‘The Avengers': The Comic Books Behind The Movie

Ever since the 2008 big-screen debut of “Iron Man,” Marvel Studios has been building towards something. Followed by “The Incredible Hulk” in the same year, “Iron Man 2” in 2010, and “Thor” and “Captain America” in 2011, there were seeds carefully being planted, all suggesting an end goal of something bigger. That something is the feature film debut of “The Avengers,” the superhero team which unites Marvel’s greatest heroes, in theaters right now. But the roots of the Avengers go a lot further back than 2008, and we’re going to take a look at the Avengers comic books published over nearly 50 years that have lent their influence to the making of the Avengers film.

WARNING: If you have not seen the film yet, you may want to hold off on reading this—there are MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD.

As hinted in the post-credits scene of Thor, the primary menace the Avengers have to contend with in their first outing is Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the Norse God of Evil. This echoes the founding of the team in 1963’s Avengers #1 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, where Loki is inadvertently responsible for the formation of the team. He attempts to lure his hated stepbrother Thor into a trap using the Hulk as his pawn, but succeeds in drawing the attention of the other heroes, who unite to defeat him.

Loki’s scheme in the film involves the Cosmic Cube (referred to as the Tesseract) a device of nigh unlimited power. He strikes a bargain with an alien race known as the Chitauri to provide them with the Cube in exchange for their assistance in conquering Earth. Like several elements of the Marvel films, the Chitauri derive from the Ultimate line of comics, wherein classic Marvel concepts are given a modern twist. In this case, the Chitauri, who debuted in Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s 2002 Ultimates series are the Ultimate equivalent of the Skrulls, a long-standing alien race bedeviling Marvel Earth, who first appeared in 1962’s Fantastic Four #2, by Lee and Kirby. The Chitauri’s plan to invade and conquer Earth echoes both their plan in the Ultimates, as well as the Skrull plan in 2008’s Secret Invasion, by Brian Bendis and Leinil Yu, although in both cases there was a good deal more subterfuge involved, given the shape-changing abilities of their species.

The Cosmic Cube of the comics also has ties to both the Avengers and the Skrulls. The individual Avengers have dealt with the Cube separately on many occasions, but their first encounter with it as a team was in 1967’s Avengers #40, by Roy Thomas and Don Heck, following on from Cube’s debut against Captain America in Tales of Suspense #79-81. It is later on revealed in 1983’s Captain America Annual #7, by Peter Gillis and Brian Postman, that the Skrulls experimented with similar technology, only to have their Cube achieve sentience, taking a form similar to that of the Skrulls and calling itself The Shaper of Worlds.

The initial phase of Loki’s plan begins with an attack on the base where the Cube is being held for study by spymaster Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of the security agency known as SHIELD. Fury has made appearances in most of the Marvel films to date as the behind-the-scenes mastermind assembling the team of heroes, and this portrayal is primarily taken from the Ultimates series, where he serves as the recruiter for the Ultimate version of the Avengers.

In addition to snatching the Cube, Loki takes control of the minds of several SHIELD agents, including Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), the master marksman and archer. Hawkeye made his comics debut in 1964’s Tales of Suspense #57, by Stan Lee and Don Heck, and his portrayal here as a hero forced to commit criminal acts by the evil Loki presents a twist on his early comics appearances, where he started out on a superheroing career, only to have disastrous misunderstandings with law enforcement that turned him into a fugitive and occasional opponent of Iron Man. Hawkeye eventually got the chance to redeem himself in 1965’s Avengers #16, by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, when Iron Man vouched for his character, giving him the opportunity to join the new line-up of Avengers.

Given the crisis created by Loki, Fury sees no choice but to activate what he calls “The Avenger Initiative.” He deploys the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to find Dr. Bruce Banner, AKA the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and bring him on board. In the comics, the Black Widow joins the Avengers somewhat later in their history; she debuted in 1964’s Tales of Suspense #52, by Lee and Heck, as a Soviet spy sent to eliminate Tony Stark. The movie shows her as having a history with Hawkeye, which is true in the comics as well; while Hawkeye was a fugitive from the law, he fell in love with the Black Widow, and she led him even further astray before he finally returned to the side of the angels. The Widow’s reformation was longer in coming, but she eventually saw the dark side of her work, and allied herself with the Avengers after defecting from her Soviet handlers in 1966’s Avengers #29-30, by Lee and Heck, before officially becoming a member in 1973’s Avengers #111, by Steve Englehart and Don Heck.

SHIELD agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) is sent to bring in Tony Stark, AKA Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.). Coulson was specifically created for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, although the role he plays — the staid bureaucrat looking to rein in superhero antics — harkens back to Henry Peter Gyrich, the U.S. government’s liason to the Avengers who first appeared in 1977’s Avengers #165, by Jim Shooter and John Byrne, and caused no end of bureaucratic problems for the team. It should also be noted that in the recently released Battle Scars miniseries, by Chris Yost and Scott Eaton, an Agent Coulson has been introduced into the comics universe, along with a son of Nick Fury who more resembles his movie incarnation, proving that influences can work both ways.

Fury himself brings Steve Rogers, AKA Captain America (Chris Evans) into the team. Although Captain America has long been regarded as a “founding” member of the Avengers, he isn’t technically; as fans of the Captain America movie are aware, he was frozen in suspended animation at the end of World War II, but in the comics, it isn’t SHIELD who rescues him. Instead, it’s the already-formed Avengers who thaw out his frozen form in 1964’s Avengers #4, by Lee and Kirby, leading him to quickly become a mainstay of the team.

The assembled heroes go off to capture Loki, but the team isn’t complete until the arrival of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Norse God of Thunder, who ends up in a fight with his would-be teammates. Conflicts among the various heroes abound throughout the film, and this is very much in the Avengers tradition, as their initial gathering in the comics centered on a massive battle with the Hulk, as engineered by Loki. Even with that misunderstanding resolved, the distrust and infighting remained, leading the Hulk to permanently quit the team after only their second outing in 1963’s Avengers #2, by Lee and Kirby. Beyond the circumstances of their assembly, another major way the film formation of the Avengers differs from the comics is in the line-up; here we have Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Hawkeye, and Black Widow as founding members, but the comics’ initial line-up consisted of Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Ant-Man, and The Wasp. It remains to be seen if the latter two will be show up in future Avengers films.

The film features a spectacular final showdown between the Avengers and the invading Chitauri forces, but one of the biggest surprises comes after the credits start rolling; the mastermind behind the alien army, and the one ultimately seeking the Cosmic Cube, is none other than one of the biggest supervillains of the Marvel Universe, Thanos. Thanos is an alien warlord who first appeared in 1973’s Iron Man #55, by writer/artist Jim Starlin. It soon became apparent that he was no ordinary villain, however; as a worshipper of Death, his goal is nothing less than the annihilation of all life in the universe, and in 1973’s Captain Marvel #28-33, also by Starlin, he attempted to use the Cosmic Cube to achieve just that. With the Avengers now having thwarted his behind-the-scenes machinations in their debut film, it seems all too possible that he may take a more direct hand in the sequel.

Which heroes would you like to see join the team in the next “Avengers” film? Let us know what you think in the comment section or on Twitter!