As you might have gathered from my discussion of the narrative problems in The Dark Knight Rises, I’m a bit of a comic book fan. However, Batman was not the only highly anticipated superhero on the big screen this year. We were also treated to Marvel’s Avengers movie, the culmination of a lot of planning and around five very successful establishing films. I have been following the franchise, I saw The Avengers and I liked it, and though some of the supporting films haven’t been great, I would say it has largely been a successful experiment. But, what interests me most as a Science Fiction author is the way the franchise has found so much success with a general audience. This is not unusual for big-budget action flicks, but it is unusual that Sci-Fi is still seen to be a niche genre.
I know what you’re going to say. The Avengers movies aren’t science fiction, they’re comic books movies. They are flights of adolescent fantasy, not our beloved speculative fiction!
The mainstream acceptance of “superhero” as a genre seems to have blinded people to the Sci-Fi origins of the these characters. In fact, with a few (magical or supernatural) exceptions, most successful superheroes owe their creation to science fiction. Many were born out from our paranoia about nuclear power: Spider-man is the result of an irradiated Spider, The Fantastic Four were astronauts hit by cosmic radiation, The Hulk was caught in the blast of a bomb powered by Gamma radiation. Others are more conceptual Science Fiction, the X-Men are the products or our natural evolutionary process. And then there’s Superman, the grandfather of all modern superheroes. He’s an alien.
While so many of these characters have become bigger than their origins over the years, The Avengers movies have positively played up this side of the franchise. Take Thor, for example. While opinion has been divided over the years as to whether Thor actually is a god or not, Kenneth Branagh’s excellent film establishes quite clearly that Asgard is a physical realm. Character cross from one realm to the next, not by magical powers, but by technology that utilises a very sophisticated understanding of theoretical physics. A Science Fiction story in which Asgard is a real place in time and space, and can be reached only by a giant bridge made of energy? It sounds almost like one of Asimov’s.
The connection is even clearer for the other characters. The story of the Incredible Hulk is essentially a combination of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, two classics of Gothic Science Fiction. Captain America is about a government’s quest to create the perfect soldier. In the Avengers, his story is about a man displaced from his time. Finally, Iron Man is about a man with a robotic suit of armour powered by a revolutionary form of alternate energy.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing that Marvel’s Avengers franchise represents a rebirth of intelligent Science Fiction, but that they represent a growing acceptance of Science Fiction and its themes from a mainstream audience. While the priority will always be action and special effects in these films, they still tell thought provoking, speculative stories that get people thinking. More than that, however, they entertain, and that is the more important trait of all.