It’s taken 12 years, but we may finally have in Avengers the heroes we deserve
The Marvel cinematic superhero has gone from flawless, White and indestructible to Black, female, flawed. And that’s partly why Avengers: Endgame is so exciting.Updated: Apr 13, 2019 18:40 IST
In the beginning — by which we mean 2008 — there was Iron Man and he was good. Much like any other superhero, Tony Stark was rich, strong and White. That he had an electromagnet for a heart and a metallic suit didn’t really feel like a compelling superpower, which may be why four studios and more than 30 writers had toyed with the idea of making an Iron Man movie between 1990 and 2006, only to abandon it.
Enter director Jon Favreau who cast Robert Downey Jr in the title role. As Downey Jr chucked missiles and wisecracks at enemies at home and abroad, he let audiences imagine that a little bit of the actor’s own arrogance and drug-addled, party-hard past tinted the Iron Man’s story. Still, for all the irreverence that Downey Jr and Favreau brought to Iron Man, the plot was still formulaic and the hero as alpha male as ever.
Eleven years and 21 films later, the poster for Avengers: Endgame includes two Black people, four women and a cybernetically modified raccoon. Sure the White men are front and centre, but finally, there’s more than one shade of superhero.
Traditionally, the superhero’s story has taken its cue from classical epics and been about one man against many evils. Marvel Studios’ decision to create one of the most elaborate fictional universes in film has meant reimagining that construct. Whether by design or in response to audience reactions, heroes have been built up and broken down over the course of the last 21 films of the Infinity Saga. They’ve been forced to concede defeat and take help from others.
Slowly but steadily, a collective has formed, made up of heroes from various cultures, who have weathered terrible odds to become the best versions of themselves. They have survived because of their community and with every challenge they’ve faced, they’ve been forced to widen their worldview and include others. Instead of a cult of the individual, the Infinity Saga is about a gathering.
In comic books, it was a given that the hero would be a White male stronger than all the men around him, and when these stories were translated to film and television, the stereotype became a physical reality with a little help from the costume department. Before synthetic materials like spandex, lycra and polyester became popular, superheroes looked and dressed like athletes.
Christopher Reeves’s Superman changed all that in the 1970s, with the skin-tight onesie that clung lovingly to his abdominals. The early moulded-plastic suits ranged from disastrous — remember George Clooney’s Batman suit; yes, the one with the nipples — to clumsy, but with characters like Hulk and Wolverine in the early 2000s, the hyper-fit male body gained ground. Rippling muscles signified something freakish, flaunted as they were by feral heroes who couldn’t be tamed.
Then came the suits of today, which have created and fetishised an abnormal male shape into an on-screen norm — massive shoulders; upper arms that look like bowling balls have been surgically inserted below the epidermis; pectorals that seem to have been inflated using a bicycle pump; and corrugated sheets for abs. Admittedly, not everyone fills (or steps out of) moulded uniforms as eye-catchingly as Marvel’s blond bombshells Chris Evans (Captain America) and Chris Hemsworth (Thor), but they’re all ripped and ready to flex.
Redeeming this cult of the Caucasian, cookie-cutter muscleman are the stories that have emphasised the heroes’ vulnerabilities even as their bodies become machine-like in their musculature. After the first 10 films in the Infinity Saga brought in millions of dollars and effectively revived tent-pole filmmaking, Marvel Studios started making tentative tweaks to the mainframe of the hero — like giving Peter Quill of Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man’s Scott Lang criminal backgrounds and a support team that is arguably more accomplished than the front man.
Neither Quill nor Lang is the strongest or the savviest. Both need back-up and get it from characters who are collaborators rather than sidekicks (the Wasp and Rocket respectively). Next to gods like Thor, billionaires like Iron Man, scientific miracles like Captain America and freaks like the Hulk, Ant-Man and Star-Lord are practically average (give or take the ability to shrink, or hold an infinity stone).
As the audience cheered for these flawed men, Tony Stark was revealed to be plagued with anxiety and paranoia. Captain America struggled to keep up with the times. Thor lost his hair, an eye, a brother and even his hammer. After a long time, heroes started to fail. Their spirits were broken again and again. Sometimes, this was to teach the men lessons, as the Ancient One does to Dr Strange, who struggles to make his mark at the secret training centre of Kam-Taj. Often, the heroes struggled to redeem themselves, as at the end of Captain America: Civil War, when friends and allies fight viciously between themselves.
While the white men were being beaten up by their new circumstances, Marvel Studios broke with tradition and gave Black Panther and Captain Marvel their own movies. For these two characters, the stereotypes were firmly in place. Both T’Challa and Carol Danvers are mighty and flawless, and that’s fine. The fact that a person of colour and a woman exist and are leaders in a superhero pantheon is radical enough.
The novelty and modernity lies in the details. Captain Marvel is the first time that a female lead doesn’t have to retreat to the domestic sphere or deal with the albatross of a romantic interest as a subplot. Black Panther didn’t just give us the first superhero of colour, it also took Afro-futurism mainstream, and did it with strikingly beautiful production design and costumes. (And, in another first, it gave the Saga a stunning all-woman army).
Provided directors Anthony and Joe Russo get their act together, Avengers: Endgame could be the first time we see the entire collective in action: Heroes and heroines, sidekicks and collaborators. More than the threat of Thanos, it’s the prospect of seeing the interplay of their different heroisms that makes this the most anticipated release of 2019.
The film offers a curious reversal, in the sense that there’s usually one hero taking on a multiple bad guys who work together. This time, it’s the villain who is the solo act, and seemingly unbeatable; while the good guys are flawed, broken and fighting to get it together.
First Published: Apr 13, 2019 17:23 IST