Not all heroes wear capes — but some do. While Captain America and his crew are known for saving the day on the big screen and in comic books, their legacies are ultimately just fantasy. But there’s a group of real heroes giving back to their community in a very super way. The NY Avengers are a group of cosplayers who band together for the greater good. These men and women don their custom-made superhero gear and make appearances at charity events on the East Coast, interacting with the people who look up to heroes most of all: kids. From hospitals and sporting events to local churches, the Avengers show up for meet and greets and photo-ops, and even put on live shows for kids in need.
It Started with a Princess
Every team needs a fearless leader. Founder of the NY Avengers Samantha Catalano’s go-to cosplay is Captain Marvel, but her cosplay journey actually started with a princess. Catalano dressed up as Elsa for Halloween, and her look was so spot-on that a friend asked if she would volunteer to dress up as Elsa for a charity event — and it was all downhill from there. “Within a month or two I had 12 princess costumes,” Catalano says. Catalano started a princess-on-demand birthday party business with help from her mother, plus a program she calls Enchanted Wish, through which she and her team of princesses make hospital visits for kids in need. Catalano attended New York Comic Con (NYCC) in 2015, dressed in her first official cosplay: Harley Quinn from Suicide Squad.
“Going there and cosplaying for the first time is what drew me into the community,” she says. “I made friends. I met some of the people who are in the NY Avengers now, and they really pushed me through the door.” Catalano’s first Marvel cosplay was Spider-Gwen. Since then, she’s done other characters, including Jessica Jones, Black Widow, and Cable, but Captain Marvel is her go-to Avenger.
No stranger to charity events, Catalano wanted to put a super squad together for a meet and greet with underprivileged kids at St. Finbar Catholic Church in Brooklyn last December. She asked eight friends who had great Marvel cosplays to join her, careful not to duplicate any characters so the kids were not confused. “After the event, we all sat down and I was like, ‘Why don’t we do this? Why don’t we put a name on it, and do this for charity events? We’ll come as a packaged deal,” Catalano explains. “From that point, we stuck together.”
In just three months, the NY Avengers grew to an impressive roster of more than 20 cosplayers. Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Winter Soldier, Ant-Man and the Wasp, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther, and even a 7-foot-tall Thanos — they’ve got all the key characters you know and love from iconic Marvel movies. And as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) grows, so will the Avengers. “We’re trying to fill the roster as much as possible, like right now we’re looking for a Loki,” Catalano says. “We want to extend the roster as much as possible; we want to make it bigger.”
Whatever It Takes
With so many cosplayers, events, conventions, and varying work and school schedules to contend with, this group is a lot to manage. “It takes a lot of spreadsheets,” Catalano explains. And of course, it takes help. Dom Charland, whose main cosplay is Star-Lord, is a manager of the group, helping coordinate photoshoots and events, and keeping everything organized. “In a lot of ways, I wish I could make this my full-time job and let go of Muggle responsibilities,” Charland says. “Some of the things we do have such a larger impact on people’s lives than anything I could do behind a desk on a 9-to-5 [job].”
Babs Butcher, who cosplays as the Wasp, acts as an assistant manager. “When Captain Marvel tells a small-town Pennsylvania girl she’s worthy of joining the ranks of the NY Avengers, you answer the call,” Butcher says. Joshua Rodriguez (Captain America), Daniel Acosta (Thanos), Isaac Vicci (Iron Man), and Rafael Ayala (Winter Soldier) are key players as well, assisting with cosplay builds, team organization, and more.
Being a NY Avenger is no small commitment. Cosplay takes a huge amount of passion, skill, money, and time. But in the end, the work is worth it for this dedicated group. “For me, the best part of the appearances is when a kid is also dressed up as your character and you meet them,” Charland says. “I was filling in as Ant-Man for an event, and a brother and sister dressed as Ant-Man and the Wasp walked by, and it was the greatest feeling ever. Those kids probably had no idea we would be there. Everyone expects to see Spider-Man and Black Panther, but to see two grown versions of yourself go absolutely bonkers over you has to be an awesome feeling.”
So far, the Avengers have made appearances at the Ronald McDonald House, St. Mary’s Hospital for Children, the Cradle of Aviation Museum, and more. Sometimes they appear as the Avengers, sometimes they borrow some of Catalano’s princess costumes, and sometimes they swap cosplays between them — it’s all about giving the kids what they want. “I’m really big with the hospital visits because it’s an experience that money can’t buy — and something you can’t even explain,” Catalano says. “For a kid [who’s] going through that, even if it’s a half-hour, you just get to make them smile and be there for them. You get to take them away from all the big battles that they are fighting.”
The Bonds of Friendship
Between con appearances and charity events, the NY Avengers spend a lot of time together. They help each other prep new cosplays, repair and enhance old ones, and even enjoy each other’s company completely outside of the world of cosplay.
“I share more with my NY Avengers family than I do with my own family! I have a place I belong, where I am safe, loved, and where my crazy ideas are valued,” Butcher says. “We help our own dreams come to life, and when someone needs a hero, we can be there for them.”
And (in the words of Uncle Ben) with great power, comes great responsibility. “My day-to-day went from, ‘Oh, we have an event next week,’ to ‘We have an event next week, two on Thursday, need to get these three characters together for a hospital visit, and don’t forget we have to make the Hulk a real thing by December,” Charland says.
It’s an intense schedule, but this group is all smiles on and off camera. Their energy is infectious, their passion is palpable, and their friendship is admirable: They embody the Avengers beyond their costume replications.
Making Dreams Come True
Cosplay is so common at conventions, such as NYCC. You can hardly walk 5 feet without running into Spider-Man or accidentally stepping on someone’s long, flowing cape. But outside of the convention scene, spotting one of your favorite superheroes on an average day is a rarity, so kids coming face to face with more than 20 at a time is truly a remarkable experience. For these kids, seeing is believing.
“Meeting superheroes ultimately makes the impossible possible,” Butcher says. “So when a child needs to know that they can recover from surgery or illness, and they can brave adversity and doubt, meeting their favorite characters in real life becomes the physical manifestation of something seemingly unachievable becoming reality.”
The NY Avengers have impressive cosplays far beyond anything you’d find on a shelf in Party City. They use high-end materials — such as EVA foam, fiberglass, and more — and make sure every piece of their cosplay is a screen-accurate depiction of the characters they embody, from makeup and scars to battle damage on their props. An incalculable amount of time and energy goes into crafting these looks, perfecting poses, and learning how to embody the characters they represent.
“When you commit to cosplaying on this level, you become the character in ways the actor, the cartoon, the action figure can’t be,” Butcher explains. “It’s not easy, but the reward is greater than you can ever imagine.”
True professionals, the NY Avengers take their craft and passion for fandom to the next level, dedicating a huge portion of their lives to helping kids in need make beautiful memories that last a lifetime.
In a post-Endgame world, what’s next for these true heroes? Global domination, of course. The team hopes to expand and do even more charity events over the next year, and move outside of the East Coast to reach more organizations across the country and on an international level. They also plan to incorporate more interactive elements into their appearances, such as skits and trivia games.
And much like the MCU entering into Phase Four, the NY Avengers hope to set up a legacy that lasts beyond themselves. “I hope that when we get too old to do this, we will have other people continue on as well,” Catalano says.
This article was originally published in the Pop Insider’s Fall 2019 Issue No. 5, click here to read more!