The Ultimate Assemblage
Ask Stan Lee his rationale for creating the Fantastic Four, Marvel's first family of heroes in 1961, and he'll probably cite the Distinguished Competition's Justice League. DC had a successful team book in the ‘60s, so Stan came up with his own team with personal ties to one another: a scientist, his girlfriend(later wife), his best friend, and his girlfriend's brother. The FF might have been created in response to the JLA, but the structure of another Marvel team would bear a closer resemblance to DC's, in collecting a number of popular established solo characters into one book, giving fans their dime's worth.
Radiation was foremost on people's minds in the ‘60s. It was cosmic rays in space that granted the FF their abilities, and in 1962 Stan and Jack Kirby would once more bring us a radiation-powered superbeing, this time fueled by gamma rays. The Incredible Hulk was born when Dr. Robert Bruce Banner pushed teenager Rick Jones to safety after the young man drove on to the military base where Banner's gamma bomb was being tested. Jones was safe but, caught in the blast, Banner mutated into a giant gray beast, green in subsequent issues as the mutation settled(and comics creators looked for an ink color that printed better). In his early days, the Hulk was a bit more intelligent if unpleasant, and managed the occasional short but uneasy truce with Marvel's heroes, though they clashed more often than they joined forces.
A few months prior to the jade giant exploding on to the scene, another scientist was embarking on adventures in the pages of Tales to Astonish. Henry Pym has adopted several alter-egos over the years through the use of his size-altering “Pym Particles”, but the first was that of the original Ant-Man. Hank could reduce his size but retain his strength, and through a cybernetic helmet he could control ants. It seems like a pretty lame power by today's standards, but back then there were fewer super-villains and more things a science fictional adventurer was more than equipped to handle. As the Marvel Universe changed, so did Hank Pym. He'd later use his particles to increase his mass adopting identities such as Giant-Man or Goliath. As Yellowjacket, he was a bit more aggressive with his sting ray, but one of his more interesting roles was as himself, simply Dr. Pym. After an emotional breakdown and a period in which his body couldn't take the strain of shrinking or growing, he still found a way to fight by shrinking various weapons, gadgets, and even a ship so they'd fit in various pockets. At any time he could grow any device he needed.
A year after Pym's creation, they introduced a love interest. To avenge her father's death at the hands of an extradimensional creature, Janet van Dyne would turn to her father's lab assistant, Hank Pym, for help. Pym operated on Janet and, besides exposing her to Pym Particles so she too could shrink, implanted wings and antennae and gave her the ability to fire biochemical stings from her hands. The winsome Wasp was born, and the pair would go on to have one of the more tumultuous relationships in Marvel's history.
In 1962 in the pages of Journey Into Mystery, Stan and Jack would take Thor, Norse god of thunder, and reimagine him as a superhero. To teach the warrior humility, his father and ruler of the Norse pantheon, Odin, erased Thor's memories and placed him into the mortal Dr. Don Blake. While on vacation in Norway, where he was drawn to for reasons he didn't understand at the time, the lame doctor encountered an alien invasion. Seeking shelter in a cavern, he found a walking stick to replace his. But upon striking it against some rocks, both the doctor and the stick were transformed. Blake became Thor once more, while the cane took on its true form as his mighty hammer Mjolnir. He could summon storms, possessed great strength, and could fly through means best explained by his creator.
It was in 1963, in the pages of a book called Tales of Suspense, that Iron Man was first forged. Much like the film version, wealthy industrialist Tony Stark is injured and taken prisoner by enemy forces who want him to build them a weapon. Instead, he first devises a chest device to keep shrapnel from piercing his heart and killing him, and then a lumbering but powerful iron armor to break free. He'd later appear in a gold version of that bulky armor, probably for the same reasons the Hulk went from gray to green, and over the years he's never stopped refining and upgrading his technology.
Some of these characters were more popular than others, but in September of 1963 Stan and Jack discovered that the sum was greater than the individual parts. When Thor's evil half-brother Loki devises a scheme to pit the Hulk against Thor, it backfires in a big way. Iron Man, Wasp, and Ant-Man all show up in response to the Hulk's apparent rampage, and once the deception is revealed, the five heroes team up to defeat Loki. Earth's mightiest heroes work so well together, they decide to make it permanent, and the Avengers are born. Of course, the Hulk isn't much of a team player and departs by the second issue of the series. By the fourth issue however, the team discovers a frozen Captain America, perfectly preserved since World War II. Revived, he's granted Hulk's place on the team and goes on to become their most iconic member. The roster has changed many times over the years, sometimes branching out into multiple teams, and I've lost track of just how many Marvel heroes have made the roster. Ten years ago I would have had that list memorized, but it seems like nearly every Marvel hero has become an Avenger at some point.
Therein lies a small problem. For every geek that painstakingly collected back issues and studied decades of fictional history, there were so many more potential new readers that couldn't just jump in and start reading. I was a serious collector in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and I managed to fill in the blanks from the decades I had missed. But each year that passes is another year of interconnected stories. Marvel didn't want to scrap all that history or reset their universe, but through their Ultimate line, which debuted in 2000, they found a way to start over while the core books continued. Set in it's own continuity, the Ultimate books showcased Marvel heroes if they debuted today. They didn't have to worry about fuzzy Marvel time and why characters who were teens in the ‘60s had only aged about five or ten years while 40 passed by in the real world. Ultimate Spider-Man was a high school kid in the year 2000, even as his mainstream counterpart was an established photographer, husband, and professor in his late ‘20s.
The Avengers were reborn as The Ultimates in a gritty, realistic setting closer to our world. Frozen since WW II, Cap is found and revived and has a hard time fitting in to society. Iron Man, Giant Man, Wasp, Thor, and even the Hulk are all there, similar yet different. This Iron Man is dying from a brain tumor, and drinks constantly just to be able to handle flying around in his armor. Thor seems like a crazy hippy who only thinks he's a god, and most of his teammates don't believe him. The team works for the government, pulled together by S.H.I.E.L.D. and coordinated by Nick Fury. In the mainstream Marvel Universe, Fury is a war hero and a super spy whose been around since 1963. Most know him by his eyepatch and gray haired temples, and some might remember the Hasselhoff T.V. movie version(note to self: locate that VHS tape). In the Ultimate universe, they went for a bald African American based on Samuel L. Jackson, who gave them permission to use his likeness.
It's only fitting then that Jackson would portray Fury in that Iron Man movie coda I referenced about nine paragraphs ago. When he spoke to Tony Stark about an “Avengers Initiative”, comic fans knew exactly what that meant. Drawing from the best elements of the original Marvel continuity and the Ultimate universe, Iron Man is the first in a series of Marvel films to lay the groundwork for a series of movies as interconnected as the comic books. Later this year we get another Incredible Hulk movie. In 2010, Ant-Man and Thor will hopefully make it to the big screen. Captain America brings back some much needed patriotism in 2011 and, if all goes as planned, the casts of all these films will assemble for The Avengers that same year. I really hope all goes as planned. Already, Cap's shield had a cameo in Iron Man and his Super Soldier Serum plays a role in the Incredible Hulk. These days, we expect comic books to cross over and heroes to join forces. Fifty years ago this was a novel idea. Quite possibly we're on the verge of a new age of movie crossovers, and cinema might never be the same.