Four years ago, two films gave the superhero genre a much-needed kick in the pants: Iron Man and The Dark Knight. They were on opposite ends of the spectrum–the former bright and funny, the latter dark and gloomy–but both felt honest, and honesty’s something the genre needed in order to mature. This summer sees the release of two films which seem destined to revitalize the genre yet again, and it’s only fitting that they are The Avengers, the end result of Marvel’s first wave; and The Dark Knight Rises, the last of Christopher Nolan’s Bat-flicks. The Dark Knight Rises is still a couple months off, but just as that one looks like it’s angling to be even darker and more despairing than its predecessors, The Avengers aims to be more colorful, rousing, and exciting than those leading up to it.
Any superhero movie that wants to be even semi-successful has to on some level examine the nature of heroism. When one doesn’t, which was a big problem in the period between Spider-Man 2 and Iron Man (give or take a Batman Begins), you wind up with something like Catwoman or Elektra or Batman & Robin. Marvel’s pre-Avengers efforts, which I’ve mostly enjoyed, have excelled at asking just why each of their heroes feels the need to suit up and take action. With The Avengers, an even bigger question is posed. Why would such disparate people, each with their own sets of skills, hang-ups, and needs, come together to form a team? Writer-director Joss Whedon, a veritable geek god, is the one tasked with providing the answer to that query, and he does so brilliantly.