“The Avengers” Comic Book References Explained

Here’s what all you non-geeks missed out on.

This is the final part of last week’s extended analysis/close reading of “The Avengers” movie. This whole three-part opus was prompted by a simple query from Stacey, in which she asked what I thought of the movie and what some of the comic book references, in case she might have missed any. I finally get around to answering that last part here. (Spoiler alert.)

All right, I know this is really what you were waiting for. I’m sure there’s a bunch more stuff in there that I missed, but here are some of the big ones that stand out:

Loki first brings the Avengers together; he also sets Hulk against the team

This was basically the plot of the original, very-first-ever Avengers story, by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby back in the 1960s. I’m not sure if I’ve ever read the actual comic, but the gist was that Loki tried to manipulate the Hulk into attacking Thor; a bunch of other heroes showed up to help (Iron Man, Ant-Man, and Wasp, to be precise), and the five of them agreed to stick together as a team thereafter. The Hulk quit within an issue or two, and then the team found Captain America on ice.

In the movie version, the Loki reference is obvious, but I like also how Loki again manipulates the situation so that the Hulk is pitted against the rest of the team.

Nick Fury first brings the Avengers together; he also looks like Samuel L. Jackson

This is from a separate Avengers origin story, from another continuity. In the 2000s, Marvel decided its 40 years’ worth of backstories were making it hard to attract new readers — not to mention straining credulity. (Tony Stark originally fought in Vietnam, and by all rights he should look today like Stan Lee does.) So, alongside the regular Marvel Universe, Marvel created a new continuity, starting from scratch with new versions of all its classic characters. In this universe, the parallel to the Avengers was called the “Ultimates” (because, frankly, it was never clear what the original team was “avenging” in the first place).

In the Ultimate Universe, it was Nick Fury who put the team together and remains in charge of it. Also, the writers and artists for it decided that, rather than continuing to portray Nick Fury as a sandpaper-faced, lantern-jawed, cigar-chomping white man with gray at his temples (the way he’d been drawn since the 60s), it’d be awesome to have him look like Samuel L. Jackson with an eyepatch.

The look turned out to be so popular that many of Marvel’s subsequent comic or animated universes have stuck with a black Nick Fury, even those not set in the Ultimate Universe. And it’s even better that for the movies Jackson agreed to play, basically, himself.

A Chitauri invasion first brings the Avengers together

This is another nod at the Ultimate Universe. The first big battle for the Ultimates is to repel an invasion by the Chitauri, who in the comics were shapeshifters (and apparently were intended as a substitute for the shapeshifting alien Skrulls that Lee and Kirby dreamed up).

Hawkeye goes bad before joining the team

This is one of those traditional defining traits of Hawkeye, right up there with his bow and arrow. In the original comics, Hawkeye had been a bad guy for some time before Cap brought him onto the team (after the rest of the Avengers quit; in addition to Hawkeye, Cap brought in Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, who also had checkered pasts from their time with the Brotherhood of [Evil] Mutants). I think Hawkeye’s origin story has been retroactively reshaped a bunch of times, but I think the latest version indicated that, just as he was trying to start out as a hero, he had ended up fighting Iron Man due to some kind of misunderstanding, which resulted in him going on the lam.

Whedon’s trick of having Hawkeye turn bad because he’s possessed by Loki is about the only way anyone could have worked in a Hawkeye-turns-bad plot and still rehabilitated him in time to fight alongside the team before the end of the movie. And it mostly works — we get to see how good Hawkeye is, when he almost single-handedly takes down SHIELD’s headquarters while he’s still a bad guy; later, his interaction with Black Widow establishes his bona fides and why she trusts him — but it still seemed a little odd to me that everybody just welcomed him onto the team without so much as a debriefing, just on his say-so that he wasn’t still compromised.

Nick Fury lies to everybody

This has been a trait of virtually every version of Nick Fury in every comic continuity: He’s always working an angle, he never tells you the full story, he’s always manipulating you. I thought it was a nice touch in the movie that he lies to almost everyone at one time or another — obviously to the Avengers, but also to his superiors and even apparently to his subordinates.

The mysterious space bad guy at the end

That appeared to be Thanos, one of the bigger baddies in the Marvel Universe. Thanos has two usual tropes: (1) He wields the Infinity Gauntlet, which bears six (I think) Infinity Gems, each of which has fantastic cosmic powers; the heroes usually have to try to get it from him before he destroys the universe. (2) He’s obsessed with death — or, more precisely, with Death, in its female personification. For one reason or another, he fell in love with Death but ended up spurned by her. (Either she turned him down or was frozen in stone or something else. Maybe all three.) Consequently, he hopes to win back her favor by killing everything in the universe.

This is the clever nod behind that line from the Chitauri general at the end, the one about how to invade Earth “is to court death.”

The Cosmic Cube, aka the Tesseract

As far as I know, it’s called the Tesseract only in the movies, but as the Cosmic Cube it’s been around for a looooong time in the comics. What it is and what it does keep changing, depending on the writer; the only constant is that it’s a combination of MacGuffin and Deus Ex Machina-in-a-box. Over the years it’s figured most prominently in Cap’s comics, wherein the Red Skull is usually obsessed with obtaining or using it. (Hence its use in the Captain America movie.)

Maria Hill

She doesn’t have much to do in the movie except to be there for Fury to bounce dialogue off of, but in the comics she’s been pretty important. For a while she even replaced Fury as director of SHIELD when he disappeared, if I recall correctly. I don’t know much else about her portrayal in the comics, though.

She’s a badass, obviously, but I think a big part of her character was about trying to take the helm of a gigantic agency like SHIELD after Fury had been shaping the whole thing in his own image for decades.

Life-Model Decoy

This is a blink-and-you-miss-it reference — Stark claims to be a “Life-model decoy” when he answers his videophone while trying to dodge Agent Coulson. In the comics, LMDs are advanced androids capable of substituting for a human, which is a pretty cool idea with tons of obvious applications for espionage and anyone living a double life. In practice, however, they tended to facilitate a lot of lazy writing: Whenever Nick Fury or Dr. Doom gets killed in the main Marvel Universe, it’s a good bet that you’ll soon learn that, whaddayaknow! It was actually an LMD that was killed! An advanced LMD that had been taking Fury’s place for the past five years without anybody noticing! And so on.

Tony Stark’s Black Sabbath T-shirt

This one didn’t dawn on me until hours after I got home from the movie, but it’s probably my favorite Easter egg. If you don’t get the joke, check out this Black Sabbath song from 1970:

Article © 2012 by Michael Duck