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The suggestion that Captain America 3 will pit Chris Evans’ Captain America and Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man against each other means that the Marvel Studios movies are finally fully embracing the other innovation that Marvel Comics brought to the superhero genre. Yes, yes; Marvel brought more realistic, grounded characters to the genre — but it also brought the sheer joy of watching superheroes punch each other a lot.
Prior to the advent of what Stan Lee modestly called “The Marvel Age of Comics” — essentially, the launch of Fantastic Four No. 1 and everything that followed — when superheroes ran into each other, it had been established that two things would be true: (1) They would probably have heard of each other, and (2) They would probably get on immediately. Hell, they might even form a Society or League dedicated to justice.
After the advent of the Fantastic Four, however, that idea seemed old-fashioned — within a year of Marvel’s flagship title launching, the team had not only faced off against the Sub-Mariner, who had debuted as a hero decades earlier, but also the then-brand-new Hulk. By the series’ 30th issue, the tradition was firmly established, with the FF not only having a rematch with the Hulk, but also fighting both the Avengers and the X-Men within a four-month window.
Sure, there were often excuses to explain away these skirmishes — mind-control or mistaken identity were reasons commonly given — but the greater meaning was clear: Marvel’s heroes were so unlike the cookie-cutter alternatives like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman that they were as likely to fight each other as they were the bad guys. To an audience looking for more complexity from their comic books, it was everything they could’ve hoped for.
Despite the obvious success of the formula, it was more than a decade of Marvel before writer Steve Englehart took the concept of squabbling superheroes to the next level. “The Avengers/Defenders War,” as the title suggests, was the first event storyline based built the idea of superheroes fighting each other. Running through both the Avengers and Defenders series for four months, the 1973 storyline was one of the first “crossover” storylines at the publisher, and — although it might not have seemed as such at the time — very much a sign of what was to come.
In more recent years, Marvel’s event storylines have increasingly tended to revolve around the idea of intra-superhero conflict. 2006’s Civil War, 2007’s World War Hulk, 2008’s Secret Invasion, 2011’s Fear Itself and Schism, 2012’s Avengers vs. X-Men and this year’s Axis have all featured superheroes turning on each other for a variety of reasons, whether paranoia bred of alien invasion, possession by supernatural forces or simple difference of opinion (No, really; that latter option is what Civil War, Schism and Avengers vs. X-Men are all based on). Even the promotional image for Marvel’s just-announced 2015 event, Secret Wars, features heroes fighting each other (literally in some cases, given the sight of multiple incarnations of the same characters in conflict in places).
If it seems as if Marvel is going back to the same well on a regular basis, it’s worth pointing out that the audience apparently wants them to. Both Civil War and Avengers vs. X-Men were amazing successes for the publisher, revitalizing the entire line for some time afterwards as a result. The fans, it seems, really like to see what their favorite heroes fail to get along.
Whether movie fans will be quite as eager to see the same thing happen to the Avengers is something that it looks like we’ll find out in 2016. The first Avengers movie may have established that Cap, Iron Man and the other heroes didn’t necessarily get along, but it also showed that they could put aside their differences for a greater good. Will cinema audiences respond as favorably as comic book fans when the personal grudges become larger than any outside threat?
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Roe V. Wade