Sulagna Misra’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.
If you’ve been on the fandom side of Tumblr, no doubt you’ve seen several iterations of the Civil War meme. The Captain America: Civil War movie was announced, set to follow a storyline lifted from the comic books about Iron Man and Cap splitting the Avengers in a debate that threatens the existence of the team itself. The purveyors of the meme have taken screenshots, mainly from the sequence in The Avengers when Cap and Iron Man are getting all up in each other’s faces, and then presented various conflicts.
And what exactly have Tumblronians suggested will be the debate that rends the community asunder? Comparing Siri to Jarvis. What makes them special (what makes them different, ooh). How goshdarned old Steve is. Benedict Cumberbatch. Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield. To take or not take a blueberry. Big Hero 6. The Civil War Meme itself.
The widespread sharing of the meme highlights yet another way fandom likes to tease the seriousness of these superhero storylines. There’s already Just Marvel Things, a Tumblr that takes its moniker from Just Girly Things, but accepts submissions on little interactions, relationships, and connections among the Avengers. (Please feel free to share other such memes in the comments!)
One meme in particular caught my eye: Marvel Nine Nine.
The lines are multifarious and sharp and always very, very on point somehow. Unlike Pepper Potts, who does not carry a hairdryer in her purse, Natasha has one on hand at all times. (That explains that one scene in CATWS.) Natasha is almost always Rosa when dispensing cutting remarks, except for the one time she’s Boyle. (A girl must have her passions.) Tony acts as the self-centered Gina but also the arrogant Jake. Loki has a lot of feelings and Thor has a lot of questions. Cap gives direction like Sergeant Terry Jeffords, but also asks Bruce Banner to become “Scary Bruce.”
The choice of show is telling. Brooklyn Nine Nine is one of few shows to feature a large ensemble cast working together to fight bad guys, but unlike Castle or Psych, it’s also a straight sitcom. For comparison, the Sherlock fandom pairs screencaps of the show with Arrested Development. Sherlock and Arrested Development are a bit more claustrophobic – one only has nine episodes, the other is stuck on the exploits of one family, and they’re all this side of jerkface to each other.
In the movies, the Avengers aren’t even a bit like the happy-go-lucky gang depicted here. During the movie, their interactions were anything but close, and even after working together to defeat the aliens, their individual movies focus on their own support systems and their individual problems. (Except Black Widow, because she’s a woman.) Their seriousness makes sense, considering they were in a tense situation: a superpowered megalomaniac who was bring aliens to Earth through a giant wormhole, all while they were trying to figure out whether they should trust each other.
That’s also RIDICULOUS. Right? It’s a little ridiculous. But The Avengers, like most superhero movies, takes these things very seriously. The “why” of that is a whole other essay about superhero movies being a defense mechanism against terrorism. (Just Google “superhero movies terrorist attacks” if you feel like diagnosing the American psyche. I’m partial to io9’s iteration.)
The way fandom likes to joke with its characters with these pseudo-sitcom setups, tease them with a kind of familiarity, taps into something deeper than that. In this GQ interview, Schur also talks about the kind of humor he loved in Cheers, which he wanted to have in his shows (emphasis mine):
“It’s the kind of humor that family members do to each other, and that’s what Cheers was so expert at. They love each other. Carla loves Cliff, because they spend so much time together and because they know each other so well. But that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t make fun of him in the same way that a funny sister makes fun of a lackadaisical brother or something….The best kind of humor on TV is character humor. It’s when you create indelible, interesting characters who have specific character traits, and then the jokes come out of the way that they act and behave, and not an insult that anyone could say about anyone else at any time. That’s weak humor.”
If anyone really understood the balance of silly and serious, characters and action, it was the dearly departed Dwayne McDuffie. He wrote for shows that were part of the DCAU (the DC Animated Universe), like Static Shock and Justice League, DC’s counterpart to the Avengers. In this ToonZone.Net interview, McDuffie points out that in the beginning, the Justice League characters suffered from a case of the Dads:
TZN: The DC characters are renowned, or perhaps even infamous – compared to the Marvel characters – for being a little bit too aloof…
DWAYNE MCDUFFIE: They were kind of a bunch of stiffs! The Justice League is a 1950s property. It’s when DC was kind of at the height of…all their heroes were like Hugh Beaumont. They were like your dad, but not even your real dad….They had no personalities. You could take the dialogue from any character and put it on any other character and it didn’t matter. Except you’d change the curse. Superman wouldn’t say, “Sufferin’ Sappho!”…although he’d enjoy watching. [OH MY GOD, DWAYNE.] And Wonder Woman wouldn’t say, “Great Scott!” But other than that, the rest of the dialogue, the voice was exactly the same….So when we started the Justice League series, there was a tendency to stay in that, like there wasn’t enough differentiation between the characters. And I saw that in a few first-season episodes and I thought, “Okay, we need to start separating these guys out, figuring out who they are, why they do what they do. What’s different about them? Why should we be interested in this guy instead of that guy?”
And it’s true, eventually each character starts feeling real and familiar: Superman suggests creating the team in the first place, and acts as everyone’s rock with his high morals. Batman broods and trusts no one, keeping files on all of them, but is also the man who makes the outer space treehouse satellite for his superhero friends. Martian Manhunter gets them all together through mind control but speaks to them with the naiveté, curiosity, and openness of a man without a planet. Hawkgirl is incredibly violent but also provides most of the saucy innuendo for the series, while Wonder Woman unironically says things like “[Men] can’t possibly be that essential to your life.” Military man Green Lantern cares about comic books and taking care of his Detroit community. Finally, the Flash is the comic relief – and, as is usual with these comic relief characters, the heart of the whole team.
(Sidenote: Am I saying you should watch Justice League? Yes, you foolish fool, that is exactly what I’m saying!)
The current DC TV properties Arrow and The Flash have, er, flashes of this, but each superhero mostly keeps to his (only his, so far) own support system, more like the individual MCU movies. Those current DC TV properties are like an alternate universe version of the DCAU. Comics are used to this: the MCU is an “alternate universe” or AU of the comics, which themselves have multiple AUs. There are touches of these in the Marvel comics now, especially Hawkeye by Matt Fraction:
But future Marvel movie Captain Marvel also gets in on the action:
The stories become wholly about character and communities above anything else. You know who that reminds me of? Stone cold Jane Austen.
Read Part II of “The Everyday Matters of Superheroes” — on Jane Austen, AUs, and Pacific Rim — tomorrow.
Sulagna Misra writes about the weird things that pop into her head when she's not paying attention. She's on Twitter so she can not pay attention more effectively.