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Avengers 101: Everything You (Sort of) Need To Know About Earth’s Mightiest Heroes

Next week, The Avengers hits theaters as the culmination of a successful campaign designed to bring Marvel’s most popular characters and Hawkeye to the big screen. After four years and five movies of buildup, there’s a lot of excitement surrounding the project. Sure, the movies you’ve seen have done a pretty good job of introducing Captain America, Thor, Iron Man and those other guys to the worldwide audience, but with decades of comics chronicling their lives, filmmakers have had to leave quite a bit out to squeeze them into a bunch of two-hour blockbusters. That’s why today, I’m offering the uninitiated the public service of Avengers 101: A Crash Course in the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes with some of the stranger bits of minutiae that you probably never wanted to know.

CAPTAIN AMERICA

What You Already Know: After he was rejected for military service in World War II for being too physically frail, Steve Rogers volunteered for a top secret government experiment designed to create an army of super-soldiers. It worked, giving Steve Rogers incredible physical strength and agility, but a Nazi spy sabotaged the experiment so that it could never be repeated. As Captain America, Rogers battled enemy forces during the War, but was frozen in ice until he was thawed out by the other Avengers in the modern day.

What You Might Not Know: While Cap has always tried to do his best to represent the American dream — to the point of turning down an offer to run for President — it hasn’t always been easy. A relatively recent conflict with Iron Man ended up seeing Cap shot by time bullets while his sidekick Bucky, who had been presumed dead but had actually been kept in cryogenic stasis as a cybernetic soviet assassin, filled in. Also, he has occasionally had his faith in the country shaken, like during that big Presidential scandal back in the ’70s.

You know, the one where the President was revealed to be the mastermind of a secret cartel of hooded villains and then committed suicide in the Oval Office?

It was pretty big news.

Also, addition to his love of apple pie, the KFC Double Down, the Doritos Locos Taco and everything else that makes America Great, Steve Rogers is also a talented artist. In fact, during the ’70s, he got a job in his secret identity at the version of Marvel Comics that exists within Marvel Comics, drawing Captain America. As such, he’s one of the few artists who was able to make a living on what were essentially self-portraits, so suck on that Van Gogh! USA! USA! USA!

IRON MAN

What You Already Know: Billionaire industrialist Tony Stark was kidnapped by terrorists and in the process, his heart was injured by shrapnel. Their plan was to force him to build weapons, but after building a device called the Repulsor Generator to keep his heart beating, he turned the tables on his captors by building a suit of armor known as the Iron Man. After escaping, he refined his armor and used it to continue battling evil at the cutting edge of technology, although the military and competing industrialists are constantly after his mechanical secrets in order to build their own invincible warriors.

What You Might Not Know: Look, I realize that you were all thinking I was going to talk about the drinking here, but let’s be real: Everybody knows that already, and pretty much everything you needed was covered in Iron Man 2. Besides, Tony Stark’s real struggle was that time he was turned into a teenager for like six months and had to wear armor with gigantic metal nipple rings.

This is a little hard to explain, because no one, not even the people who created those comics, is all that clear on what the hell was actually supposed to be happening. The short (but still incomprehensible) version is that Regular Iron Man was brainwashed over the years by a time traveling conqueror from the future into betraying the Avengers, who decided that the best course of action would be to go find a teenage version of Iron Man from an alternate universe. You know, as one does.

Eventually, Teen Tony was killed by a figment of Professor X and Magneto’s collective imagination, because f*** it, why not. It was the ’90s. Then, Iron Man got better and we all decided that, with the exception of this article, we should never, ever talk about it again.

On a slightly less insane note, one of Iron Man’s greatest adventures involved traveling back to the age of Camelot and teaming up with King Arthur to battle Dr. Doom.

The key word there was “slightly,” but seriously, that’s a good comic.

THOR

What You Already Know: In order to teach him humility, Odin exiled Thor, the Norse God of Thunder, to Earth. Though his home remains the golden realm of Asgard, Thor has developed a love for humanity that has led him to take on a role as Earth’s mightiest protector. Arguably the most powerful Avenger, Thor fights with Mjolnir, a mystical hammer that allows him to control lightning and always returns to his hand, though it can only be wielded by those who are worthy.

What You Might Not Know: So this one time, Thor was a frog.

And seriously? It was awesome. Thor, as a frog, taught other frogs the self-reliance and military thinking they needed to beat a bunch of rats in the sewers underneath New York City, and then turned into a Thor-Frog. This is not a joke: I will personally mail $50 of my money to filmmaker Joss Whedon if that happens on the big screen next Friday. That’s like a dollar for every person who watched Firefly!

Anyway, that was definitely one of the stranger machinations that Loki has used to get revenge on his brother, but the God of Evil isn’t the only villain Thor has faced in his career. He’s battled against mythological creatures like Ymir the Frost Giant and Malekith, leader of the Dark Elves of Niflheim, as well as more traditional comic book super-villains like the Wrecker, who countered Thor’s magic hammer with a magic crowbar, a conflict so metal that it should’ve played out on the sides of a custom van.

Also, he once fought a dude named Beta Ray Bill, who was essentially an alien that had been turned into a super-powerful space horse with a talking spaceship, who beat him so bad that Odin went ahead and made him the new Thor for a little bit.

But it’s okay, because they later became Total Bros and now Bill has a hammer of his own that he uses to be Space Thor.

Seriously, Whedon: Fifty bucks. The offer is on the table.

THE INCREDIBLE HULK

What You Already Know: When he was caught in the heart of a Gamma Bomb explosion, Dr. Bruce Banner survived, but his body changed. Now, whenever he is consumed by rage, he transforms into a creature known as the Hulk, a gigantic green monster whose anger fuels almost limitless strength and endurance, acting as a simpleminded engine of destruction directed at his foes.

What You Might Not Know: For some reason, and I’m going to go ahead and call that reason “seeing it on television when they were five,” a lot of people are fixated on the idea of Bruce Banner wandering the countryside from town to town, staying one step ahead of the law and occasionally flipping out and trouncing some rednecks because he gets a flat tire or stubs his toe or something. But folks? Time for some real talk: That sh** is boring as hell.

So instead, let’s talk about the time Hulk was a revenge-crazed space gladiator.

Now that’s what’s up. This whole thing went down when the rest of the the Marvel Universe got tired of Banner occasionally losing his damn mind and wrecking the place, so they decided that the best course of action would be to shoot him into space. At this point, you may be picking up on a recurring theme of the Avengers making rash decisions that don’t quite work out. And that’s what happened, as the Hulk accidentally landed on the planet Skaar, where he became a gladiator, then became the emperor, then became super pissed off when the planet blew up and killed his new space wife. So he came back to Earth with his running crew and his kids (oh, right, the Hulk has a couple of kids) and fought everybody.

It’s worth noting that this has happened twice.

HAWKEYE

What You Already Know: Hawkeye is a dude who uses a bow and arrow. That’s pretty much all they’ve gotten around to.

What You Might Not Know: Hawkeye is, without question, at least the fourth greatest carny-turned-super-hero in comics. Second best if you’re limiting yourself to Marvel.

As upcoming Hawkeye writer Matt Fraction put it, Clint Barton is “the Avenger that’s Just a Dude,” a former circus marksman who was tricked into infiltrating the Avengers in order to destroy them back in the early days of the team, but instead pretty much decided to hang out with them for the rest of his life after introducing himself with the time-honored method of butler-tying.

He was temporarily known as Goliath when he decided that shooting arrows wasn’t doing much good against time-traveling conquerors and genocidal robots, but went back to the arrows eventually, and used to be deaf in both ears as a result of sticking a sonic arrow in his mouth (really), but got fixed up in the same bunch of nonsense that got rid of Teen Tony.

He occasionally flies around on a flying motorcycle and one of his best friends is a cowboy who died 70 years ago but still occasionally practices law today (it’s complicated). So really, it’s like I said: He’s just a dude.

BLACK WIDOW

What You Already Know: She’s… a spy who is also a pretty lady? There are also some guns involved? That’s about it.

What You Might Not Know: The Marvel movies haven’t done a whole lot with Black Widow yet, but to be honest, there’s really not much there for them to work with. It’s a pretty simple story of a Russian ballerina who was trained to be an assassin and made immortal by the Soviet Union, and then later defected to America, starting out as a villain and then working working with the Avengers and then eventually striking out to a partnership with Daredevil. There was also a brief relocation to Los Angeles that saw her leading a team that consisted of two former X-Men, the Greek demigod Hercules, and an actual demon from Hell who rode around on a motorcycle tormenting the wicked.

What I’m getting at here is that she has hung out with at least three competing theologies, often at the same time.

But, you know. Guns are pretty cool too, I guess.

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