captain America are basically present either as main characters or significant background characters. Having a world where certain characters have so much of a role in that universe evokes a cult of personality about them. This could be said of world leaders or public figures who seem to be in multiple discourses (say, celebrity culture and political discourse combined).

 

Thinking about the B-team, or the other guys is a really neat angle for a TV show. Thinking back in 1999 when there was a dearth of big Marvel shows: X men TAS had finished, Spiderman TAS had finished and shows like X-Men Evolution or Avengers: EMH (which I have discussed in a previous post) had not arrived; having this bunch of B-teamers was inherently underwhelming for a comicbook franchise which put a high place on the heavy hitters.

 

There was something inherently equalising about the UtS lineup. Contrast UtS’s Hawkeye to the Hawkeye character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Hawkeye in the Marvel Cinematic world was basically a pawn, the lowest fodder of a chess board and his abilities in the final fight were…staying on a high vantage point with arrows? Contrast this to ARC powered Iron Man who flew all around the city; Thor and Hulk who are comparably invulnerable to anything resembling human. There’s probably a good reason why Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye hasn’t found the right time to re-appear in the Marvel Cinematic universe and that is because it’s hard to have a place in such a super-powered world.

 

UtS’s Hawkeye is perhaps the best character in the show by contrast to his MCU counterpart (next to maybe Vision, but I’ll get to him). Hawkeye has a rough edge to him, being a former criminal trained in the circus (sensitive to his comic book origin). Hawkeye is very much a loose cannon, with legitimate trust issues and complex loyalties. Except for the ridiculous costumes they had (which were a very thinly veiled toy commercial), Hawkeye’s character made a Marvel character look…human when it is not desirable to be so in such a superpowered universe.

 

Vision is perhaps my favourite character in this show. Vision has the developing humanity and exists in a show where acting wooden was actually a benefit in the context. Some of the flaws of the ‘main’ characters who appear in the show are quite notable because they reveal something very human and real about them. Captain America’s cameo in one episode shows him as brash, and an inadequate leader compared to Hank Pym’s Ant Man. Even though Cap is the universal hero he is trapped by his own reputation and seen almost as if he were a better leader than he actually is. Kids watching this show probably would have lost this level of nuance.

 

By contrast, Hank Pym appears jealous, vindictive and self-doubting as a leader, and it makes him look like a very ugly person. In addition he spies on his wife visiting a family friend of hers in the penultimate episode and when she finds this out she is a little annoyed but shes seemed to let it go pretty easily. Hank Pym does look like a pretty horrible person in this show. Finally there was the appearance of Iron Man in a one episode cameo. Iron Man seems so single minded (as he was working in one of his commercial projects) that although he appreciated the help of the Avengers and joined in the action, he had no time for small talk, reflection or even acknowledgment that he was once on the Avenger roster. This shows an interesting side of Iron Man – flawed but not like the usual flawed depiction of an hedonistic and distracted Tony Stark, who lets his personal failures have implications on his professional life.

 

To close I thought I’d mention the honorable and noble aspects of the show. Although I’d think this show was absoutely rubbish as the 13 year old that I was in 1999. There are bits of the show that are farcical. For example, the NSA liason, Raymond Sikorski (who serves as a representative of the real world) continually notes things such as the poor public perception of the Avengers; how they caused millions of dollars in damages to public property. Not to mention the episode where Big Ben  is destroyed and nothing is mentioned of it at all afterwards, except to find out how it was caused. Have no doubt that this is not a great show nor is it a good show. It’s my view though that there are interesting psychological gems in the character development (or lack of) that as an adult (who probably should be doing better things), gives an interesting complexity to the show.

In Praise of: Captain America

I’m a bit behind in what I want to write about lately. Evidence of this is the fact that Antisophie was discussing about the ‘fatigue’ of super-hero films after Thor 2: the Dark World which may lead to suggest that the emerging genre is tired and has little to offer except more of the same.

 

Then I saw Captain America: the Winter Soldier, twice. I saw it with two different groups of people. One with a nerd friend, who got all of the easter eggs and got all of my jokes about defeating Magneto with a wooden gun. The other group I saw it with were the last people to take any interest in super hero films that involved the supernatural, but oddly enough they don’t mind science fiction if it fitted in with their worldview (i.e. technologies that were conceivable). On both counts we found the film to be quite moving, despite all the explosions.

 

Mark Kermode had a review of the film which said something to the effect of: the plot had a thread which was very contemporary which could have been developed more, but was tempered with the inevitable action set pieces that are a requirement with a big budget film such as this. One of the reasons I am a big fan of the Marvel stories is that the stories can be genuinely engaging and are a reaction to much of the things going on today.

 

On a personal note, I think that Captain America’s real super power is his commitment to his sense of personal and political value. Steve Rogers has an uncompromising commitment towards a conception of the good and on many occasions he is challenged to not always uphold this ideal. I was recently reading the 2013 issues of Captain America, where the character is kept in a dimension created by Armin Zola. Rogers spends over a decade in this dimension and his aging is visible. One also notices that he develops a relationship with a child who is Zola’s son and is challenge on a great many fronts. In the recent 2010-2012 Avengers EMH animated series, Captain America’s character faces a public backlash after his Skrull doppelganger destroys the public reputation that Rogers had. The EMH Captain America carried on despite the public hatred about him and was unwavering.

 

The idea of a Captain America has to be different in a world where the idea of the United States has vastly changed due to geopolitical and economic factors. But I’m quite impressed at how Marvel still successfully makes him relevant.

Reading Marvel’s ‘Civil War’ and ‘AvX’, or “The counterpoint of Marvel Characters”

Lately we at Noumenal Realm have gotten very much into comics and graphic novels. Although we mostly read the Marvel stuff, there are a few indies and other things that we pick up on from time to time. I would like to discuss an issue that has been on my mind for a while. That is the interesting personal perspectives of certain iconic Marvel Characters in recent years. I will talk about Captain America vs. Iron Man and then briefly the more recent Cyclops.

 

Steve Rogers vs. Tony Stark: allies and opponents

 

In the Marvel Civil War storyline, there was a discussion about registering superheroes. The heroes divided into a pro-registration and anti-registration camp. For me this was a really politically salient narrative, in a decade where the discussion on curbing freedoms in the name of safety was a hot topic in the light of national security issues in the US and Europe, those Marvel writing bods touched on a nerve that divided the Avengers, and many other heroes in the 616 continuity.

 

Steve Rogers was anti-registration. People work from their own individual goodness to get involved with heroism, and it is not up to the state to both mandate and control this. Rogers also had a concern that registration meant that many heroes who kept anonymous, such as Spider-Man, couldn’t function as they remain anonymous. Heroes such as Spider-Man keep anonymity as a way of protecting those he loved, of course that never seemed to work for him in actuality.

 

Tony Stark was pro-registration. The government mandating superheroes would allow for a more centralised and organised distribution of the United States and their defence needs, if they were registered. There would also be a way of checking on heroes, think of the old phrase: “who watches the watchmen?”. By having a government approval, superheroes will have someone to be accountable to.

 

This difference in ideologies represents the truly beautiful and complex relationship that Stark and Rogers has. As people they are different, as political orientations go they are also different, but they also often work together for the same goals. The civil war storyline represents how fragmentation can happen from differing views, but perhaps how arguing out these differences is a necessary part of governance. For a comic saga that involved lots of ‘fights’, I very much enjoyed the political undertones of the civil war.

 

Cyclops and ‘Pax Utopia’

 

In the later ‘Avengers v X Men’ storyline of last year, Captain America and Iron Man had their own little revelations betraying a glimpse into their inner character. Iron Man was so desperate to find a way to understand and defeat the Phoenix force, that he discovered a spiritual faith, and began to think in spiritual terms, acknowledging the powers of characters like Iron Fist. Steve Rogers also had a revelation: that changing the world only comes through consent.

 

When, through a bizarre accident, Cyclops and four other X-Men the great power of the Phoenix force, they begin to remake the earth. There are scenes of bio-engineering and terraforming arid land, where the X-men impute themselves as a saviour to the world. Cyclops also proposes that the world’s representatives in the UN must accept world peace, so says the powerful Cyclops.

 

There’s that old saying of ‘power corrupts’. The Phoenix force fed into Cyclops’ ambition of the world, but also highlighted his darker aspects, such as his constant fear of being persecuted as a mutant, and never being approved by humanity wider. Cyclops’ forced peace, or Pax Utopia, is a definite reference to the old Pax Romana, which Kant considered as a viable model for world peace. If there were a single sovereign to rule all others, there would be no cause for war. Accept the Pax or face the consequences.

 

There were moments when the Avengers thought that it might be worth accepting this vision of the world, but Steve Rogers points out that such a peace was bought too easily. Real change has to be hard, has to be consensual and has to engage with people’s real disagreements and grievances. What Cyclops did was an oversimplification to world problems. I loved the AvX storyline for this insight I had in reading it. It’s also much easier than Michael slowly reading ‘The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’, just saying.

 

Sinistre