This was a big cinematic summer for the capes-n-tights community with the releases of The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The Dark Knight Rises, marking one of the best superhero blockbuster seasons ever. Judging by box office returns, the vast majority of America saw them all (if, somehow, you’re one of the few who didn’t see any of these movies, I’d like to direct you back to the site you accidentally wandered away from). I certainly did, twice in some cases. The summer meant a lot for a few franchises, but something even more for the entire nerd community as well.
I’ve already broken down The Avengers, so I won’t go into it again here. To recap my completely professional and objective film review quickly: It was totally perfect in every way it possibly could be. Next up was The Amazing Spider-Man, the franchise reboot from Sony Pictures. The Amazing Spider-Man was, on the whole, adequate and at times sub par. The actors all played their parts exceedingly well. Andrew Garfield is a better Peter Parker than Tobey Maguire (upon reflection, I’m shocked that “better Peter Parker than Tobey Maguire” is a statement that has ever needed to be said.), and Martin Sheen’s Uncle Ben was so on-point, it felt like the first true iteration of Uncle Ben to grace the big screen. Sally Field was a strong Aunt May and Emma Stone shone as Gwen Stacey.
But these highlights couldn’t completely eclipse its flaws. The writing was a bit stiff at times, and the pacing was extremely rushed throughout. It seemed as if events were being controlled not by emotional reactions or character motivations, but by contrived plot elements. Dr. Curt Conners was an idealistic scientist seeing visions of an old colleague in that colleague’s son, and two scenes later was a mutated mad scientist working in a sewer. Events progressed quickly and hurriedly, and the movie suffered for it. However, it’s been made clear that this is the first installment in a trilogy, and so we may need to wait for the rest of the series to entirely understand what happened. If it’s more of the same, though, we’ll be in for a disappointment.
July gave us The Dark Knight Rises, and though it pains my Marvel fanboy heart to say it ... it was the best superhero movie I’ve ever seen. Yes, better than The Avengers. Yes, better than The Dark Knight. Yes, better than Ghost Rider 2. Christopher Nolan absolutely nailed the final installment of his trilogy to the wall. To pick apart this movie for the better aspects of it would be like trying to cut water. It rounded out the series well, and fulfilled plots and themes carried through the first two films. The writing was engaging, the pacing was deliberate and methodical, and the stakes convincing.
The Dark Knight Rises did what few other superhero movies attempt, let alone pull off. It showed us exactly why we need the good guys. In The Dark Knight Rises, the bad guys won. Hard. They didn’t invade the city, they entirely took it over, exiled it from the outside world, and arrested the police. Then they didn’t put the cops in jail, they buried them underground. Bane and Co. entirely destroyed everything good about Gotham, from Gordon to Batman, and it took five months to unseat them. That’s where this movie went from “third movie in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy” to “masterpiece that solidified superhero cinema’s place in the mainstream.”
That’s what this summer did for nerd culture. It made the last hold outs, the last of the super-doubters sit back, throw their hands in the air, and say, “All right, fine, you’re right. Superheroes are awesome.” I’ve obviously known this for a long, long time, but even with the successes of the last decade, superhero cinema was still expected to fail long-term. For every Iron Man, there was a Fantastic Four. For every The Dark Knight, there was a Ghost Rider or Punisher: War Zone. This summer was the first where every superhero film was adequate at its worst: there were no flat-out disappointments. In fact, the only big let down this summer was in the vein of one of the go-to sure things of previous years: Prometheus, another in a long line of violent sci-fi movies about murderous aliens for mature audiences, from a proven sci-fi director.
Could this be the ushering out of the long-standing nerd culture mainstream champion, Sci-Fi, and the beginning of a new era in geek entertainment? Is this beginning of the Superhero Age? We’ve had evidence of its gradual momentum, starting with Spider-Man and X-Men at the beginning of the century, going through big ups and downs with X-Men: United and Daredevil, and even inspiring original superhero cinematic efforts like Hancock and My Super Ex-Girlfriend. We even got parodied in Superhero Movie, whether we wanted to (or noticed) or not.
With the proven success of the superhero movie now unquestionably certain, we’re going to be seeing more and more explorations into this genre. Studios are sticking to definite, marketable properties for now, but are starting to stretch into less audience-ready stuff like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man. Hancock already proved that an original superhero can grace the screen and achieve moderate success, and that was before everyone realized how awesome The Avengers was. With real studio interest and money behind them, we could see new superheroes that are built to last, created in the modern era without Golden Age morals and codes to constrain them. For the first time ever, superheroes have left comic books behind. They simply don’t need them anymore.
It’s a very exciting time to be a nerd, especially a superhero nerd like myself. For the first time, we’re “superhero nerds”, not “comic book nerds”. The difference was proven at the box office, and will continue to be evident in the decade to come.
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