VIDEO ESSAY: Super: A Brief History of Superhero Films

VIDEO ESSAY: Super: A Brief History of Superhero Films

With the unparalleled box office success of The Avengers, superheroes are back in the spotlight. Most comic book aficionados are delighted with the recognition. But believe it or not, there are those such as myself who are dismayed at how superhero films, though more popular than ever, seem to be losing their luster.

When I was in grade school, nothing seemed more interesting than comic books, with their amazing feats, super powers, hyper masculine (sexist) images and monumental battles. Their visual flair and storytelling style proved more vivid and effective than any textbook. But they also engrossed me in their attempts to personify concepts both political and abstract. I learned about discrimination from the X-Men, about eternity and death from the Secret Wars, about the trauma of war from Sgt. Rock. If anything, comic book heroes complemented my school education more than I could have imagined.

When I had finished the Secret Wars II series, there was nothing I wanted more than to see it as a film. I first imagined it in animation with Jim Lee (my favorite illustrator at the time) illustrating it to the minutest detail. Later I would envision it in live action, with Arnold Schwarzenegger playing Colossus, Jack Nicholson playing Wolverine, and Jean-Claude Van Damme playing Gambit.

The last decade or so was a phenomenal time for the superhero movie genre, both thematically and financially. It wasn't uncommon to have four such films a year, grossing over a billion dollars annually. This period saw some of the most profitable film franchises of all time, as well as a few of the most ambitious and creative takes on our most memorable costumed crime fighters.

But as the decade came to a close, the genre started to have less lofty goals. Since 2008, when the great pairing of Iron Man and The Dark Knight bookended that year's Summer Blockbuster season, there hasn't been a single worthy successor mentioned in the same breath. Some might argue that Watchmen fits that bill, but depending on who you speak to, no superhero movie has captured the same kind of critical and commercial acceptance comic book fans have been searching for (that includes The Avengers, which I'll get to in a minute).

This sentiment was encapsulated by A.O. Scott in his essay "How Many Superheroes Does It Take to Tire a Genre?" In it, Scott surmised that 2008 may have been the peak of the genre's powers, noting the rules by which its films have to live by.

"The climax must be a fight with the villain, during which the symbiosis of good guy and bad guy, implicit throughout, must be articulated. The end must point forward to a sequel, and an aura of moral consequence must be sustained even as the killings, explosions and chases multiply. The allegorical stakes in a superhero are raised—it's not just good guys fighting bad guys, but Righteousness against Evil, Order against Chaos—precisely to authorize a more intense level of violence."

It's these predictable conventions in Scott's claims that ultimately restrict the genre. The over-reliance on elaborate special effects. The insistence on spelling things out.

The problem I see is not so much in the genre's conventions, as they harken back to youthful and more innocent notions in all of us. My issue lies, especially with most superhero films of the last few years, in the lack of resonance and ambition. This ultimately leads to a question we fans have to ask ourselves: what do we want superhero films to be?

The Birth of the Genre

Such films entered the collective consciousness as Saturday Movie Serials in the 1940s. Some of their earliest protagonists were Captain Marvel, Batman, the Phantom, Captain America, and Superman. Find these films on YouTube and you'll discover how the heroes look anything but super in retrospect. Yet in their time, these movies provided an escape for millions of children during World War 2. They served their purpose well.

Politics, in the form of the Comics Code Authority, momentarily torpedoed the comic book industry, and with it went the serials that were inspired by them. Superheroes were only to be found on TV, most notably in Adam West's Batman, which remained securely in the corners of camp comedy and children's entertainment. But by the 70s, the children watching these shows had all grown up, and so did special effects. Richard Donner surely must have seen what Steven Spielberg and George Lucas did with summer blockbusters in Jaws and Star Wars. Thus arrived the Godfather of all superhero films, Superman.

What made Superman so great, aside from casting Christopher Reeve and utilizing John Williams's immortal score, was that it evoked the almost mythological reverie young fans hold for their heroes. The first shot of a young hand turning a comic book page, while a child's voice narrates the exploits of the Daily Planet, is arduous and perfect. The film's ambitions were so grand that they couldn't be contained, eventually spilling over to its equally majestic sequel (Richard Donner's version).

It was also a product of great creativity, utilizing shots and techniques that maximized the capabilities of special effects despite the limitations of their time. So much so that no other contemporary of its genre in the following decade came close to it. That is until Tim Burton revolutionized the feel of the superhero film with his gothic vision of Batman (1989). Until then, superheroes had to live up to Kal-El's sunlit glory. But Burton upended this notion with his dedication to darkness and shadow, reveling in the caped crusader's menacing intimidation.

Both of these heroes set the bar well into the 80s and 90s, becoming the genre's yin and yang, determining the stylistic paths their heirs would take. Superman's children would be Condorman, Supergirl, Captain America (1990) and The Phantom. Batman's would be The Punisher, Darkman, The Crow, The Shadow, Spawn, and Blade.

Post 9/11: The Cinematic Golden Age

Just as World War 2 ushered in the age of the comic book superhero, 9/11 ushered in the genre's cinematic golden age. From then on, it wasn't enough to herald a great champion or premise. The conflicts had to involve soul-searching. The stakes had to be grave.

Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (2005) revealed the true nature of Batman's dark notion of justice, digging deep behind Bruce Wayne's trauma and patiently building the legend. Miraculously, The Dark Knight (2008) raised the stakes by presenting an equally determined anarchist who embodied our all-too grounded anxiety of complete chaos.

Ang Lee's introspective Hulk (2003) contemplated immeasurable power as more of a curse than a blessing. It is also the most daring and artistic interpretation of any superhero adaptation, choosing very human conflicts (Bruce and Betty with their unreliable fathers) at the heart of the story, as well as depicting the green goliath not simply as a monstrous beast, but as a child.

Brad Bird's The Incredibles (2004) never felt as grave as others from this era, yet it presented itself as a lighthearted ode to the fading ideal of the nuclear family. It was also the best "Superhero Team" movie ever made, with the ultimate team: mommy, daddy, brother and sister. The real fantastic four.

The X-Men films have always focused on discrimination, with their demigod cast-outs; Brett Ratner's The Last Stand (2006) and Matthew Vaughn's First Class (2011) also juxtapose the political and historical (respectively) more intimately than any other in the genre.

Many saw Jon Favreau's Iron Man (2008) as a showcase of Robert Downey Jr.'s immense gifts, but it was also (unintentionally or not) a surprising and satisfying ode to America's wish to finally use its unmatched corporate, technological and military might to do actual good.

Guillermo Del Toro's Hellboy (2004) was amazing in its portrayal of a demon's touching desire to do well by man. Of all the superheroes in film, this horned red-hided monstrosity is the most fun, relatable and humane. He wisecracks without malice, and has a soft spot for kittens. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) continued this sentiment, and added to it by ruminating on man's distancing from myth, in a manner reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki's films.

Of all superhero films, Spider-Man 2 (2004) is the genre's conscience. Though Peter Parker wasn't ordinary, his not so extraordinary abilities made him a more empathetic character compared to someone who can fly. Sam Raimi used a hero who wasn't super-intelligent, wealthy or powerful to somehow convey the awesome responsibility and sacrifice of doing the right thing.

The Throwaways Return

As with any celebrated era, there is always an inevitable decline. Just as in the 90s, throwaways are coming back. Let's face it, would anyone consider the personal dilemmas of The Green Hornet (spoiled brat), Thor (big dumb alcoholic blonde) andGreen Lantern (a pilot afraid of admitting fear) worthy of heroism? Captain America (2011) might have brought back fuzzy nostalgia for the good ole' days, but did it have to be fuzzy in hindsight, overlooking something like racism? Not only were these examples devoid of aspiration, they were also utterly predictable.

The same can be said about The Avengers, whose main claim to satisfaction is catering to known comic book lore. There is nothing interesting about Cap's boring nobility, Thor's one-dimensionality, or Loki's whining theatricality. The film wants to meet our expectations, but not surpass them. It hits its targets, but aims low.

Yes, superheroes by their very nature are fantasies, originally conceived to make us feel good and have us suspend logic for the short time we have with them. But even we fanboys want our genre to be taken seriously too, don't we? At what point do we stop sacrificing the aesthetics of interpretation, storytelling and characterization, at the altar of our often inflexible passion for youthful folklore? If fairy tales can be re-imagined, why not comic book characters?

And for those of us who are seeking that Superman or Batman moment, of seeing an awesome sight for the first time, those moments are going the way of the dodo. CGI has made the incredible familiar. The time has come for the genre to tantalize us not just with outlandish imagery, but new ideas.

Fertile ground is there for the taking. Look where James Bond went in Casino Royale (2006) exploring how he came to be and the roots behind his sexism. Take a look at Chronicle, which explored how teenagers deal with superhuman abilities with all their angst and insecurity. Recent Westerns grew out of their predictability, as they were able, "to find ambiguities and tensions buried in their own rigid paradigms," as A.O. Scott noted.

Superhero films have grown and must continue to grow rather than simply being about simple themes or fanciful images. It wouldn't hurt if they actually had something to say. In Superman Returns (2006), Kal-El flies into the highest reaches of the stratosphere, listening in on how to help mankind. It's an inspiring scene followed by madness. Does he help resolve Middle Eastern conflicts? Help stop ethnic cleansing in Sudan? Rid North Korea of nukes? No. He stops a bank robbery.

Do we want the familiar? Or the new?

Michael Mirasol is a Filipino independent film critic who has been writing about films for the past eleven years. He briefly served as film critic for the Manila Times and now writes occasionally for Uno Magazine and his blog The Flipcritic. Last year he was named by Roger Ebert as one of his "Far Flung Correspondents", and continues to contribute written and video essays on film.

GREY MATTERS: Black Widow Spins Webs Around THE AVENGERS

Black Widow Spins Webs Around THE AVENGERS

nullBlack Widow is the first hero seen in The Avengers, the latest entry in Joss Whedon's career-long feminist project. She does not immediately display the super powers enjoyed by the other Avengers—Captain America’s unnatural super-strength, The Hulk gamma-ray rage giant, Iron Man’s wearable rock ‘em, sock ‘em robot suit, or Thor’s hammer of the demi-gods. The only visibly super things about Black Widow are the latest in cat suit couture and a striking asymmetrical crimson bob. And yet she’s still able to trash a clutch of Russian scumbags with her hands tied behind her back. With a chair tied to her rear. While talking on her cell phone.

She’s also the sole Avenger that S.H.I.E.L.D. leader Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson) trusts to convince Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to join Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), and Captain America (Chris Evans) in the fight against Thor’s psychotic brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) who, having stolen the ultimate source of power in the universe, the Tesseract, plans to use an alien army to devastate the Earth. (The plot ends there.)

As egos collide, Black Widow—street name, Natasha Romanova—is the only character who does not throw a monstrous hissyfit.  The only character to gather actionable intelligence against Loki from Loki. The character who not only literally kicks sense back into the brainwashed Hawkeye, but then absolves him of any sins performed while under the loony god’s spell.

You want fearless? When midtown Manhattan is swarming with thousands of robo-aliens, the dreaded Chitauri, Black Widow commandeers one of their slippery aero-sleds and flies it to steal Loki’s glowing phallic scimitar so as to save the world so Iron Man can blow up the aliens.

Oh—and the Tesseract? It’s female. I know this because everyone calls it by female pronouns—respectfully. How does that work? Well, the way all Whedon works: second viewings reveal not only layer after layer of multiple meanings, jokes piled on jokes, but seemingly random elements that are actual thematic glue. Nothing is never there without a reason.

Anyway, Black Widow! A worthy addition to Whedon’s female action bloodline, right? The flame-haired heir to Buffy, Faith, Kendra, River, Echo, Zoe, Fred, and Illyria, right?

No.

Writing in The Guardian, Henry Barnes noticed Black Widow but could not be bothered to isolate just what she did in the film. The New York Post’s Kyle Smith dreamed of a Black Widow who would perform one errand and and then be gone.

The New York Daily News’ Joe Neimaier admitted that Black Widow “kickstarts” things, but by deleting her from the rest of his coverage, implied that was that. Still, that was a lavishment compared with the treatment by A.O. Scott, who in his New York Times review found it beneath himself to even give Black Widow a job description, while The Globe and Mail went with “token sexy female,” clearly hoping only young boys and people who hadn’t seen the film were reading.

Meanwhile, in The Wall Street Journal, Joe Morgenstern claimed Black Widow “spends lots of time looking puzzled or confused,” while Steven Rea's Philadelphia Inquirer review dispensed with Black Widow’s name, suggesting we “watch Scarlett Johansson clench her brow” while in “Ninja garb.” The Miami Herald’s Rene Rodriguez wasn’t as generous—his single sentence also accused Johansson of playing dress-up, but, perhaps mercifully, did not specify what in.

Meanwhile, as if transported from another dimension, Kim Voynar’s Movie City News review both acknowledged Black Widow and lavished almost two paragraphs on Johansson’s terrific performance.

Over at Think Progress, Alyssa Rosenberg took for granted what the aforementioned critics could or would not see. “The two characters least-well served by their previous incarnations in Marvel movies,” she wrote, “the Hulk and Black Widow, are the ones best served by Whedon’s greatest gifts and strongest tendencies.”

Rosenberg hit key reasons why Black Widow matters:

She never becomes a victim or a lesser member of the team. Her pain and exhaustion after a CG Marvel battles triggers our empathy, and centers us. And while all this superhero battling may look fun, without superhero augmentation, it must be terrifying. Johansson offers a true career-best turn here, easily negotiating splinter-thin spaces separating old pains and a chilly professionalism that hides we’re not sure what—regret? Denial? Lingering rage over the childhood abuse that turned her into Black Widow? It’s all hinted at as the actor works Whedon’s many shades of dark grey beautifully. In short, and despite all the Wagnerian bam-boom-pow, Whedon and his star never lose sight of the fact that Natasha is profoundly vulnerable, with nothing but smarts, heart and a .45 for protection.

Finally, AlterNet’s Julianne Escobedo Shepherd cut to the chase and celebrated The Avengers’ “stark feminist perspective” and what she saw as fact: that “Johansson’s Black Widow is just as front-and-center as the rest of the cast.”

To which I can only say—exactly! And: isn’t this remarkable? Two parallel realities! Men who see nobody at all and women who see the next Faith (without the crazy, I mean). Don’t tell Disney, or they’ll be marketing the film as 4-D.

Jokes aside, how to explain this blanket amnesia?

If I were to be optimistic, I’d say this brand of blindness is about change happening too fast. Change is weird, scary and disorienting. And TV’s a great place for incremental change because it shows slow transformations occurring over time.

At first, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer was, literally, a joke. A cheerleader fighting the undead! Hilarious! And she’s so unthreateningly cute! But over time, people came to believe in the take-charge slayer, until someone in Season Four’s “A New Man” [sic] episode could remark to Buffy that “You're, like, make the plan, execute the plan, no one giving you orders,” and instead of intimidation, there was a shrug. Because it was true.

And so over time people weren't alarmed when Alias’ Sydney Bristow nicked bits of the 007 crown. Or when a female Starbuck showed Han Solo-level energy in the new Battlestar Galactica.

But The Avengers moves so fast, with so many zingers, tiffs, explosions, turnarounds and implications that I’d like to think reviewers simply didn’t have time to process just how radically and playfully Whedon (whose mother co-founded Equality Now) cedes yards of traditionally male genre property and space to Black Widow. 

Some part of the male unconscious, down there where The Hulk lives, just didn't go for it.

How is there not at least one guy who can figure out how to fly Chitauricraft? Why is Captain America looking to Black Widow for strategic ideas in midtown Manhattan? And the greatest power of the universe is a She? How does that work?

Answer: It works so easily that The Avengers is well on its way to becoming one of the most popular films in human history. Maybe a mess of male critics can’t see a triumphant Black Widow in the malange of superheroes crowding the film. But in this election year defined by demeaning treatment of women, it’s encouraging to know that a whole lot of America can.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times, gothic.net, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out/New York.

SIMON SAYS: On THE AVENGERS, Joss Whedon, Dan O’Bannon, and Zapped Toads

SIMON SAYS: On The Avengers, Joss Whedon, Dan O’Bannon, and Zapped Toads

nullIn the beginning of The Avengers, when Hawkeye says, “Oh, I see better from a distance,” I feared the worst and I thought of Joss Whedon, Dan O’Bannon, Lifeforce (1985) and X-Men (2000). I thought, “Oh god, that poor toad in the X-Men movie got hit by lightning and a bad line of dialogue all over again.” And I groaned mightily, albeit somewhat prematurely, because I thought that Joss Whedon was about to prove yet again that he, like most mortals, is fallible. Bear with me a moment—this will take some unpacking.

The Avengers, which for the record is mostly serviceable even if it is laughably contrived and underdone, was directed and scripted by Joss Whedon. Whedon is the grand geek poobah creator behind such cult projects as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. He’s a singular voice in contemporary science fiction and fantasy who is famous for his complex characters and snappy dialogue, and he’s a major geek celebrity. But with Whedon’s storied reputation as a sharp pop artist also comes a series of incidents that have turned Whedon into a de facto martyr. Any time something goes wrong with a Whedon-related project, it’s assumed that it can’t be Whedon’s fault. That stigma of being misunderstood by people in power has only been enhanced by Whedon’s rocky history with 20th Century Fox. Let’s unpack that confusing relationship a little, as well.

First there was the script that Whedon wrote for Alien: Resurrection, a fairly unremarkable script in itself that was then turned into something different from Whedon’s original ideas. Which is basically, you know, what happens to most scripts when they get made into movies. Since Alien: Resurrection (1997), the fourth film in the 20th Century Fox’s Alien film franchise, had plenty of on-set production difficulties (for example: director Jean-Pierre Jeunet didn’t speak English), Whedon publically blamed the film’s director for the film’s numerous shortcomings. In a 2001 interview with the AV Club, Whedon complains:

I listened to half the dialogue in Alien 4, and I’m like, “That’s idiotic,” because of the way it was said. And nobody knows that. Nobody ever gets that. They say, “That was a stupid script,” which is the worst pain in the world[…]In Alien 4, the director changed something so that it didn’t make any sense. He wanted someone to go and get a gun and get killed by the alien, so I wrote that in and tried to make it work, but he directed it in a way that it made no sense whatsoever. And I was sitting there in the editing room, trying to come up with looplines to explain what’s going on, to make the scene make sense, and I asked the director, “Can you just explain to me why he’s doing this? Why is he going for the gun?” And the editor, who was French, turned to me and said, with a little leer on his face[…]”Because eet’s een the screept.” And I actually went and dented the bathroom stall with my puddly little fist. I have never been angrier. But it’s the classic, ‘What something goes wrong, you assume the writer’s a dork.’ And that’s painful.

Whedon has since publicly admitted that there were some shortcomings inherent in his script. Still, he’s only sharing blame here, though I wouldn’t really expect any screenwriter to fall on their creative sword and assume responsibility for everything that went wrong with Alien: Resurrection (it really is a mess, albeit an interesting one).

Then there was the cancellation of Firefly, a very strong science fiction TV show that Whedon created and directed. Firefly aired originally on Fox, but it was soon canceled after it failed to attract high ratings. After the show’s rabid fans banded together, Whedon got to write and direct Serenity, a feature-length theatrical release. The show has also been released on DVD, thanks to its vocal fans.

Then there was Dollhouse, a conceptually interesting but rarely well-executed science fiction/spy program about a high tech brothel where prostitutes who are secretly intelligence agents have their identities reprogrammed cybernetically to suit their clients’ desires. The show was teetering on the edge of cancellation after the first season. After heavy rewrites, the show was renewed for a second season, receiving relatively sturdier ratings, but the show was not renewed for a third season.

In between these three major events, there is a fairly minor but nonetheless relevant anecdote about Whedon’s work as a script doctor on X-Men, the first and mostly forgettable live-action film of Marvel Comics’ mutant superhero team. Whedon has taken credit for writing the line where Storm (Halle Berry), a mutant with powers to control the weather, taunts a villain named Toad by saying, “Do you know what happens to a toad when it's struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else." Whedon says that the line was not the problem but rather the line-reading, insisting that Berry read the line “like she was [The Addams Family’s] Desdemona.” I fear that, in this case, it’s the writer’s fault. No matter what sarcastic register Berry might have affected, that toad-frying line is dopey.

Whedon’s creative woes makes me think of Lifeforce and Dan O’Bannon, the acclaimed screenwriter of Dark Star and Alien, who complained of having his work significantly altered by director Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Funhouse). Like O’Bannon before him, Whedon is a recognized talent with a respectable track record that infrequently climbs onto a cross for very silly reasons. Once again, a troubled production history and outlandish reports of Hooper’s unprofessional and unfocused behavior seem to have been confirmed by the tonally inconsistent and utterly bizarre film that was theatrically released. O’Bannon still took a check for the movie, but he grumbled intensely about it. He was misrepresented, and of course that had nothing to do how cheesy and flat-out bad an idea it is to have a naked energy vampire (Mathilda May, hubba hubba) virtually seduce everyone she meets on planet Earth.

Make no mistake, O’Bannon and Whedon have both made exemplary work. O’Bannon’s scripted a number of great projects, like Alien and Dark Star, and he’s even directed one of the very best horror-comedies, Return of the Living Dead (1985). Whedon’s TV work has similarly been consistently strong, and the handful of stories he wrote in the Astonishing X-Men comic book series was also pretty engaging.  But sometimes, it’s enough to just not say anything about work that’s not very good. This probably won’t happen with The Avengers. Whedon’s script is marred by garden-variety contrivance, but some of its ideas are rather underdone, especially the ones in the film’s first half-hour. Hawkeye’s line about “see[ing] better from a distance” is especially dismal when you consider that he’s being asked why he hasn’t involved himself in a group project. Renner delivers the line with a straight face. He could not have been misreading it, since Whedon also directed the film. That line is just a tediously literal-minded joke.

There aren’t many painfully awkward moments like this one in the rest of The Avengers, but there are a couple. For instance, Loki (Thomas Hiddleston) is first identified to viewers in the film by a character who unceremoniously blurts out, “Loki! The brother of Thor!” Or how about when Loki brainwashes Hawkeye in the film’s first twenty minutes, (not a spoiler, true believer!) after tapping his magic spear on Hawkeye’s chest and lamely declaiming, “Freedom is life’s great lie.” Just before tapping on Hawkeye’s breast and hypnotizing him into becoming one of his minions, Loki adds, “Once you accept that in your heart . . . you will know peace.” (Sort of a spoiler!) Simply put, these are bad lines. In the future, if Whedon complains about creative interference again without doing actively disowning the work, he’ll be leaving himself wide open to some really bad cardiac-arrest-related puns.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

VIDEO ESSAY: THE AVENGERS: Marvel’s Redemption?

THE AVENGERS: Marvel’s Redemption?

Amazingly, the Marvel movie brand has been able to survive with an enthusiastic audience—even in the midst of artistic failure. To explain: Marvel’s track record at the box office is basically critic-proof. No matter how bad or silly a Marvel movie may be (e.g. Thor), the bottom line box office numbers speak to a broader truth (e.g. Thor eventually grossed $449 million in ticket sales). And now with The Avengers, the already highly successful Marvel economic phenomenon should increase exponentially. Regardless of whether or not you’re sick to death of superhero movies, this upcoming release of The Avengers deserves some close examination—if not optimistic thinking. You see, unlike the cavalcade of superhero movies that preceded it, Avengers is attempting to do something that no feature film has ever done; it will cinematically bring to life all of Marvel Comic’s core superheroes in one movie, a feat that should excite a wide spectrum of fan boys. The top tier cast is unmatched: Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), Mark Ruffalo (Hulk), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye) and Chris Evans (Captain America). So the real question is this: Is The Avengers the light at the end of the tunnel for a nation of loyal Marvel fans?

Perhaps the best way to tackle this question is to go back to what captured fans’ hearts in the first place—the Marvel comic books. Consider: The heroes that were created under the Marvel umbrella transcended the quick-fix throwaway ethos found in traditional comic strips (e.g. brief standalone scenes) by maturing through long prose narratives. For example, a comic book hero like “Captain America,” birthed onto ink and paper at the start of World War II, sprouted brimming nationalism. On the other hand, the “X-Men” comic books (1963) took their crucial twist, the existence of mutant heroes, and illustrated a parallel narrative evoking the anxieties of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Each of these Marvel superheroes was able to tell a never-ending American saga in comic book form. His or her iconic superhero outfits could always be updated, but the heart of each hero was linked to its cultural reference in the national timeline.

Underlying their messages, of course, was the immediate draw of the Marvel comics: pure unadulterated escapism. A billionaire who builds his own iron suit to fight world terror! A brilliant scientist who can morph into a giant green beast when he’s angry! A demigod who wields a hammer with the force of thunder! They’re all sky-reaching wonders. On top of all this, the syntax of a comic book—with its varying panel sizes and meshing of word balloons against vibrant images—projected these flights of fancy onto the imaginations of generations of readers.

So what went wrong with the Marvel movies?

To be fair, using the phrase “lost in translation” would be unjust. After all, the motion picture medium works with different gears (sight and sound); plus the Hollywood system was never one to choose artistic purity over dollar signs. Yes, these Marvel movies are telling the literal comic book stories of each superhero—but not without diluting the purity of each hero with laughable screen dialogue (as when the titular hero of Captain America asks if he has time to pee before undergoing his explosive transformation) and distracting product placement (Robert Downey Jr. sure does love his Burger King in Iron Man). In fact, nothing is really “lost” in the translation from page to screen: it’s as if the filmmakers mistook the comic book ads as pages to the main narrative. These Marvel movies are super sized to please the most aloof of moviegoers; throw in some A-list movie stars, an innumerable amount of CGI explosions and you got yourself a box office hit.

Which brings us back to The Avengers. Over the last few years, Marvel has been hinting at an eventual all-barrels-blazing motion picture adaptation: The comic book character of Nick Fury (aptly embodied by Samuel L. Jackson) appears after the end credits of recent Marvel movies, recruiting each titular superhero to join the Avengers team. Now we are literally days away from seeing this cinematic event hit screens across the nation. The sheer anticipation from hordes of loyal fans will surely churn out staggering box office figures come opening weekend (possibly giving the film legs to ride out the early summer). Though, the real challenge for The Avengers won’t be to save the world onscreen or to etch its place in box office history. The real challenge will be in the film’s ability—or inability—to redeem the historical iconography of its heroes, which would in turn reaffirm Marvel as a vital cultural phenomenon (and not just an economic phenomenon). Fortunately, writer-director Joss Whedon reveres the mythology behind the characters he brings to the screen (look no further than his highly-celebrated Buffy The Vampire Slayer TV series). Couple that with his knack for gleefully deconstructing cliché movie vehicles (like his witty and ingenious screenplay for the horror-comedy The Cabin In The Woods) and The Avengers seems destined to be that one-in-a-million blockbuster that actually has the brains to match its box office brawn. It just might be the miracle fan boys, as well as commercial moviegoers, have been waiting for.

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System."
You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.