'The Avengers': Marvel's Prototypical Super-Franchise

Photo: Digital Trends

I'm sure that Marvel and Paramount are ecstatic (and relieved) that their $300 million-budgeted cash cow experiment was able to churn out a whopping and unprecedented $207 million at the box office in its very first weekend. Let's face it, this is the first movie of it's kind; a conglomeration of highly successful and marketable superhero franchises -- a super-franchise, really. It could've pulled in a mere $130 million (about the same as Iron Man 2) over the weekend and the studio heads would've been satisfied, I suspect, because given that the same audience that shows up in droves for the Iron Man movies -- Marvel's most marketable superhero franchise, thanks in large part to the recent emergence of R.D.J.'s unrivaled star power -- is presumably the same audience that shows up for Thor, Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, etc. (i.e., less profitable Marvel franchises), wouldn't it seem reasonable to assume that the fate of The Avengers would ride significantly on the brand equity of its charismatic and narrative centerpiece, Tony Stark?

As it was, The Avengers managed to surpass box-office juggernauts such as 2011's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two (by about $37 million) and 2008's The Dark Knight (by nearly $50 million) to claim the top spot on the list of highest domestic weekend openings, ever. And it wasn't even close. It also just surpassed $700 million worldwide (as of 5/08), which puts it, oh, about $80 million above what Iron Man 2 was able to earn durings it entire theatrical run. It's unprecedented, and given the luxury of hindsight (I'm assuming at this point that the film will earn at least $450 million domestically... and that's pretty conservative) I'd say it's not only a fortuitous experiment, but also likely the way of the future, at least as far as Hollywood superhero franchising goes. (Mark my words: that Justice League movie will inevitably get made, despite any opposition from Christian Bale, Christopher Nolan, or whoever else.)

More after the jump...

So for all of the sharp criticism from casual fans and critics alike -- you know, the ones who've complained about flicks like Iron Man 2 for seeming less like stand-alone films and more of franchise-builders or marketing engines for The Avengers, it seems like that model of narrative seed-planting will continue to compromise the integrity of stand-alone superhero films until they're practically obsolete. The Avengers marks the beginning of a gradual process that will effectively re-shape the minds of many moviegoers; in years to come, this type of cinematic treatment will have audiences spoiled into expecting greater spectacle and more franchise criss-crossing, mashing up, and conglomerations. The Justice League will clash with the Avengers, or the Avengers will team up with the X-Men to take on more intergalactic super-villains, and the Masters of the Universe will show up or something, with cowboys and aliens, etc. It's a fanboy's delight, I suppose, all of this high-concept, low-IQ pop entertainment -- but for mature viewers, it leaves a lot to be desired (e.g., subtstance).

Photo: Hollywood Reporter
As I left the theater on Saturday, having sat through 2 1/2 hours of an over-abundance of CG fluff, stoic men spouting stilted and wooden dialogue, superfluous character arcs, inconsistent and incongruent superhero powers, an ending that was conveniently tied in a nice little bow, and a general feeling that what I had just seen was too safe, too clean, too light, with not much at stake or no real sense of danger along the way (of course they're not gonna kill R.D.J... so why even tease it?) -- I came to the realization that it was all just more of the same, with the keyword being more; more superheroes; more character dynamics; more one-liners; more action; etc. What I was watching wasn't anything fresh or groundbreaking, but a formulaic rehash of the same cloying P.C. fluff that exists in the Iron Man films, only in a more cluttered package.

Photo: Screen Crave
I'm sure this is coming across as pretty harsh criticism, and that's absolutely the way it should be read; but I should also express that I did somewhat enjoy the film for its mindless pop entertainment value. I'm perfectly capable of letting my guard down for two hours and enjoying (however marginally) a fun comic book adaptation -- that is, as long as it's not excessively insulting to my intelligence, and this one certainly wasn't as offensive as Spiderman 3, Fantastic Four, Daredevil, etc. And since I'm on the subject of pros, it should also be noted that Mark Ruffalo steals the show as the Hulk; he's really the only one who comes across as a flesh-and-blood human being, and his mild-mannered nuances as Bruce Banner offer an interesting dynamic alongside the unhinged, visceral rage of the Hulk -- he's a true a wild card in an otherwise uninteresting ensemble. If every character was as carefully and thoughtfully integrated as Ruffalo's Banner/Hulk, it would provide a level of depth that has transcended comic book films such as The Dark Knight and Spiderman 2. Unfortunately, most of the major players here (aside from Ruffalo and maybe R.D.J.) don't seem to have it in them, as far as discipline goes -- at least not here and now.

So, as marginally tolerable as The Avengers is, and with it's impact on blockbuster film culture looming large as its domestic and worldwide gross soars, I leave with you what is probably the most pungent antithesis of what The Avengers and much of Marvel's output represents. When I left the theater on Saturday, having sat through 2 1/2 hours of its aforementioned shortcomings, and feeling an ever-so-mild level of satisfaction, I was able to put myself at ease with the thought that this will come along in July and provide proper justice.

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