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The Summer of Superheroes

July 25, 2011

By John C.

Comic books telling the stories of superheroes saving the world have been providing entertainment for many years, and this summer will be remembered for giving several of these heroic characters their rightful time to shine on the big screen.  Four of this year’s big tent pole releases have been based on characters found in the sacred text of comic books, and three of them were deservedly released to critical and commercial success.  This summer of superheroes and the anticipation for next May’s The Avengers, culminated this past Friday with the release of Captain America: The First Avenger.

The summer season got into full swing on May 6th, with director Kenneth Branagh’s take on Thor.  With visual dazzle and excellent performances, we were told the story of how Thor (Chris Hemsworth) a powerful warrior once thought to be the God of thunder, was cast out of the realm of Asgard and sent to Earth.  Perhaps most refreshing was that the main female character, brilliant astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) served as a lot more than just the love interest.

Although based on one of the more fantastical stories in the universe of Marvel superheroes, Thor delivered a piece of thrilling and surprisingly smart entertainment.  The visuals of Asgard were stunning and the performances by its excellent cast, (Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings were delightful personal favourites), lifted Kenneth Branagh’s film above the level of most common blockbusters.  With a sequel already in the works and the title hero set to play a big role as part of The Avengers, this debut might prove a tough act to follow.  Thor remains one of the most entertaining movies of the year, so far.

On June 3rd, we got another adaptation of a popular Marvel series with X-Men: First Class.  Expertly directed by Matthew Vaughn, (who excelled with last year’s ultra violent Kick-Ass, a brutal look at the disturbing complexities of vigilante justice), we were shown the complex story of how Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) came to lead his now famous band of mutants.  But as much as this was a nicely done origin story, themes of betrayal and revenge were not far behind.  Even more psychologically engaging is how his close friend Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) came to be his greatest nemesis, Magneto.

As the back stories of several of the more cheesy mutants were revealed, the midsection of X-Men: First Class arguably got a touch too silly and complicated for its own good.  But the bulk of this origin story that showed us the rise of those who would come to be known as Professor X and Magneto was quite entertaining, and the stylishly cool look of the film was often appropriately steeped in Cold War paranoia.  Perhaps the best film in the preexisting X-Men franchise, this prequel of sorts proved a good superhero movie for those wanting plot along with the impressive action sequences.

This brings us to Captain America, the first hero in Marvel’s supergroup The Avengers and the last film before next year’s mega superhero blockbuster.  Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a “90 pound asthmatic” chosen as the test subject for a revolutionary new experiment that will make him into a superhuman soldier.  From start to finish, the film had the feel of the original Marvel comic books, with the dialogue and characters seeming as if they had leapt right off the page.   This was solid and classic summer entertainment for older kids and adults.  The film grossed $65.1 million over the weekend, falling just short of Thor‘s opening weekend take of $65.7 million.  I don’t think anyone predicted that the film would be quite this successful right off the bat, but in a way it is reassuring to know that audiences related to the WWII setting of the film.

Thor and Captain America were directly leading up to next year’s mega blockbuster, The Avengers, as were the two previous Iron Man films.  The Avengers will see Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) working together for SHIELD under the force of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).  The main villain is said to be Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who already got his due but was ultimately left undefeated in Thor.  It’s already been done in comic books and TV shows, but it should be interesting to see how well these characters can play off of each other on the big screen.  With the cast at hand, here’s hoping for a huge success on pretty much every level.

But aside from all this build-up to The Avengers, audiences were also reminded this summer that Marvel Comics is not the only publisher to have a world of superheroes, with the release of Green Lantern on June 17th.  The origin story of how Hal Jordan (Vancouver’s Ryan Reynolds) received a glowing green ring from and became the first human member of the intergalactic Green Lantern corps, has been an integral part of the DC Comics universe since the first issue in 1940.  Although it consistently provided its fair share of mindless entertainment, the main problem with the financial disappointing Green Lantern was that it lacked the spark and complexity that made these other superhero films stand out amidst the noisy summer blockbusters.

Aside from the epic superhero event that will be The Avengers, next summer will also see a previous franchise get rebooted with The Amazing Spider-Man starring Andrew Garfield, and Christopher Nolan will deliver his hugely anticipated final chapter of the Batman saga with The Dark Knight Rises.  There have been some great films made that were based on comic books, Spider-Man 2Iron Man and The Dark Knight are three that certainly come to mind.  There have also been many very good ones to offset the disappointments, and several of the ones released this summer can easily be added to the list of superhero success stories.  As we patiently await for next May’s release of The Avengers, we can all revel in the winning entertainment value of such Marvel films as Thor, X-Men: First Class and Captain America: The First Avenger.

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