Now that we’ve all ogled the hell out of The Avengers multiple times and set it on the course of being one of the biggest movies ever, we’ve come to the slow realization that the summer movie season has only just started. But as I sit in wait for both The Amazing Spider-Man and, more importantly in my opinion, The Dark Knight Rises, I can’t help but wonder what the immense success of the laugh-factory that is The Avengers means for the more serious takes on superheroes.
For a long while, superhero movies – with the exception of a few – have done their best to transplant characters from the comics into a version of reality that we can all accept as somewhat realistic. From Superman: The Movie in the 70s all the way up through Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, comic book movies might’ve been big on action, but they remained light on outright fantasy. It always seemed about bringing the character to the real world, rather than bringing a new world to the audience (aside from perhaps Thor). That’s not to say the approach didn’t result in some incredible movies, but for better or worse, our idea of a superhero movie has remained relatively unchanged since Richard Donner’s first Superman film.
That is, until The Avengers. For the first time, a mega-franchise built upon the careful planting of seeds throughout five other movies was achieved, with damn near unanimous praise. But most importantly, the movie [The Avengers] is fun. Not in an occasional one liner or comedic relief way, but in a way that is spawned from authentic character moments and precise comedic timing. Structure/scope of the movie aside, I’d argue that this genuinely light-hearted approach to a superhero flick is where the true evolution lies. The real meaty character drama has been handled elsewhere and thus left this movie open to explore the team dynamic and the fun that ensues. I can’t recall another film like it, aside from The Incredibles, which doesn’t really apply in the context of what I’m talking about here.
What I’m curious about, heading into The Dark Knight Rises (and Spidey, which seems to take a cue from the serious nature of Nolan’s films), is if audiences will respond to the hyper-real Batman in the same way they responded to Avengers, or even the way they responded to The Dark Knight. To a degree, yes, it’s apples to oranges. But I think it’s noteworthy to consider that when The Dark Knight came out in 2008 and blew up the box office, the connective Marvel movie universe was still in its infancy. Iron Man was received favorably that May, and Incredible Hulk released in June with most of its fanfare focused on the fact that Robert Downey Jr. made a cameo, offering the first true realization of what Marvel had planned.
However, with Incredible Hulk being a disappointment and Iron Man rehashing the same tried-and-true comic book movie formula with some quips thrown in, The Dark Knight was left to be the standout tent pole of the summer. It was different, both from its predecessors and any other movie released that year. But in the time between the success of The Dark Knight and its coming sequel, Marvel Studios achieved the unachievable in building a functional movie universe where characters no longer live in their own bubble. Essentially, it’s the exact opposite of what Warner Brothers – and the studios that handle the licensed Marvel characters -- have been doing with their properties for years.
I can assure you that The Avengers didn’t make the oodles of money that it did based on the die-hard fans alone (as much as we want to take credit). That kind of money only comes from mass appeal; the general audience. Perhaps the collective pop consciousness has changed these last four years; perhaps we’re ready to have fun at the movies again instead of having to watch our heroes fall (so we can learn to pick ourselves up). And again, I’m speaking in terms of the average movie goer; those that see trailers debut for the first time in theaters (weird, right?) and don’t foam at the mouth for casting news.
There’s already an enormous uphill battle for The Dark Knight Rises against hype alone; it’s just very unlikely the finale is going to be what every fan has built it up to be in their own minds. Couple with this idea that perhaps audiences are ready to move on, perhaps it would’ve been more beneficial for The Dark Knight Rises to have released last year. Obviously, it remains to be seen how Nolan’s last Batman is received, but I do find it fascinating that audiences have responded to such a jovial affair like The Avengers after there’s been such an intentional desire to make these kind of movies grounded in the world we know.
Personally, I’m still more excited for The Dark Knight Rises than any other movie this summer. But that’s not me speaking as a comic book fan, that’s me speaking as a fan of cinema. Batman as an icon is inconsequential to me in that regard; I’m invested in Bruce’s journey and the fate of the characters around him. I want to see the story come full circle thematically more than I’m looking forward to seeing Bane or Catwoman on the big screen or an interpretation of a particularly comic book story. I guess we’ll see if audiences feel the same way come July.
Are audiences hungry for light-hearted superhero movies? Will the dark nature of Batman compete with the fun of The Avengers? Do you think The Dark Knight Rises will replicate the success of its predecessor?