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Wed 24
How moral decisions turned ‘The Avengers’ into an absolute hit

How moral decisions turned ‘The Avengers’ into an absolute hit

When ‘Avengers: Ultimatum’ premiere, this week, Marvel will close a virtuous cycle which is a true landmark in the entertainment industry

Dionisius Amendola

“Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them.”

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus


When ‘Avengers: Ultimatum’ premiere, this week, Marvel will close a virtuous cycle which is a true landmark in the entertainment industry. The numbers involved in this cycle are impressive! In the course of ten years, there were more than twenty movies interlinked, which generated approximately 18 billion dollars, involved an unimaginable number of creators and collaborators, united more than thirty characters, from lead to supporting ones, and attracted hundreds of thousands of spectators all over the world.

And here is the big question we propose to answer: how can a group of colorful characters, who have existed for approximately eight decades in their comic versions, gain once again such an importance in our imagination? How can we understand that characters so little known by most of the audience (some of them unknown even by that part of the audience who reads comics) have conquered the imagination of an entirely new generation of fans?

Reducing it all to marketing strategies or something of the sort is to diminish the phenomenon. If it were so, other studios, who invested as much or even more in similar movies and sagas, would not have “failed” in such a splendorous way.

Without wanting to build a posterior narrative to justify past events, let us dare to explore the Marvel Cinematic Universe, since the origins of each role, until the producers’ reimagination and, especially, the cultural and symbolic roots of these characters.

1 We’ve always believed in superheroes!

Our history begins in the dawn of time, when we find the first graphic images pained on the walls of the caves of Altamira, in Spain, or Lascaux, in France. The genesis of art and movies, of comics and visual narratives, are in these drawings and images that even 30 thousand years later are vivid, and still charm and intrigue us. On these walls, we see hunters and adventurers – exceptional men telling us about their time, their powers, their wonders!

In Ancient Egypt, the writing itself was pictorial – we dare say that, on the walls of the temples, we have true comics, etched in stone for all eternity. As well as visual descriptions of their daily lives, of funerals, of journeys to other worlds, we once again have beings surpassing the human limits. Mythology? Of course. But were these mythical characters able to leap over pyramids with a single impulse?

From the Homeric Greece, colossal bravery and strength reach us, heroes, demigods with qualities, but also their weaknesses and cowardice. Often what sustains these men is the breath of something divine, which awakens an inner strength, but also reinforces temperaments.

Fantastic men living unbelievable adventures, touching immortality, protecting their communities, vindicating themselves with violence or showing magnanimity in their forgiveness; heroes defeated by their own arrogance; outcasts who reveal themselves to be leaders and kings: these stories have accompanied mankind since time immemorial. It is no wonder, therefore, that in the 20th century a new art form would exploit these themes, these myths.

And these mythological sources, which echo since the forgotten origins of our cultural history are unperishable, and find a new breath of life, a new existence in the modern age, through new media. As Ulrich Pfarr explained in the chapter ‘Comics as Mythology of the Modern Age’ of the book ‘Funny Cuts’, “the chain of mythological signs imparts an existence to the media-based figures of today that is independent of any comics, films, video games or human actors. In this way, these figures attempt to achieve the sublime character of the myths of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, or of those traditional cultures on the margins of the known world, which have long been incorporated into the global media.”

What is more important for us is to acknowledge that myths persist, even in a world where the imagination is supposed to be arid, in this disenchanted world of ours where, as Pfarr continues, “mythologies have negative connotations; in the compensatory spheres of art and the mass media they receive the status of inviolable and immutable assets.”

Comics are direct heirs of the pre-historic art, the Egyptian art, of the Homeric narratives – and of many other sources, peoples, and cultures. The mystery, the mythological signs, the rites, that which has been narrated since forever in our common history, remains and is reinvented, resumed, by the great and small artists of the ninth art.

2 Heroes of a New Time

“The moment there is imagination, there is myth.”

Camille Paglia – Sexual Personae

At the beginning of the 1960s we meet an editor named Stan Lee, who felt bored and unmotivated in his work at the helm of Atlas Comics. With little more than forty years of age, Lee was the main – and perhaps the only – editor of the company.

He was tired of writing simplistic stories. He wanted to give more realism to the narratives of the comics, create plots in which characters were not mere repeaters of commonplace lines and moralistic conformism. He imagined heroes that were flawed, that showed fear and anguish, that had more to offer than colorful outfits and puerile adventures.

And if there was anything to be done, they had precisely the model not to follow!

DC Comics was the main and most important comic book editor at the time. Their characters were directly inspired by the mythological heroes of Antiquity. DC’s superheroes were fantasies of an almost total power, and their actions bordered on pure Manicheism. There was good, there was evil, and the latter was always defeated.

Several DC characters have a magical or mythological origin: the ring worn by the Green Lantern of the Golden Age was magical, Shazam’s powers were mythological, Wonder Woman was created by none other than Zeus, and the biggest hero of them all, Superman, was practically a demigod living among mortals. On the other hand, the origin of Marvel’s heroes would be systematically technological, scientific. Born in the Atomic Age, they reflected the wonder – and the fear – of this new era. They have limited powers, and they usually come at a high price, and, last, but not least, the moral line separating good from evil is much more tenuous, subtle.

And, perhaps more importantly, as time and the 1960s passed by, the DC characters became “good guys”. They are “educating heroes”, charged with moralism and good intentions. The best example of this change is the character of Wonder Woman. Created by William Moulton Marston, the character exploited something beyond heroism, she was an extravagant and sensual character exploiting unconventional ideas. But by the end of the 1960s, there was nothing left of this. The character, in a feeble act of romanticism, gives up her powers and begins to live in the “world of men”, working at a clothes stores and taking part in banal and mediocre adventures. She was now the ideal of the conformist woman, who knows where she belongs.

Curiously, one of the few DC Comics hero who did not have any superpowers, and whose origin was not linked to any mythical entity, was Bruce Wayne, a common man who trained his body and mind to become Batman, whose actions bordered on a moral dubiousness that made him different from all other characters from that company. Perhaps there we find some of the elements that made this character one of DC Comics’ most popular ones through the decades.

The heroes Lee had in mind were much different from what the industry offered readers: their characters lived in an internal struggle with themselves and their choices, they were, above all, nonconformists, heterodox, iconoclastic. And that was marked in a masterful way by the visual component of the comics; while DC heroes were drawn in a bland way, very little spectacular and expositive (in other words, in a conformist way), Marvel ones, especially those in Jack Kirby comics, did not conform with the limits of the comics in which they were drawn: they exploded outside the pages.

3 The Wonderful Trinity: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko

“Every action must have a consequence. Each drawn line must have a meaning.”

Lawrence Weiner, Posters

Along with Lee was Jack Kirby, one of the great figures who deeply influenced the history of comics, and who had worked with Lee in the early 1940s. It was Jack Kirby, along with Joe Simon, who created one of the most iconic characters in the history of comics: Captain America.

The union of Lee and Kirby, two brilliant minds, would set the tone for an entirely new generation of characters, in what is considered to be Marvel Comics’ golden age. Lee and Kirby’s work would influence artists, draftsmen and writers worldwide, for decades to come, and that influence would not be limited to the world of comics.

The revolution began with the creation of four characters who, according to Lee, were: “real, alive, breathed, and had personal relationships that were as interesting to the public as they were to me!” In November 1961 newsstands all over the United States received a new group of heroes, The Fantastic Four. Reed Richards, Sue Richards, Ben Grimm and Johnny Storm were born from Jack Kirby’s unique visual imagination and, especially, from Lee’s anguish as an artist – an anguish for innovation, for creativity, and, why not, out of his love for the art of comics.

There was the heroism, courage, and honor typical of the most conventional comics – but there was also drama, resentment, and rancor: it was a new way of looking at superheroes, exploiting the shadows of the human psyche. To make it even more striking, in the first stories of the Four the heroes did not wear costumes, something which escaped the comic book tradition.

Lee and Kirby wanted to draw attention for the inner dramas of the characters, as if they dared to say: heroism does not depend on costumes or superpowers, but something that is within oneself, which pulsates and vibrates, waiting for the right moment to explode. And if this inner drama was important for this new generation of heroes, nothing could be more appropriate than a character whose personality is split, in war with himself: the Hulk was born.

In May 1962, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby presented to the world this hero, who not only did not wear any costume, but actually wore tattered clothes when he assumed his “heroic” shape. The personality split between scientist Bruce Banner and the grey/emerald monster called Hulk was a step in the quest for a more mature audience, with deeper interests than the mere explosion of colors and action. Hulk is the anticipated portrait of a split America, which began to become aware of the shadows of its history, and would eventually explode in serious internal conflicts.

In August that year, before Led Zeppelin’s first album was even released, Lee and Kirby presented the first superhero inspired by the Nordic traditions, the Mighty Thor, who also had a conflicted personality: Donald Blake, a doctor weakened by a physical handicap, and his alter ego, the God of Thunder, doomed to live in the body of the doctor to learn a lesson in humility, and, therefore, reconquer his rightful place in the kingdom of Asgard.

If in the case of Hulk/Banner we have a personality torn between the irrational rage and rationality, between a brute and a genius, Thor/Blake brings the dichotomy between hubris and humility, between that which makes us worthy of the gods and that which makes us less than human.

What Lee and Kirby were building is this unique universe, in which the true battles are not fought only against stereotyped villains, but within the characters themselves; in their most intimate moments, we remove the curtain from their victories and defeats. And no other comic book would bring as much tragicalness in its pages than those starred by young Peter Parker.

Initially, Stan Lee had chosen Jack Kirby to draw the stories of a young and shy boy who, after being stung by a radioactive spider, develops extraordinary powers. But after becoming aware that the character needed less heroic features, less extrovert and more intimist, he called for the task Steve Ditko, who had the temperament and the technique the character required.

Peter Parker was the ideal hero – or anti-hero – for an entirely new generation of readers, especially for the young people who lived in those post-war years, unaware of the happiness they enjoyed – after all, the Second World War was a distant memory; the Korean War had been an extremely quick experience; and the Vietnam War was still not on the horizon. There was a generation that had nothing to fear, whose responsibilities seemed minute in the face of all the comforts of a golden age. And Ditko would make the character one of the most tragic and humane ever seen. His origin is marked by irresponsibility, arrogance, and selfishness, which culminates with his uncle’s death and the birth of Spiderman.

The new character conquered readers and would quickly become the second most sold comic in the publishing house, behind only The Fantastic Four.

Then, at the end of that miraculous year, one last hero would be born: Tony Stark. Another of Lee’s creation, the hero lived psychological conflicts and realistic and dense dramas that would shock readers worldwide, especially because he was a character with a less than captivating personality. Tony is selfish, greedy, presumptuous, a billionaire concerned only about selling more weapons and earning more money with his company. Even the Iron Man’s armor was created more out of need than from an idea of heroism. It is only by acknowledging his personal flaws, only in his internal struggle to correct these flaws, that Tony will be able to finally become a true hero.

One of the most interesting things of these new characters – and which gave a realistic undertone to their adventures – is that all of them lived in New York City: the Fantastic Four lived in Manhattan, Spiderman in Queens, and so on. That made the city not only a stage of adventures and dramas, but also turned it into one of the characters in their stories. Besides, many of the city’s icons would eventually be forever marked in the colorful pages of these comics, in memorable, tragic, beautiful and dark narratives.

This love for New York would only find a parallel in Woody Allen’s movies and in the works of Will Eisner – authors who would pay true homages to the city that never sleeps. But it was Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and all these creators of comics that first paid tribute to the Big Apple and its buildings, alleys, and inhabitants. And the importance of this relationship between the city and its characters would extrapolate the limits of the imagination when, in 1989, the ‘true’ address of Peter Parker, in Queens, was revealed. Well, in 2002 the New York Times not only found out that the address truly existed, but also that a Parker family lived there.

Through the realism and the modernity of these characters, our creators updated our relationship with the mythology, with the unknown. And, if in our past, the unknown was nature, in the modern era the unknown is technology: it is a source of hopes, fears, and, by itself, as Pfarr sums up, “It is no more rational than the myths it replaced.”

In this way, Atlas Comics, formerly Timely, found its new path, thanks to the work and creativity of Stan Lee and the art of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, names that marked this new phase in an indelible way – but there was still something missing. And this something would be born in the pages of a magazine that seemed to pay tribute to the company’s old characters: it would be in a war magazine, which brought the adventures of Sargent Fury and his Howling Commandos, that would begin officially the “Marvel Age of Comics”.

It was in the pages of the Howling Commando that the duo Lee and Kirby introduced the first black hero in comic book history: Gabriel “Gabe” Jones, who would be a recurring character in the future adventures of Nick Fury.

Stan Lee also had other new gambles which would mark definitely that phase of creative explosion. Deepening even further the social undertone of their adventures, Lee and Kirby developed the story of a new group of heroes: five teenagers who, with their mutant gifts, are as much of a threat as a redemption for humanity. In the future pages of the X-Men, Marvel would obtain one of its biggest and most important successes, especially for presenting dramas that would soon explode in the land of freedom.

Amidst so many new characters, Stan Lee and Bill Everett – a veteran artist of the house, and the creator of Namor, the Sub-Mariner – had the idea of a young hero, Matt Murdock, a blind lawyer who develops unique skills after a radioactive accident, and protects the streets of New York dressed a demon. It was the Daredevil, who years later would gain a unique role after being revisited by Frank Miller.

As if all this wasn’t enough, Lee and Kirby created two superheroes who were the first ones to represent a segment of the public who had always read comics, but were never represented with true dignity and heroic spirit: thus were born the Black Panther, king and protector of Wakanda, and Sam Wilson, the Falcon, a hero born in the urban and violent city of New York.

But the biggest mark at the time was when Lee joined forces with Kirby to launch a group formed by heroes who until that time lived their adventures separately: Thor, the Iron Man, Hulk, the Ant-Man, and the Wasp. In their first adventure, they faced none other than Loki, Thor’s half-brother, in an adventure in which Kirby’s artwork shines in every page. The Avengers were born!

To close these period of new heroes and stories, in which the creativity of Lee and his collaborators shone – especially that of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko – a legend, the symbol of an era which marked the first phase of the company, came back: Captain America was rescued from the ice – and, along with him, an entire generation of new and old heroes, new and old readers, found hope and meaning. The character, created during the 1940s by the duo Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, made his debut in the fourth number of the Avengers magazine, and, as a symbol of an age in which the conflict between good and evil was clear, Steve Rogers was now a “hero dislocated from his time”.

Looking at those years, we realize how much Marvel Comics anticipated much of what would happen in the United States in the decades to come: the bitter tone of the stories; the sense of individual responsibility; and the perception that, despite the heroism and the search for the just and the good, there was something that didn’t fit, there were doubts and uncertainties, and that was something which made those heroes a symbol of a new America, of a new art.

Comics were no longer something for kids. Stan Lee saw not only the potential of these new characters, but was able to capture like no one else a deep cultural change in the pages of Marvel Comics: the explosion of rock and roll, the racial violence, the discomfort with the idea of heroism, and, above all, it was on the pages of Marvel’s comics that an entire generation of creators found room for their talent. Comics were no longer a mere means of livelihood for artists and writers, but a valid and respectable means of expression, with real creative possibilities, which reflected personal anguishes and dramas.

4 Ultimate Marvel: iconoclasts of a new universe

The greatest challenge of producer Kevin Feige and the Marvel Studios was to convey the essence of these characters to the movies. Even more, after more than seven decades, in front of dozens of characters, diverse storylines, changes and rebirths, they would need to choose with esthetic choices were more appropriate, which concepts and premises were immutable, and which ones would have to be adapted for a new audience; furthermore, how to ensure that the reader base would validate what would be built out of flesh, bone and CGI characters?

The initial answer lied in a series of comics called Ultimate Marvel, which the publishing company had released a few years earlier, and reimagined the characters in a new millennium. Headed by then-editor Joe Quesada, the team of writers and artists formed by names such as Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Bagley, Mark Miller and Brian Hitch, had the task of creating a ‘new Marvel universe’. Eight years before the first film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, these names launched a new look towards our heroes, inspired by the pioneering work of Stan Lee, Kirby and Ditko, but which sought to obtain its own personality, and was based on the quest for a realism which seemed to have been diluted through the years in the magazines.

The artists sought to, in their own way, reinterpret the archetypical characters, whether by revalidating or criticizing historical premises, or by seeking the timeless and the classic, or even by inserting the characters in a world of terror and paranoia, introducing hope, nihilism and politics and new and impacting adventures. What mattered was to reimagine the characters, reimagine their dramas and paradoxes, and, therefore, breathe new life into modern myths.

In this Ultimate universe, Spiderman, The Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and, especially, the Avengers (called, in this context, The Supremes), received a treatment which hadn’t been seen for a long time in conventional comics. Spiderman was treated much more like a modern TV series than a comic; the X-Men recovered much of their social/racial criticism, and, lastly, The Supremes received a treatment that was undoubtedly cinematographic!

“The possibility of making an Avengers movie was not on anyone’s radar at the time,” told Brian Hitch in an interview to Vulture Magazine, “so that is what we said, that this was our Avengers movie.” It was Millar and Hitch who created bold ideas and concepts that would have a direct influence on the appearance and development of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The creators of the Ultimate line brought a creative, bold and modern outlook towards classical characters, and their stories and artwork already strived for a clear possibility of adaptations for the big screen, after all, just like in its origins, movies influenced comics, and vice-versa.

But there lied another challenge. Some of Marvel’s characters, at that point, had already been licensed to other studios: especially Spiderman, for Sony, and the X-Men, for Fox, and both had been essentially, for several decades, the most sold and popular of Marvel’s comics. Therefore, Marvel studios were left with a series of characters who were not much known by the general audience. It may seem ridiculous to say this now, but around 2005/2006 it was hard to find someone who had a minimal knowledge of characters like Tony Stark, Natasha Romanoff, or even Steve Rogers (and what can we say about other, lesser-known ones, even by comic fans: Peter Quill? Stephen Strange? Carol Danvers? Names that were then obscure, and are now on the tip of the tongue of any child!).

It would all depend on the studio’s first movie, and the appeal, charisma, boldness and self-confidence of its protagonist.

5 Heroes in conflict reach the big screens

“Cinema is the supreme Apollonian genre, thing-making and thing-made, a machine of the gods.”

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae

When the first riffs of the song “Black in Black”, by AC/DC, exploded in the sound systems of the cinemas around the world in 2008, it was not only the beginning of a movie, but of a journey which would involve multiple characters and narrative lines, expand the Marvel universe in the cinema until the limits of imagination and, more than ten years later, reach its peak in ‘Avengers: Ultimate’.

Directed by Jon Favreau and starred by the charismatic Robert Downey Jr., ‘Iron Man’, the first movie of Marvel studios, had an impact in the entertainment industry and a longevity which no one would presume at the time. It was a rare moment in which actor, character, and direction were in perfect harmony.

The striking and iconic scene in which Tony Stark admits to being the Iron Man is perhaps the biggest symbol of this exceptional synergy. Born out of Downey Jr.’s improvisation, it represented everything Marvel promised to its fans: surprise, spectacle, astonishment. And the most important achievement was to obtain the approval of comic book fans, a much-needed approval, since it legitimated the studio before the lay audience, ensuring an organic growth of new fans (not necessarily fans of comic books), thereby opening the doors for new cinematic flights.

I dare say that not even Kevin Feige, the all-mighty producer of the Marvel Studio movies, had in mind the legacy about to be built; without underestimating the producer, there is here something magical in action: these archetypes, modern myths, were bursting onto the screen with vibration, panache, and energy!

And the success was so astounding that the studio could afford to experiment, play with the gender’s formulas, subvert clichés. If characters like Captain America or Thor have movies that are relatively more conventional, others, like ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’, ‘Ant-Man’, and ‘Doctor Strange’, exploit different and unusual ways of representing the journey of the hero.

Through more than one decade, the Marvel Studios – now part of the Disney conglomerate – have done something previously unheard of in movie history: the construction of a colossal saga containing points of contact in all of its episodes, linking characters, conflicts, and events in such a way that we are able to say, unequivocally, that we are facing a unique, huge, and operatic movie, made up of twenty-two lesser movies – for the sake of comparison, this is something four times bigger than what Wagner did in his ‘The Ring of the Nibelung’ tetralogy, and seven times bigger than Peter Jackson’s adaptation of ‘The Lord of the Rings’.

And it will be precisely considering the whole work that we are able to see that the Marvel Studios were able to obtain their biggest triumph. By understanding that, more important than pointing out this or that superhero as a protagonist, we have a unique group of characters which complete each other, antagonize each other, and that must discover in their personal journeys that which they have in common – their humanity.

We should bear in mind that what is essential in the movies is something which has always been intrinsical to the characters of the Marvel comics: before any of their superhuman skills, what is important in them is that they have a deep, even if dormant, moral integrity. Therefore, heroism in the Marvel universe is not a question of “powers”, but of moral decisions that all of them, to a greater or lesser extent, we can take in our lives.

These characters have flaws, they make mistakes, they feel dislocated in their time and place, and face internal enemies which are as much powerful, or perhaps even more, than the villains they punch.

Let us look at our Avengers: Tony Stark/Iron Man, a genius whose sin is his hubris, stuck to his fears and paranoias; Steve Rogers/Captain America, a man who sacrificed his whole life to save his peers, and now needs to find once again his place in the world; Thor, an immortal god who saw everything he had – mother, father, brother, and country – crumble before his eyes.

These flaws, exiles, and frailties, are present in all of us in some way: all of us lost someone we loved, we all make mistakes, and we all fall down on account of our pride; all of us make wrong choices at one moment or another of our lives.

And the great lesson taught us by these contemporary myths is that we need to persist, that we should always try to get back up, and that our true struggle, against the fear and anguish born out of hopelessness, can only be won when we recognize in ourselves our common humanity.