Here on the eve of the official American release of The Avengers: Age of Ultron, we'll examine how the film medium has impacted the comic book medium, what truly motivates them, and maybe, time permitting, we'll dig into the 'pataphysics of their eschatological mimesis.
Let's look at motivations first: Gillette has an ad running right now that sums up the condition of the modern superhero's multiversal constant of cash. It depicts a razor cycling through the superpowers of The Avengers, turning the bathroom of a faceless male onlooker into a war-zone.
"Sure! A razor could be built using Avengers-inspired technology," a steely-voiced narrator intones, "but it clearly shouldn't be." At this, the super-razor hulks out and collapses the sink into a pile of rubble.
Sure, cinematic mega-franchises could be built using comic book inspired story-lines, and maybe they shouldn't, but they certainly will.
The primary motivation for the excess to be found in the film's plot and performance, as well as the accrued product placement in and around it is nothing new, and relatively simple.
THERE WILL BE A RETURN ON INVESTMENT.
All individuals involved in this new and terrible future have these words tattooed on their foreheads, in florid script like Leto's Joker, though visible only with They Live sunglasses. As the people funding these films seek a return on investment through megamillions grossing, so to does the individual moviegoer invest their time and money into visiting the temple of theater and losing themselves in an entertaining spectacle, for any number of reasons. But anyone with even a passive stake in the experience should know their place. An ant on the rim of a teacup perched on a giant pile of cash.
Imagine it's a gala fundraiser for fun. James Spader will be there. A small child will make a mess out of their Hulkbuster highchair with noodles shaped like Tony Stark's helmet. Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver will disavow any ties to their father Magneto, holed up as he is in a revived 20th century Fox camp, while they are trading up for an Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Mickey Mouse Club Hydra tie-in origin. A tiny Ultron will push a Target shopping basket filled with Subway sandwiches and T-Mobile phones into an Audi. The Fantastic Four comic book will be canceled (for a time), and placed in a tomb designed by Bob Iger, who will then do a jig to celebrate. This will compound the frustration of every fan still being trolled by the awful marketing campaign for the Josh Trank film due out in July. Corporate synergy meets spite in the name of cash, as fictional families and cities crumble around warring corporate titans like so many Gillette-annihilated bathrooms, eerie echoes of America's own corporate-sponsored perpetual secret and public wars bouncing off the wreckage.
It's worth noting that this fancy robot mayhem is being released roughly in conjunction with the comic crossover rehash rebooting cosmic super-event Secret Wars, wherein the Marvel Comics Universe (Earth 616) collides and fuses with its Ultimate Comics counterpart (Earth 1610). The timing for this has been carefully calculated, as new readers or prodigal ones are welcome to join in the "starting from a blank slate" offered by the eschaton/apotheosis, which will consume these two universes (and more!) for months to come. Various titles offer renewed takes on dead or dangling plots from decades gone by, and will, in theory, infuse a renewed enthusiasm into readership. Marvel even went so far as to provide a Secret Wars spread detailing (with ISBNs!) what books you should read from the past twenty years to keep up with the upcoming amalgam battles.
It may help to go over a bit of the retconning and ham water that led us to this point. The Ultimate Comics line was conceived in the early days of the Bush Administration as a means of proving the Marvel brand was capable of casting off the "immature baggage of the past" for the cultural cachet of the present and future, specifically in a more cinematic manner.
Decades of stagnant backstory on the part of this or that Status Quo superhuman can wear down the interest of that elusive and ever-expanding target audience, The New Arrival. The New Arrival is a more casual creature, chill, with none of the loyalties of a true fan, but also none of the bitterness or cleverness that comes with a critical faculty for the stuff, either. Movies, being more immediate in their presentation and proliferation (and profit margins), are an excellent bait for The New Arrival, with titles finding that unique balance of "blank slate" and Status Quo upheaval/reinforcement as the perfect hook.
Such was the motivating factor behind Marvel's Ultimate Comics, the Baby Daddy of the current Marvel Mega-franchise.
It was in this spirit that Nick Fury (1610) "traded up" for the likeness of one Samuel L. Jackson, who is more than willing to provide his talents for the character in as many films as they will pay him to do. In current continuity, the original Nick Fury (616), after killing The Watcher and stealing one of his eyeballs, became a haunt of the Blue Area of the Moon called The Unseen. A while ago, a convenient Nick Fury Jr. (also a Samuel L. Jackson lookalike) manifested in true soap opera/lost son/sad trumpet style within Universe 616, clearly to avoid confusing New Arrivals who didn't know (or can hardly bring themselves to care) about the fella that spent time with the Howling Commandos half a century ago.
As the pool of knowledge for the fictional universes expand, so too is the term "fan" itself watered down. Two sets of knowledge, one obscure and clumsy, one overly slick and refined, vie for objective validity in a subjective reality. "Fandom" and its antagonistic social media camaraderie comes in many forms, and the bitter nerds of yesterday serve as models for the bitter nerds of tomorrow.
This New Arrival is broader and deeper than the pimply white male nerd specter that has dominated the market's attention for ages. In an age where Spider-Woman shame-Googles her own butt and Twitter sees a hashtag campaign started to fire a writer started because a trauma victim lacked reading comprehension skills and tact, we find ourselves with a lady Thor who can make Mjölnir dance like a chitauri on a hot tin roof, and a certain Sam Wilson standing in for a powerless Steve Rogers.
Once thought to be the childish arcana of nerds and simpletons, in years past comic books have shown their mettle for progressive storytelling, especially with independent publishers. Yet the health of the mainstream industry is inextricably tied to that market, with many authors and artists seeking approval or at least a paycheck from the monolith before branching out accordingly with such beauties as Promethea, Saga, or East of West. Furthermore, any melancholic nay-sayers should remember, the stakes have been raised since the first Avengers film grossed over a billion dollars worldwide, and with that, the ability to help the people funding these PTSD-flashback inducing Inception drum thrumming city-annihilating drama rambles get a major return on their investment.
Mainstream Comics are not just for fans of the comics anymore. They haven't been for a while. Mainstream Comics are for New Arrivals first. Instant appraisal for the uninitiated is demanded, in all things. Comics, by virtue of accounting for a lower percentage of sales than cinema, act now as a testing grounds for plots and ploys that may be reproduced digitally later, one way or another, which plays with the overall image society chooses to project unto its masses, in memes or simulacra. The new mythology has taken root, and whether or not it will reach its saturation point sooner or later is, to some extent, dependent on the quality of the product provided. No pandering, and no idiotic glad-handing, if you can manage it, Hollywood. Will the time come that the vaunted Disney-cum-third-act-Tetsuo finally overtakes all major imaginary universes after Star Wars chokes out Star Trek with J.J. Abrams's hands, creating a monopoly over vast swaths of nerd entertainment, as if Pepsi and Coke fused, or DC and Marvel, for that matter?
At times it seems Marvel is capable, with their plot-driven characters, of moving more freely than DC. While the metahumans of DC Comics shift more subtly due to their greater iconic and cosmic ties, they are to a certain extent incapable of the frailties of folly Marvel Studios has found success with in rehashing, for instance, The Guardians of the Galaxy (the key is always a relatable protagonist). Common sense has it that competition between companies is positive for the market and the consumer, and it helps the industry at large if they are both successful and strong in their undertakings.
We will see massive adulation and careful criticism of the hooks and MacGuffins produced in this Whedon-soaked romp of robots and responsibility. Those that contributed to this spectacle will find that they will be richly rewarded for doing so. The strength of mythology found in comic books will find its proving ground once again, as a marketable venture for Hollywood and beyond.
What of the small folk in the two respective universes, hung in stasis between Wednesday shipments? What about the minor nuances of a stable environment wherein characters can grow, change, and adapt in a manner that audiences will respond to? Are the laws governing the metaphysics of flying men off limits to everyone but Benedict Cumberbatch's rendition of Doctor Strange?
As the abyss stares also, so will the commodification of superheroes continue to gain steam in the world of cinema. In this brave new age, medias blend into one another as through a semi-permeable membrane, fundamentally altering one another, and the results are given relevance by Vox Populi in the form of cash. Cash enough to buy a small country.
The future of Mainstream Comics could be presaged in the speculation bubble that arose in the 1990's, or perhaps it can be best summarized by commercials for razors and shopping outlets. In either event, there is a potential for pleasant growth or vapid regurgitation. We could see Lazarus or Frankenstein's monster, in the wide-screen mega-events yet to unfold.
Whatever the case, remember, we watch these things to enjoy them.
Watch carefully, see if you can spot the strings.