For a comic book fan, what is the point of a comic book movie? Why watch a live-action approximation of a comic book hero -- constrained by the limits of budget, technology, and human capability -- when we can read a comic book unfettered by such limitations?
The answer struck me some 33 years ago, when I was watching the first Christopher Reeve Superman film. At that point, Superman had been around for forty years; and although I had been around for only 13 of them, I had read multiple Superman comics, seen the various Sat-Am animated series, and watched the 1950s-era live-action show in reruns. At that point, I could not imagine the sight of Superman flying could create any sort of excitement in the slightest.
But then I watched the scene where the cinematic Superman saves the life of the falling Lois Lane -- and then catches a falling helicopter in his other hand. Intellectually, that scene could not have generated any suspense. We knew that Superman would save Lois from dying, that he was quite capable of lifting both a damsel in distress and a few tons of machinery without breaking a sweat.
Yet it was exciting. It was thrilling. It made everyone in the theater cheer. Why? Because visual cliches that have been driven into the ground in comics become fresh and thrilling when we see them on the big screen.
Thus, in "X2," when Nightcrawler teleports out of a crippled jet, catches a falling Rogue, and teleports her back onto the jet, we cheer even though that sort of scene has been portrayed in comics multiple times. In "Iron Man," we are amazed to see the armored Tony Stark flying through the air, the non-existent aerodynamics portrayed so convincingly we believe that a man-sized aircraft can fly without wings or rudder, despite decades of Iron Man comics showing him do the same thing.
Hence the reason Amy and I woke up way-too-early on Friday morning and trundled ourselves over to the 4:00 a.m. showing of THE AVENGERS at the El Capitan. That's why fans crowded this old-time Hollywood movie palace in the wee small hours of the morning, and cheered lustily as actors portraying Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, The Black Widow, and Hawkeye enact the ancient Marvel Comics formula: Heroes meet; their arrogance, egos, immaturity, and insecurity drive them to clash; and then they overcome their differences and team up to kick evil's butt.
And in many ways THE AVENGERS succeeds because it doesn't fight that formula; it revels in it. Writer-Director Joss Whedon is not the first comic book fan to make movies; but he is one of the few who have mastered the adaptation of the comic book style of storytelling to film without either adulterating it to fit their ideas of movie conventions, or simply adapting a comic book panel-by-panel a la SIN CITY. Although THE AVENGERS does not specifically adapt any particular story from the comic (it is inspired by the first issue of the series, in which a bunch of heroes are thrown together by happenstance to battle the Norse god of mischief Loki), it feels like an arc of the comic, perhaps from the late Sixties when Roy Thomas scripted it or the mid-Seventies when Steve Englehart wrote it.
In short, THE AVENGERS is a Marvel Comic on screen, perhaps more so than any of the other Marvel movies screened over the past 12 years. It is an adaptation that does not feel like an adaptation at all. It exemplifies the best aspects of those comics, and downplays the negatives. The results can be seen in the box office: The biggest opening weekend gross in history.
That is one big 2012 summer comics adaptation down. Two more -- THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES -- to go.