Lately, I have been reading Secret Wars, the limited series published by Marvel Comics between 1984-85. One of the first “event” series, the appeal for readers was seeing all of their favorite characters expand beyond their own comics to fight alongside each other. Even after reading comics for over twenty years, I still find myself receiving a jolt of pleasure when that appeal is realized through images where these iconic characters are placed next to each other. I would call these “hero tableaus;” basically, a sizable number of superheroes sharing the same space on the page. I have seen hundreds of these compositions, so why do I still feel that jolt?
Before suggesting an answer, I should note that these “hero tableaus” have now translated to the screen. Marvel Studios might lay claim to the most famous example, the 360° shot from The Avengers (2012) where the team assembles to fight off the Chitauri. Of course, onscreen, these are simultaneously a spectacle of superheroic imagery (a share of iconic chevrons and colored costumes) and star power; though, nowadays the former usually outweighs the latter. These are often placed at climactic moments in the narrative and are just as crowd-pleasing as the comics equivalent.
Bart Beaty describes how the MCU has selectively adapted successful elements of “heightened continuity” from the comics. I argue that the “hero tableau” acts as an epicenter of that; moments where the entire weight of interfranchise continuity coalesces. Scott Bukatman has written about how comics posses a kind of “codicological consciousness,” both unfolding towards and enfolding the reader into a dense storyworld. “Hero tableaus” are - more than the cameos, Easter Eggs, or post-credits stingers Beaty describes - where the audience is enfolded in the complex web of continuity that has brought these characters together. There’s almost a degree of narrative and aesthetic energy that transfers to the spectator’s body in these moments, usually by way of cognitive input. In comics, Bukatman describes this as a “work of completion. . . .[where] the reader. . .compensates for. . .its flatness, its stasis. . .bringing a world into being through the dynamic activity of reading” (127). Though Bukatman’s sentiment is directed at the still art of comics, the narrative continuity within superhero films requires the same activation. And that sensation, even after twenty years of reading and eleven years of watching the MCU, is still an event.