Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Defending the Ending (Of Avengers: Infinity War)

Recently someone on the Huffington Post insisted that Disney money ruined the ending of Avengers: Infinity War. He was referring to the characters who turned to dust at the end. Several have contracts for future films so he knows they will be restored. To him this ruined the movie.

I have news for this guy, I always knew that the deaths at the end of the movie would be reversed. It's not just because several of the vanished characters have upcoming movies. It's because it wasn't just them who died. It was half of everyone, everywhere. That's over three and a half billion people, just on earth - dead and gone at the snap of Thanos's fingers.

This is a comic book movie. At the end of Avengers: Civil War, Thanos won. He'd killed half of everyone, everywhere and retired to watch the sun rise.

But the bag guys don't win in comic book movies. And they certainly don't win when they've done something so monstrous. There may be some collateral damage along the way. The Ancient One or Doctor Erskine or Uncle Ben might die but the villain's plot will be foiled in the end.

That wasn't an ending, it was a cliffhanger. We know it will be reversed, Han won't stay frozen in carbonite, Jack Sparrow will be rescued from Davy Jones's Locker and half the population of the universe won't stay dead. The question is how will it be reversed and who will stay dead when it's all over?

For the record, I think that the Asgardians who were killed (plus Loki) and the people of Xandor will stay dead. There's an excellent chance that Gamora will be brought back to life because her death was so intimately tied to the Soul Gem. And there's a good chance that several more Avengers will die in the second movie and stay dead.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Starlin's Thanos - Infinity Wars

Great comic book characters seldom stay dead for long. Thanos was dead for most of a decade before returning to the realm of the living.

Unlike most resurrections, Thanos's was easily explained - Death herself sent him back. She had become concerned that the scales were out of balance and too many people were alive (there was possibly-true factoid going around at the time that half of everyone who ever lived was alive). Thanos was dispatched to correct that imbalance by killing half of everyone in the universe.

It started in the Silver Surfer. The Surfer fell asleep on a desolate world and dreamed about Death's servants releasing Thanos. When he awoke, Thanos was there, waiting for him. Thanos explained his goal and even made the Surfer complicit in killing off half the population of one world. The Surfer then collected as much background information as he could gather on Thanos. Then he went to face him. And won, surprisingly easily, leaving Thanos a smoking skeleton.

It was all a ruse. Death had warned Thanos that the Surfer could be a threat so Thanos faked his death and moved on to his real goal - the Infinity Gems.

While dead, Thanos had discovered the power the gems possessed. He convinced Death that without the gems it would take him a century to kill half the population of the universe. He then defeated a half dozen powerful beings in order to assemble the gems into the Infinity Gauntlet. This gave him total control over everything.

The only problem was that he was now Death's superior and she didn't like that one bit. Thanos spent some time trying to impress her by torturing relatives, spelling his name out with planets and removing half the population of the universe with the snap of his fingers. Death remained unimpressed.

All of this gave time for Adam Warlock to return to life along with Gamora and Pip the Troll (although Gamora had the bad luck to be in the half of the universe that was removed). Warlock assembled the remaining heroes of Earth along with the cosmic beings in a complicated plan to defeat Thanos.

The heroes were totally outmatched but Thanos thought that Death might look favorably on him if he gave them a chance so he cut off his extra senses. This almost worked. While fighting Captain America, Thanos raised his hand to strike and the Surfer grabbed for the Infinity Gauntlet. And missed.

Next the various cosmic entities tried and failed. At the end, Thanos defeated the entity known as Infinity - the personification of the universe itself - and took it's place. This left his body unguarded and Nebula, one of the relatives Thanos had been torturing, seized the Gauntlet and reversed all of Thanos's actions. That meant that she had to fight the cosmic entities all over again. While she was distracted, Warlock slipped back into the Soul Gem and used it to break the connection between the stones for a moment and rip the gauntlet from her hand. Warlock the emerged with the gauntlet and sent everyone home.

The cosmic entities complained that Warlock was too unstable to control the universe and he agreed to divide the gems up, giving them to protectors. These turned out to be Starlin's various creations - Adam himself, Gamora, Drax, Moon Dragon and Pip. The sixth gem went to someone secret (hint, Thanos). Together they formed the Infinity Watch to protect the universe from threats.

Unfortunately, the first two threats came from Warlock. While he possessed the gauntlet he exorcised himself of his good and evil parts. They proved to be as dangerous as Thanos.

Along the way, Thanos was redefined. Rejected by Death, he became a pragmatic survivor. He was similar to Magneto in the X-Men movies - someone who is very handy to have on your side but who might turn on you when your goals diverge.

Eventually Thanos gained ultimate power once more. This time he inspected the universe and discovered a cancerous hole in it. Too many people were coming back from the dead. He recreated the universe, fully expecting to perish in the attempt but managed to survive, back at his usual power level.

Starlin's exit from the character involved Thanos helping Galactus, the world-eater who had become infected. Thanos cured him, then warned him to be more careful in the future.

Considering that Galactus is at the top of the cosmic entities, that gives you an idea of Thanos's self-worth.

From there other writers took over Thanos and he was no longer just Jim Starlin's vision.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Infinity War - the mistake that isn't

One "mistake" that I've seen pointed out about Avengers: Infinity War is the scene near the end where Captain America seems to stop Thanos's hand. (note, that was in the trailer so it's not a spoiler. Everything from here on contains spoilers.)

The "problem" is that Thanos already punched out the Hulk. In fact, he beat the Hulk so bad that he refused to come out for the rest of the movie. There's no way that Cap is as strong as the Hulk so what gives?

The answer has two parts.

First, Cap has super strength in the MCU. We've seen lots of examples of it starting with him running down the Nazi spy in Captain America: First Avenger. In The Avengers he holds his own against Loki. He beats several armored aliens with nothing but a shield. By Captain America: The Winter Soldier he's jumping out of airplanes without a parachute and running rings around Sam. In Captain America: Civil War he holds back a helicopter with his bare hands then he and Bucky (who has been similarly enhanced) beat Iron Man. Clearly Cap is superhuman. He may not be as strong as Iron Man but he's able to do things that would cripple a strong man.

The second part is Thanos. We actually have no idea how strong he is naturally. He already has the power gem before Infinity War begins. The Hulk blindsides him, overpowering Thanos but then Thanos draws on the power gem and beats the Hulk up. This is consistent with the comic books where Drax and Thor were able to increase their already considerable strength by drawing on the power gem.

All during the movie we see that Thanos only uses the gems consciously. That's probably the main function of the Infinity Gauntlet - to insulate Thanos from the stones and let him exert conscious control over them. Ronan did the same thing with the power gem in Guardians of the Galaxy The gem might have been able to destroy a planet but he only used a tiny fraction of its power.

We also saw this during the battle between Thanos, Iron Man, Spider-Man, etc. They nearly overpowered Thanos and got the gauntlet. They could never have done that it he was drawing power from the gauntlet. They managed to keep him off-balance enough that he was depending on his own considerable strength rather than the gauntlet.

This also explains why the effects of the reality gem were only temporary. He wasn't actually changing reality, he was overlaying it with a different one. When he stopped, the original reality returned. The people he sliced into pieces were back together, Star Lord's gun shot energy blasts instead of bubbles, etc.

So, Cap, who has super strength, was able to hold off Thanos who was not drawing power from his gauntlet - but only for a moment.

All of this changed during the battle when Thanos had a vision of Gamora as a child. That's when he finally integrated the gems into a single force and evaporated half of everyone, everywhere.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Avengers: Infinity War and the Hard Choices

Spoilers ahead.

If there's a unifying theme in Infinity War, it's hard choices. Characters are constantly being asked to make difficult choices.

The first one is when Thanos threatens to crush Thor's head unless Loki gives him one of the Infinity Stones. At first Loki refuses but then he changes his mind. But, being Loki, he tries to have it both ways. First he sics the Hulk on Thanos then tries to stab him, resulting in Loki's own death.

The Vision and the Scarlet Witch face a couple of hard choices. They want to stay together but need to separate. More on this pair later.

Gamora asks Peter Quill to kill her if she's captured. Later she has to choose to kill Thanos, even though he raised her and she still cares for him.

Both of these characters go through with the hard choices only to have them come to nothing. By this point Thanos controls the reality stone and their actions are rendered useless.

Later Gamora is asked to choose between her sister's life and giving Thanos the Soul Gem. She fails the choice, leading him to the 5th of five stones.

Doctor Strange warns Iron Man and Spider-Man that if he has to choose between their death and giving Thanos his stone, he will let them die. When the time comes, he seems to fail this test and gives up the stone in exchange for Iron Man's life. But he has seen 14 million possible futures and only one led to victory. So it's likely that Strange didn't actually make a choice.

In the final act, the assembled heroes are trying to keep from making a hard choice - destroying the Mind Stone and killing the Vision in the process. They fail and the Scarlet Witch makes the decision to destroy the stone and kill the Vision. Unfortunately, Thanos is able to use the Time Gem to undo this sacrifice.

Several heroes engage in self-sacrifice. Iron Man and Spider-Man stow away on a space ship, knowing it's likely to be a one-way voyage. Thor goes through a lot of punishment in order to get an new hammer. When Thanos's army threatens to flank the warriors, the Black Panther orders a force field opened to let the army in, knowing they will be attacked.

Let's not forget Thanos himself. He already made the hard choice - that half of the universe's population has to die. But he also has to kill the only thing he loves to get the Soul Gem.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Starlin's Thanos - Adam Warlock

After Thanos, the character most associated with Jim Starlin is Adam Warlock. Ironically, Warlock was a collaborative creation.

He began as an artificial being known as "Him" in a Lee/Kirby issue of the Fantastic Four. Some scientists had created Him for nefarious purposes but he escaped before they were ready. At the time, Him glowed so brightly that they couldn't tell what he looked like so they came up with the idea of sending a blind sculptor to do a model by touch. They kidnapped the Thing's girlfriend, Alicia, for this. Alicia wasn't really needed. By the time she found Him in a deep tunnel, he had grown a cocoon and was no longer glowing. This was really just an excuse for a story about the Thing's frustration while Reed devised a way to track Alicia. Eventually Him emerged from his cocoon, a perfect humanoid with golden skin and blond hair. He denounced his creators and left earth. The FF showed up jut in time to rescue Alicia and the Hive where Him was created was destroyed.

A few months later Him showed up in an issue of Thor. Him had an urge to mate and decided on the first woman he met - Thor's girlfriend Sif. Thor objected, strongly, and Him ended up retreating back to his cocoon.

A few years later Roy Thomas and Gil Kane brought back the character, giving him his name, costume and soul gem. While floating in his cocoon, Him came across the High Evolutionary. This was another Lee/Kirby creation - a scientist with an evolutionary accelerator that could create human/animal hybrids. He'd appeared in Thor and the Hulk before trying the accelerator on himself and becoming god-like. Now, he decided to create his own version of the Earth but without sin (this was known as Counter Earth because it was on the far side of the sun from our Earth). Him watched all this from his cocoon and kept the High Evolutionary company. After finishing his creation, the High Evolutionary rested and some of his evil creations took the opportunity to corrupt the Counter Earth. Him emerged from his cocoon and drove them off but they went down to Counter Earth.

The High Evolutionary was ready to scrap the project but Him offered to go clean things up. He was given his name, Adam Warlock, and his soul gem and sent on his way. The whole thing became an extended Jesus in the modern world parable. It didn't last long and the plot threads were tied up in the Hulk with the Hulk acting as Peter and Warlock regenerating from his death in his cocoon.

Based on his work on Captain Marvel, Starlin was given free reign over the character. He tossed out the Jesus influence and turned to the sword and sorcery character, Elric of Melniboné instead. Elric was an albino with all the associated health problems. He overcame these with the help of a magic broadsword that stole souls. This put him in a difficult position - he needed the sword but he hated it taking souls. Elric often fought his cousin who had a matching longsword. The Elric stories also had the conflict between chaos and order which influenced Starlin.

No previous mention had been made about where Adam's soul gem came from. All we knew was that it was powerful. Under Starlin, it began taking souls, at first when Warlock was under stress but later on command. But this was a side-note to Warlock's main struggle against an inter-planetary church that worshiped a powerful being known as the Magus. Along the way Warlock picked up a couple of side-kicks. The first was a troll named Pip. The second was a green-skinned assassin named Gamora who had been sent to kill the Magus.

Things get complicated now.

The Magus was actually a future version of Warlock who would become insane then evil. This process sent him into the past where he quickly conquered a primitive world and was worshiped as a god. Warlock's fight against the Magus was the first step to him becoming the Magus.

Along the way, Gamora failed to assassinate the Magus so her master decided to take a direct hand. The was Thanos.

It seems that despite being evil, the Magus was the chosen champion of life as embodied by the forced of Chaos and Death. Thanos was, of course, the champion of Death and his goal was to kill the Magus or prevent him from existing.

The two squared off in a battle but this was actually a diversion. While the Magus was distracted, Warlock used a time portal to change his future. First he eliminated the branch that created the Magus then he made sure the shortest branch would happen. Traveling a short ways into the future he came upon his future self dying and welcoming death. To prevent his future self from regenerating, Adam had his gem steal his future self's soul committing temporal suicide.

The Magus was about to defeat Thanos when he ceased to exist. The team went their separate ways, not realizing that Thanos was the actual winner.

Warlock's run lasted a few more issues. The final one had him finally take full control of his soul gem. In the process we got the first hint of what the gems were and that there were six of them.

In a non-Starlin teamup with Spider-Man, Warlock met a being called the Gardener who was raising his garden on the moon's blue area which has an atmosphere. It turned out that he had a soul gem of his own. A character named the Stranger came looking for their soul gems. The Stranger had one and desired all of them but he was driven off.

Starlin was given two double-sized issues to wrap up loose ends. In the first one, Adam, Captain Marvel and Moon Dragon joined with the Avengers to stop Thanos.

Thanos had already left Gamora and Pip dying and, after taking their souls, Adam found out Thanos's plot from Gamora's soul. Thanos had discovered at least some of the properties of the six soul gems and had drained off energy from them (including Adam's while he wasn't looking) to build a cannon capable of destroying stars. Thanos hoped that he would win Death's love if he destroyed enough life.

During the battle, Warlock managed to smash Thanos's cannon but Thanos left Warlock dying, ready for his past self to take his soul. For Adam, being in the soul gem was paradise and an end to a toured life.

Meanwhile in the real world, Thanos defeated the Avengers and decided that he could still use Warlock's gem to destroy out sun in the hope that would be enough to satisfy Death. Moon Dragon contacted Spider-Man who came to the rescue with the Thing. Thanos easily defeated both the Thing and Thor but that gave Spider-Man time to find the soul gem and release a version of Warlock. He turned Thanos to stone, killing him and leaving his body as a lesson.

Thanos made one final appearance in the Death of Captain Marvel. After multiple cancellations, Marvel decided to start with a new character so Mar-Vel died of cancer. Thanos appeared as the emmesary of Death to escort Mar-Vel to the other side.

Thanos and Warlock remained dead while Starlin moved on to other projects. They weren't revived until the 90s,

Friday, April 13, 2018

Starlin's Thanos Part II

Marvel was expanding rapidly in the early 1970s and brought in a bunch of young talent. Jim Starlin was one of these. He joined Marvel in 1972. One of his first assignments was three issues of Iron Man. He already had a stable of characters created along with a plot arc. He used his time on Iron Man to introduce them.

The issue began with a call for help from Drax, the Destroyer. At the time he was normal size and intelligence. He had been captured after a battle with Thanos and needed Iron Man. Iron Man assumed that he needed to use his repulsor rays on Drax's restraints. That failed and the backlash knocked him off his feet. Our first glimpse of Thanos was his foot stomping Iron Man's hand with pieces flying off. Obviously he was a force to be reckoned with.

Our first full view of him showed a massive, stone-faced being with a hooded woman at his side. He referred to "having death at my side".

There were numerous similarities between Thanos and Jack Kirby's Darkseid besides the physical similarities. According to Roy Thomas, Starlin was originally going to make Thanos look like Metron, another of Kirby's New Gods but Thomas suggested Darksied himself. When Thanos returned in the 1990s, he spent a while using a floating chair like Metron's.

Kirby's characters were gods living on a city, floating above a ruined planet. Starlin's were Titans, living on Saturn's moon, Titan. Darkseid was after the Anti-Life Equation. Thanos was in love with the physical personification of Death. At one point, Thanos's father referred to him as being attracted to the dark side (a possible Darkseid).

While there were lots of similarities to Kirby's Fourth World, Starlin did quite a bit of world-building on his own. He already had a whole back-story for the characters. Thanos was son to Mentor, the leader of the Titans. Thanos had a brother, Eros. All of these are Greek concepts - mind, love, and death. Thanos had become enamored with Death years (possibly decades, the continuity was spotty) before. He had attracted an army of followers.

On one scouting run his spaceship was seen by a family returning from an Elvis concert. Thanos ordered the family killed. Their daughter survived and was raised in martial arts and telepathy, later becoming known as Moondragon. The father's soul was intercepted and given a powerful new body, becoming Drax.

Anyway, it eventually turned out that Drax only needed Iron Man's armor as a focusing point for an energy beam from Titan. After that, Thanos, Drax and company moved on.

Now it's time for another digression - Captain Marvel.

The Golden Age Captain Marvel was a newsboy who could say a magic word and become a Superman clone. DC comics spent years suing over the similarities and ended up with the rights to this character when the Golden Age ended and super hero comics weren't worth the court costs. DC didn't do anything with the character and let the trademark lapse. Another company introduced an android named Captain Marvel in the Silver age but that only lasted a couple of issues.

After the trademark lapsed again, Marvel comics introduced their own Captain Marvel. This was was a captain named Mar-Vell, an alien in the Kree milirary, sent to spy on Earth after the Fantastic Four defeated one of the Kree's sentinels and Ronan the Accuser (the guy from the Guardians of the Galaxy movie). 

Mar-Vell wore a white and green uniform that had built-in rockets and a "unibeam". Coming from a larger world, he was stronger than humans. Mar-Vell was part of a love triangle with the captain and medical officer. The comic was not very successful and after a few years they changed it completely. His girl-friend and commanding officer were killed, he was given a new red and black costume and a new set of powers. The idea was to bring him closer to the Golden Age Captain Marvel so Mar-Vell was trapped in the Negative Zone and could only be released for an hour by switching places with Rick Jones, Stan Lee's answer to annoying teen side-kicks. The revised Captain Marvel didn't last long but was brought back fairly quickly. This is the version that Starlin took over for.

Starlin managed to work both Rick Jones and Mar-Vell into the story arc. Thanos needed Rick Jones and Mar-Vell had been selected for enlightenment by a cosmic entity. As a lead-in to this, Mar-Vell was characterized as stubborn and too quick to react. This got him through some fights but after the Controller dropped a house on him, he was spirited away and given Cosmic Awareness.

Even this wasn't enough to stop Thanos. Years earlier, Rick Jones had been stimulated by the Kree Supreme Intelligence to stop a war with the alien Skrulls. As a backup measure, the Supreme Intelligence had placed the location of the Cosmic Cube in Rick's brain. Thanos's grand plan began with recovering the Cube since it had nearly unlimited power. Thanos managed to find the cube and transferred all of its power to himself making him a god.

Thanos seemed unbeatable but Mar-Vell's Cosmic Awareness let him realize that Thanos was still drawing power from the Cube. Mar-Vell managed to destroy it (or at least cut Thanos off from it), defeating the mad god.

Starlin did a couple of more issues of Captain Marvel before moving over to a different comic, Warlock. And that's a good time to end this entry.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Starlin's Thanos - Early Influences

With Avengers Infinity War coming out soon, I thought I'd trace the origins and development of the character of Thanos. I'm only looking at the character as developed by his creator, Jim Starlin and Starlin's influences.

Things began back in the 1930s when an English professor at Oxford invented a new word and decided to write a book to go with it. The word was "hobbit" and the professor was J. R. R. Tolkien. His book, The Hobbit was a great success and his publisher pressed him for a sequel. It took over a decade but Tolkien eventually produced The Lord of the Rings, the best-selling book of the 20th century and the 3rd best seller of all time. It was originally published in 1954-55 (spread over three volumes which were released months apart). It really took off in the late 1960s.

Now, we jump from that to Jack Kirby. Kirby, along with Stan Lee, created the backbone of the Marvel Universe. Over his career, Kirby seldom stayed in any one place for more than a few years but he'd spent the 1960s at Marvel. While his collaboration with Stan was legend, Kirby was becoming uncomfortable. One issue was creator's rights. Marvel was a fairly small company at the time and didn't have enough money to pay royalties for characters created (and the idea that these characters would eventually be worth billions was preposterous at the time). Marvel took the position that Kirby was doing work for hire and that anything he created belonged to Marvel. They had a special 50-page contract for him that dealt with creator's rights.

In addition, Kirby's relationship with Stan had soured. One reason was the Silver Surfer. For Fantastic Four #50, Stan and Jack decided to introduce a new character who was an order of magnitude more powerful than the standard villain. This was Galactus, the world-eater. The two of them agreed on a plot, Kirby drew the pages and sent them back to Stan to add dialog. Stan got about half-way through and hit a character they hadn't discussed - a naked, bald guy on a flying surfboard. "Who's this" Stan asked. "I figured anyone that powerful would have a herald," Jack answered. The Surfer quickly became Stan's favorite character and he was very possessive of him. When the Surfer got his own comic, Jack was not assigned to it. They also disagreed on the Surfer's origins. Kirby wanted him to be space-born but Stan wrote him as a humanoid who became the Surfer through an act of self-sacrifice.

The Marvel-style of creating comics created its own problems. For most of the 60s, Stan wrote most of the comics. The traditional way of doing a comic book was for the writer to create a finished script with plot and dialog broken down by page. This would be given to the artist to draw. Stan didn't have time for that so, instead he and the artist would have a story conference where they decided on the general plot. The artist would decide the pacing and was free to add other flourishes (like the Silver Surfer) as long as it was close enough to the original plot for Stan to add the dialog to.

Somewhere along the way, Kirby started putting dialog in the margins. In his mind, he was doing the complete comic and Stan would copy his dialog from the margins to the word balloons and take credit for them. Stan insisted that Jack's dialog was clunky and dated and that Stan ignored it except as an occasional guide to what was going on in the panel.

In 1960, Kirby approached DC Comics about a job. They were thrilled. The rumor in the industry was that Jack did all the work while Stan took all the credit so they expected to get a stable of characters comparable to Marvel's. They were also able to offer a better deal on creator's rights.

Kirby was given free reign to do anything he wanted. He launched his "Fourth World" - three comics with intertwined plots.

This is where the Lord of the Rings comes in. Kirby loved to adapt outside influences. In the Fantastic Four they did takes on The Prisoner and a mash-up of 1930s gangsters and gladiators. So Kirby took the idea of a trilogy and the middle part of the Lord of the Rings where the Fellowship has broken up into three different groups, all working against the common enemy.

In the Lord of the Rings, the villain was Sauron, a powerful character who would become unstoppable if he recovered the One Ring. Even without it, his armies threatened the world.

Kirby's version of this was Darkseid (pronounced dark side). He was a large, stone-faced being powerful enough to defeat Superman. He ruled a post-apocalyptic world (named Apokolips) which was dominated by fire pits and populated by his slaves and soldiers. Fighting him were the New Gods and the Forever People from New Genesis and Mr Miracle, an escape artist on Earth. It was strongly implied that the New Gods were the survivors of the Norse Ragnarok who built a new civilization.

Years earlier New Genesis had a war with Apokolips. This came to an end with an exchange of prisoners - the first-born sons of the two leaders. Mr. Miracle was the hostage from the New Genesis. He was raised as an ordinary dog soldier, not knowing his parentage. Eventually he escaped to Earth, unwittingly ending the truce. Darkseid's son was raised to be the champion of the New Gods.

While there were several skirmishes, Darkseid's goal was to discover the Anti-Life Equation. Just as the One Ring would give Sauron control of the other rings and their bearers, the Anti-Life Equation would give Darseid control over all free will.

It was very exciting. Kirby started the story in the middle and filled in the background over the next several months. The New Gods protected the Earth as Darkseid tried to make it a beach-head for a new attack on New Genesis. The Forever People (essentially hippie gods) protected the Anti-Life Equation and Mr Miracle escaped a lot and married a hot woman with super strength.

Kirby also took over Jimmy Olsen, Superman's Friend and had some cross-overs there, too.

There was one big problem with all of this - Kirby wasn't a very good writer. His dialog often sounded like it came from the 1940s and the idea of starting in the middle and filling in the pieces later confused people. His Fourth World only lasted 59 issues (spread across four titles) and he'd backed off of the war against Apokilips before the end.

But one big fan was a kid in high school who was a natural artist named Jim Starlin.

too be continued