As the credits rolls Friday night, my eleven friends and I sighed with rapture. We’d just finished possibly the most perfect, pure summer blockbuster we’d seen since Independence Day: the new Joss Whedon film and Marvel masterpiece The Avengers. Our brains had just been assaulted for over two hours of awesomeness on every level, and now we anxiously awaited the TWO post-credits scenes.
That’s when my friend Abby leaned over and asked the question no one wants to think about:
Who’s ever going to want to watch a superhero movie with just one hero in it anymore?
It’s an important question (one also raised by this article well). Avengers is so good. It works on every level. It’s got a clear, simple story. (So what if it’s aliens? you’re watching a comic book movie. Quit complaining.) The heroes are outstanding, and each character really pops. Tony and Bruce really are about 1,000x smarter than everyone else in the room. Black Widow and Hawkeye are crazy-dangerous and feel out of their depth. You really do just want to follow Captain America. Thor’s definitely not from around here. Nick Fury will do whatever it takes to get the job done, to save the world. Loki’s as angry, pathetic and ultimately sympathetic as ever.
The action is unreal. The stakes are huge. The humor weaves around and supports the action, rather than detracting from it. For what it is, it’s pitch-perfect.
The Avengers is what every comic book movie aspires to be and more. And that’s a huge problem for all those other comic book movies.
Let’s be clear what we’re not talking about. As Abby went on to observe:
I’m not worried about Batman. That’s totally different. But everything else?
Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight epic is a fundamentally different kind of film from The Avengers‘ blockbuster model. The Avengers (the summer blockbuster model in general) is like a rollercoaster: you’re going to be moving fast. You’re going to experience all sorts of twists and turns and, if it’s good enough, you’ll be left breathless.
But rollercoasters don’t take you anywhere. You leave the same way you got on. And that’s okay! Rollercoasters aren’t supposed to take you anywhere. They’re just about having a great time, and maybe surprising you little along the way. This is the summer blockbuster model. It’s all about big action sequences, impossible scenarios, spectacle.
The Dark Knight saga on the other hand, is more like a road trip. You’re going to go fast, sometimes. You’ll definitely have some twists and turns, lots of unexpected adventure. But at the end of the trip, you’ve gone somewhere. You arrive at a very different place than you left. You’re changed.
The best scenes in The Dark Knight? Not the huge explosions. Not the adventure. It was Joker in the room with all the mobsters. Batman and Joker in the interrogation room. Harvey and Joker in the hospital. The conversation Batman and Joker have after the huge, action-packed fight sequence.
The Avengers is a fundamentally different film. No matter how awesome the individual character moments are (and they are incredibly good), they can’t compete with the knock-down, drag-out, no-holds-barred final battle for Manhattan.
In true, pure Summer Blockbuster form, The Avengers takes us on a wild rollercoaster and leaves us breathless and begging for more.
Green Lantern 2 won’t be able to compete with that. Neither will The Wolverine. I’m not even sure Iron Man 3 or Thor 2 has a chance. How could they? If we’re expecting spectacle, how could 1 hero (or even 2 or 3) compete with the sheer, unbridled amazingness of The Avengers? They can’t.
Thanks to The Avengers, the age of the single-super-hero-spectacle film is over. Most super-hero films simply aren’t going to have the budge or talent to create spectacle as huge as The Avengers achieved. Like all things, the genre is going to have to change or it’s going to die.
Super-hero movies must become more character- and story-driven if they want to thrive in a post-Avengers world.
Studios would do well to take a page from Christopher Nolan’s book. That doesn’t mean making all the super-hero movies dark and angsty (I’m looking at you, Green Lantern and Amazing Spider-Man). It does mean that filmmakers take super-hero source material seriously.
There’s a reason comics have been selling so well for so long: they’re great stories. And you can’t simply use a comic as the storyboards for your movie (unless you’re Frank Miller, I suppose). But the long, rich comic history of these super-characters is fertile soil for an excellent story.
Batman Begins drew heavily on Batman: Year One by Frank Miller. The Dark Knight‘s iconic, immortal Joker is the film incarnation of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, and the larger plot draws on Jeph Loeb’s The Long Halloween. And The Dark Knight Rises is straight from the pages of the epic Knightfall storyline from the 90s.
Nolan combined all these excellent, foundational stories with his expertise in film to create pieces of art that will stand the test of time.
Future super-hero films would do well to emulate Nolan’s tactics. If the new Spider-man series succeeds, it will be because it draws heavily on Brian-Michael Bendis’ reimagining of Spider-man in Marvel’s Ultimate universe. If the Green Lantern films have a chance of bouncing back from the first movie, it’ll be because the movie-makers realize we don’t want to see a whiny, insecure Hal Jordan. We like him because he’s a cocky jerk. If any Superman film ever works, it’ll be because someone figured out how to tell a story about ideals incarnate in an increasingly cynical world. And so on…
The Avengers is what we’ve been waiting for. It’s time for Hollywood to stop focusing on spectacle and start telling us good stories again instead.
Because if The Avengers proves anything, it’s that spectacle isn’t the enemy of a good story and strong characters (are you reading, Michael Bay?).