“Has anyone here seen The Avengers?” At this point, that is one of the most ridiculous questions you can ask a group of people with both of their original hips. With a $1.36 billion world-wide box office (so far), everyone has seen them Assemble on the big screen. And now that it is the third highest grossing film of all time, even more fans will be seeing this flick, many for a third, fourth, or fifth time. So why is this movie special? I mean, Batman, Spider-Man, and the X-Men franchises have had huge box office success, with more on the way. Because, for the first time, a major studio has released a comic book movie without having to dumb down and simplify the genre for the un-initiated, and it has proven to be a very, very good thing.
Fans around the world (myself included) breathed a major sigh of relief when it was announced that Geek-Demi-God Joss Whedon would both write and direct this outing of the world’s greatest super-team. That joy was not, as most would assume, due to the nerd wet dream that is Mr. Whedon with a big budget, but instead due to the trust fans were willing to put into his hands in caring for this prized jewel from our collective lives.
Over the last 15 years, comic book movies have, for the most part, found great success at the box office, and in bringing our varied worlds to the masses. However, with their concern for making money and marketing the film, most of these production companies have had their eyes on “Commercial Viability,” as opposed to bringing the stories to life. We all saw the commercial successes that were CBM failures, such as the Fantastic Four films, the X-Men franchise, Daredevil, Punisher, Hulk, and plenty others, where re-writes and Hollywood industry decisions gutted the characters and stories that we know and love.
My fellow geeks and I weighed in online about these atrocities, and, at the time, it was considered by most to be simple nerd griping. And it was. But the reason for this great malaise was not the old “book-is-better-than-the-movie” argument; instead, it was a concern for a greater issue. We understand that not everything can translate directly from the page to the screen. However, when you change powers, origins, ages, relations, and the vital parts of what makes those stories great, you lose the heart of what those characters and those stories try to tell and teach.
Just look at Fantastic Four and X-Men. In both cases, the studio forced a script that changed the origin stories, and the way the characters relate to each other. Having Victor Von Doom, one of the most prolific villains in the history of comic books, changed from a prince who blows himself up trying to communicate with his dead mother, then blaming and swearing vengeance on his educational and romantic rival, Reed Richards; and turning him into a fancy-pants business man who travels with the Four to space, and gaining powers through the same accident that gives our hero’s their abilities cheapens the story. We go from a man who feels the need to succumb to his vanity, thus covering his body in a hard metal suit, shutting out the rest of the world, to a pissy tycoon whose skin comes off, and his powers include lighting, and being a metal dude who wants to bang the very poorly cast Jessica Alba (but really, who didn’t?).
This is not just a post-revisionist change, such as having Tony Stark blown up in Afghanistan instead of Vietnam; this changes his entire origin and the motivation for his acts. But why make such a change? Simple: the production companies that fronted the money wanted a movie that could appeal to the widest possible audience, so they could make the most money. AND THEY SHOULD, since that’s what their business is. However, they had so little faith in the characters and stories that helped build an empire, they felt the need to turn deep, intricate characters into action-flick stereotypes of their former selves.
The same sloppy approach was seen in the X-Men franchise, where different writers and directors tried to create their own image of who the X-Men are, and how they should interact. The entire purpose of the “second-class” of the X-Men in the comics (namely Storm, Colossus, Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Thunderbird, and Banshee), was to bring a more diverse flavor to the mix by adding characters of color who were from other countries and cultures. However, script decisions to make the characters more relatable to their target audience (such as making Iceman, Rogue, Pyro, and other main characters teenagers), or to please whinny actors (Storm being American), tarnished what should have been a deep, character driven series of action films. What we got was more of the same every-day movie trash, with mutant powers.
The Avengers, which Mr. Whedon was determined to keep as close to the source material as possible, has shown that audiences are smarter, or at least more willing to go along for the ride, than Hollywood had previously given them credit for. Other than the glaring absence of Ant-Man and the Wasp, and the clear acknowledgement that the movie universe will stay closer to the Ultimates universe than the classic, The Avengers is a testament to the fact that people want to see comic book movies based on comics, not Hollywood’s re-imagining of what those comic universes could be when condensed into a movie with a focus group tested, milquetoast hour and 30 minute film.
These tales, these characters, these worlds, epitomize great 20th century story telling. Good book series, T.V. shows, and movies have come and gone in the communications age, but these serials still remain. Yes, comic books work to re-invent themselves, and change an element of the characters to fit with the times. Spider-Man was unemployed at the height of the bad economy; Captain America had to deal with the impact of a post 9/11 world; and Superman became a walking, obtuse, existentialist emo-pussy for a while. But the fact remains that these characters are who they have always been, and changing that does not make a movie more commercial; it makes them lackluster shells of a story, the artistic equivalent of re-making Citizen Kane, and having Rosebud be his Razor Scooter.
There is no question that our heroes will be assembling again on the big screen, and likely before summer 2015. The only question that does remain, however, is what form will it take? Another rushed money hungry grab for profits, resulting in a sub-par follow up (Spider-Man 3, X-Men 2 &3, Batman & Robin, Superman III and IV…let’s stop now, because I’m depressing myself), or a film given to an artist to turn into a masterwork in its own time? All we can do is hope, and hope we shall.