The Golden Age of Superhero Movies

Earlier this week, I joked around with some friends that we are living through what can only be called the "golden age of superhero movies." After seeing Marvel's The Avengers on Saturday (with my little nephews who loved it), I can now put the kidding aside and affirm that yes, this is indeed the best of times for quality films based on our comic book heroes.

Some, like film critic A.O. Scott, seem to have had enough of the genre.  His review in the New York Times is more an attack on overall superhero flicks rather than a serious review of the motion picture. He belittles the genre and tries mightily to marginalize it as a fad past its peak.  I have voiced my respect for Mr. Scott in the past, but in this case, I think he has allowed his distaste for a certain type of film to taint his critical eye. While I may not be as upset by his negative opinion as Samuel L. Jackson was, I do think Scott is dead wrong in his summation. As Brian Lowry writes about the incident in Variety, "Scott's review seemed to dismiss the genre of comic-book movies...without really engaging the material on its own terms."

Well-made superhero movies are becoming more frequent and need to be judged by how successfully or poorly they present the elements of their genre.  Director Joss Whedon and his crew have created a terrific movie that might not be in any serious contention for Best Picture but definitely qualifies as a blockbuster popcorn flick that delivers on entertainment and earns every box-office penny it receives. Why begrudge it or the fact that even more big budget superhero movies are on the way (this summer's Dark Knight Rises and Amazing Spider-man and next year's Man of Steel, just to name the ones on the immediate horizon)?

The Avengers, while not perfect, manages to do what I and many others thought would be impossible as it takes a number of very different characters who headlined their own films and unite them in a single motion picture. Unlike the forced feel of past endeavors, like Universal's monster movie series, Marvel has its comic book source material as a precedent, where heroes from different franchises mix and mingle all the time in cross-over and team-up adventures. Fears that the experiment of bringing the heroes together in a live action version would fail have proved to be unfounded. 

The plot of The Avengers film is a bit weak, but it is sufficient to set up the story of getting all of these heroes together, put their differences aside, and save the world as a team. The infinitely powerful Tesseract cosmic cube is nothing more than a McGuffin and the invading alien Chitauri are standard, uninspired villains, but they serve their function well. The heart of the film is the interaction between the primary heroes -- Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Nick Fury, and the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. -- and the Norse god Loki who is full of complicated motivation carried over from his last Marvel movie appearance.

The end-credits scene teases the next villlain in the franchise and fans of the comics can expect a much richer story in Avengers 2. In the meantime, I'm thankful that this first attempt at bringing Marvel's big guns to the same tale has worked so well. Competitor DC Entertainment should be so lucky if it ever gets its act together and gives fans a live action Justice League.

Superhero movies are modern mythology.  Until now, fans have only been able to let their imaginations loose by reading four-color comic books and watching cartoons. I don't think this is the "peak" of the superhero film genre. Instead, I think this is just the beginning.  While A.O. Scott and others of his ilk might hate that, the rest of us can sit back and enjoy the adventures yet to come and hope that it will get even better.

On a final nitpicky note, I have to correct Scott -- despite a couple of joking references in the movie, Asgard is not a planet, but a realm. Also, just to set the record straight because 2012's The Avengers has had to call itself Marvel's The Avengers in the U.S. and Avengers Assemble in the U.K. (among other titles and subtitles) to differentiate itself from 1998's The Avengers, the spy television series may have debuted in 1961 and the comic book may have launched in 1963, for me at least the name Avengers will always be associated with Earth's Mightiest Heroes!

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