Marvel's superhero juggernaut shows no signs of stopping. Their latest offering, Iron Man 3, opened to near-record box office and continues performing strong. Thor: The Dark World debuts in November, with Captain America not far behind. Outside their main Avengers series, they’re preparing more follow-ups like a sequel to The Amazing Spider-Man.
I'm not a comics reader, so I don't speak out of any deep-seated loyalty to Marvel. As a moviegoer though, I've consistently (save the anemic Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton) preferred their recent line-up to darker flicks like Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy or Zack Snyder's Watchmen. While superhero seriousness is admirable up to a point (and certainly preferable to the opposite extreme), it shouldn't be their raison d'etre.
What Marvel gets right is achieving the right balance of fun and seriousness. Characters and stories are credible enough to invest the audience, yet still leave room for fun and excitement. Iron Man, Thor and The Avengers in particular prove that a superhero movie can be smart and complex without dread mutterings about nuclear war and class conflict.
The Avengers pulls off an impressive trick of balancing a half-dozen heroes. Joss Whedon manages to balance his oversized protagonists without any overwhelming the others; Tony Stark, Thor, Steve Rogers and Bruce Banner (not to mention Black Widow and Hawkeye) get sharp dialogue and enough screen time to register as characters rather than living action figures. It's not Citizen Kane, but that movie didn't end with Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten curb-stomping aliens. As a balls-to-the-wall action extravaganza, it's pretty much perfect, managing to entertain while getting its audience to care about its heroes.
This goes for the individual installments, too. Tony Stark is a complex character: a snarky, alcoholic, womanizing sybarite who sees the consequences of his actions, then seeks atonement through crime-fighting. Yet in his downtime, Tony's not constantly moping about his inner failures; far from it. The villains (Tony's double-dealing VP, a terrorist leader) and scope are credible while allowing for excitement; the sequels even more so. Captain America incorporates its hero into a World War II setting, possibly the only place his old-fashioned patriotism wouldn't seem clunky. Action and characters complement one another.
Thor, on the other hand, is largely set in a fantasy world, where there's less call for grounded drama. Yet the direction of Shakespeare auteur Kenneth Branagh allows the dynamics between Thor, Loki and Odin to be credible and involving. The material takes itself seriously, yet never becomes a drag: Thor's jarring intro to Earth provides plenty of laughs, and of course there's plenty of action. It all comes together in a solid entertainment.
The more overtly "serious" superhero flicks frequently go overboard balancing the ledger. Consider Watchmen: whatever virtues lie in Alan Moore's graphic novel, the film adaptation is an indigestible mass of soap operatics and pretension. Christopher Nolan's Batman movies have always oozed hamfisted political commentary and stark brooding. Yet The Dark Knight Rises took it to absurd extremes, with scenes of revolution more befitting The Battle of Algiers than a summer blockbuster. It’s always tricky to insert political lectures into any movie, let alone one focused on leather-clad bats punching clowns in the face.
There's certainly room for disagreement, as audiences have embraced both approaches. Nolan's Batman flicks were just as successful as The Avengers, not to mention their critical reception. We'll see if the upcoming Man of Steel, a Nolan-Snyder collaboration, can follow suit - or follow Bryan Singer's ill-fated Superman Returns into the dustbin of cinematic history.
Still, Marvel's output up until now has been generally solid. Their greatest pitfall is avoiding the law of diminishing returns, with sequels to Thor, Captain America and The Incredible Hulk building to The Avengers 2. Let’s hope they continue their solid run of popcorn entertainment.