The Avengers: Clothes Make the Iron Man (Men in Tights, Part 3)
The other big superhero film this year was The Avengers, or Avengers Assemble, as it was known in the UK. The reason for the name change was to avoid confusion with the old TV series, but that still didn’t stop thousands of people all across the Internet thinking it was funny and saying, “The Avengers? If Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg aren’t in it, I won’t watch it.” Of course, the real joke is that these wannabe wits talked themselves out of seeing one of the best superhero films to date. (Funnily enough, I see that a new American comic based on the old Avengers TV series is titled Steed and Mrs Peel.)
Built upon Marvel’s pre-existing superhero franchises, The Avengers‘ big draw for the average filmgoer was Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man. He was witty, sarcastic, charismatic, and egotistical — and people wanted to see more of him. Which is unfortunate, because he spends so much time in the Iron Man films and The Avengers buried beneath his armour. In fact, he gets buried beneath lots of different types of armour as he upgrades his suit more often than most people upgrade their mobile phones. In Iron Man he starts off with a bulky grey armour before moving on to the classic red and gold look, while in Iron Man 2 he carries a stripped-down armour in a briefcase for emergencies. By the time of The Avengers, I’m told he’s up to his seventh model. In the comics he has a wide range of armours for specialised missions: stealth armour, Arctic armour, sub-aqua armour, outer space armour, Hulkbuster armour, disco dancing champion armour. (Okay, maybe not that last one. But oh, if only…)
Iron Man is the superhero most defined by his costume. Without it he has no powers. In fact, without the armour he would die: a cybernetic breastplate (an arc reactor in the films) keeps his injured heart beating. But the armour can also be a double-edged sword; at one point in the comic book series, its systems damaged Tony’s nervous system, leaving him paralysed in a wheelchair, and the only way he could walk was…you guessed it…to keep wearing the armour. At this point, you have to wonder if he ever considered changing his name to Irony Man.
Still, under normal circumstances Tony Stark is not completely helpless without the armour. In Demon in a Bottle he takes lessons in unarmed combat from Captain America before James Bond-ing his way across Europe to clear himself of a trumped-up murder charge. He also puts these skills to good use on other occasions, such as when the Skrulls, thinking that Tony’s weakened heart will leave him helpless, capture him and remove his armour, only to face the humiliation of having him beat the crap out of them with his bare hands.
In Extremis, writer Warren Ellis has Tony visit an old mentor who, despite being rather scornful of New Age practices, delivers lectures at Esalen, studies the transformative effects of psychedelics, and fancies himself something of a modern-day shaman. He castigates Tony for his ties to the military-industrial complex and for his use of the Iron Man armour simply as a way of beating up supervillains when it could be so much more. Later, after being nearly killed by a rampaging supervillain, Tony formulates a hi-tech version of his mentor’s theories about psychedelics and how they allow people to see their own DNA, and he floods his own body with a nanotech serum so he can carry some of the armour’s functions within himself, moving him one step up the human evolutionary scale.
This comes a few years after another development in which Tony contributes to the Artificial Intelligence evolutionary scale, albeit inadvertently, when his armour becomes sentient. Unfortunately, it also becomes homicidal, hunting Tony down on a desert island, where he is forced to defend himself by going all Rambo on the armour with a bow and arrow and improvised booby traps. Funnily enough, a bunch of sharpened sticks prove to be rather ineffective against the world’s most sophisticated weapons system, and Tony loses the fight. But an emotional appeal to the armour’s better nature somehow convinces the homicidal computerised nutjob to act like a true hero and sacrifice itself to save its dying creator.
But if the sentient armour could be a ruthless manipulator, then so, on occasion, could Tony. During the Marvel Universe’s Civil War (mentioned previously in Part 2 of this series, “Spider-Man: Totem and Tragedy“), when superheroes divide into warring factions over the US government’s insistence that superheroes must register their secret identities, a disgruntled employee of Stark Industries is appalled at Tony’s pro-registration stance and his war with the other superheroes, and ends up deactivating the armour with Tony trapped inside. The employee points out to Tony that ever since the Civil War started, Tony had been spending more and more time in the armour. He wonders if this may be because Tony secretly feels ashamed of his actions, or if perhaps staying in the armour has helped to make the distressing events seem unreal, as though Tony has merely been watching them on television at a safe distance.
Tony’s attitude in Civil War is both understandable and hypocritical, given that during the previous Armor Wars he decided that he was the only person with enough moral fortitude to use Iron Man technology responsibly, and so went on a crusade against anyone utilising his weaponry. Initially this didn’t sound too bad, as he would take several supervillains out of the game. But Tony decided to risk an international incident when he went to Russia to take down the Crimson Dynamo and Titanium Man. He even shut down the battle armour of the guards at the Vault, a prison designed specifically for detaining supervillains, thus allowing all of the inmates to escape and wreak havoc. Hooray for Tony’s moral fortitude. But the events of Armor Wars could be seen as the motivation behind Tony’s belief that even superheroes need policing. On the other hand, he ends up both controlling the pro-registration movement and serving as the head of S.H.I.E.L.D., so if he wanted someone to police his actions, then obviously, that kind of backfired.
Iron Man’s team-mate Thor has an excuse for dressing in a silly outfit, since he comes from a different culture where his outlandish attire is the equivalent of wearing a T-shirt and jeans. Besides, he’s the God of Thunder; are you really going to tell him that he looks like an extra from The Lord of the Rings? In Kenneth Branagh’s blockbuster movie adaptation of Thor, as in the original Stan Lee-Jack Kirby comics, Thor has been stripped of his powers and exiled to Earth. His hammer, Mjolnir, holds the key to regaining those powers. An extra wrinkle introduced in the comics is that even after he regains his powers, if Thor is ever separated from Mjolnir for over a minute, he changes back into the human form he was given on Earth: that of the crippled Dr. Donald Blake. In the film, Thor becomes Donald Blake simply by donning an ID badge bearing that name. At no point does he lose his muscles or gain a bad leg that obliges him to walk with a stick. You can’t help feeling that the film version of Thor got a better deal there, especially since he got to spend all his time drooling over Natalie Portman.
The reason Mjolnir holds the key to Thor’s powers is the inscription on its head: “Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.” Consequently, people other than Thor have managed to wield Mjolnir on occasion. These include Steve Rogers, Eric Masterton, Dargo Ktor (from the year 2587), and the alien Beta Ray Bill. The only one of them who didn’t instantly find himself wearing a copy of Thor’s costume was Steve Rogers, ak.a. Captain America, who was already wearing his own superhero costume, which somehow trumped the God of Thunder’s.
It’s interesting (to comic geeks, anyway) to note that in the film, Thor doesn’t wear the winged helmet from the comics, presumably because the filmmakers thought it would look silly. Fortunately, Branagh dodged that bullet by decking out Thor in armour, a red cape, and hammer that actually looks kind of puny without Jack Kirby’s dynamic pencils to thrust it at the reader and make it look like the coolest thing ever. By contrast, in The Avengers Joss Whedon kept changing his mind about whether the armour should cover Thor’s arms or if Chris Hemsworth should show off his rippling biceps.
Back in the ’80s, during Walter Simonson’s run on the comic, Thor didn’t have any choice about how much armour he wore. A curse from Hela, the goddess of death, left him with brittle bones that snapped whenever he went into battle, and the armour was the only thing holding his shattered body together. The Thor of the comics didn’t even have a beard up until that point; he only grew one to cover hideous scars inflicted upon him by Hela. Even worse, Hela granted Thor immortality, so that even after his body was destroyed during a battle with the Midgard Serpent, his life-force lived on, trapped inside his armour. Painful and humiliating as this was, it still wasn’t the worst thing Simonson did to Thor. That would be turning him into Thor, Frog of Thunder. I am not making this up.
When making the Avengers film, for some reason Joss Whedon decided not to use Hawkeye’s purple costume with the elongated domino mask and buccaneer boots. Instead, Whedon took his cue from The Ultimates and gave Hawkeye a modified S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform. (S.H.I.E.L.D. stands for Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate. Sigh. I miss the good old days when S.H.I.E.L.D. stood for something simple like Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division.) By making Hawkeye an agent of the organization, Whedon also got to avoid the character’s complicated backstory as an orphan who was trained in archery at a circus before being tricked into a life of crime, and who then tried to redeem himself as a costumed crime-fighter but got tricked into becoming a supervillain before finally getting it right and joining The Avengers. And this is before you even get to all of the stuff about his wayward brother and the individual who really taught Hawkeye how to use a bow.
Shorning Hawkeye of his mistakes-littered past also saved Whedon the hassle of having the hero change costumes every time he has a crisis of confidence. In the comics, Hawkeye became Goliath when he reached the astonishing conclusion that a bow and arrow may not be the best weapons to use when you’re constantly fighting cosmic beings and alien armadas (because becoming a giant who had to channel most of his super-strength into supporting his own massive bulk was way more sensible). He briefly became the Golden Archer, a fake supervillain, in order to coax a retired Captain America back into the superhero biz. Then, when he went back to being Hawkeye, he wore a purple minidress with faux-Native American trimmings and a plunging neckline that reached to his navel that made him look like a gay white Pochantas. This was an outfit that the Indian from the Village People would have rejected for being too camp.
After being brought back from the dead in the noughties, Hawkeye eschewed his bow in favour of his martial arts skills, becoming the ninja Ronin. (Yes, I know, ronin actually means a masterless samurai, not a ninja. Blame Brian Michael Bendis, who came up with the idea.) He even became Captain America for about five seconds after the original died, but Hawkeye quickly decided against it, which saved embarrassment all ’round when Cap was resurrected a year or so later. (Superheroes die and then come back with such frequency, it’s a wonder that anyone bothers even burying them. By now cemeteries must use spring-loaded coffins to save digging them up again.) And today Hawkeye is wearing yet another costume for his newly-launched series — shades and a T-shirt decorated with a vaguely arrow-shaped logo — as he agonises over his place in the current superhero milieu.
(Still, at least Hawkeye isn’t as bad as his fellow Avenger Hank Pym, who suffers endless crises of confidence as Ant-Man/Giant-Man/Goliath/Yellowjacket/Dr. Pym/The Wasp/whatever the hell he’s calling himself this week. If Pym had been in The Avengers, the film would have gone over budget just trying to supply his wardrobe.)
Anyway, instead of defining Hawkeye by his costume, in the movie Whedon defined him by his name. Hawkeye sees things. He’s the agent Nick Fury assigns to watch over the Tesseract project, and he’s the first to see that the breach in security is an inside job. He acts as lookout during the Avengers’ final battle, spotting strategies and game plans to aid his more powerful allies even as he takes down enemy foot soldiers and sky-cycles with his sharpshooting. More importantly, he can see the emotional core of the Black Widow, a character who constantly fools everyone else about her true nature. This makes sense, as in the comics Hawkeye is a former (if largely inadvertent) criminal who served alongside two other reformed supervillains when he first joined the Avengers, and who later led an entire team of reformed supervillains when he was in charge of The Thunderbolts. He knows all about redemption.
Black Widow originally appeared in the comics as an espionage agent with a line in slinky dresses. Then she adopted a costume consisting of leotard, domino mask, fishnet stockings, and a cape. Not exactly the sort of low-profile outfit a spy would be expected to wear. Even James Bond would tell her to tone it down and show some discretion as he zoomed by in his invisible car that turns into a submarine. Later, she changed her costume to a black leather catsuit. Her hair also went from black to red, which is kind of ironic; given her communist allegiances in her early appearances, you’d think it would be the other way round. Or maybe someone at Marvel realised that black widow spiders have black and red markings. Whatever the case, during the 1980s she cut her hair short and got herself a grey suit with a spider logo, and in the 90s she jumped on the craze of superheroes wearing leather jackets over their costumes. She then wore a red and black costume for awhile before returning to her classic black one.
Over the years she has led The Champions, The Avengers and even briefly been in charge of SHIELD. As a spy she regularly adopts different personas, but at one point it turns out that even her true persona is not entirely her own, as a retcon shows her being part of the Black Widow program, a Soviet spy initiative involving brainwashing.
Another Avenger, the Hulk, is famed for his green skin and his temper. He is also famous for his purple trousers which, unlike the rest of his clothes, always remain intact whenever he transforms from puny Bruce Banner into the rampaging green monster.
But he isn’t always green. In his original appearances, his skin was grey and his transformation was triggered not by stress or anger but by nightfall. The change to green was obviously a symbol of the anger within the Hulk and Banner … except that it was really caused by the grey skin being too difficult to print; green was easier. In the 80s an experiment to remove the Hulk from Bruce Banner led to the Hulk’s turning grey again, but now instead of a misunderstood, inarticulate monster struggling to contain his rage, he became an intelligent, mean-spirited creature who occasionally showed himself as flat-out evil. After spreading psychological despair as well as property damage across the States, he eventually became a super-powered enforcer for the Las Vegas mob, wearing a suit and calling himself Joe Fixit. Even in his green incarnations, there has been a wide variation in his personality. He has been virtually mindless. He has been a purely physical vessel of Banner’s personality. He has been a hybrid of Hulk and Banner who wore glasses and worked as an agent for a covert peace-keeping force called the Pantheon, where all the other operatives were named after Greek gods and heroes.
With all these changes in appearance and personality, it’s appropriate that the big-screen Hulk has been portrayed by multiple actors: Eric Bana, Ed Norton, and Mark Ruffalo, with TV Hulk Lou Ferrigno providing the Hulk’s voice in the last two outings. In fact, I’m surprised he didn’t get recast halfway through The Avengers.
NOTE: The person, career, and costume of another Avenger, Captain America, will be discussed next time in a separate article.