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.

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A conflicted disdain for comics

I am reminded of Chris Bateman’s general view that mainstream kinds of games effectively enforce singular ways of thinking and the blockbuster game is pernicious to the extent that it basically builds on already established formats as gaming media. This can be highlighted by the ubiquity of very similar first person shooters where over the years, certain features are continually added but the genre largely remains the same: multi player death matches, or similar. This kind of view mirrors what I addressed in what I called ‘Musical Conservatism’ (albeit about music, and not games) in a previous post.

 

I am thinking along these lines about comics and even the comicbook film which seems to be so popular these days. I’ll pin my colours to the mast: I love Marvel comics and although I predominantly follow Marvel comics, I did recently voluminously read DC’s ‘Before Watchmen’ series. In recent weeks, Alan Moore wrote about his dissatisfaction with the immature preoccupation with comic book characters and the mythologies of the supertext universes of Marvel (inter alia). Marvel’s ‘cinematic universe’ has been a subject of much hype in my personal circles and yet, even though I would definitely see a film about a tree man that only says ‘I AM GROOT’ and I’d probably enjoy it; I do feel a bit that poetic license is stretched too much with a super-soldier who was frozen from the second world war.

 

Perhaps every era needs its mythologies. But I also think that mythologies and the deities that exist within them can cease to be relevant, or that their applicability can be seen to have limitations. I often joke that Magneto’s current age must be between 70s to 90s, given the history that Marvel’s mainstream canon universe (earth-616) wishes to give him. I’d be thoroughly impressed at any senior person to wear that red outfit and still have bulging abdominal muscles and ripped arms, as he’s constantly depicted in the comics today.

 

It may be the case that our mythologies are getting a little bit stuffy, and holding back our attention away from other stories that could be told. Other accounts or exemplars of heroes that might be more representative, perhaps inclusive. Marvel does have an improving record of making female protagonists and beginning to introduce same-sex romantic plotlines without making too much of a big deal about it being same-sex. The relationship in X-Men Legacy between Northstar and his partner is refreshingly mundane!

 

Alan Moore pointed out that the fixation on the superhero reflects a sense of immaturity on the part of the reader. It’s certainly true that many comics hardly aim to be high art. I do wonder however, if a moment might happen, similar to the TV show Happy Days, when the Fonz leaps over a shark in an episode reflects the fact that a threshold of interesting stories has been reached, and a new medium or a new mythology is needed. I think about this because as someone who grew up admiring the Earth 616 universe of Marvel (and notably the Age of Apocalypse ‘Earth-215’) world, if the generation of comic book movies will decline just as it peaks, like, to put a crude metaphor, what the French call a ‘little death’.

(anti)Heroes of our time: Cyclops and Wolverine (a year-end post)

So, the year 2012 is ending. This is normally the kind of time when we review what was eventful about the year. To be honest, this year has seemed the same as last, and almost the same as 2010. The headlines seem often the same, either there’s a scandal about someone’s personal affairs which becomes political, or a political scandal that is personalised to specific individuals.

I’m a believer in the notion that our culture reflects our times. Often nostalgia for the year passing focusses on entertainment news or things that have happened in culture. At least in the UK, culturally we seem to live in two worlds. There is the discourse of aspiration and the reality of its improbability. Television shows offer fame and stardom, give us things we wish to aspire to: lovely food, great homes, interior decoration or the spiritual gin of a cheap thrill through comedy and music. I am just as guilty as anyone else in buying in to this irreverence. I am reminded of Robert K. Merton’s notion of strain theory in criminology: the idea that criminality and deviance directly relates to the dissonance between the ideals of what people are told to aspire to against its inherent difficulty due to current social times.

Perhaps one way to sum up the year for me, is through a Comicbook storyline and the way in which it has concluded. Marvel’s ‘Avengers Vs. X-Men’ (AvX) was a story about two teams of heroes who were forced to fight because of a difference of opinion. This difference of opinion was based on the significance of a very powerful supernatural force known as the Phoenix, which enters a physical body and imbues them with special powers. The Phoenix was destined for one particular character, Hope Summers, but as it happened, by an accident the Phoenix entered five different people who it was not supposed to.

(spoiler warnings)

Cyclops and Wolverine

The conclusion of this story was that one of the most archetypal characters representing the moral good has turned into a villain, namely, the X-Man, Cyclops/Scott Summers. Cyclops in his depiction in Marvel Comics has always been a morally upright citizen, the one who always holds the line of decency and has a commitment to the values of Xavier’s ideology of mutant equality.

Perhaps the most notable turn of events for me was the ‘transition’ from hero to villain of Cyclop’s character in the 5 issue short: AvX: Consequences. Cyclops, imbued with vast amounts of power had the ability to change the world, at first it looked like he was acting out of good. Many of Cyclops and the other Phoenix hosts moved to create a better world, some of their acts included things such as improving ecological conditions and solving the fundamental problem of the scarcity gap to end hunger and global energy needs. Quite a poignant use of superhero powers if such people ever lived in the real world. However the vast power of the Phoenix emphasised the nobility of their hosts, but eventually their darker sides were also emphasised, which eventually led to the moral corruption of the Phoenix five.

After the Phoenix ordeal, Cyclops is put in a prison. In a conversation with his former team-mate Wolverine, the latter says: you were always the man I wanted to be. Wolverine references Cyclops’ idealism and his commitment to moral good, incorruptible nature and his courage. Cyclops is, or was, as traditionally heroic as heroes get. Cyclops’ fall was notable in this regard. Eventually Cyclops’ is sprung out of prison and it looks like he has become part of a villainous ‘X-Men’ group including Magneto. One of the most notable acts of Cyclops when  he was empowered by the Phoenix force was that he killed his mentor, Charles Xavier, who is the most important character in the X-men series, since he founded the team.

After killing his mentor and murdering a prisoner out of vengeance, Cyclops realised he has changed and accepts this new moral character emerging from his actions. Summers leaves a note at the prison for Wolverine after he escapes, which says to the effect: I realise that I have to be the hero you once saw me to be, because that hero has now become you. Wolverine, as it has been acknowledged throughout comic law, and by himself, is hardly the most traditionally heroic. Wolverine has killed in cold blood, believes in a vigilante form of justice and embodies rage in many occaisions. Wolverine as an X-man, and a role model realises that his behaviour has implications for those who have looked up to him and this has made him more mindful of his behaviour.

I think that the transition of the hero mantle from Cyclops to Wolverine reflects a change in the cultural sensibilities of our time. Idealism seems no longer relevant, idealism seems sour in an age of austerity and hardship. Our heroes are often the reluctant ones. The heroes of our time are more like Aeneas: brooding, strained, unwilling, encumbered by duty. Charlie Brooker has written a piece a few days ago to this effect pointing out how James Bond and Batman, characters of two blockbuster films this year; are essentially the same character. That Cyclops has become a villain hit home to me the cultural sensibilities of today, and how different this decade was in relation to the last. The bubble has broken and we are in a wet spot. Anti-heroes are our heroes, and idealism is replaced by cynicism and regret.

Michael

P.S. Happy New Year from the Noumenal Realm team 🙂

The Hawkeye Initiative and the dictum of cultural challenge

Preamble

I’m writing about this issue because it reflects two things: my fandom for the Marvel Universe, and my enduring admiration throughout much of my life to the many great animated series, games, comic books and even Youtube re-dubs put out by Marvel. I used to be a big fan of the X-Men when I was younger, then was quite a fan of Iron Man and in recent years I’ve come to enjoy the Avengers through their cinematic entry and their recent comicbook tussle with the X-Men (five of which were powered by the Phoenix Force). It comes from this perspective that many people may find it difficult to criticise the things they love.

From about 10 days ago I saw a memetic emergence, in true Susan Blackmore style, a cultural idea was successful enough to be interesting to people that people would wish to replicate it, or reblog to be more specific. This memetic emergence came from (I understand from a trustworthy nerd source) a comparison between a comic book cover of Character Natasha Romanov/Black Widow replaced with the male character Clint Barton/Hawkeye. Many people found the interpretation so powerful that they made their own versions, some looking very low quality (but that’s not really the point) and others are more professional looking mark-ups, transposing ridiculous poses that women are depicted in on the covers of comics, to drawing men in such a fashion.

What Hawkeye Initiative shows
The Hawkeye Initiative, as it came to be known, began to collate a large number of variations on a theme. Not just Marvel comic book covers began to be copied, it became evident that this seemingly humourous transposition of a female character on a comic issue’s cover to a male one reflects the systematic objectification of women in comics. Compared to men, female characters are often in postures which would be difficult to maintain, perhaps physically impossible. The depiction of women often reflect idealised perceptions of what comic writers, artists and what they presume their audience would consider as an idealised female body. The costumes of women, when worn on men in such a way that the Hawkeye interpretations show, reflect the inherent disproportionate treatment of women as sexualised in some kind of enticement towards the audience.

For a long time I was aiming to write a piece on how unrealistic male comic characters are physically, however it seems that it is the case for both men and women characters.

What Hawkeye Initiative means
(image: Elizabeth ‘Betsy’ Braddock, or Psylocke action figure. I used to have one this very action figure when I was younger, and it was a very rare find)

The Hawkeye Initiative shows the institutional disadvantage of women in comic book culture. The comics represent many of the gendered values of ordinary society and while some comics can be progressive in political and social ways, gender is a bit of an Achilles’ heel. It should be said that while there is a progressive aspect to the subversion of gender roles embodied in the Hawkeye Initiative series of comic book re-interpretations, a number of people have pointed out the ways in which transgender people could also face the same kind of ridicule in that their bodies at birth may not conform to the percieved norms of how females are depicted in comic books and wider culture. By the way of subverting the posture of say Black Widow or Ms. Marvel and depict it a Hawkeye as point of comedy, it has been seen as a ridicule of those who do not fit the putative conception of a straightforward gender and sex isomorphism. This was brought up on the Tumblr blog and the moderator of the blog acknowledged this as problematic but no specific offense was intended to groups such as those individuals assigned female at birth.

The dictum of cultural challenge

From the Hawkeye Initiative has come talk of the ‘Hawkeye test’ in comics. This is in my view an example of culture as a form of critique, at its best. In many points throughout my blogging and even in my non-blog writings on aesthetics, I’ve spoken of something I’d call the Dictum of cultural challenge, this is the notion that culture insofar as it is worthwhile, should challenge the ills of the status quo. A corollorary of this principle would be: art that makes one see the world in a different way, gives one the potential to think of the world in a different way. Perception in this sense becomes politicised. By noticing the ways in which men are depicted in comic books as a neutralised and non-gendered stance, while women are highlighted as gendered when if their male counterparts are drawn in a similar way the latter looks unusual or (excuse the pun) comical, then there is an asymmetry of our imagination, an inequality of the ways in which we treat gender.
(Image: Nathaniel Essex/Mr. Sinister, what’s more noticable: the menacing nature, or his ‘Mr.’ prefix?)

(Image: Miss Sinister, I think its fair to say that the ‘Miss’ is more noticable than ‘Sinister’)

On balance

Here’s the thing. I still really like Marvel Comics, and I think there are interesting characters of all genders and none. The objectification of women puts off a large audience to very engaging stories and strong characters, such as Major Carol Danvers/Ms. Marvel who outranks Captain America, or Ororo Munroe/Storm, who not only faces the challenge of being a mutant in an homo sapien world, but during combat faces her claustrophobia in perilous situations. Thinking about the sexualisation of women also makes me rethink about other female comic characters, such as Vampirella or Witchblade. I wonder how much of the value or appeal of Vampirella would be there without the constant titillation and lecherous behaviour of the vampire men she opposes, or in the case of Witchblade, which of the alter-egos do we consider more challenging to the putative discourse on femininity. One thing is for sure, objectification in comics hurts the audience, the potential audience comics are losing and most of all, its culturally damaging to perpetuate what is essentially a status quo about gender perceptions about physical appearance.

Michael

“Mewling Quim”: Watching Marvel’s Avengers Assemble

(Some possible spoilers ahead)

I saw a film that surprisingly impressed me this weekend. That film, you might reasonably guess correctly is ‘Marvel: Avengers Assemble’ (long UK release name henceforth referred to as Avengers). I grew up with animated series like X-Men, as well as the Marvel Action Hour in the early-mid 1990s and although X-Men has not been as impressive in its film incarnations, I have always been drawn to characters like Iron Man and Captain America. I think Marvel Studios and the Marvel Empire at large recognise that a good amount of money can be made from fanboys.

So why was this film so awesome? There were many elements, going to see the film with friends who mutually appreciated the Marvel Universe did help. Seeing the overweight nerd men with bald heads and their Captain America and Thor paraphernalia did make me feel at home, of course I’m nothing like them (I was wearing an Iron Man t-shirt). The question of ‘who’s your favourite?’ came up. There is something about ensemble films that are immensely attractive to the public consciousness, I suppose that is why so many people enjoy films such as The Godfather.

I was thinking of the Marvel Universe earlier last year when I was reading through the works of Howard Philips Lovecraft? Why, because there is a sense that I feel that Lovecraft had an earlier notion of a grand narrative unifying many stories through the same universe in the same way that the Marvel comic universes do. There is something almost operatic about creating imaginary worlds and entertaining creative space within them. For too long people have undermined or scoffed at these media forms as either lowbrow or base or childish, the same is said for computer games as an artform; comics and the graphic novel as a literary form.

Getting into superheroes got me into Homer. If you want to call superhero mythology base, then consider the pages of gruesome violence in Homer’s Iliad. Consider the use of supernatural imagery in the likes of Milton’s Paradise Lost when you consider super powers and demigods as childish.

Thinking with more critical lenses lately, I was thinking about the nature of the characters in the Avengers film. It was notable for instance that it was an almost all male affair, however the presence of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is not an obviously feminine or trope-like character. I thought that it was of note that her character showed the most vulnerability which seemed linked to her gender, but I am willing to be convinced that the depiction of vulnerability may have been set up as a ruse in one scene with Loki, or when she was present with Bruce Banner’s character, she had a genuine sense of fear that anyone would at the power of Banner’s alter ego. It’s also fair to say that many of the male characters showed a sense of vulnerability, especially towards the endgame of the film. There was a sense of futility and hopelessness among all of them which also served as a bonding moment between the characters, as well as between us (the audience) and the characters.

After I saw the film, I noticed an online discussion about one specific issue. The character of Loki uses an antiquated expletive in the scene with Black Widow where he refers to her as a “Mewling Quim”. I really don’t know what to think of this. It has been argued by the critic Mark Kermode (who surprisingly rates the film quite well). I didn’t notice this or know about this word when I saw the film, however it seems of note that a small number of (adult) viewers discovered this slight. This term requires a bit of context and apparently has regional significance. I was listening to a podcast last week on Radio 4 by Will Self who talked about the philistine trend of critiquing books for using words that are considered verbose or that many readers are not familiar with. The use of unusual or difficult language should be applauded, although there is some real power to the insult that Loki says which distinctly symbolically feminises Black Widow as a way of undermining her.

I might say a bit about the portrayal of vulnerability in the other male characters. Robert Downey Jr’s ‘Tony Stark’ shares his experience of mortality with Bruce Banner (well played by Mark Ruffalo, who was once better remembered by me in the lame film ’13 going on 30′) and both characters address how their special powers are also a source of difficulty and pain for them. The power source of Iron Man is also the very thing that keeps him alive and dependent, and Stark speculates that Banner’s Hulk is similarly a source of self preservation as well as destruction. A caring side is shown in the characters which gives wider dimensions to them. Stark has his lover Pepper Potts, Thor shows some concern for his friend Jane Foster and Agent Coulson is a beloved character to all of them. It may be that I am overplaying the femininity of Black Widow’s vulnerability in that many of the other characters show moments of emotional turmoil or depth. I wonder if this film passes the Bechdel test. Considering that there were only two main female characters in the film I suspect not, but there is hardly an emphasis on romance or sexuality. I noticed in one billboard appeared the actress for Maria Hill, the agent working under Nick Fury, even though she was not as prominent a character in the film, it was nice that an important supporting character was featured.

This was a film that had it all as far as a fanboy as myself is concerned. The drama, pathos, comedy and action elements of the comic and cartoon world put in a film experience. I’m really glad that the film impressed me as it did, as I have quite low standards for films after many disappointments, many of the films leading up to the Avengers, for instance were hit and miss. There is a sense in which this film seems to capture a mindset of the status quo. The plotline of the tesseract as a form of ‘clean’ energy is an interesting one of contemporary relevance. The clandestine behaviour of S.H.I.E.L.D. and their borderline unethical plans reflect a distrust of institutional authority. The coda of the film where various talking heads talk about the Avengers and the range of opinions about them reflect a media age where criticism and a variety of views and fears are addressed, some of these threads of discussion in the coda are addressed in the comic and animated incarnations of the Avengers and wider Marvel comics (such as the Civil War story arc).

What more can be said of this film? Awesome actors, great action and a genuine sense of surprise about much of the plot: I didn’t expect one Avenger to be so noble and powerful compared to everyone else (the one who ‘defeated’ loki). The comedy mixed in well, plus I did the embarrassing thing of jumping at cinematic moments of surprise. I don’t think anybody noticed though. A great soundtrack by Alan Silvestri, who is also known for such great films soundtracks as Predator. A film soundtrack is as important as the plotline or dialogue. I saw the film in 3D IMAX, and I must say that I don’t think I noticed a specific 3D or IMAX scene, as it seemed indistinguishable to the rest of the film. Is that good or bad? I don’t know.

One thing is certain, if and when a sequel of this film is made (sequels are the name of the money making cinematic game), it has a lot to live up to, and sometimes past success is the most difficult marker of critiquing a sequel. I normally expect about one good film a year, but seeing The Hunger Games makes 2012 a year of prospective positive expectations. I’m quite looking forward to the coming Ridley Scott ‘Prometheus’ film, as well as (excuse my primal tendencies) Expendables 2. However having met the quota of good films already I have no expectations.

Michael