Nick Leshi

Nick Leshi
Bronx, New York, United States of America
December 13
Writer, actor, media professional, fan of entertainment, pop culture, and speculative fiction. Contact for more info.


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MAY 5, 2012 10:55PM

The Golden Age of Superhero Movies

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Earlier this week, I joked around with some friends that we are living through what can only be called the "golden age of superhero movies." After seeing Marvel's The Avengers on Saturday (with my little nephews who loved it), I can now put the kidding aside and affirm that yes, this is indeed the best of times for quality films based on our comic book heroes.

Some, like film critic A.O. Scott, seem to have had enough of the genre.  His review in the New York Times is more an attack on overall superhero flicks rather than a serious review of the motion picture. He belittles the genre and tries mightily to marginalize it as a fad past its peak.  I have voiced my respect for Mr. Scott in the past, but in this case, I think he has allowed his distaste for a certain type of film to taint his critical eye. While I may not be as upset by his negative opinion as Samuel L. Jackson was, I do think Scott is dead wrong in his summation. As Brian Lowry writes about the incident in Variety, "Scott's review seemed to dismiss the genre of comic-book movies...without really engaging the material on its own terms."

Well-made superhero movies are becoming more frequent and need to be judged by how successfully or poorly they present the elements of their genre.  Director Joss Whedon and his crew have created a terrific movie that might not be in any serious contention for Best Picture but definitely qualifies as a blockbuster popcorn flick that delivers on entertainment and earns every box-office penny it receives. Why begrudge it or the fact that even more big budget superhero movies are on the way (this summer's Dark Knight Rises and Amazing Spider-man and next year's Man of Steel, just to name the ones on the immediate horizon)?

The Avengers, while not perfect, manages to do what I and many others thought would be impossible as it takes a number of very different characters who headlined their own films and unite them in a single motion picture. Unlike the forced feel of past endeavors, like Universal's monster movie series, Marvel has its comic book source material as a precedent, where heroes from different franchises mix and mingle all the time in cross-over and team-up adventures. Fears that the experiment of bringing the heroes together in a live action version would fail have proved to be unfounded. 

The plot of The Avengers film is a bit weak, but it is sufficient to set up the story of getting all of these heroes together, put their differences aside, and save the world as a team. The infinitely powerful Tesseract cosmic cube is nothing more than a McGuffin and the invading alien Chitauri are standard, uninspired villains, but they serve their function well. The heart of the film is the interaction between the primary heroes -- Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Nick Fury, and the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. -- and the Norse god Loki who is full of complicated motivation carried over from his last Marvel movie appearance.

The end-credits scene teases the next villlain in the franchise and fans of the comics can expect a much richer story in Avengers 2. In the meantime, I'm thankful that this first attempt at bringing Marvel's big guns to the same tale has worked so well. Competitor DC Entertainment should be so lucky if it ever gets its act together and gives fans a live action Justice League.

Superhero movies are modern mythology.  Until now, fans have only been able to let their imaginations loose by reading four-color comic books and watching cartoons. I don't think this is the "peak" of the superhero film genre. Instead, I think this is just the beginning.  While A.O. Scott and others of his ilk might hate that, the rest of us can sit back and enjoy the adventures yet to come and hope that it will get even better.

On a final nitpicky note, I have to correct Scott -- despite a couple of joking references in the movie, Asgard is not a planet, but a realm. Also, just to set the record straight because 2012's The Avengers has had to call itself Marvel's The Avengers in the U.S. and Avengers Assemble in the U.K. (among other titles and subtitles) to differentiate itself from 1998's The Avengers, the spy television series may have debuted in 1961 and the comic book may have launched in 1963, for me at least the name Avengers will always be associated with Earth's Mightiest Heroes!

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The new Avengers must have hit the right notes based on their box office!
My general observation is that movie critics don't do well outside of conventional "artsy" movies. They are very ignorant when it comes to science fiction (and now comics). For example, when Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan came out, a critic slammed the casting of Ricardo Montalblan as Khan. Any Trekkie would have told you that he was the original Khan.

I pretty much agree with you. The plot could have been better, but it was adequate. Having been a big Avengers fan as a youth, I did admire how well they managed to CGI the SHIELD helicarrier, and the SHIELD jets. It looked just like the comics.
The warning note I'd give you, Mr. Leshi, is that Whedon pulled off a difficult balancing act with remarkable aplomb. There were so many ways The Avengers could have turned out bad, and he managed to avoid them all.

The problem with this being The Golden Age of Superhero Movies is that the studios will think anybody can do them, if they're just supplied with expensive name actors, tons of CGI and lots of explosions. Loud and meaningless films like Michael Bay's entire filmography will be aimed towards the superhero genre. (Yes, Bay made a lot of money with his crappy films. Do you think he's going to get an AFI tribute some day?)

Sorry, but the "gold" I see coming is the gold-colored poop of the basset hound I'm going to have to walk this morning. The few good, nuanced, human movies in the genre will be buried in the steaming mounds of the other stuff, and movie watchers won't be inclined to dig through to find the good ones.
I'm a huge fan of the early Superman films starring Christopher Reeve, which of course can't compare to current blockbusters in terms of SFX, but stand the test of time with incomparable casts and strong scripts ( okay, strike Superman III and IV :)).

There was a dip during the '80s, which continued until 2002 when Sam Raimi directed Spider-Man, followed soon after by Christopher Nolan's skilled 2005 revival of the Batman franchise.

These, I believe, set the benchmarks for future superhero movies. Studios realized that audiences weren't going to respond to CGI alone - you also had to write a good story and cast the right actors. The Batman films, in particular, rely more on gritty screenplays and memorable performances than anything else, and The Dark Knight proved the formula works when it broke box office records in 2008.

The Avengers looks set to smash every record in existence with its strong opening weekend, but I believe it isn't just the well-loved characters or spectacular action sequences that are drawing moviegoers like moths to a flame.

The script is so-so - though I appreciate the many great one-liners - and certain scenes caused me to tune out a little ( group bickering should be limited to less than 5 minutes ).

The secret of its success is none other than an impeccable cast - a pedigree ensemble of Oscar nominees ( Downey Jr, Renner, Jackson ) and brilliant up-and-comers.

Some credit no doubt goes to Joss Whedon for not allowing the entire production to crash and burn. But it would be tragic to overlook the fact that actors at the top of their game practically direct themselves.

So yes, I totally agree that this is the "golden age" of superhero movies, and critics who are in persistent denial should seek therapy. Don't expect any Best Picture Oscars in the near future, but honestly, who gives a crap? :)
Baltimore, plotwise Avengers is rather week, but the writing is clever enough to address those weaknesses here and there -- as I mentioned, it basically sets up the franchise and brings all these different heroes together. As for acting, I think you might be surprised -- there are some fine moments from Robert Downey Jr for example and the rest that make it clear they put their heart and soul into this popcorn flick and weren't just cashing a paycheck.

My biggest issue with what some of the critics are poo-pooing is the treatment of superhero films any differently from other genres. How different is this from the Westerns bubble? And how come I don't hear as much viscerol about Romantic Comedies being done to death without any true transcendant art in their scripts or execution?
Wow. We were waffling on whether to see this flick, but you've convinced me! We'll have to check it out on the weekend. ... We've seen them ALL and were feeling a bit burned out on the genre, too. Hope this movie lives up to the hype.
We have reached the age when the technology of movie effects has caught up with our imaginations such that one can present a superhero movie and have the audience suspend disbelief.

I kinda miss the days when this wasn't possible, but I did really dig the coliseum scene from the 2nd Star Wars prequel.
The Avengers was super fun. Some stuff didn't make sense (ex: why did the aliens ride bobsleds instead of spaceships?), but it was fun and I didn't even text during the movie, so that's how I know it was fun.