Hollywood re-engineers the DNA of superheroes

Comic-book blockbuster movies have finally become comic

Superheroes just want to have fun

Zade Rosenthal/MVLFFLLC/Marvel; Ron Phillips/Warner Bros Entertainment Inc

“Suit up!” That’s the key catchphrase of Marvel’s The Avengers, in which saving the world is unthinkable without first getting into costume. But as the movie’s dream team of comic-book gladiators defend Manhattan from an alien invasion led by a demented Norse god, they’re not just saving the planet. They’re part of a mission to re-engineer the Hollywood superhero. The Avengers, a $220-million blockbuster destined for massive success, could be a game-changer. For comic-book fans, a superhero ensemble is nerd nirvana: anything is possible. For the rest of us, it’s way more fun than being stuck inside the lonely psyche of a single masked vigilante. As they butt heads and swap barbs, comic-book legends finally become comic.

Writer-director Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) has raised the stakes for the blockbuster. Amid marathons of destructive mayhem, he finds room for dense volleys of witty repartee, much of it dished out by Robert Downey Jr., the film’s resident satirist. His party pack of six Marvel superheroes is a talkative bunch. They range from Downey Jr.’s hyper-ironic Iron Man, the smartest god in the room—“I don’t play well with others”—to Thor, an earnest heavy-metal dude with a hammer and big hair. Adding bonus value is an overqualified cast that includes Jeremy Renner as a bow-weilding sniper, Scarlett Johansson as a Russian ninja and Mark Ruffalo trying to keep a lid on the Hulk.

Superhero ensembles are not new (Marvel’s X-Men is an all-star franchise), but The Avengers recombines Hollywood’s superhero DNA to suggest a world of hybrids. Comic-book legends are a finite resource. Two warhorses are back this summer in The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spider-Man, but how long can the studios mine these franchises with sequels, prequels and reboots?

In the wake of The Avengers, executives at Warner Bros. are no doubt longing to corral their DC Comics stable into a movie, although they lack Marvel’s cachet. A year ago there were rumblings at Warner about a Justice League of America opus that would unite Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern. Then Green Lantern tanked at the box office. But The Avengers shows that a dud superhero like the Hulk, who wasn’t a hit as a solo act, can be thrown in with a team of winners to serve as droll comic relief. (With the Hulk, the phrase “suit up” takes on a whole new meaning.)

The studios are always looking for novelty, but they’re petrified of the unknown. Just last month, Disney wrote off a $200-million loss after the catastrophic failure of John Carter, a dull epic about an unknown hero fighting freaks on Mars. Adapted from a century-old classic that inspired Star Wars and Avatar, this space opera was pre-modern, not postmodern. It lacked a fan base, and the arcade crackle of pop-culture references that make superhero movies cool. But Disney, which owns Marvel Studios, should make up John Carter’s loss and more with The Avengers’ brand-name assault on the box office.

Hollywood hates to make movies without stars, and now it seems the characters have to be famous, too. No blockbuster is complete without a legendary superhero. And if the genuine article is unavailable, the new trick is to pluck an icon from the past and turn him into one. Downey Jr., that franchise glutton, has recast Sherlock Holmes as a gladiator. And in June, producer Tim Burton unveils Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, in which the future U.S. president acquires his distaste for slavery as an axe-swinging crusader in a war on the undead. These 19th-century figures are not endowed with actual superpowers but have been re-engineered as hyperbolic action heroes.

Fairy tales have also become fair game. Snow White, who mastered martial arts in Mirror Mirror, looks like Joan of Arc on steroids in Snow White and the Huntsman (due in June). So what’s next? General Custer as a werewolf hunter? Zorro and the Lone Ranger teaming up to fight zombies? Benjamin Franklin rendered invincible by a lightning bolt from an errant kite? In a Hollywood where a digital makeover can turn anyone into a superhero, the sky’s the limit.

See also: The Avengers: No room for Ant-Man and the Wasp? Really??

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