Are superheroes a new phenomenon? Or, have they been here all along?There is a variance in the timeline between the multitude of Marvel Comics Universes and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). But, we can extrapolate what went on in the history of the MCU, to some extent, from what occurred in print over the past 70-odd years combined with stories that have already been released through the MCU and rumors and leaks that have gained some legitimacy in the past few weeks.
In the comics, a Brooklyn scientific genius, Phineas Horton, created an android that gained a measure of sentience. However, when he was initially exposed to the atmosphere, the oxygen caused him to burst into flames. This, of course, threw the general populace into a general panic.
Over time, he learned to control his flames (and, eventually gained the power of flight by directing his flames behind him as would a rocket). He would eventually gain a sidekick, Toro (Thomas Raymond, the mutant son of two nuclear scientiests - he gained the ability to control fire due to an accident that exposed him to nuclear radiation).
Earlier writers portrayed the Torch's body as anatomically identical to human, but made out of synthetic materials (such as ceramic bone). Correspondingly, the Torch was shown to have human needs and human weaknesses; he has been felled by drugs, poison gas, hypnotic and telepathic attacks in both Golden Age stories and the Invaders series from the 1970s. The Torch has a heart, lungs, circulatory and digestive systems, and has been shown sleeping, eating, and drinking on more than one occasion. Toro has humorously implied that the Torch has normal human excretory functions. This concept of a living, artificial human made of synthetic flesh and blood was unique in comics, as opposed to the much more common theme of a mechanical automaton that only externally resembles a human being.
The MCU adaptation of the Human Torch, though will likely show it to have been biochemist Henry Pym, the original Ant-Man, and Howard Stark (Tony's pop) who will have created the Original Human Torch. We already know that the deactivated android was on display in a glass case at Howard's great Stark Exposition during the events of Captain America: The First Avenger. So, we already know, early on in history, that the Human Torch was in the possession of Stark Industries.
Update: Cedric Cannon pointed out that the display in the '40s Stark Expo did, indeed have Horton's name labeled on it. So, Hank, if he was a part of it, would have been a secondary contributor.
And, it likely was Horton's ingenious Artificial Intelligence technology into which he would inject his own, rather warped, intellect to give it life. Using robotic technology developed by Howard Stark, they created a quasi-living being that, unfortunately, would burst into flame when exposed to oxygen.
Still, this being was exceptionally powerful and the eventual mastering of his flaming powers made the Human Torch invaluable in the war on Hitler and his evil dominion. Working alongside Captain America with the eventual assistance of the Sub-Mariner, Prince Namor of Atlantis, the trio and, likely, the two apprentices, Bucky & Toro) wreaked havoc on the German forces - until Captain America went after the Red Skull and both were lost.
Once the War was over, the Human Torch couldn't just wander about. His penchant for bursting into flame frightened the populace and they wouldn't tolerate his presence thinking they were going to die! So, Pym succeeded, with resistance from the Torch, in deactivating him.
And, Namor would eventually be sold off to Universal Studios where he would return home to the oblivion (for us land-dwellers) of Atlantis. And, since Universal still hasn't crafted a movie around the character, it's my guess that Namor's rights should, by now, have reverted to Marvel.
Meanwhile, back home in America
Pym has also discovered his famous Pym Particles - the amazing sub-atomic particles that, when entrapped within two separate serums using magnetic fields, can become a size-altering formula (serum one) and a reversing formula (serum two) allowing him to shrink himself to the size of small insects. To be able to utilize the serums, he creates a helmet with a nozzle that allows him to breath the vapors the serum emits enabling him to maintain his small size or, should he choose, use the reversing serum to grow back to normal size.
Using this technology, he seeks out and captures/defeats Nazi spies and criminals in America as an Ant-Man. Over the years, socialite Janet Van Dyne coerces him to allow her to join him in his endeavors to keep America safe and secure. Hank eventually crafts a set of miniature wings that do not grow and shrink with Janet - they are only apparent when she is in her miniaturized state - and, these wings grant her the ability to fly.
As time progresses and the war concludes, Nazi assailants are replaced by Communists and, later, whatever threatened the nation. As time went on, he also added a stun gun wrist accessory that give Wasp a potent "sting" when she faces a foe.
During the years after the disappearance of Captain America, the departure of Prince Namor and the deactivation of the Human Torch up until the appearance of the Hulk and the current crop of Avengers, Ant-Man and the Wasp had been the only superheroes to continue to operate and they did so in secret. Only the two of them ever knew of their endeavors.
Also, during this time, Agent Peggy Carter left the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR) that had created and supported Captain America. Working with Howard Stark and others they spawned the Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.) which eventually became the Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate ultimately settling in as the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division - and, they're still working on it. S.H.I.E.L.D. eventually absorbed their parent SSR and consolidated those operations within its own facilities.
Should Marvel decide to create a movie or Netflix series covering the exploits of this great band of heroes, there will be some notable gaping holes in the lore that is the MCU canon. (1) In Captain America: The First Avenger, neither Namor nor the Human Torch were ever mentioned as serving alongside Cap. About the only way I can see around this is having the Avengers (or S.H.I.E.L.D.) mention, off-the-cuff, some story of a Human Torch and a "man from Atlantis" who both made a brief appearance toward the end of World War II after Captain America had already disappeared.
(2) And, there has never been any mention of an Ant-Man or a Wasp in the canons of the MCU. This is easily overcome in the fact that Hank never wanted the notoriety associated with heroism. His purpose in life is science and the study of biological mechanisms and operations. Janet, already being a famous socialite, didn't need any more notoriety and just very much enjoyed working as a superhero alongside her heroic Hank - until some of the character flaws began to crack that facade after which she chose to abandon the entire concept.
This is already backed up by Hank's disdain of the current flock of "heroes". He doesn't like their bravado or their incessant self-promotion. And, his miniature size allowed him, all this time, to serve as a hero without anyone ever knowing it.
He's always been there - just never publicly.
So, in the MCU, we have had "super" heroes around since early on in World War II with Captain America being the very first to become public. Prince Namor and the Human Torch then arrived to help end the war in Europe before Namor went home and the Human Torch had to be deactivated due to the continuous state of panic that existed whenever he was near.
Bucky, of course, succumbed to the wiles of Hydra after he fell off the train during a battle and eventually became the Winter Soldier. And, I have no idea where Toro might have gone. Maybe he just retired to science or something after the war.
Somewhere in either the MCU (or an alternate timeline) would have been the Black Captain America, Whizzer and Miss America (the latter two were the original comics parents of Wanda (Scarlet Witch) and Pietro (Quicksilver) Maximoff, the miracle twins).
And, the Whizzer / Miss America history leads me to wonder: Since Fox used Quicksilver and not Scarlet Witch; and, since Marvel used both, but killed off Quicksilver after his first appearance; might they have an agreement to split the twins? Interesting.
Only Hank and Janet continued from there into recent times and Janet retired after Hank turned ugly and began to beat on her. Recently, Hank has begun to teach his daughter - Janet's daughter, Hope Van Dyne, the craft of the superhero giving Hope her mother's suit and tools. He has been working with her these past couple of years, but he's getting old.
He wouldn't be able to do it forever.
The Avengers are a Bunch of Idiots
And, now, there's this new problem. That brainless son of Stark's, Tony, was it? ...has found some of Hank's old AI technology in one of his research facilities on the Hudson. Some type of alien invaders threatened the country and those moron "Avengers" managed to trash half of New York, including the Pym facility, and, the son-of-a... Stark stole Pym technology.
Pym knows this because there is no way Stark (or his father) would ever be anything more than mechanics. They can create robots like no one else... but, intellect? They aren't capable of building that. That was Hank's work.
And, now, they're paying for it. That Ultron thing they've sicked on themselves is kicking their collective asses. And, they deserve it! No way "little" Stark (or that klutz, Banner, for that matter) should have ever been messing in technology they don't - can't possibly - understand!
Age of Ultron SPOILER follows (click only if you've seen the movie or don't mind spoilers):
Update (5/5/2015) SPOILER! Turns out, the Ultron AI was derived from the Mind Gem which was stashed within the blue stone in Loki's scepter (per the movie Avengers: Age of Ultron; which came out this past weekend) and not from Pym technology.
Next, the idiots will probably reactivate the old Torch. And, Torch won't allow them to deactivate him, again. He'll remember what happened before and he'll take steps to avoid it.
And, as we are learning from what delicious bits of rumor have fallen from the tables of Avengers: Age of Ultron (and from comic canon), Ultron himself has taken the old Human Torch carcass and has turned it into the Vision.
Plus, in the movie, [Ant-Man](movie:9048), we will see where Hank Pym takes on a vagabond Scott Lang to teach him the skills required to be Ant-Man.
Update (05/05/2015) Age of Ultron Spoiler:
Turns out, the movie revealed that Ultron created Vision using Vibranium from Wakanda and a genetic printer developed by Dr. Helen Cho which mapped human genomes around the Vibranium molecules creating a pseudo-human android.
And, likely, in the great Civil War that will erupt between heroes who want to have freedom and liberties guaranteed by the American Traditions - and their Constitution - and those who demand the security of knowing who heroes are, where those heroes hang their hats and where those heroes loyalties lie so they can keep a leash on them to prevent them from doing something that might hurt someone ...
I wouldn't be surprised to see an Ant-Man (Pym) vs Ant-Man (Lang) battle in there somewhere with Pym being on Stark's side (probably the only time that moron, Tony, would get something right!) and Lang being on Cap's side simply because he wants to choose for himself what he wants to do with his life and to protect the freedoms America had promised to his daughter.