It’s tough being a superhero film these days

As the number of comic book superhero films hitting cinemas worldwide continues to grow, Hollywood has been forced to continually re-evaluate its treatment of the genre. Largely gone is the camp nonsense of the ‘90s (Batman and Robin, I’m shaking my fist at you and your ‘Bat-credit-card’).

Now considered by Hollywood to be more financially dependable, superhero films have started presenting themselves as more ‘respectable’ entertainment.

The X-Men films (or at least the first two) and Christopher Nolan’s Batman series offered as much poignant social commentary on discrimination and societal corruption as escapist explosions. Ang Lee’s Hulk even felt more like a Freudian psychodrama than an action film. The fear was, through fighting to be taken seriously, the superhero genre would neglect its own origins as having intentions to entertain, and be fun.

Then, as Marvel comics started cinematically adapting their own characters rather than shopping them out to other production companies, there came an interesting shift.

Jon Favreau’s Iron Man not only re-anchored the superhero film as quintessentially entertaining but felt profoundly different. Powered largely by star Robert Downey Jr.’s motor-mouthed wisecracking and Favreau’s emphasis on improvised dialogue, Iron Man felt relaxed, fresh and energetic in a way unlike any film before. In short, it was a superhero film that felt cool for everyone, not just comic fans.

However, since most of Marvel’s subsequent films have functioned to lead up to promoting upcoming super-super-group blockbuster The Avengers, combining numerous characters in a single epic, they have felt far less focused.

The Incredible Hulk offered good action and Thor grounded its fantasy mythology commendably. However, through an overemphasis on cross-promotional in-jokes, both felt more like films made for comic fans and not standalone narratives unto themselves. Even Iron Man 2 felt more like an extended Avengers trailer than anything else.

Here, Captain America: The First Avenger (despite its obvious title tie-in) is particularly noteworthy. As the only film in the Marvel canon to take place during the 1940s rather than current day (for the most part), Captain America shot for the same sense of self-referential, cheesy, old-fashioned fun demonstrated by the Indiana Jones films.

Rather than the consistently ‘real’ tone of the other Marvel movies, Captain America felt like a serial adventure film that would have entertained Second World War cinema-goers, but with a steam-punk aesthetic and better special effects.

Like Iron Man, it wholly commits to a singular agenda, and feels all the more fresh, focused and fun because of it.

This will be the main struggle of The Avengers. Apart from an overabundance of heroes to focus on, the film will also have to balance the respective tones of every standalone film – the 1940s cheese of Captain America, the hip wit of Iron Man, the near-Shakespearian mythology of Thor – while still feeling consistent and new itself.

In addition, The Avengers’ director Joss Whedon carries an enormous fan following from his own career, begging the question of how much The Avengers will be a ‘Joss Whedon film’ as opposed to a ‘Marvel film done by Joss Whedon’.

Audiences can only hope that The Avengers will somehow work all of its tonal contradictions into something unique as opposed to collapsing under the weight of expectations and source material. If nothing else, it should at least be a rocking good time.

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