Individually, there is nothing particularly bad about Marvel's super hero films. The comic book publisher turned studio has spun out flicks with general success. Last year Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor, and X-Men: First Class were all met with approval from both audiences and critics. However, Marvel hasn't delivered audiences with a KO punch since the early 2000's when they rocked socks with the first two Sam Raimi Spider-Man films and X2: X-Men United.
It's safe to say that Marvel has taken few risks leading up to the admittedly risky crossover flick, The Avengers. Many of their flagship films abide by the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mantra. Most of these super hero popcorn flicks are origin stories, involve simple yet relatable character struggles, and wallow in CG spectacle. To be fair, it's a template that still works, but that doesn't mean the cracks of age aren't beginning to show.
On top of that, there is no denying that Christopher Nolan destroyed the new millennium expectations that Marvel had established for a super hero film. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight ushered in a darker, and more mature tone for films based on comic book heroes. The films presented a post-Marvel grey area between the binary good and evil. Even while DC hasn't exactly flourished the Marvel did after the massive successes of said Batman films, Marvel has yet to make a film that acknowledges the more mature sides of their characters and it has hurt them critically.
Iron Man 2 is the most glaring example of how the studio glosses over the darker side of Marvel. The film failed to deal with the fact that Tony Stark, as represented in the comics themselves, has a raging problem with alcohol. Indeed, he has a few too much at points in the film, but the connection between his role as Iron Man and the troubles of Tony Stark is ambiguous at best.
Despite the sea change represented in the Batman films and carried by other films like Watchmen and Kick-Ass, Marvel has chosen to stick to their own patented style over the last few years. Whether or not they plan to utilize the morally black and white, lighthearted nature of its predecessors, The Avengers film promises to be the first major shake up from the studio since its first (successful) foray into cinema.
Marvel has been laying tile for four years, establishing the larger-than-life collaboration in the summer of 2008. Jon Favreau's Iron Man ends on the first cryptic Easter egg that hints at the assembly of the legendary Avengers. A month later, The Incredible Hulk continued the tease by ending on a similar Easter egg. This time Iron Man lead Robert Downey Jr. reprises his role as Tony Stark (Iron Man himself) to add to the speculation that Marvel was establishing a continuity to all of their films.
What seemed like unrealistic speculation and teasing in 2008 has since become reality. The Avengers is coming. We've seen hints, nods, and glimpses speckled throughout Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America, but a lot more rides on The Avengers than making a popular comic book team come to life. Again, the film promises to be the culmination of an on-going continuity that spans across the entire Marvel universe.
The promise is a big one. Now, in a just a couple weeks, the world will see if Marvel can take what comic books have been doing for decades — crossing over — and turn it into a viable form of cinema for the super hero genre. Marvel is betting that cinema is a medium that can juggle the stories of a multitude of main characters in a rather short time frame, not to mention they bank on the audience being familiar with at least five separate prologues. If successful, Marvel could not only revitalized their aging formula, but set an unprecedented landmark for comic book adaptations. Of course, most will have to wait and see for now.