We've never come this close to comic book movies becoming truly mainstream, in the same way Westerns used to be ubiquitous (which may make Samuel L. Jackson the new John Wayne), a regular and dependable genre that audiences will accept and take seriously, and it only took a decade's long and hard push to reach this point. In the same way that Star Wars would never have happened without a long sci-fi tradition that helped make it not only possible but wildly popular, we now have The Avengers thrust into box office history. Let's see how we've reached this point...
The Losers (2010)
This is one of my favorites, and it's another one where you don't even need to know that it's based on a fairly obscure comic book, just a lot of great actors, characters, and action coming together for a wonderfully vigorous experience. That's really all you need for a comic book movie to become something other than that label, or to make the label earn its place.
Because we weren't really there yet, we get this Mark Millar creation that errs on the cynical side, with some punk kid and a band of equally eccentric allies trying to make superheroes real, even though they're not even qualified to be vigilantes. This is superhero as a cultural stamp. I still have yet to see it, but I'm getting there.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
I love this movie. It's as much a superhero pastiche as an ode to video games, and it's based on a popular series of graphic novels that buck the mainstream and is just as punk as Kick-Ass but without the cynicism, even though everything about it is sarcastic. Rock the Sex Bob-ombs!
Iron Man 2 (2010)
I actually like this one better than the first movie, but maybe that's because Sam Rockwell costars, and I love Sam Rockwell. But here's where the momentum really begins, because the Avengers franchise starts to ramp up, and that's how we get where we are now, isn't it?
Jonah Hex (2010)
Most people considered this to be a bomb, but I loved it, its wicked sense of character and how the story revolves around that character. If there's a problem, it's that the movie is short, like everything but that sense of what it wanted to accomplish was lost. Hex could have been the new Wolverine, and that's basically what he is for DC, though he's so far from the mainstream he's only a few steps ahead of all those Marvel characters who've failed to launch their own movie franchises in recent years, or've been stuck with the same low opinion of the resulting efforts. Plus it's a Western. Like I said, superheroes are the new Western.
Deconstructing the rivalry between Superman and Lex Luthor is the brilliance of this movie, like making a version of Grant Morrison's All Star Superman where Luthor isn't just a jealous human but a fellow alien castaway who's...still jealous of Superman, and does everything in his power to upstage him. The funny thing is that in this story Superman voluntarily leaves the stage, and forces Luthor to become him. Would Lex Luthor really do that? The cleverness of this movie is that it forces a new conversation. Anyone care to start?
Based on another recent and fairly obscure comic book, so that you really get to enjoy the actors and the action, rather than think of the source material. Pretty entertaining.
The Green Hornet (2010)
The stoner's version of Kick-Ass takes a comic book property that's relatively obscure and tries to see what it'd be like to make a superhero out of someone from a version of the real world. I enjoyed this one, too. It's a certain amount of necessary deconstruction that allows people to decide if that's what they really want, or the genuine article.
The Avengers initiative kicks off in earnest by taking the opposite of what most people think of with superheroes but what superhero fans secretly believe, that superheroes are the new mythology. That's what this one really does, grafting Norse gods with a narrative that brings them down to earth and then recontextualizes them. As epic fantasy, it falls pretty flat, but then, that's not really what it's trying to accomplish. Does it stand on its own? Only if you see what it's really doing.
X-Men: First Class (2011)
Many fans consider this to be the best of the X-Men bunch, which is a tad insulting to the Bryan Singer flicks it so clearly draws from (quite heavily in its key aspects), but that's the key and what The Amazing Spider-Man really needs, to start fresh with a property that soured in the recent past, but whose glory days were far enough away that there's a new generation that will embrace it. Because there's a precedent for the exact mold, but the resulting product puts greater emphasis on the necessary thematic elements that now seem glossed over in that previous incarnation, it's an affirmation and a confirmation. That's how you reach the next level, folks, by improving on success, not simply banking on it. It's the same franchise, but it's better. If that's the popular perception, then you've reached the mainstream.
Green Lantern (2011)
I've struggled a great deal with why this movie failed. I had a vested interest, and I loved it, but pretty much no one else did. In the course of this survey, I think I've found the answer. Green Lantern is to mainstream audiences an obscure property. For all intents and purposes, it's no different from Ghost Rider or Punisher, or perhaps more accurately, Daredevil. It has no relation to Superman or Batman, and certainly nothing to do with the franchise currently dominating mainstream audiences. In the comics, Green Lantern has gone mainstream, but that's only within the last few years. There're dozens of characters who call themselves Green Lantern, and it's been that way for decades, even without breaching the topic of the original one recently turned gay. Before this movie, the franchise didn't even have its own animated series. It only became possible to envision as a movie in the modern era. Except the results are bound to be a lot more like the Hulk than Spider-Man. Spider-Man can be simplified to a visual appearance. There's a definite template to Spider-Man stories that audiences can understand. The Hulk, meanwhile, is also a visual, but his story doesn't really scream "superhero." Green Lantern is the same way. He's not even the only one of his kind. Any first attempt could never have hoped to convey everything he means, so trying to explain any of it to the uninitiated would always have come across as convoluted. Audiences don't like complication. They want complication resolved. The end of the beginning of Green Lantern's story is still only a beginning. Anyway, suffice to say, it was a miscalculation to expect this movie to be a huge success. I understand that now. But that does not mean it was the failure that most observers believe it to be. It's the kind of ambition this new era needs. Ambition spawned the Avengers initiative, after all, and even that needed a few kinks ironed out. Hulk only worked on the third try.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
This one is like capturing the whole phenomenon of the superhero genre in one movie. You've got the pulp origins. You've got the superhero seen as a savior. You've got the superhero seen as a joke. You've got the superhero thrust into something bigger than himself. You've got the superhero being humbled. You've got the superhero becoming a key component of the Avengers initiative. I consider this one to be the most pivotal of the movement that made the genre part of the mainstream.
Cowboys & Aliens (2011)
Better known as James Bond meets Indiana Jones (but only the actors), this one's based on another obscure recent comic book, but is more Jonah Hex than Men in Black. I'm not surprised that it didn't become the huge hit it deserved to be.
Dylan Dog: Dead of Night (2011)
Because movies will always follow their own trends, an obscure comic book becomes an obscure film.
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012)
Because the career of Nicholas Cage has spun even deeper into his eccentricities in recent years, the second movie is automatically dismissed. I bet it's fun.
This might be considered to be Unbreakable 2.0, a completely different perspective on superheroes, one that jazzed critics just enough to make them interested again. I think this one's a key component of how we've reached this point.
The Avengers (2012)
"This point" is defined by this film. Four films and finally getting the Hulk right helped make this one an event that's pushed superheroes into the box office pantheon. No, it's not all about how much money a movie makes, but the consensus has been that this is a seminal moment. I've been trying to figure out how we reached this point and what it means. My conclusion is that we've reached the point where superheroes are now a legitimate movie genre, and the fluctuations and doubts that plagued Hollywood and audiences for years may no longer have the same sway they once had. Yes, burnout is completely possible, but not in the same way the Superman movies dominated and collapsed interest within a decade, or Batman did the same soon after. At the start of this century we saw two franchises vault into comparable positions, and they've both reached the reboot point without radical reinventions so much as taking new looks at what already worked. No, we haven't seen The Amazing Spider-Man yet, don't know if it'll succeed, but the visual impact is still driving the character, even if the tone has shifted and it has nothing to do with Sam Raimi's version. But the thing is, we've got the Christopher Nolan Batman films, too, and now a powerful franchise in the Avengers, which has many legs. That's more success than ever before, with greater sustainability. It's about momentum, folks.
Does that mean all comic book movies will succeed from here on? Not in the slightest. But there's a greater chance now than ever before that "the right property" can be any property. It used to be just Superman. And then just Batman. Now we've got Blade, Hellboy, the X-Men,the Avengers, Spider-Man, and yes, Batman, and maybe Superman again. The future is no longer as uncertain. That's how we reach the mainstream.