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Comic Book Superheroes For Dummies

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May 06, 2011 | 12:11pm EDT

Thor Green Lantern Captain America avengersI’m sure you’ve seen the trailers for all the big summer movies by now, which means you’ve definitely seen the trailers for the comic book-inspired superhero flicks too and if you’re anything like me, you may be a little confused. What is that metal coffin thing and why does it make that scrawny guy so buff? When did Magneto get so young and become such a babe? What’s the big deal with Thor’s hammer? It just looks like a heavy-duty tool from my dad’s shed. Well, get ready to understand all-err…most of it. We don’t want to spoil the movies for you!

To help on our quest for knowledge, I’ve enlisted the help of our resident comic book nerd/expert/knowledge bank, Daniel Hubschman, so he can answer some of these questions. Then, we can join in the excitement and anticipation for a few movies that seem a wee bit complicated and confusing to the untrained eye.

ThorThor

Thor, May 6

Full Name: Thor Odinson (alias: Dr. Donald Blake)

Place of Origin: Born in Norway, raised in Asgard

Special Power or Weapon: Thor's strength, endurance and resistance to injury are greater than the vast majority of his superhuman race. A superbly skilled warrior, highly proficient in hand-to-hand combat, swordsmanship and, of course hammer throwing. His greatest asset is Mjolnir, a mythic hammer forged from uru metal which can summon the powers of the storm – namely lightening, thunder and rain. He can also use it to fly and travel to other dimensions and times.

Tragedy or hardship faced: The biggest tragedy is Thor’s life was being exiled from his home by his father for disobeying his orders. This relocation changes the Thunder God in many ways, chief amongst giving him human insight thanks to his time on Earth.

Additional questions:

What’s so special about this hammer? What’s the big deal?

Well Kelsea, Thor's hammer isn't just any old, around-the-Kingdom tool. Believe it or not, it has a name: Mjolnir. It's actually one of the most powerful weapons in the Marvel multiverse, forged from Asgardian magic and might. In addition to being handy in close-combat, it allows its wielder to harness the power of Thunder which is a major offensive asset. It can also help its handler fly (something that every superhero would like to be able to do) and is a personalized item: ONLY Thor can pick it up, not because of its weight, but because it is quite literally made for the God of Thunder. So yeah, it's kind of a big deal.

Wait, so why was his hammer at the end of Iron Man 2? What does this have to do with Tony Stark?

Ha ha. That's a good question. To be frank, Thor and Iron Man don't have much to do with one another apart from being founding members of the comic book collective known as The Avengers. Though they've crossed paths many times before in the funny pages, my guess is that since Thor was the next Marvel movie in line after Iron Man 2, the producers of these films felt it was necessary to get audiences amped for the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Just another way to whet our appetites for what the studio was cooking up...

Captain AmericaCaptain America

Captain America: The First Avenger, July 22

Full Name: Steven (Steve) Rogers

Place of Origin: New York, NY

Special Power or Weapon: Aside from having the maximum amount of strength, speed, endurance and agility that a human can possess, Cap wields an invulnerable shield made from Vibranium, an unbreakable metal that allows it to be thrown like a Frisbee for offensive maneuvers while protecting its user from nearly any attack it deflects.

Tragedy or hardship faced: Aside from losing his parents at a relatively early age (thankfully, not because of a car accident or crime) Rogers was physically unfit to join the Marines when he enlisted at the beginning of the US’s involvement in WWII, which upset him greatly.

Additional questions:

What’s going on here? He jumps into a metal sarcophagus and comes out all buff and shiny? What’s going on in there?

I admit that the trailers for the film have been a bit misleading in that sense. That chamber you're talking about isn't some alien healing pod or superhero microwave. It's actually a radiation containment contraption that works in conjunction with the Super Solider Serum, which was developed by Tony Stark's father Howard at the request of the US government. The elixir is actually the catalyst for Steve Rogers' remarkable change. It genetically enhances its user's body, pushing it to its maximum potential, but doesn't work on its own. That's where the chamber comes in, bombarding the subject with highly concentrated "Vita-Rays" that trigger the metamorphosis. I tried ordering one, but S.H.I.E.L.D. hasn't been returning my phone calls these days...

He’s called the “First Avenger,” is that as in the Avengers?

Yes, though calling him the "First Avenger" is a bit misleading, because Captain America was around long before the rest of the team (well, not Thor. He's been around since long before Stan Lee). But it was his success that inspired S.H.I.E.L.D. to help create The Avengers in the first place, so I guess the moniker is fitting, especially since Cap quickly becomes the leader of the team thanks to his military strategy skills and superhuman abilities.

Who is this red-faced Nazi guy? Is he a Nazi or some weird alien? I don’t remember anything like him in my history books.

That's probably because the Red Skull wasn't really fighting the allies in the early '40s. That is his name, by the way, The Red Skull, though he was born Johann Schmidt, son of an abusive father who blamed him for the death of his wife while she gave birth to the boy. Years later he'd join the Nazis and become one of Hilter's most trusted -- and deadly -- soldiers. The Fuhrer even gave him a special uniform unlike any in The Third Reich...and it came with a horrific mask...a Red Skull mask. He is to the Nazis what Cap is to the American military...the embodiment of national morale and a universal symbol of patriotism, making him the arch-enemy of our heroic Captain.

Green LanternGreen Lantern

Green Lantern, June 17

Full Name: Hal Jordan

Place of Origin: Coast City, USA

Special Power or Weapon: The Green Lantern’s power ring allows him to conjure virtually anything; a baseball bat, pair of boxing gloves, bazooka, etc. His only limit is the confines of his own imagination and will.

Tragedy or hardship faced: Hal lost his father Martin at a young age in a freak accident during a test flight of an experimental aircraft. That gave him the devil-may-care attitude that you’ll see Ryan Reynolds sport in the first act of the film.

Additional questions:

So wait, he has a green lantern or he is the green lantern? How does that work?

This is going to get a bit confusing, so bear with me here. You're right on both counts: Hal Jordan (Reynolds) is a Green Lantern, one of many intergalactic police officers patrolling the universe. But he also has a green lantern, which is like a battery charger that replenishes the cosmic energy of the power ring which gives him the ability to do virtually anything he can think of. Got it?

But he’s not the only one?

Heavens no. You see, long ago the Guardians of the Universe (who founded the Green Lantern Corps) divided the known universe into about 3600 sectors. Each sector is assigned a Green Lantern to defend it against extraterrestrial or domestic threats. And since the life expectancy of a Green Lantern is unfortunately short, after one expires their ring is given to another worthy candidate who takes up the mantle. Earth is located in Sector 2814 and believe it or not, HJ isn't even the first GL in our world's history. Nor will he be the last...

Why do his eyes turn blue when he’s in the suit?

Well, why does Clark Kent wear those glasses? Chew on that one for a while...

MagnetoMagneto and Professor X

X-Men: First Class, June 3

Magneto's Full Name: Max Eisenhardt (later changed to Erik Lensherr)

Place of Origin: Unknown

Special Power or Weapon: Magneto can manipulate the magnetic fields that exist naturally or artificially in the world, and control all forms of magnetism. Also, his helmet prevents those with psychic abilities, like Professor X, from getting inside his head.

Tragedy or hardship faced: So much…His parents were brutally murdered by the Nazis before he was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp where he served as a Sonderkommando, one who operated the machinery in the gas chambers and ovens, and fire pits of the camp. Later, his first daughter was killed in a blaze he was unable to rescue her from and, after slaughtering a fearful mob at the scene, his wife left him, only to die giving birth to their mutant twins months later.

Professor X's Full Name: Charles Francis Xavier

Place of Origin: New York, NY

Special Power or Weapon: He’s the world’s most powerful psionic, possessing unquantifiable telepathic and telekinetic abilities.

Tragedy or hardship faced: Like so many superheroes, Charles lost his scientist father in a lab accident while his mother, who remarried an abusive colleague of her late husband, died sometime later. While studying in Oxford, Charles became engaged to Moira Kinross only to have the lady break off the relationship after he returned from the army.

Additional questions:

Why is this one set in the 60s?

There are two reasons for First Class going back in time. The main reason is that the film, as the title suggests, focuses on Professor X's earliest group of mutant recruits, whom he assembled as a younger man with his then-friend Erik Lensherr. This film is an origin story; not only for Charles Xavier and Magneto, but for the mutant dream team known as the X-Men as well. The second, slightly more meta justification for the setting is that it's going back to the period in which the X-Men were created, an era in American history marked by cultural upheaval and the civil rights movement. Just as the mutants fight for their right to co-exist with humans in the new millennium, in this tumultuous decade African Americans, homosexuals and other outsiders on the fringe of society fight for their right to live without being berated by the bigots of the world.

I don’t recognize some of these mutants. Why aren’t we seeing people like Cyclops or Wolverine?

Quite simply, because Cyclops would've been a young boy at the time of these events. Remember, if the film is set in the sixties, characters like Rogue, Iceman and Colossus wouldn't even be a twinkle in their parents' eyes yet. As for Wolverine, well, he was probably out there somewhere in the jungles of Vietnam during this time.

I thought Xavier and Magneto were enemies? When were they friends?

Again, right on both counts. In comics lore, Xavier and Erik met while working in a psychiatric hospital in Israel sometime after WWII. They immediately struck up a friendship because they were constantly engaging in debates about what would happen to the world if it were facing a superhero uprising. Later, they revealed to one another their mutant abilities and decided to pool their powers to help forge a better future for all mankind. But Lensherr grew tired of the war mongering ways of Homo sapiens, eventually adopting the mentality that mutants were superior and that they would one day be the dominant species on Earth. This fundamental philosophical disagreement led Lensherr to create the Brotherhood of Mutants to wage his own war, while Xavier, knowing full well the power his old friend possessed, formed the X-Men.

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