The Avengers marks the beginning of the end

Where can superhero movies go from here?

It feels weird to call this summer the end of an era that only lasted seven years. But when all is said and done the release of The Avengers this weekend and The Dark Knight Rises in July mark the end of the golden age of comic-book filmmaking.

This “era” probably started with Batman Begins in 2005. Christopher Nolan’s first stab at the caped crusader dramatically upped audience expectations for comic book adaptations. The Spider-Man and X-Men franchises were petering out and audiences were grateful for superheroes with more mature character arcs.

But Batman Begins had its faults (action shots were often hard to follow the villain wasn’t particularly memorable too much backstory) and 2008 was really when the golden age began. The Dark Knight remains the pinnacle of comic-book films to date (although I personally think Blade II deserves to be in the conversation) and ranks on many critics’ lists as a blockbuster masterpiece on par with Jaws and the first Star Wars .

And yet I’d argue that the release — and astonishing success — of Iron Man was even more important. It’s often forgotten just how huge a risk the film was but casting an actor who was best known for his decade-long struggle with cocaine addiction as the lead in an expensive franchise film was unheard of. And Iron Man as a character was by no means a household name.

But the film defied the odds. It launched Downey Jr. back into the A-list turned Jon Favreau into one of Hollywood’s most in-demand directors and was a major factor in Disney’s decision to purchase Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion. In short Iron Man ’s success led to a dramatic shakeup of the entire film industry.

From that point on everything in the Marvel universe was building towards the summer of 2012. The second Iron Man film Captain America and Thor combined to be little more than a $500-million marketing campaign for The Avengers . Those films focused more on quick character introductions and glorified cameos from other Avengers than coherent storytelling and audiences were basically just told to trust that it would all add up to a kickass Avengers movie down the road.

Meanwhile the American populace mostly just quietly tolerated every new release that wasn’t The Dark Knight Rises .

And now here we are.

The critical response to The Avengers has been unanimous. The movie is very very good and it’s already made hundreds of millions of dollars overseas. It’ll make a whole lot more when it opens this weekend and I’m sure Marvel executives will have a grand time patting themselves on the back.

But where do we go from here?

After spending four years building to The Avengers won’t any film that focuses on a single member of the team feel like a letdown? Can they just start fighting each other Alien vs. Predator style? Can they fight the alien and the predator? Can they abandon all the characters and make another Blade movie?

Marvel’s already begun rebooting its most successful properties but X-Men: First Class didn’t exactly light the box office on fire last summer and the buzz on The Amazing Spider-Man isn’t great.

And as much of a challenge as Marvel faces the task is even more daunting for DC. Batman has been the only character that DC has managed to make commercially successful — although Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel may revive the Superman franchise — and what director would be dumb enough to take the reins from Nolan?

This isn’t X-Men or Spider-Man where reboots seemed necessary after the original cinematic incarnations ran out of gas. This is Christopher Nolan’s Batman. It’s the movie franchise of our time and I don’t know how else to say this but you’d have to be a dumbass to try and do better. Maybe Brett Ratner’s available?

So both of the major comic houses are faced with challenges but fortunately it’s not all doom and gloom. Geek culture (I use the word “geek” lovingly) is more popular than ever and superhero films will still make money if they’re done well. Furthermore superhero stories have historically been adapted again and again by new writers so rebooting the characters is actually consistent with how their stories have always been told.

In other words maybe the risk pays off.

But maybe it doesn’t. And if that happens we’ll look back on the summer of 2012 and hopefully remember it fondly. Never before have there been two franchises of this quality and with this much box-office power that have wound down in such a short period of time.

In my mind it’s the end of a golden age of comic book filmmaking. And we should all embrace that.