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After the Old Order Changeth

Nathan Thomas-Scene4 Magazine |

Nathan Thomas

(Spoilers for Avengers: Endgame and about every Marvel movie ahead.)

The oldest of the comic books to survive my youth was Avengers #47.  It was a magazine with a December 1967 cover date and set me back twelve cents.

The product of Roy Thomas (script) and “Big” John Buscema, I read and re-read the story over the years.  Avengers-decembe-crrThe story was electric with brief scenes full of impact years and years before MTV took advantage of the short video shot.

Magneto and the Toad are the villains of the piece. 

They had been socked away on some rocky planet as far away from Earth as one might imagine.  But an Earth scientist scanned the stars with magnetic rays searching for intelligent life.  It turned out the Earth scientist was Dane Whitman who would one day take over the Black Knight character for Marvel.  We got just enough “history” to understand character context – a panel or two.  Then we moved to seeing Captain America “quitting” the Avengers for about the first time.  Which led to the rest of the Avengers asking questions about their private lives, such as they were back in 1967.  (Hawkeye was still dating the Black Widow.)  Magneto and Toad returned to Earth.  And in short order Magneto located Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, fought them, and beat them into submission.  His goal was to reconstitute the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. 

Super-hero comics in 1967 still did not have many shades of gray.  Magneto was a villain.  His face was hidden.  And his posse was the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.  We were to find out in subsequent years that Magneto had a deeper past involving survival from the Holocaust and that Wanda and Pietro were his children.  But in 1967 we weren’t troubled with that extra backstory that hadn’t been invented yet.

I really became a monthly fan of the Avengers in the early 1970s when Steve Englehart and John Buscema, his son Sal, Dave Cockrum, and others were in charge of the Avengers.  Steve Englehart was part of a crew of writers who were expanding the Marvel Universe that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and others had created back in the 1960s. 

In Englehart’s hands, we were introduced to the Mantis who appeared with a rehabilitated Swordsman and started falling in love with the Vision who was just beginning his romance with the Scarlet Witch.  But then we found out that Mantis was something called the Celestial Madonna.  Mantis wound up marrying sentient, telepathic trees called Cotati in a double service in which Vision and Scarlet Witch also got married.

I know how it sounds, but it was amazing stuff for a junior-high boy.

So, yeah.  I liked the Fantastic Four well enough.  And I liked Roy Thomas and Neil Adams’ run on X-Men.  But I was an Avengers fan.

I stayed true to my heroes and my imaginary friends.  As I got older (and went through various periods of poverty), I kept up with the Avengers.  I stayed true during good times and bad times. Bad times?  The rape of Carol Danvers was a low point.  Hank Pym slapping Janet was awful.  Yes, the Bob Harras years.  (Sorry.)

As a kid I was fine with Christopher Reeves as Superman.  (I appreciate his work more now.)  And Tim Burton’s Batman films were fine.  But they were not the fan experience for me.

Like other comic book nerds, I sat in the multiplex and enjoyed X-Men in 2000, Spider-Man in 2002, and Fantastic Four in 2005.

Finally, Iron Man was nice and all, but what caught my attention was the moment at the end of the film when Tony Stark was invited to join the “Avengers Initiative.” 

Compared to the X-Men/ Wolverine fans, we Avengers-fans were a small, pallid group.  The Avengers had been steady, but never the flashy group.  Avengers was mostly a steady seller for Marvel, but never at the top of the list.

I was floored when it was announced that Marvel would

–make a Captain America movie, 

–it would be subtitled “The First Avenger,” 

–there ultimately would be an Avengers movie to be helmed by Joss Whedon.

I never thought it would happen.  And then there it was.

There will be other times and other places to discuss why it seems exciting to see something that you’ve read on the page enfleshed on stage or screen.  Sure, a 19th century person had read Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  But, oh, to see it on the stage!  Sure, you’d read The Lord of the Rings.  But, oh, to see it done on the screen – and have it look like what you saw in your imagination.  This scratches a primal itch for us.  For now we’ll just accept that it does.

Except when it doesn’t.

There are miles and miles of dreadful film of bad adaptations.  And there’s no telling what the winning formula might be.  The makers of The Wizard of Oz flatly ignored certain aspects of Baum’s book, made some stuff up out of the whole cloth, and the result has stood the test of time.  Meanwhile, other adaptations that ignore this, but accept that part of the source material can fall flat.  This was particularly true of past attempts at bringing Captain America to any screen.

In the wrong hands, Captain America can turn into something incredibly cringe-worthy.  There is a reason that you probably have never heard of Albert Pyun’s 1990 Captain America movie with Matt Salinger in the lead role.  And I mean no insult to anyone who worked on the project.  I merely bring it up to point out how difficult it is to do these kind of projects in a way that connect with an audience.

Hats off, then, to Kevin Feige, Joe Johnston, Joss Whedon and the Russo Brothers – and mostly Chris Evans – for making Captain America work on the screen in a way that connected with audiences.  None of this was pre-ordained.

The thing that Stan Lee and Roy Thomas and subsequent writers learned was that the “key” or the “heart” of the Avengers was Captain America.  Due to some alchemy of collaboration years of creation led  to this particular character who was optimistic without being cloying, and led as easily as he breathed.  Get Captain America right, and the Avengers will work.  Get Captain America wrong, and you’ve asked a lot of people to modify pictures on computer screens for no good reason, because not many people are going to see the results.

Chris Evans played Captain America with easy grace. 

Now the current roster of movie Avengers has ended.  It is one of the most viewed films of all time, and a huge money-maker.  People have written all matter of stuff about the movies in the fan (read nerd) sites and in social media.  It even got some comment in the “legitimate” press in outlooks like the New York Times.  The Times critics, being movie snobs (and I have no trouble with that), could be somewhat dismissive of the whole thing by lobbing faint praise at the whole exercise.

But we would lose something if we left all comment just there without articulating some basic ideas that filmmakers would benefit from noticing.

When I was a young guy I wanted to see a movie that included all of the actors I liked in one place.  What would it be to have one movie in which the cast included Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Peter O’Toole, Albert Finney, Alec Guiness, Derek Jacobi, Nicol Williamson, John Hurt, and other luminaries?  We got to see projects in which we might get to see a couple of this group acting with each other, but never a project in which they’d all be together.

From time to time other producers see the possibilities of this, and we’ll see something like Murder on the Orient Express.  And that works out all right.  But there are other aspects that Marvel took advantage of.

First, all of the major characters in the last Avengers movie are played by actors who themselves could receive top billing in their own film.  This is huge.  Not every actor has the capacity or “stuff” to compel people to watch them in nearly every scene in a movie.  But a majority of the actors in Avengers have starred in their own pictures.  Therefore, they have those capacities.

Next, as the film was made in 2018 and 2019, the actors had worked in these roles for years.  Chris Evans has played Captain America over several movies made over 8-9 years.  Robert Downey Jr. since being cast in the role in 2007 has played Tony Stark in ten movies.  Scarlett Johansson played the Black Widow in six movies over about eight years.

In Avengers: Endgame, then, the leads had this level of experience behind them.  They also had the group mentality to play well together as an ensemble.  And they had already worked together as an ensemble in three previous movies.

Certain things have always been true.  Get strong actors together.  Give them an opportunity to get used to their characters.  Give them an opportunity to act together over time.  There will be a greater chance for artistic success.

Avengers: Endgame takes advantage of all of these facets and allows us to see the inter-relationships of the characters more than anything else.  There are action sequences to be sure.  But in many ways, Chris Evans leaning over and muttering, “Hail Hydra” in someone’s ear created more excitement than the Cap vs Cap fight sequence that followed.

Because of the money earned at the box office, there will be other Avengers movies.  As a fan, that pleases me.  I’m bemused that millions of other people now know this little corner of the entertainment world that has been there for a few of us – and for me since the Johnson administration.

Some of those other movies will be good, some will be less good.  As a long-time comic fan, you come to expect these things.  There might be a break in movies for a while. 

Makes no difference.  If there’s an Avengers movie, you’ll know where to find me.  Down at the multiplex waiting to buy an extremely over-priced root beer, getting ready to settle in and watch heroes do what they do best – save the world.

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Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, and is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia University. He writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives

©2019 Nathan Thomas
©2019 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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June 2019

Volume 20 Issue 1

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