One of the hardest things about telling any story is sticking the landing.
A bad ending is not only bad in and of itself, it’s like a cancer that reaches back in time and kills everything that went before it. I can’t enjoy Sherlock anymore. All the clever writing and great performances and wonderful little tricksy puzzles turn to ash when you remember that it’s all leading up to Sherlock defeating his previously unknown little sister with superpowers.
If I had had to write the script for Endgame I’d probably have gone mad with the pressure. I remember marvelling (heh) at Joss Whedon’s script for Avengers back in 2012 and how it managed to juggle seven (SEVEN!) main characters and serve as a satisfying conclusion to five (FIVE!) films. My, how young we were. So imagine the weight of expectation resting on the shoulders of Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely and the Russo Brothers, having to juggle a story with dozens upon dozens of named characters AND has to serve as a capstone to a 22 film cycle. I mean, Christ. I’ve only had to review these things and it feels like I’ve climbed Everest.
Did they pull it off? You probably have your own opinions on that but, well…this thing made 2.8 billion dollars at the box-office so somebody liked it.
So, because this thing is over three hours long, this review is going to be a two-parter. Also, I’m not going to do a big introduction explaining the history of these characters and the background to this movie because, well…
That’s right people, we’re doing this. If you want to just skip ahead to my thoughts on the movie you’re free to join us after the jump. Just know that you’re dead to me. Now, I would bet good money that there have been more characters named “Captain Marvel” than any other superhero mantle. There have been a few Batmen, a bushel of Flashes and a whole mess o’ Green Lanterns, but by my count there have been no fewer than TWELVE Captain Marvels and that’s not even counting Captain Marvel Juniors, alternate future versions and weird rip-offs like Marvelman, Marvel Boy and the Marvellous Ms Maisel. So what gives? Well, it comes down to a combination of legal shenanigans, bad luck and weird coincidences far too complicated to go into here. Nonetheless, I will go into it them here.
Okay. So. Our story begins in 1940, a mere two years after National Comics (later DC) birthed the modern superhero genre with the creation of Superman. Fawcett Comics introduced their new character, Captain Marvel, whose gimmick was that he was actually a little boy named Billy Batson who turned into a suspiciously Superman-like superhero when he shouted his magic word “SHAZAM!”.
It was, and remains, one of the most perfect concepts for a superhero ever. If you subscribe to the belief that superheroes are, at their core, innocent power fantasies for small children, that is about as perfect a distillation of the concept as you can get. Kids could imagine one day growing up to be Superman. But you could be Captain Marvel now. And it was easy. Just say a magic word and you could be bigger, tougher, faster and smarter than anyone else. Which, when you’re a kid growing up in a world where everything is tough and confusing and bigger than you…that’s the dream, right? The comic also introduced the obligatory kid sidekick, Captain Marvel Junior and the almost as obligatory distaff counterpart; Mary Marvel:
She’s Billy Batson’s long-lost sister Mary Batson with the same powers who also took the Captain Marvel mantle for a time so we’re counting her. She’s also one of the very earliest female superheroes and beat Supergirl to the punch by almost a full decade. Anyway, back to Captain Marvel.
So not surprisingly, with such a killer concept, Captain Marvel quickly became the most popular superhero in America, even outselling his inspiration, Superman. National Comics, obviously, weren’t going to let that slide and brought in a new top-tier creative team with fresh ideas to re-vamp Superman and nah just kidding they just went crying to Johnny Law. National took Fawcett to court over copyright infringement and the judge decided that two Caucasian superheroes with black hair was just too big a coincidence and ruled in National’s favour. By this point, the superhero boom was on the wane so Fawcett simply ceased publishing Captain Marvel. That was not the end of the story. In fact, that was barely the beginning of the beginning. So now, let’s talk about Marvel Comics, and how they came to acquire…
Yeah, okay, weird little digression here. By 1966 the rights to the character name “Captain Marvel” were up for grabs and a comics company called MF Enterprises published three issues featuring…this.
So…this is Captain Marvel. Allegedly. He’s an android who can split into his constituent parts by yelling “SPLIT!” which is a word. He reforms by yelling “XAM!”, which is not. His alter ego was Roger Winkle. He is, by near unanimous decree of the world’s foremost Marvelogists, the worst Captain Marvel. And it pains me to say this as he was created by Carl Burgos, creator of the greatest superhero of all time; the Original Human Torch.
Alright moving on.
So National’s old rival Timely Comics had, by the sixties, changed their name to Marvel. Realising that the formerly most popular superhero in America coincidentally had the same name as their company, they figured it was a no-brainer to buy the name for themselves and create their own Captain Marvel.
The first Marvel Marvel was Mar-Vell, an alien spy of the Kree Empire who comes to Earth to prepare the way for an invasion and ends up falling in love with this planet of psychotic apes and becomes a superhero. Mar-Vell never really caught on as he was strictly squares-ville, daddio. He was like Reed Richards without the Thing as a foil, or Captain America without the instant, irrevocable cool that comes from having punched Hitler in the face. To make Mar-Vell more Hip to the Trends, Marvel roped in Rick Jones, perennial sidekick and the Young Peoples’ favourite. Now the status quo was that Mar-Vell was trapped in the Negative Zone but could swap places with Rick Jones in the real world whenever he was needed, a premise that superficially resembled the Billy Batson/Captain Marvel set-up while simultaneously losing everything that made that concept appealing. Captain Marvel asks “what if you could turn into an all-powerful superhero” and Captain Mar-Vell asks “what if you could go to a lightless never-ending void while a strange grown man did things with your body?”
One of them is timeless wish-fulfillment, the other is the kind of thing that takes many years of costly therapy to process.
So it’s not surprising that, like Shakespeare’s Thane of Cawdor, nothing became Mar-Vell in this life like the leaving of it. The best remembered Mar-Vell story is Jim Starlin’s The Death of Captain Marvel, in which Captain Marvel applies for a mortgage just kidding he bites the big one. What made this story so unique at the time was that Mar-Vell doesn’t go down fighting some giant, world-ending threat. Instead, he succumbs to cancer and dies quietly in bed surrounded by his friends. The story was well received and is one of the reasons why Mar-Vell’s death is one of the few in comics to never have been permanently reversed (at the time of writing). And it’s at this point in our story that our Marvel-trickle becomes a full on Marvel-deluge.
So, this is the root of why there are so may DAMN Captain Marvels. Firstly, the name is versatile, gender-neutral and doesn’t nail you down. If your character is named “Batman”, for instance, you’re kind of limited in what kind of superhero he can be. Your options are basically; Weird Creature of the night, baseball-themed vigilante or British Officer’s Gentleman’s Personal Gentleman during the Great War. But for Captain Marvel, all you need is a character who is in some way marvellous and the superhero community’s famously lax attitude toward the chain of command. You can slap the name “Captain Marvel” on any random hero regardless of their power set and it makes about as much sense as any other. Secondly, it doesn’t really look good if the dude or dudette bearing the company’s name is a third string scrub (spoiler, a lot of these dudes and dudettes were third string scrubs), so when one Captain Marvel is a bust, editorial has plenty of incentive to reboot and try again. Case in point…
Monica Rambeau, an African American lady with energy powers, first debuted in 1982 before Mar-Vell’s sheets had even cooled. She didn’t have any connection to Mar-Vell and didn’t keep the name for too long, later being renamed Photon, Pulsar and Spectrum to the point where she’s one of those superheroes who’s better known by her civilian name. Monica is actually one of the most successful of the Marvel Marvels, rarely being off the shelves. As a diversity two-fer with a cool power set and pretty solid fanbase, she’s appeared in multiple team books such as the Ultimates, Nextwave and even lead the Avengers for a time.
Alright, how many is that? FIVE?!
Okay speed round. The Vells!
Okay, Genis-Vell. Mar-Vell’s son who took up the old man’s mantle before going crazy and then dying. Interesting titbit; Peter David and Bill Jemas had a bet to see who could get the most sales for their respective books. David at the time was writing the Genis-Vell version of Captain Marvel and Jemas was writing Marville which was…it was something. It was many things. Post modern deconstruction of superheroes. Satire of the Aol-Time Warner Merger. Philosophical-religious treatise. Strong contender for worst comic of all time. Captain Marvel won that one, which I’m mentioning because God knows these characters need something in the win column.
I am very tired and I have not even begun the review. Phyla Vell!
Genis-Vell’s sister. Took up the mantle after his death before becoming the new Quasar (another cosmic superhero mantle that gets around). Played a pretty big role in the Annihilation saga, aka one of the greatest comic events of all time, so she’s okay by Mouse.
Who’s next? Oh didn’t think I’d remember you did you, Amalgam Captain Marvel!?
So funny story, after killing the original Billy Batson Captain Marvel in court, DC comics actually bought the rights to Fawcett’s old characters. However, since Marvel had trademarked the name “Captain Marvel” this meant that DC could use Billy Batson’s Captain Marvel but couldn’t actually call any of the comics he was in “Captain Marvel”. And that’s why DC have desperately been trying to gaslight you into believing that the character is actually named “Shazam” for the last few decades. Incidentally, Eggman is actually named Robotnik and we have always been at war with Eurasia. Anyway, in the early nineties DC and Marvel did a crossover called DC versus Marvel where the two universes collided. This culminated in a glorious bit of silliness where the two companies created Amalgam Comics, an entire comics line of grotesque merged abominations like DarkClaw (Batman crossed with Wolverine) and Super Soldier (Superman smushed into Captain America). Billy Mar-Vell was the result of cross-breeding DC’s Captain Marvel with Marvel’s Captain Marvel and I’ve typed the word “Marvel” so often now the word has lost all meaning and has become a weird glyph.
Next up is…oh not this asshole…
Kh’nhr. Oy. Okay, so during the Civil War event Reed Richards was building a Gitmo for superheroes in the Negative Zone and discovered that Captain Marvel (Mar-vell, obviously, why would that be confusing?) was still floating around in there because time in the Negative Zone is loopy doopy. Reed is all “hey, so you’re gonna die of cancer in the future but while you’re here, wanna help me trample on your friends’ civil liberties?” and Mar-Vell says “sure”. He then spends a few issues moping and doing absolutely feck all until it’s revealed that this Captain Marvel is actually a Skrull sleeper agent impersonating Captain Marvel named Kh’nhr. That’s right. The Skrulls sent this guy to Earth disguised as someone who was already dead. From this, we can deduce that they thought he sucked and deserved to die. They were correct.
Who’s next? Mahr-Vell from the Ultimate universe.
He’s like Mar-Vell. But in the Ultimate Universe. Got an extra “H” in his name. Like Mar-Vell, he turned on his Kree Masters to save the Earth. Unlike Mar-Vell, he came to regret it as everyone in the Ultimate Universe was a massive asshole.
Okay, coming up to the home stretch now.
Noh-Varr! Birthed from the Victorian opium den that is the mind of Grant Morrison, Noh-Varr is yet another Kree but this time from an alternate reality who washes up on Earth like a drunken sailor. A bad experience with SHIELD has him declare war on Earth and all humanity but he was eventually convinced to become a hero by Kh’nhr, which is is basically like being inspired to pursue a career in music after a chance encounter with Kid Rock. Usually going by Marvel Boy or Protector, he is on this list solely for that one time Norman Osborn recruited him to be on his Dark Avengers team as Captain Marvel. He peaced out as soon as he realised that they were actually the bad guys. Which, considering they were called the “Dark Avengers” he really should have twigged earlier. Thank God he’s pretty.
Which brings us to drumroll please…
Carol Danvers. Actually one of the older characters on this list, but the newest and current Captain Marvel. Back in the seventies, Marvel was in the habit of cranking out distaff versions of their male characters just so nobody else could do it first (which is how you got She-Hulk, Spider-Woman and Womanverine)*. One of these characters was Carol Danvers, aka Ms Marvel who gains Mar-Vell’s powers after being caught in an explosion with him and getting some of his DNA (that’s their story, anyway). She had her own series written by Chris Claremont which didn’t sell but was well regarded by those who read it. After it was cancelled, she bounced around the Marvel universe for a while until the creative team decided to celebrate their #200th issue with a story where Carol is abducted, brainwashed and raped by her own child. And it’s presented as a love story.
Fortunately Chris Claremont was having none of it, and when he was handed the reigns to X-Men he had Carol deliver an epic “Fuck You” to the Avengers for basically abandoning her to her rapist and had her join the X-Men. Claremont ended up using a lot of the concepts that he had originally intended to use for Ms. Marvel, in case you were wondering why a series ostensibly about mutants fighting racism features so many aliens and giant flaming space birds. Anyway, her presence on the X-Men during Claremont’s run cemented Carol’s position as pretty much the most popular Captain Marvel-adjacent character at Marvel. So when the time came for Marvel to try for the UMPTEENTH GODDAMNED time to have a Captain Marvel that people actually gave a shit about she was pretty much the only choice. How’d that work out? Well…Marvel’s attempts at pushing her harder than Roman Frickin’ Reigns has definitely created some backlash, but there’s no denying that she’s the first Marvel Captain Marvel to have any real purchase in the popular consciousness. And of course, a big part of that is today’s movie.
Which I am finally starting to review after two and half thousand words what the hell was I thinking?
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Before we get stuck in to today’s review I would like to make a few corrections. I’ve recently started reading the first original run of the X-Men from the sixties thanks to the Marvel app.The Marvel app allows you to read comics from across the company’s seventy year history and I’d recommend it!
If it wasn’t a glitchy piece of garbage.
But regardless, reading these old issues has made me realise that I had made some false assumptions about this period of the X-Men’s history which I’d now like to correct.
Firstly, I claimed that the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby run didn’t have any of the Civil Rights allegory that was so central to the franchise later on. I was wrong about that. It’s not nearly as pronounced as it would become but it is definitely there, with the mutants facing fear and prejudice from human beings from fairly early on.
Likewise, I also claimed that the much later decision to make Iceman gay was a blatant retcon that directly contradicted the character’s established history. And while we do definitely see Bobby dating women in these early issues…
Yeah. I can’t exactly say they pulled that out of thin air either.
Lastly, I implied that Professor Xavier was a dangerous lunatic putting minors in mortal peril as part of his deranged scheme to raise his own paramilitary force of super-powered child soldiers.
So let’s look at The Wolverine!
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Yes, the grim spectre of Marvel Fatigue has reared its skeletal head in the Mouse household, rattling its chains and wailing about lacklustre villains and nondescript movie scores. And while this malignant spirit has claimed my beloved spouse I, thankfully, remain immune.
Or so I thought.
Coming up to this particular review I experienced, for this first time in this series, something in the outer boroughs of dread. The first Ant-Man, was fine but only fine and the closer the time to review Ant-Man and the Wasp crept the more I realised that I just didn’t care and would much rather skip ahead to whatever reader request I should have done like two years ago (I’m trying guys, I’m trying).
So, because I have little to nothing interesting to say about the movie, how ‘bout some comic history? You know you love it.
Janet Van Dyne aka The Wasp was the second major female superhero created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the early sixties, coming a few years after Sue Storm and a few months before Jean Grey and the Scarlet Witch. And she was, much like her sisters, originally a bit crap. To put it bluntly, the superheroines of this era were drippier than a melting ice-cream who just stepped out of the shower to answer the phone.
Jan was first introduced in the pages of Tales to Astonish as the daughter of Vernon Van Dyne, a scientist who once worked with Hank Pym, the world’s Most Generic Man. When Vernon is killed, Jan comes to Hank looking for help and he’s all:
- I’m Ant-Man.
- I could make you an Ant-Woman. Would you like that Jan? Would you like to be my Ant-Woman?
- Vernon would totally have wanted us to bone.
Hank gives her shrinking powers, making her a god among mortals, as well as some nifty little wings and energy blasts and they fight crime as Ant-Man and the Wasp. They also became founding members of the Avengers, with Jan actually being the one who comes with the name for the team. Originally depicted as shallow and flighty the character has been deepened and expanded on by various writers over the years into one of the most respected superheroes in the Marvel universe.
She’s also the only one of the founding Avengers to never have her own solo series. For some reason.
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Much like an awesome party where someone suddenly showed up with a suitcase full of tainted MDMA, the X-Men film franchise got real bad, real fast. From the dizzying (well) highs of X2 the franchise had laid two massive turds in a row and was now in the unenviable position of having exactly as many bad films as good ones (also known as the Star Trek ratio). What was to be done?
Alright, all joking aside, the idea for a movie about the early days of Xavier’s School for Gifted Child Soldiers had been knocking about since the shooting of X2, and as an idea it’s pretty damn bad. Making a movie about the earliest adventures of the X-Men is like making a movie about John Lennon and focusing solely on his time in the Quarrymen. That was the worst part. Virtually all the good stuff came later. For a while. Then things got really, really awful.
But First Class also shares much of its DNA with what was originally going to be the second instalment of the X-Men Origins spin off series, Magneto. After Wolverine Origins bombed so hard that the box office was glowing in the dark, the ideas for Magneto were bundled up and worked into First Class.
So how does this grab-bag of sewn together bad ideas and discarded movie bits work as a film?
Surprisingly well! Except when it doesn’t. It’s complicated.
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Every so often in superhero comics, a character will come along who is so ground-breakingly original, so instantly arresting, that they become an archetype. The obvious example is Superman. Supes shows up in 1938, and creates an entire genre. Every “Cape” type superhero follows in Superman’s footsteps, every “Cowl” has a bit of Batman (who, it must be said, got that bit from Zorro). Got an angsty teenage super-hero with real world problems the audience can relate to? Cut Stan Lee and Steve Ditko a check. When it comes to superheroes there are the archetypes, and the rest are copycats. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. As I mentioned before, Black Panther, Daredevil and Moon Knight are all derived from Batman but manage to put a different enough spin on the archetype to be great characters in their own right.
And the villains have their archetypes too. And no villain casts a longer shadow in comics than the master of Apokolips, DARKSEID.
Who is DARKSEID? Fool. DARKSEID is.
Jack Kirby spent much of his career in comics attempting to create a new American mythology with all new pantheons of gods and heroes. In DARKSEID, he created his Satan, a brooding, pitiless tyrant who can never truly be defeated because he is evil itself. DARKSEID is an archetype, and you don’t have to look far to find his descendants across all comic book companies big and small.
The most blatant (and admitted) rip off of DARKSEID is, of course, Marvel’s Thanos. He’s also the most interesting.
Whereas DARKSEID cares for nothing but himself, Thanos is usually depicted as something of a romantic, devoted utterly to the woman of his dreams. Unfortunately, the woman in question is Death itself whom Thanos tries to woo by eradicating as many of the living as possible. There is a kind of primordial mythic scope to that which I love. I mean, imagine you get transported thousands of years into the past and you got adopted by a local tribe and they asked you to tell them one of the stories of your people. And, as you crouch around the campfire, you tell the tale of the great giant Thanos who so loved death herself that he killed half of everything that lived to woo her, and still she spurned him.
That’s the kind of story cavemen would tell each other. It feels ancient and epic. It’s deep shit man.
And of course, that is the element that the producers of the MCU decided to do away with. Now, I’m on record as predicting that the whole MCU project was going to come a cropper because it was building to a final confrontation with Movie!Thanos and that he was a boring character, an awful villain and a terrible lover.
So. Here we are.
Yes, I was obviously wrong (uuuuugh what is this sensation I don’t like it) but, in my defence, I do still think that Guardians of the Galaxy completely mishandled Thanos. I just didn’t reckon with the Russo Brothers, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely pulling out the mother of all salvage jobs. Cards on the table, Infinity War is by far my favourite Avengers movie and one of the best entries in the MCU thus far and, bizarrely, that’s mostly down to Thanos, the element I was most expecting to tank the entire endeavour.
How did they do it? Let’s take a look.
Stan Lee is dead.
For any other creator, “comics legend” would seem grandiose. For Stan, it feels too small. Calling Stan Lee a comics legend feels like calling the Beatles “a popular music band”. Technically true, but truly a catastrophe of understatement.
Without question, the most famous creator to ever work in the medium, Stan Lee (née Lieber) had the quintessential American origin story. Born to impoverished Romanian Jewish refugees in a tough Manhattan neighbourhood, Lee had aspirations to be a novelist from an early age. As a teenager, he got a job as an office gopher at Timely comics where he’d meet his future collaborator, the legendary Jack Kirby. Stan found some outlet for his literary ambitions writing along with his more mundane duties, writing a Captain America prose story which saw the first use of Cap’s shield as a throwing weapon. After Pearl Harbour, Stan was drafted and set to work making propaganda. Many who only know Stan Lee as the “creator” of various comic book characters automatically assume that he was an artist, but the truth is his only professional artistic work was done during the war years, when he drew a poster of a smiling American G.I. with the logo “VD? NOT ME!”
Stan was almost court-martialed when he was discovered breaking into the post room to mail some scripts back to Timely. However, he was released when it was revealed that he was the writer for Captain America, such was the good captain’s importance to Army morale.
After the war, Stan continued to write for Timely, later Atlas, later still Marvel Comics. The forties and fifties were frustrating times for Stan as he was required to write simple, juvenile fare with one-dimensional characters and simplistic morality. By the early sixties, he was ready to leave the industry and his wife Joan convinced him to write the kind of story he would actually want to read as his swan song. The result was the Fantastic Four, and the Silver Age of comics was born.
In his excellent assessment of the life and legacy of Stan Lee, written a few years ago, Chris Simms described Stan Lee as being simultaneously the most over-rated and under-rated creators of all time. For many years Stan was regarded by the public at large as an auteur, a one man genius who singlehandedly created Spider-Man, Daredevil, the X-Men, Fantastic Four, Thor and on and on and on with little or no credit being given to his collaborators like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. This was flatly not the case but was understandable for a couple of reasons. Firstly, that Stan pioneered the “Marvel Method” of comic book production whereby the artist had considerably more discretion on the story than if they were simply following a script. Secondly, Stan Lee was the kind of instantly telegenic showman that any producer would kill to book whereas Kirby and Ditko were quiet reclusive men who shunned the spotlight. Guess who got the most attention?
Now, did Stan ever try to correct the record and give Ditko and Kirby the credit they were due? Sure. Did he do enough? Well…
This has led to something of a backlash in comic book circles, with die-hard Kirby and Ditko fans claiming that Stan was nothing but a talentless hack exploiting the skills of artists whose brushes he was not fit to wash. This, frankly, is bananas. Stan Lee may not have “created” Spider-Man et al in the way he was often credited with, but in a very real sense he “created” Marvel. Stan Lee created modern comic fandom as we know it. He created a distinct personality for Marvel comics (his own), and pulled back the curtain on the comics process for fans. He engaged with his readership, cracked jokes with them, he respected them and made them feel a part of something wonderful.
Then there was his writing style. Corny? Sure. Overblown at times? Most def. Severely satured in splendiferous superfluous sesquipedalian loquaciousness? Yah. But absolutely bursting with humour and energy and the simple, innocent joy of language. In the great Kirby/Lee/Ditko debate I take no sides and respect all three men. That Lee needed Kirby and Ditko is beyond dispute,. But if you honestly believe that Kirby and Ditko didn’t need Lee, there’s a very simple test.
Read anything that Kirby and Ditko did with Lee, and then read something that they did without him.
Without Lee, Spider-Man would most likely be an angry Randian ranting about how poor people just need a punch in the face to get motivated. And Kirby? Well, he would no question still be one of the all time comic greats thanks to his work for DC, but I’d be lying if I said any of that topped his runs on Fantastic Four or Thor.
Stan never achieved his dream of writing the Great American Novel. Instead, he re-defined the great American Art Form.
His legacy and impact on global culture is nothing short of staggering.
I was going to finish this obituary with an “Excelsior!” but that felt too obvious. So instead…hey, was that Stan Lee?
Yes. That was Stan Lee.
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Wolverine. Logan. The Savage X-Man. The Adamantium Atavus. Ol Canuckle-head. The little hairy butthole.
Wolverine did not have the most auspicious start in comics, and you definitely wouldn’t have pegged him as destined to become (for a time at least) The Most Popular Superhero in all of Comics. Some superheroes arrive fully formed, some take a lot of work. Wolverine was originally introduced as a fairly bland and one-note adversary for the Incredible Hulk. From there he migrated to the new multinational X-Men team launched by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum and nobody really gave two shits about him. But, through a combination of refinement and luck, Wolverine eventually came to be the most popular character in Marvel’s stable. How did that happen? Timing. Wolverine was perfectly placed to ride the pop culture currents of not one, not two, but THREE decades.
During his time in the X-Men Wolverine’s character evolved into “Clint Eastwood but Superhero”.
This allowed him to tap into the gritty anti-hero craze of the seventies. Then, Frank Miller established that Wolverine had spent time in Japan and had trained as a ninja, allowing him to benefit from the martial arts craze of the eighties. And by the time the nineties rolled around, Wolverine was so popular that he had basically kickstarted the Dark Age of comics which of course allowed him to remain front and centre for another ten years.
Since 9/11, comics have swung back to wanting more morally pure superheroes like Captain America and Superman, and with Marvel heavily de-emphasising the X-Men in favour of the Inhumans…
…the character is definitely less of a big deal than he once was. Make no mistake though, for a time, Logan was EVERYWHERE. They were organising events around him just so he could appear in every single book. He was like a lucky talisman to boost sales. He was the Crying Purple Gorilla of the Modern Age of Comics.
And I am pretty much totally sick of him.
Look, it’s not the character’s fault. He came by his popularity honestly. He’s got a killer design, a great power-set, a really intriguing backstory and some all time classic stories under his belt. But I was there at the height of Wolverine-mania and I have no desire to go back, especially when so many stories about him are just watching how much one man can be an asshole to the entire world and get away with it.
And there is no excuse for a one-note take on Wolverine, who is honestly one of the more complex and layered heroes in comics. Like I say, this is a great character when done right. But he’s been done wrong. Oh baby. He been done wrong.
One Wolverine story that most decidedly does not suck or have baboon faces is Origin, which is weird because everyone (including the writers) expected it to be a disaster. Wolverine was virtually unique among the major superheroes in that he didn’t have an origin story (the closest he had was Weapon X, another classic tale that showed how Logan got his Adamantium skeleton while still revealing nothing about who he was or where he came from). And that mystery was an essential part of his appeal. But when the first X-Men movie was in the works, Marvel realised that Fox would probably end up giving Wolverine an origin, and it would probably suck, so they might as well create their own and hope that it sucked a little less.
The result was Origin, a slow-burning, beautifully illustrated mystery set in 19th century Canada that did the seemingly impossible job of giving Wolverine an origin that was surprising and memorable while being appropriate for the character. So job done, right? Marvel had given Wolverine his origin, and it was excellent, and there was no way Hollywood could mess it up, right?
This is a device known as a rhetorical question.
There are so many different places you could start with a review of Black Panther. I could go heavy and political, exploring the importance of the most famous black superhero in these troubled times. I could go historical, discussing how the character was conceived and developed over the decades. Or I could go personal, explaining how I personally discovered the character.
Instead, let’s talk about Batman.
Batman was created in the Golden Age of comics, where many of the genre’s tropes and visual languages were codified. And the Silver Age that followed was in many ways the second draft of the superhero genre, where the old characters were taken and what worked was enhanced and what didn’t work was discarded.
Often, this was quite literal. The Silver Age at DC saw new versions of the Flash and Green Lantern that were basically the same as their Golden Age counterparts but with some of the clunkier aspects of them sanded down. And as a Golden Age character, Batman definitely has some aspects that could be troubling.
Look, I love Batman. Don’t get me wrong. One of the greatest superheroes ever created. But, as I’m hardly the first one to notice, the image of a billionaire WASP donning a bat costume to beat the ever-living tar out of the city’s poor and disenfranchised with the tacit blessing of the police can be a difficult sell. It’s not an insurmountable problem, by any means and many different writers have found different ways to deal with it. Grant Morrison largely keeps Batman away from muggers and car-jackers and has him mostly fighting crazed supervillains. Other writers emphasise that Bruce Wayne isn’t just helping Gotham by being Batman but also contributes hugely to the city with his humanitarian work. And Frank Miller just shrugs and says “Yeah, he’s a fascist, whadyagonna do?”
But still, that’s always going to be an issue with the character that has to be dealt with. And I would argue that the second draft of Batman that addressed these problems wasn’t created at DC at all, but at Marvel. Actually, scratch that. Marvel didn’t make an improved Batman. They made three:
Okay, he’s Batman, but instead of being a rich kid raised by his butler he was a dirt poor Irish Catholic boy with a hardscrabble working class upbringing in the roughest neighbourhood in New York who had to put himself through law school despite being blind.
Okay, he’s Batman, but instead of everyone pretending that dressing up in a costume and beating up muggers wouldn’t make you a lunatic and kind of an asshole we just acknowledge that he’s a lunatic and kind of an asshole.
Okay, he’s Batman. But he’s black. And smarter. And richer. And a king.
Like the Golden Age that preceded it, the Silver Age was initially whiter than white. But even in the early days at Marvel you can see a recognition of this and the halting, occasionally cringe-worthy but always well-motived attempts by Stan Lee and his co-creators to open up their fledgling universe to non-white characters. And undoubtedly their greatest achievement in this regard was the introduction to the Marvel universe of T’Challa, the Black Panther and the King of Wakanda.
T’Challa first appeared in Fantastic Four #52 where Reed Richards and his family are invited to the mysterious African Nation of Wakanda by its equally mysterious king. The FF consistently underestimate the technology and skill of the Wakandans until they are faced with the mysterious Black Panther who manages to best one of the most powerful superhero teams in the world single-handed. Then, the Black Panther reveals himself to be T’Challa, and explains that he had to lure them to Wakanda to test his abilities against them. This first story, I think, encapsulates what’s made the character so enduring:
Which doesn’t sound like a selling point, but hear me out. Too often, when white creators are trying to create positive black characters they make them a little too um…what’s the word I’m looking for?
Like, really friendly, eager to please, completely unthreatening and ready to lay their lives down for whitey at a moment’s notice.
Black Panther is very much not that. He may be a good guy, but he’s not your good guy. He has his own mission and agenda which is protecting Wakanda. If your agenda and his align, great. If not, he will not hesitate for a second to slit your throat if that’s what it takes to keep his people safe. He’s aloof, unknowable, one of the three of four smartest human beings on the planet, and you can never quite be sure how much you can trust him. He is a black man who is the hero of his own story, not a supporting character in someone else’s.
If there was any doubt that there was a real hunger for this kind of character, then the roaring rampage this thing cut through the global box office put it to rest. No MCU movie has flopped…
No MCU movie that counts has flopped and most of them have been big hits. Some of them have been massive hits. But Black Panther was a full on cultural event. Dialogue and characters from this movie saturated the pop culture. Athletes started dressing in Wakanda inspired outfits and making the Wakandan salute. Schools and churches organised trips to see it and some commentators compared its release to cultural touchstones like Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech and the election of Obama and okay guys, c’mon. It’s just a movie. But, after all the fanfare and thinkpieces, does the movie hold up? This looks like a job for an opinionated white guy on the internet! Let’s do this.