Scalzi’s summer movie wrap-up over at FilmCritic.com got me thinking about the Marvel Studios superhero movie franchises.
Marvel Studios became relevant when they released Blade in 1998. When they released X-Men and Spider-man in the early 2000s, they proved that big-budget movies based on superhero comic books could be profitable. They’ve been doing well ever since. More after the jump.
It was with the release of Iron Man in 2008 that things really started getting interesting. Not only was Iron Man a great movie, but it marked the beginning of a Plan. Marvel’s been working on producing movies of its other intellectual properties for well over a decade, and Iron Man was the beginning of a large part of the culmination of that work.
Everybody, even your average, non-fanboy moviegoer, knows that all of the recent Marvel Studios films are tied together in a lead up to the Avengers movie. The films made since Iron Man have all been written specifically to tie the Avengers characters together: The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man parts I and II, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger all contained some form of reference to Nick Fury, S.H.I.E.L.D., and “The Avenger Initiative,” awesomely but not-so-subtly indicating to the audience that this was all going somewhere. More and more viewers have been staying past the credits for the post-credits scenes that Marvel’s been including on all of these movies, just to see hints about what’s coming next.
I’ve been enjoying the hell out of all of it. But what worries me is that up to this point they’ve been making origin stories that focus on one character at a time and that, more often than not, try to keep the stories as grounded in reality as possible. Marvel has been smart about it, because they’ve been ramping up the fantasy slowly over time, but it remains to be seen whether The Avengers will be too much to digest.
Iron Man was the beginning, and it didn’t really require much suspension of disbelief, in the grand scheme of things. Cocky billionaire builds a flying suit of powered armor. Fine. Got it. We’re with you. And RDJ is funny as hell, so that helps.
The Incredible Hulk was next. Still grounded in (movie) science as much as possible, but asks more of the viewer. Gamma rays making dudes balloon up into huge monsters. Tougher sell, but it was better than the first Hulk movie, right?
Iron Man 2 tried to repeat Iron Man’s formula, with slightly less success. Good flick, funny, but still basically an origin story, a continuation of Tony Stark’s journey to find himself. Whereas the first film’s climax was just a fight between two guys in Iron Man suits, here we’ve got a whole legion of drones and War Machine. Good, but I never loved the villain.
Thor came along and blew the realism thing out of the water, whisking us off to crazy viking spaceland populated by Norse Gods, frost giants, and Anthony Hopkins. But it worked because it was funny and earnest without taking itself too seriously. Somehow this allowed the audience (or me, anyway) to enjoy the space battles without focusing on how ridiculously over the top it was.
Captain America: The First Avenger was the one everyone was waiting for, the penultimate origin story before the release of the Avengers. Much of it was good, but none of it was great. They overdid the montage thing and while, as I said earlier, Chris Evans was great, the Greatest Generation do-gooder boy scout feel they were going for fell a little flat. Cap had no real presence; he didn’t get enough time doing his thing as Captain America before being thrown up against Hugo Weaving. At times it felt like I was watching two different movies: in one, there’s a nice kid with good values who’s been given the chance to be a hero, and who is learning to do that in the context of World War II, and in the other we’re suddenly on the set of one of the Star Wars prequels. Crazy retro-futuristic aircraft and armored troopers and Hugo Weaving chewing the scenery as Agent Smith with a German accent.
Thor was a better movie than Captain America: The First Avenger, which is a complete inversion of my expectations going into both movies. I’m not sure how it happened, but the Red Skull and his dieselpunk quasi-Nazi commandos came off a lot hammier than any amount of frost giants and interstellar viking surfing. For me it had a lot to do with Hugo Weaving, who somehow managed to completely overact, even under all of that prosthetic make-up, and the relative lack of humor that Captain America suffered from. Chris Evans was good. I would have liked to see a more realistic approach to the film, more real Nazis and fewer armored retro drones. The film would have benefited from a more subtle approach to the sci-fi elements. Thor, on the other hand, had a sense of humor, an unapologetically satisfying father-son angle, out and out science fantasy action, and romance that was playful sappy, not boring sappy. Oh, and a driving Foo Fighters power ballad playing over the credits that has been my main musical guilty pleasure all summer. But I digress.
The Avengers promises to be even more fantastic yet. Not only are they asking us to accept the reality of a superhero team, which, at least on screen, is always a harder sell than a single vigilante, but more importantly, they’re very likely introducing some kind of alien invasion into the mix. As io9 reports, the Skrulls have been rumored to be the main villains for a while now, but it remains to be seen whether they can retain that down to earth humor that has highlighted the best of their movies so far.