The club meant well. There were four large photos behind the bar in the small Los Angeles music hall that was hosting the Avengers Academy launch party. The side bar was the private press area, where entertainment news television crews could interview Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka, and where online writers could get a demo from one of the game’s producers. The framed photos above the bar were all of a different iconic rock band or musician, letting people know that, no matter what bands might be on the club’s actual schedule, the people who run this joint have good taste. There were the Ramones from their first album cover photo shoot, Lou Reed in the early ‘70s, Debbie Harry at Blondie’s peak, Bowie during what looks like the Tin Machine days or possibly right afterward. Seven legends, six of whom are now gone. It was impossible to look at them and not think about death. These photos of younger versions of real-life heroes were a reminder of our own mortality on a night devoted to younger versions of immortal fictional heroes.
It was weird seeing Kiernan Shipka at a videogame party. It was weird seeing the 16-year-old former Sally Draper at a bar, even one that wasn’t open or serving yet. She wasn’t necessarily there as a fan, or anything—she’s the voice of Spider-Woman in Avengers Academy, a game where some of Marvel’s most popular characters go to college to learn how to become superheroes. She wasn’t the only recognizable person floating around, either, as some of the game’s other voice actors were in the main concert room, where a stylized “homecoming” party was taking place. Alexandra Daddario and Colton Haynes were apparently around there somewhere, and it’s possible other members of the voice cast, which includes Dave Franco, Allison Brie, Bella Thorne, A$AP Rocky and more, stopped by. Guests could get their “homecoming” photos taken, play Avengers Academy and games like cornhole and an oversized knockoff of Jenga, or just dance to current pop hits with professional cosplayers dressed as these new versions of the characters Marvel currently chooses to market.
Blake Anderson of Workaholics stood out at the party with his trademark pile of hair. He isn’t involved with the game, but he couldn’t refuse the invitation. “Usually anytime I get an email with something that says Marvel in it I check it out. I like superhero stuff,” he said. He hadn’t played Avengers Academy yet, but he had high praise for the last superhero game he had played: the Deadpool game that was rereleased last year. “It was cool. It was violent. I always like when Marvel takes the gloves off and gets nasty,” Anderson said, drawling the last word with an exaggerated Southern accent.
There’s nothing nasty about Avengers Academy. It’s cute, amiable and meant for everybody. The mobile game imagines a Marvel Universe where the biggest heroes are all in college, at a school overseen by Nick Fury, where they’re educated on how to use their amazing abilities. Instead of a middle-aged man whose dependence on alcohol and casual sex can no longer hide the fear and emptiness inside, Tony Stark is a bro genius and the life of every campus kegger. Steve Rogers is a top jock and class president with a great GPA, but nobody can say a bad word about him because he’s so nice and honest and works hard for everything he achieves. The Hulk, voiced by John Cena, is the number one fan of every sports team, and exchange student Black Widow, as brought to life by Brie, is a bit of an aloof hipster who can’t stop spying on the others. Players have to develop both the academy itself and the characters, balancing their school and social lives with their superhero duties, and helping them grow into the heroes we know from the comics and movies as they level up.
Bill Rosemann, a former Marvel Comics editor and current Creative Director at Marvel Games who has spent almost two decades with Marvel over two different stints, argued that character, above all else, is what makes Avengers Academy work. When TinyCo, the game’s developer, first pitched Marvel on the idea, Rosemann told them that “if you want to create a game that’s going to reach the greatest amount of people, and really scratch that Marvel itch, we have to deliver the characters they know and love. So the challenge of, say, could we get Tony Stark, can we get Steve Rogers, Janet Van Dyne, the Black Widow, could we reinterpret them as college students? To me that was really fascinating.
“I said if you do it wrong people will hate it,” Rosemann continued. “But if you do it right, if you design them in a way where everybody could look at them and say, they may be younger, they may look differently, but man, THAT is Steve Rogers, then we’ll create something that’s never been done before, and that’s not currently being done.”
Rosemann’s involvement was crucial. He serves as a conduit between Marvel Publishing and Marvel Games, using his connections with the New York-based comics wing to keep everybody on the same page. “I know what’s coming,” he said, not in a bragging way. “Editors months and months ahead of time will send me sketches and scripts so I know when new characters are debuting, or when characters are getting new identities or new costumes, so then I can go to our partners and say ‘hey, look, this character hasn’t hit yet, but check out the new totally awesome Hulk—it’s Amadeus Cho and no-one knows yet he’s going to be Hulk, but now you know, so hey, want to put him in the game?’ I’m trying to steer them towards characters that either the most amount of people will recognize or that soon will get the spotlight.”
The demo shown at the event didn’t just give a good idea of how the game plays. It reinforced what Rosemann was saying about how focused Marvel is with its marketing across all of its divisions. Beyond the key Avengers, the game features many of the same new or newly popular characters that are being promoted in the comics and elsewhere. The rightfully beloved Kamala Khan version of Ms. Marvel is in the game, just as she’s in the next season of the Avengers Assemble cartoon and the brand new Lego Marvel’s Avengers game. Freshly established box office draw (and Diet Coke Super Bowl ad star) Ant-Man is in the initial line-up. Squirrel Girl, the cult favorite oddity co-created by the legendary Steve Ditko in the early ‘90s, and a character that is currently undergoing a spotlight push throughout the Marvel machine, isn’t in Avengers Academy yet, but she is referenced at one point and definitely seems like a perfect fit for this world.
The characters who are missing aren’t even a surprise anymore. There are no Fantastic Four, no Spider-Man, no Wolverine, no X-Men of any kind. Rosemann mentioned that some of the characters TinyCo wanted to include didn’t fit thematically because “they’ve never really been on the Avengers,” but it’s not a stretch to think the lack of Marvel’s First Family and two most popular characters (who have both been Avengers in the comics) comes down to the well-publicized movie rights issues. Perhaps Spider-Man will eventually make an appearance in one of his various forms now that Sony and Marvel are cooperating on the next film.
Rosemann struck on what sets Avengers Academy apart from other Marvel games, including other mobile titles like Marvel Puzzle Quest and Marvel: Future Fight. All he had to do was point to the dance floor outside, to the party that was taking place just a few yards away from this corner of the bar. Like college itself, social life is a big part of Avengers Academy. “Something everybody loved about Marvel,” he said, “whether it’s the live action or the comic books, is the romance angle. We love the relationships. We care about Iron Man fighting Mandarin because we care about Tony Stark and Pepper Potts. In addition to building your campus and powering up your heroes, there’s this social aspect. There will be different cliques, different relationships, you can go on dates. And that’s something that, say, a fighting game or a match 3 doesn’t focus on.”
Even in the back corner of the bar, Rosemann, his Marvel Games colleague Mike Jones (an Executive Producer on Avengers Academy) and TinyCo’s General Manager Jeremy Horn could be hard to hear over the sounds of the dance floor. Out in the main room the crowd waited for the coronation of the “homecoming court” of superhero cosplayers. Professional wrestler Christopher Daniels, whose job is to essentially play a real-life version of a superhero (or, in his current case, supervillain), was in line for the photo booth. Invited by his friends in Marvel, Daniels was interested in what they cooked up with Avengers Academy. “I didn’t even know about the game specifically, but I’m looking forward to downloading it and giving it a try,” said the man known as the Fallen Angel, before talking briefly about Ring of Honor’s upcoming anniversary show and his friend AJ Styles’ recent debut in WWE. As Daniels waited to get his picture taken at the commemorative Avengers Academy yearbook photo station, the DJ played a song that probably wouldn’t have existed without David Bowie’s influence, and lights glittered off the dancing cosplayers dressed as teenaged superheroes.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.