Now I've seen all four of the big 2011 summer superhero movies, so it's time for a little post-game analysis and wrap-up. Who fared the best? Whose franchises are in trouble? What were the highlights and who needs to be sent back to the comic book store?
Financially, the big winners are "Thor" and "Captain America," the latter of which is still in the middle of its theatrical run, but performing about on par with its Nordic cousin. Both were made for about $140 million apiece, and both should make a profit based on domestic returns alone. "X-Men: First Class" won't quite manage that, having pulled in about $145 million so far on a $160 million budget, but the foreign numbers have been very healthy. "Green Lantern" is a flop, having made only around $115 million domestic on an estimated $200 million budget, and foreign audiences have been mostly ignoring it.
This puts Marvel and Paramount in a great position with the "Avengers" next year, being able to tout the convergence of stars from three hit films instead of just Tony Stark and some second-stringers. They should also be able to squeeze out at least a sequel apiece for "Thor" and "Captain America," no matter how "Avengers" performs. Warners has announced they're still looking into a "Green Lantern" sequel, but this may just be posturing to try and shore up the performance of the film while it's still in theaters. "X-Men: First Class" is in a trickier spot, since the prequel didn't do nearly as well as any of the prior "X-Men" films. However, director Matthrew Vaugh has expressed that he's perfectly willing to go ahead with more films in the same universe, and "First Class" had among the best reviews of any superhero outing this summer, according to Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic.
What about the talent? Newcomers got much of the attention, including Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston from "Thor," and Hayley Atwell from "Captain America." Michael Fassbender has been a known quantity among the art house fans for a while now, but his performance as Magneto in "X-Men: First Class" has won him more buzz than all the rest combined. Chris Evans is also enjoying a career rebound for his work as Captain America, along with directors Joe Johnston and Kenneth Branagh, who have proven that they can helm moneymakers again. On the flip side, I'm afraid Ryan Reynolds' ascent to the A-list may prove short-lived after "Green Lantern" didn't take off. I don't think he really had much to do with the film's failure, but as the most prominent star associated with the project, it doesn't reflect well on him. Maybe Reynolds should consider returning to the Marvel camp to play Deadpool again.
But what about what really counts? When you take away all the marketing chatter and the financial measures and the hype and the hand-wringing, were the 2011 superhero films good entertainment? Do they measure up to the best of the genre? And what do they mean for the future of cinema superheroes, if they mean anything at all?
Despite a few prognostications of doom, I see no indications that filmmakers are running out of things to do with superheroes creatively. The Marvel films tackled challenges like period settings, fantasy elements, and the idea of a shared universe where Nick Fury was running around behind the scenes to set up a movie we're not going to see until next summer. The biggest takeaway of the year is that Marvel can turn out good films based on its most outlandish properties and unlikely ideas. I thought "Thor" didn't have much of a story and "First Class" was only lukewarm when James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender weren't on the screen, but both films had a momentum and a confidence to them that DC's "Green Lantern" was sorely lacking. This bodes well for future risky Marvel projects like the "Spider-Man" reboot, "The Avengers," and its possible spin-off films.
DC has a lot of potential and a lot of good superheroes in its roster that I think are long overdue for film adaptations, but Warner Brothers has been far too cautious and shown a consistent lack of faith in their material. There is no reason why "Green Lantern" should have turned out the mess that it was with all the talent they had onboard, or why we don't have "Wonder Woman" or "Flash" films yet. If they let the failure of "Lantern" slow them down, they're going to keep falling further and further behind Marvel. I thought there were plenty of good things about "Green Lantern" worth salvaging, and if DC is serious about a sequel I hope they learn from their mistakes and Marvel's successes. With the next "Superman" movie facing delays and Christopher Nolan's Batman films coming to an end, they need to get their act together and soon.
In the end, I think there was only one great superhero film this year that's going to last the test of time, and that's "Captain America.'' It's not "The Dark Knight" or the original "Superman," but it's at least up there with the best of Spidey and the X-men. Like "Iron Man," "Captain America" was such a great blend of old-fashioned values with modern sensibilities and just a little bit of subversion of formula. "X-Men: First Class" had better individual sequences and a bromance for the ages, but the Captain won me over more fully with the consistent excellence of the production. It was a better movie and a better time at the theater.
I love superhero movies and I'm glad that they're still making strides and will be around for a long time to come in the future. I was deeply skeptical at the beginning of the summer about most of these films, but I was proven wrong at nearly every turn. Yes, we did need another "X-Men" movie. Yes, a "Captain America" film could not only work, but be a lot of fun. And alas, "Green Lantern" sucked, but not for any of the reasons the geeks were worried about. And "Thor," well, I don't have much to say about "Thor." I thought it was mediocre, but I'd give a sequel a chance.
That's it until next year, when "The Dark Knight Rises" and "The Avenger" make landfall. Happy watching, superhero fans. A more comprehensive wrap-up on the summer is coming soon, once I take care of a few loose ends.