Thursday, 9 May 2019

How Avengers Endgame sets up the next phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

SPOILERS FOR AVENGERS ENDGAME!!!!!

Avengers Endgame is an astounding cinematic achievement. It manages to be a coherent, satisfying film in its own right while also serving as the culmination of a number of stories that have been unfolding across 11 years and 22 films.

There's so much to love about Endgame, but my favourite aspect of it is the way it brings the story of Tony Stark AKA Iron Man to an end. In my opinion, this ending has come at exactly the right time, and it may even have set up the circumstances in which the next big character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe can emerge.


Tony Stark's cinematic story began in 2008 in Iron Man, the first film set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Throughout most of the next 21 films (even some of the ones he's not in) we grew to understand the context in which Tony exists, and had the pleasure of seeing him grow and develop as a character. We saw a selfish, narcissistic playboy become a man determined to take responsibility for his actions. In a way Stark weaponised his own narcissism, as he allowed the belief that he was responsible for protecting everybody on Earth become his primary motivation. Tony's efforts to protect the world led to the creation of the menace known as Ultron, and to a personal battle with PTSD. But ultimately he was able to fulfil his mission and atone for his past mistakes by sacrificing his life to save the world. Tony was played throughout all of this by Robert Downey Jr, who gave the most considered, nuanced, entertaining, and true to the character portrayal of a superhero since Christopher Reeve's Superman.

As much as I loved watching Tony's story unfold, his end was a timely one. In 2008, Tony Stark was the right superhero at the right time - the world was ready for a capitalist superhero who had made things worse in the Middle East but felt bad about it, and was now ready to save us all with technology. But now in 2019 a new generation has started to worry about wealth inequality and we've realised that the tech bros won't save us because they're basically Nazis. A millionaire playboy became the American president and it turns out he's just a revolting old man. The white guy redemption story has been done to death in films and TV and we've all started to move on from it. Tony's story has come to an end not a moment too soon.

So where does that leave the Marvel Cinematic Universe? What's next?

There's an account on Twitter that appears to have some kind of insider access, and has had some success in predicting what will happen in Marvel films. This account has predicted that the Thunderbolts will feature heavily in the next phase.


In the comics, the Thunderbolts are usually depicted as a team of villains working as superheroes, either as part of an evil scheme, an attempt to find redemption, or because they're being forced to do so by the government. One character that has featured prominently in Thunderbolts comics is Spider-Man's arch-nemesis Norman Osborn AKA The Green Goblin. It's worth remembering that Osborn is a Spider-Man character and as such, Marvel may have not yet recovered the rights to him from Sony. But if they have, I feel that Tony Stark's death has created the right set of circumstances for Norman Osborn to emerge.

Mike Deodata

The trailer for the next Marvel film, Spider-Man Far From Home shows us a world that has placed Tony Stark on something of a pedestal. We see candles and graffiti left in gratitude to remember Tony's sacrifice. Spider-Man himself says "the world needs the next Iron Man."

What if this is a world that is scared after what it just went through in Endgame, and is desperate for the next Tony Stark to come along and protect them? What if this is a world that is so scared and desperate it will embrace the first charming, billionaire genius that comes along? What if that charming, billionaire, genius is Norman Osborn? Imagine Osborn, a petty, spiteful, greedy megalomaniac, playing on people's fear, cynically taking advantage of the situation the world's in, and setting himself up in a position of power. He could be a Tony Stark for the age of Trump.



Perhaps, just as the threat of Thanos and the events of Infinity War were set up in previous Marvel films, Far from Home and the films that follow it could set up Osborn and the Thunderbolts?

We could see Marvel taking on a critique of the very concept of superheroes. Putting all your faith in individuals is a dangerous business, because in all likelihood, they're not going to be Tony Stark, or Captain America. They're going to be someone who will hold on to any power you give them and eventually use it against you. This would be a pretty radical thread for a multi-billion dollar superhero movie franchise to pull at, but it's such a fascinating and relevant theme that I can't help but think that they're going to want to explore it.

Besides, the next big bad guy isn't the only thing that Tony Stark's death sets up. The events of Endgame have left us with a world that has experienced forces beyond their understanding meddling with everybody's life in a pretty huge way. Half of everybody on the planet died for five years before suddenly returning. It's not enough to merely defend the Earth from these forces, as the Avengers did. The world will need somebody to explore and understand these terrifying new frontiers.

Now if only Marvel had recently reacquired the film rights to a team of super-powered explorers of the strange and fantastic......

Alex Ross

If you'd like to see me take a small part in a discussion of Avengers Endgame involving lots of clever people, head over to The Comics Cube!

Saturday, 30 March 2019

The Best Superman in the Best Superman Costume

Here's a picture I did of my favourite actor to play the Man of Steel wearing my favourite Superman costume - the Grant Morrison/Rags Morales Action Comics costume.

Friday, 15 March 2019

The Science of Obscure Superheroes

Recently I gave a talk for the Reading branch of the British Science Association on the subject of the science of superheroes. It's a subject that's been covered a great deal elsewhere and so I wanted to approach it from a different angle. I decided to focus on the science behind some lesser known superheroes. I chose to discuss The WhizzerChunkMatter Eater Lad, and the Red Bee. I looked at their powers and origin stories and tried to find parallels in real world science. I've adapted my talk into a four part article.

Here are links to all four parts, and also the "reading list" I made for attendees of the talk. 

The Science of Obscure Superheroes Part One: The Whizzer






Here are the illustrations I created for the talk:







The Science of Obscure Superheroes: Reading List

Recently I gave a talk for the Reading branch of the British Science Association on the subject of the science of superheroes. It's a subject that's been covered a great deal elsewhere and so I wanted to approach it from a different angle. I decided to focus on the science behind some lesser known superheroes. I chose to discuss The WhizzerChunkMatter Eater Lad, and the Red Bee. I looked at their powers and origin stories and tried to find parallels in real world science. I also created a list of  some of my favourite comics featuring these characters, alongside a list of some of my favourite, vaguely science related comics.

Here are some comics where you’ll find some of the characters from these articles:


Legion of Super-Heroes The Silver Age Vol. 1
By Various 

These 1950s tales feature Superboy’s first adventures with his teenage pals in the futuristic Legion of Superheroes. These stories are endearingly daft and charming, but most importantly this collection features the first appearance of Matter Eater Lad!

Superman and the Legion of Superheroes
By Geoff Johns and Gary Frank 

While Matter Eater Lad doesn’t appear in this comic, his pals in the Legion of Superheroes do. The lesser known heroes of the Legion of Substitute Heroes also make an appearance. Superman gets transported to the 31st Century and he must reunite his childhood friends in order to fight space Nazis!!!

Animal Man Vol. 1
Animal Man Vol. 2: Origin of the Species
Animal Man Vol. 3 Deus Ex Machina
By Grant Morrison and various artists 

During Grant Morrison’s run on Animal Man in the 80s, Animal Man gave up superheroing and began to focus on animal rights activism instead. As he did so he became one of the first superheroes to realize the truth of his existence - that he is actually a comic character living in a two-dimensional world. Along the way he encounters some pretty obscure superheroes, including B’wana Beast, Merryman, and our pal the Red Bee!

Avengers Epic Collection: The Final Threat
By Gerry Conway, Jim Shooter, and various artists


Marvel fun from the 1970s. The Whizzer pops up to help the Avengers fight his villainous son, Nuklo! This collection also features appearances from Doctor Doom, Ultron, and Infinity War baddie Thanos! It also features some fantastic art from comics legends George Perez, Jim Starlin, and John Byrne.

Flash (1987) #9-11
By Mike Baron, Jackson Guice, Mike Collins, and Larry Mahlstedt


The first story to feature Chunk! These comics have never been collected to my knowledge but you’re likely to find them for quite cheap on ebay or in the bargain bin of a comics shop and they’re well worth hunting around for.

Flash: Rogues
By Geoff Johns, Scott Kolins, and Doug Hazlewood


Chunk gets shot in the first story in this collection, and Flash must prevent all of Keystone City from getting sucked into his old friend. Then Flash battles a bunch of villains from his extensive rogue’s gallery, including Captain Cold, Fallout, and Gorilla Grodd!

Here are some science related comics you might like:

Concrete, Vol. 1: Depths
By Paul Chadwick


Ron Lithgow gets his brain transplanted into a giant, alien, concrete body and tries to make a life for himself as an explorer and a writer. The interesting thing about Concrete is that aside from Concrete himself and the aliens who give him his body (who are never seen again after the first issue) there are no other sci-fi aspects to this comic. The ramifications of life in a giant concrete body are explored by applying real world physics, and conveyed through some stunning art from creator Paul Chadwick.

Action Comics Vol. 1: Superman and the Men of Steel
Action Comics Vol. 2: Bulletproof
Action Comics Vol. 3: At The End Of Days
By Grant Morrison and various artists


Grant Morrison combines the feel of the original 1930s Superman comics by Siegel and Shuster with his own mind bending cosmic concepts. Superman battles a menace from the fifth dimension and Morrison realizes this threat in a fascinating way. Just as a fork from our three dimensional world might “attack” a two dimensional piece of paper at several different points simultaneously, Superman is attacked at several different points in his life simultaneously by his fifth dimensional foe.

Ministry of Space
By Warren Ellis and Chris Weston


The murky, real life origins of the American space programme are used as an inspiration for this alternate history, where Britain got to all the Nazi rocket scientists after World War II instead of the Yanks.

Invincible Iron Man Vol. 2: World's Most Wanted Book 1
Invincible Iron Man Vol. 3: World's Most Wanted Book 2
By Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca


Iron Man has always been one of the most science-y superheroes and this is one of his very best stories. The Green Goblin has taken over SHIELD and Tony Stark is on the run. Tony uploads a computer virus into his own brain to erase all his secrets and keep them out of the Goblin’s hands. He must evade capture until the virus has done its work. But how can he stay one step ahead while he’s gradually losing his greatest weapon – his mind?

Tom Strong: Book 1
By Alan Moore, Chris Sprouse, Alan Gordon


Tom Strong inhabits a fantastic world that’s more Jules Verne than Stan Lee. He isn’t a superhero, he’s “science-hero”! Raised on a remote West Indian island by his scientist father in a high gravity chamber that made him super strong, Tom Strong was educated to genius level. He now uses his mental and physical perfection to fight such science themed foes as the Modular Man, Ingrid Weiss and her flying Nazi girls, and even an invasion from a universe where the Aztec civilization survived and became Earth’s dominant culture.

The Science of Obscure Superheroes Part Four: The Red Bee

Recently I gave a talk for the Reading branch of the British Science Association on the subject of the science of superheroes. It's a subject that's been covered a great deal elsewhere and so I wanted to approach it from a different angle. I decided to focus on the science behind some lesser known superheroes. I chose to discuss The WhizzerChunk, Matter Eater Lad, and the Red Bee. I looked at their powers and origin stories and tried to find parallels in real world science. I've adapted my talk into a four part article. This part is about The Red Bee. 

The Red Bee first appeared in Hit Comics #1 (1940). His name is Richard Raleigh, an assistant district attorney who decides to dress up in a puffy shirt and fight crime using bees! Red Bee uses lots of trained bees to fight Nazis and gangsters, but his favourite bee is called Michael. Michael lives in Red Bee’s hollow belt buckle and will only come out for special missions. The character starred in 24 issues of Hit Comics before fading into obscurity. He was brought back in the pages of All Star Squadron in the early ‘80s, only to be killed off straight away.

Rick Hoberg
Let’s talk about Michael. Surely bees hang about together in huge swarms and inhabit hives? They don’t sit on their own in some bloke’s belt buckle. There are in fact certain types of bees that do prefer a solitary existence. For example, there is a type of bee found in the UK called Osmia bicornis, or more commonly, the red mason bee!

Steven Falk
Red mason bees are usually found in gardens and parks. They nest in existing holes or cavities, such as mortar joints, window frames, or dead wood, and prefer holes in sunny south facing locations. It’s not a massive stretch to believe that Richard Raleigh could have tempted such a bee into his belt buckle, provided he was thrusting his hips towards the sun.

Michael is probably a female, as male mason bees tend to hang around the nests where they first hatched from their cocoon, waiting to have sex, before dying soon after the deed is done. That’s very much what the kids call a “big mood” for me.

When the females have chosen a place to make their nest they harvest mud which they use to seal up their nest cells, allowing their young to safely develop, keeping them warm over winter.  Red Bee’s belt buckle would probably be full of mud.

Once Michael has been released from her mucky belt buckle, she may be more useful in distracting criminals than actually hurting them. Red mason bees don’t sting unless they’re threatened. The venom in a female red mason bee’s sting is similar to the venom of a honeybee sting, but the red mason bee sting contains fewer barbs than that of a honeybee. This could explain why the red mason bee’s sting does not penetrate human skin.

While Michael wouldn’t make much of a weapon, the Red Bee’s other bees could potentially be a tenacious foe for any criminal that crossed their path. Africanised “killer” bees from Central America have been known to chase a person into water and then patiently wait for them to resurface before stinging them. These bees can recognise the chemical scent of the breath of their target as air bubbles break the surface of the water.

The Telegraph
Honeybees in the UK are less aggressive but are still known to be pretty tenacious. In 2016 a grandmother from West Wales returned from her shopping to find a swarm of over 20,000 bees covering the back of her car. She called some local beekeepers, who were able to remove the bees and she returned home. Over 24 hours later, outside her home she found the bees had returned to the car! The beekeepers theorised that the queen bee may have become trapped somewhere in the car.

So bees could potentially be an effective weapon against anyone who provoked them, but how could the Red Bee control them? How could he make sure the bees attacked the gangsters and not him? Smoke can be used to make bees docile, but dopey bees might not be much use in the war against crime. Is there an alternative?

The answer is smells!

A queen bee secretes a combination of chemical scents in order to communicate with the worker bees. The queen’s scent can help control swarming, it can inhibit the development of ovaries in the worker bees, and it can tell the workers whether a queen has mated or not. The queen’s scent can also give workers the cue to gather around the queen and form her own little entourage, or retinue to look after her.

In 2007 researchers in the University of Otago found that a queen bee can manipulate worker bee’s behaviour by releasing a pheromone that blocks aversive learning in young bees. This means that the queen can stop her offspring from learning from bad experiences. This is necessary because being exposed to a chemical scent that stops you from growing ovaries can be pretty unpleasant for a worker bee. By preventing the young bees from developing aversive memories against her odour the queen is ensuring that they will continue to tend her. Basically, she smells bad but she makes the other bees forget how bad she smells.

If The Red Bee could harness these chemical scents, perhaps he could use them to convince a colony of bees that he was their queen! If they ever decided that they didn’t like the life of a crime fighter, he could make them forget that decision! A real life Red Bee would perhaps be, not a man in a domino mask and a puffy shirt, but a stinky, insect drag queen, armed with water pistols full of bee sweat!

But being a queen bee is not all it’s cracked up to be. When a queen bee gets too old to give off the right smells they are replaced by the workers in a procedure known as "supersedure". The workers rear a replacement queen and when the new one is ready the workers will kill the old one in a gruesome fashion. The workers cluster tightly around her, “balling” her until she becomes so hot she dies. 

If the Red Bee is a man who would be queen he must ensure he never runs out of scent, lest he is balled to death by his insect minions!


Click here to read part one!
Click here to read part two!
Click here to read part three!
Click here for the Reading List!

References:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queen_bee#Supersedure

Many thanks to insect experts Jade Hailes and Antonia Forster.