The Avengers, the Argonauts, and the History of the Team-Up

The Avengers, opening May 4th, represents something rather historic for movies, a crossover team-up. While fairly common in television and comics, crossovers, characters from two or more series meeting, rarely happen in films. I can think of only a few examples, and they all involve horror movie villains meeting and fighting (and two of them have “Vs.” in the title).

I’m actually surprised it doesn’t happen more often, since the team-up is as old as myth. As long as we have been telling stories about larger than life characters, we have created stories to see what happens when these characters meet. Protagonists, by their nature, are the most interesting character in most stories and there’s a thrill in seeing them meet and spark off of other protagonists that are equally interesting. That’s why we have myths like The Argonauts, the team-up of almost every Greek hero you’ve ever heard of, including Heracles, Theseus, and Bellerophon, helping Jason steal a Golden Fleece, and why the Romans traced the ancestry of Romulus and Remus back to Aeneas and the fall of Troy.

In television, crossovers happen all the time. Whether that’s Buffy chasing Angel off of her show and into his, or Lisa Kudrow’s character on Mad About You turning out to be the twin sister of her character on Friends, there’s a sense that every show takes place in the same fictional universe. In fact, thanks the multiple crossovers of St. Elsewhere and Richard Belzar’s personal crusade to play Det. Munch on every series ever, there’s a pretty good theory that every television show takes place in the mind of an autistic child.

The superhero comics that the Avengers is based on are a step even beyond that. Superhero comics don’t occasionally crossover with other series, they explicitly all tell one big story. The superhero team-up dates back to the Justice Society in the 40s, but was really cemented as a bedrock of the superhero genre in the 60s by the rise of Marvel comics. In response to the meteoric success of DC’s revival of the Justice Society as the Justice League, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created a slew of Marvel characters, including Iron Man, the Hulk, and Thor, and then teamed them up with an old character Kirby had created with Joe Simon, Captain America, to create Marvel’s most direct response to the Justice League, the Avengers.

Central to Marvel’s success was serialized, interconnected storytelling. Most of their heroes lived in New York and met each other all the time, and to understand what was happening in one book you had to read all the others. That’s why Spider-Man tried to join the Fantastic Four in his very first issue, and why today Marvel’s bestselling comic is the creatively titled Avengers vs X-Men. Every comic Marvel publishes is one chapter of one overarching story published in several books that come out every week. This is true even when the books take place in explicitly separate universes, which is why Spider-Man is teaming up with his alternate dimensional self. DC Comics follow suit (there’s a reason the first book of their relaunch was Justice League), and every subsequent superhero story from other companies takes it as granted that the existence of one superhero means the existence of entire superhero teams. Plural.

But, for some reason, crossovers don’t really happen in films, outside the horror genre. Maybe the ongoing nature of television and comics allows for crossovers in ways movies don’t, but the protagonists of long running film series rarely meet either. James Bond never hit on Sarah Conner to the disgust of her son. Indiana Jones did not team up with Rick Blaine to punch out Nazis while Marion Ravenwood drunkenly sang La Marseillaise, (though how cool would it be if they did?).

Even superhero movies, which are almost as old as superhero comics, basically assume that their hero is the only superhero in the world, and their superhero origin is the only source of supernatural power. Christopher Reeve’s Superman never meets Batman, and only fights Kryptonians or weapons derived from Kryptonian technology. Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man can’t join the Fantastic Four when he graduates (because their movies are created by different studios). Even pre-fab superhero teams, like the X-Men, meet and fight only other mutants in their movie versions, even though in the comics they fight giant robots, magic ruby powered armor, and alien life forces all the freaking time.

The nature of the crossover is what makes the Avengers movie look like it’s going to be so much fun. First off, all of the characters come from different films, where different writers, directors, and especially the actors created unique personalities. It’s not just Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man squaring off against Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, it’s Jon Favreau’s hero facing Kenneth Branagh’s villain, all overseen by Joss Whedon. That’s a compelling, high caliber creative mixture.

Secondly, it throws a lot of characters out of their established genres and into something they are not mentally prepared for. In the Iron Man movies, the only challenge to Tony Stark is his own weaponry in the hands of the wrong people. In the Avengers, he has to outfight a god. A magic trickster god. With devastating cheekbones. How is a genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist supposed to deal with that?

I’m not saying the Avengers is going to be the best superhero film this summer (that would be the one with… Bane? Seriously?). But the Avengers may be the first superhero movie to truly capture one of the most fun aspects of superhero comics: the sheer pulp pleasure of taking all of the best toys out of the chest, putting them all on the same team, then making them fight the craziest thing you can think of.

This article originally appeared on on April 13 of this year.

Steven Padnick is a comic book editor. By day.


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