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27th February 2013

It’s a small world: comic book movies in the age of shared continuity

Andrew Home looks at the state of current comic book movies

It should never have happened. To suggest that, back when it was first announced in 2008, Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) would have been the runaway success that it was seems slightly delusional. On the face of it, it has all the makings of a blockbuster hit: big action and bigger characters. However The Avengers required something from audiences which action movies are not particularly famed for: investment. The movie wasn’t designed to introduce you to the characters (that had already been done) rather it simply tried to tell an engaging story.

However, rather than balk at the idea of needing to know preliminary information, audiences embraced the thing which has been making comic books enjoyable since their inception: familiar characters that progress over years, even decades. Comic book movie audiences now want to see what would happen when all these heroes’ paths cross.

The story doesn’t stop with the end of Avengers however. This has merely been the first phase of Marvel’s (and parent company Disney’s) master plan. Phase two is already around the corner with Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World coming later this year and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians Of The Galaxy, Ant Man and Avengers 2 all in various stages of production. These movies promise a wealth of new stories for fans, and many zeroes added to Disney’s bank account.

If Marvel’s Iron Man (2008) was the beginning of a new, more colourful type of superhero movie, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) from main competitor DC Comics was completely the opposite. A dark, gritty, grounded world which didn’t make room for any of the other superheroes in DC’s pantheon. As successful and critically acclaimed as the Nolan Batman trilogy was, it is now over and leaves DC with the very difficult question of where do we go from here. Seeing the box office figures for The Avengers and their ilk it’s little wonder that DC are trying their hand at the shared universe concept with a new Superman reboot imminent (Zack Snyder’s The Man Of Steel) and the possibility of a Justice League movie (most likely featuring The Flash, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and, of course, Batman) tentatively scheduled for 2015.

Pessimistic as one is inclined to be about the success of a Justice League movie (2 years is not a lot of time to complete such a giant endeavour), it’s hard not to admire DC and Marvel for their dedication to the shared universe concept. Comic book movies have, up until now, been plagued by reboot after reboot (case in point the atrocious Amazing Spider-Man from last year, made a mere five years after Spider-Man 3). One of the best things about shared universes (if they’re successful) is that we can grant ourselves the luxury of getting used to a character, of not having to trawl through the origin story ad infinitum. This is what The Avengers and the Justice League movie represent: a chance for us to have a consistent set of characters, ones that we’re comfortable enough with to not want them to be deleted and started afresh every five years.

It’s gotten to the point where we all know how Superman got his cape, how Batman got his cowl, how Spidey got his webslingers etc. It’s time that we got some new stories from our favourite heroes and if DC and Marvel continue on the path they’ve set out for themselves, that looks like exactly what we’re going to get. It’s an old cliché in comic books that no one ever stays dead. Let’s hope that comic book movies can continue to keep the characters we love, alive.

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