“Why The Avengers was so exciting to watch,” Ben Kuchera wrote in his review of the movie at Penny Arcade, “was that once you have every character set up and properly introduced by their previous films you can do anything. The script doesn’t have to spend time and dialog explaining who everyone is and where they came from…They each arrive on the screen fully formed, without the dullness of a well-worn origin story weighing them down.”
I think he’s right, and he’s nailed something important about where we are in the development of comic book movies. Some, if not all, movie franchise are finally fully behaving like comic books, giving us extended explorations of individual characters that intersect with and then diverge from other characters we’re spending time with in parallel, and examining new iterations of characters before the memory of the last version of the same figure has faded. To some critics, that means we’ve succumbed to an efficient, corporatized entertainment system that hits the same beats over and over again. Certainly, one of the reasons Spider-Man is rebooting is so Sony keeps its rights to the character and doesn’t let them revert back to Marvel. And if the lesson Marvel takes from the massive success of The Avengers is that pure repetition is a gold mine, that would be too bad. But I also think that the willingness by Marvel to give us more than six-odd hours over three movies with a set of characters presents an opportunity to demand richer, more unusual, deeper explorations of characters, to turn action movies into the kind of meditations we’re more accustomed to getting from television.
Previously, we’ve been used to superhero movies that come in three parts: a rise, a challenge, and a fall or a redemption. That’s a fine, sturdy structure for storytelling, and I fully expect The Dark Knight Rises to be a powerful deployment of that very reliable format. Previously, when a franchise has been kept alive past three installments, as with the Alien movies, it’s often less because the people involved have an overarching story to tell or set of ideas to explore than because a character is popular and profitable.
Marvel, on the other hand, has planned from the beginning to use these characters for a long time. Samuel L. Jackson’s contract with the company ties him to nine films so they can use Nick Fury as a through line in The Avengers franchise even if only in cameos. Even though at the time he came on board as The Hulk, Marvel didn’t plan to make more stand-alone movies based on the character, Mark Ruffalo was locked up for six movies, and now that his version of the character has become so definitive, the studio has him to work with.
But that’s only an exciting possibility if Marvel has good long-term plans for these characters. And comic book fans, rather than being contented with this smashing success, the proof that the geeks do inherit the earth eventually, should respond to The Avengers by raising our standards, not lowering them. What great television has been able to do in the last decade is recognize that the most momentous periods in people’s lives can’t always be neatly divided into three main acts. The best show play with tone episode by episode, they tell different kinds of stories, and characters emerge into the foreground and then recede back. The Dark Phoenix saga is as powerful as it is on the page because we’ve spent time seeing Jean Grey as both a superhero and as a person, learning how weird it is for Scott Summers to see the love of his life go from an ordinarily super-powered woman to someone who can levitate him to a picnic date without even thinking hard about it.
Maybe it’s time for a movie about how Bruce Banner attempts a romantic relationship as he tries to restrain the avatar of masculine rage and violence that always rests within him, or about how Thor’s existence changes Jane Foster’s understanding of science and the universe. And I’d still like to see Captain America live out some of that culture shock he alludes to, to explore both what we’ve won and what he thinks we lost in his time out of mind. These interludes might not be as flashy as the battles we saw in The Avengers, but they’ll make us value these heroes more highly when we see them put their bodies and peace of mind at risk. Similarly, we shouldn’t be excited for a reboot of Spider-Man so soon on the heels of the end of a three-act exploration of him unless that reboot has something new to say about the character, and perhaps, given the timing, about our old perspective on Peter Parker. There are only so many times Spider-Man and a host of creepy-crawlies can rampage through the streets of New York, only so many heightened first kisses, only so may fire escapes to sneak up or swing off of.
There’s also something that Old Hollywood understood and did well in franchises like The Thin Man that superhero movies would do well to learn from: sometimes our heroes’ development and growth doesn’t have to be the main point of the film. Now that we know these characters, and we’ve seen them grow into heroes, superhero movies can start using our familiarity with them to tell stories about the world. We’ve talked a lot about Marvel’s success in exploring the interior journeys of its superheroes, but that isn’t the only way to use these kinds of characters. What does it mean to that waitress who became the through line for the third-act invasion of New York in The Avengers that there are superheroes in her world, and monsters who invade it? What’s it like to try to regulate these people? To work among them if you’re Maria Hill? To confront their emergence if you’re an Asgardian or a Kree or Skrull official, someone who already sees humanity from the outside?
For most of this decade when superheroes have dominated our blockbusters, from Neo to Natasha Romanov, our main use of these emerging archetypes has been to tell stories about those archetypes themselves, whether we’re seeing rich men turn their privilege to the common defense or fallen, broken people attempt to use their powers to redeem themselves. Maybe it’s time to start using these archetypes to tell stories about ourselves, and our strengths and failings even if they’re unenhanced by wondrous forces, and about our own capacity for belief. We don’t have to worry that these characters are going away any time soon, which means it’s time to think bigger than just smashing up Manhattan.