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A crucial year for superhero movies

By in Culture

This is going to be a big year for superhero movies.

That’s not to say there haven’t been important years in the past and that there won’t be crucial years in the future, but the big four superhero movies of 2011 come at a time when comic book movies fill our multiplexes and superhero stories permeate our pop culture.

Back in the mid-’90s, the original Superman and Batman movies were the only superhero films of note. They were calculated blockbusters that drew in big crowds, but they hardly legitimized superhero movies in the popular and critical consciousness (even before the travesty that was Batman & Robin).

Then came Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000), bringing the superhero movie into the 21st century and opening the floodgates for the multitude of comic book movies that followed in its wake.

Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man starring Tobey Maguire as the web-slinger cemented superhero films as critical and commercial successes, and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight legitimized superhero films as great films in their own right.

Beyond being home to The Dark Knight, widely considered the best superhero film ever made, 2008 saw the birth of Marvel Studios and the plan to bring the various Marvel superheroes onto the big screen in a shared universe. Iron Man was a big hit and The Incredible Hulk won back the good will squandered by Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk. With Iron Man’s success, Marvel Studios green-lit The Avengers, bringing us to 2011.

The four big superhero films of 2011 — Thor, Captain America, X-Men: First Class and Green Lantern — will determine whether superhero films will continue to be the dominant summer blockbusters, or if they’ve peaked in their critical and commercial popularity. Three out of these four superheroes have never seen a film adaptation, so the big question will be whether audiences unfamiliar with comic books will be drawn in by the adventures of a Nordic god with a giant hammer or a test pilot with a magical ring.

Iron Man and Iron Man 2 were surprise successes, but it will be Thor and Captain America that determine whether audiences embrace the shared Marvel movie-verse. If audiences don’t connect with these two heroes individually, how will they react when they’re put together with half-a-dozen other superheroes in next year’s The Avengers?

Our questions will begin to be answered on May 6 when Thor directed by Kenneth Branagh (Henry V), hits theatres. The film follows thunder god, Thor, banished from Asgaard to Earth by his father Odin to learn humility. There, he becomes involved with SHIELD and must defeat the schemes of his trickster brother, Loki. It stars Chris Hemsworth (Star Trek) as the titular god, Natalie Portman (Black Swan) as love interest, scientist Jane Foster, Tom Hiddleston (Wallander) as Loki, and Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs) as mighty god Odin. Thor is a superhero that most people are unfamiliar with so it remains to be seen whether the film will repeat Iron Man’s success and make a second-tier superhero a hit with new audiences.

Next comes X-Men: First Class on June 3. Directed by Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass), First Class is a prequel to the previous X-Men films and follows the partnership of Professor Charles Xavier and Magneto. It stars James McAvoy (Atonement) as Professor Xavier, Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds) as Magneto, and Kevin Bacon (A Few Good Men) as villain, Sebastian Shaw.

The last two X-Men movies, The Last Stand and Wolverine, were commercial hits but critical flops, alienating the fans that had embraced the previous two films. We’ll see whether First Class reverses the downward trend and returns the X-Men films to critical prominence.

On June 17 the sole DC superhero this year hits theatres. Green Lantern, directed by Martin Campbell (Casino Royale), follows test pilot Hal Jordan as he is given a magical ring that endows him with superpowers and transforms him into a member of an intergalactic organization devoted to upholding peace.

Ryan Reynolds (The Proposal) stars as Hal Jordan/Green Lantern, Blake Lively (Gossip Girl) as his boss and love interest, Carol Ferris, and Peter Sarsgaard (An Education) as mutated nemesis, Hector Hammond. Green Lantern is the first non-Batman/Superman DC film to hit theatres, and the future of DC adaptations will largely depend on whether it is a success.

Finally, on July 22, Captain America: The First Avenger arrives. Directed by Joe Johnston (Jumanji), Captain America follows the red, white and blue superhero as he fights the Nazis in the Second World War. It stars Chris Evans (Fantastic Four) as Steve Rogers/Captain America, Tommy Lee Jones as American Colonel Chester Phillips, and Hugo Weaving (The Matrix) as Nazi nemesis, Red Skull. A Captain America film seems long overdue, but will the patriotic zeal he inspires in people translate into commercial and critical success?

We’ll just have to wait and see. The future of Marvel Studios and further DC superhero adaptations will hinge on the success of these films.

With such stakes at play, 2011 will undoubtedly be a big year for superhero movies. Of course, it may end up only being second biggest as 2012 promises new Batman, Superman, Spider-Man and Wolverine movies and The Avengers. Whether audiences will be sick of men in tights by this time next year remains to be seen. However, there’s one thing for certain: we won’t be seeing the end of superhero movies anytime soon.

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