This summer movie season promises to bring us one of the most exciting lineups of films based on superhero comics ever. First, in May, we'll witness the assembly of The Avengers, as Marvel Studios' grand experiment in linking all of its films to a shared universe culminates in the ultimate team-up of Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, Thor and others. Then early July will bring us The Amazing Spider-Man, a darker, more realistic reboot of the beloved teen hero which promises to tell us things we didn't know about the character before.
Finally, just three weeks after Spidey swings onto screens, director Christopher Nolan will unveil The Dark Knight Rises, his third Batman film and the follow-up to 2008's The Dark Knight, the most successful and, many feel, the greatest superhero movie ever made. All three of this summer's releases have the potential to be (and, in at least two cases, will almost certainly be) major blockbusters. So why does it feel like this summer might represent a major turning point -- if not the end itself -- of this genre of movie?
Now, when we say "the end," we certainly don't mean that the films will stop coming. In 2013 alone, Superman will fly again in Man of Steel, while the relentless Marvel will roll out Iron Man 3 and Thor 2. Yet everything that happens after this summer feels...anti-climactic.
Let's start with The Amazing Spider-Man. Sony Pictures is taking a tremendous risk in many ways by rebooting a series that was wildly successful on its own terms (Spider-Man 3, last and least liked of the films starring Tobey Maguire and directed by Sam Raimi, still grossed $891 million worldwide), recasting the title role and essentially retelling his origin just 10 years after it was first put on screen in 2002's Spider-Man. When audiences realize that they're seeing a different variation on that tale just a decade later, will they accept it?
The Avengers, meanwhile, represents a grand finale in many ways, the endgame of an ambitious and never-before-tried strategy to establish a number of characters (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America) in their own tentpole movies, all leading up to one massive battle royale. But ...what happens then? Yes, Marvel has been weaving the strands of its movies together and pointing all of them in the direction of The Avengers, but do those strands unravel once the film is done as everyone goes back to their own franchises? Does the idea of watching Iron Man 3 and Thor 2 next year somehow pale in comparison? Hell, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) will feature in three movies in three years -- even the most diehard fans of the Asgardian warrior might feel fatigued.
Then there's The Dark Knight Rises. The dilemma here for Warner Bros. is a little more cut-and-dried: this will be the last Batman film directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Christian Bale. By all accounts, it provides a definitive ending to the story that Nolan launched in Batman Begins seven years ago and has so brilliantly executed. But with the character restored to his former glory and as lucrative as they come, there's not a chance the studio is going to say, "Well, all right then, that's how the story ends, we'll leave it there."
It's inevitable that a certain amount of time will pass (hopefully more than a year or two) before Warner Bros. brings in a new cast, a new director, and relaunches Batman all over again. Will they tell his origin story one more time? Or try to pick up where Nolan's films left off (if that's even possible)? Not even Bruce Wayne's skills as a detective can answer that question right now.
Whatever Marvel and Warner Bros. end up doing, The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises are truly the end of two sprawling, large-scale stories that have both been years in the making and have kicked the comic book movie up to a new level -- The Dark Knight was actually a possible Best Picture nominee at one point. Both its sequel and The Avengers promise to be huge films, both artistically and creatively, and could very well form the ceiling of what this genre has to offer. Beyond next year, Marvel is developing obscure titles like Guardians of the Galaxy, while Warner's plan to launch the DC Universe onscreen fizzled with last year's Green Lantern.
If the current comic movie wave -- which arguably began 12 years ago with X-Men -- breaks with this summer's epics, that might not be such a bad thing. The studios may fret, but it might be fine if the genre winds down in the next couple of years and gives audiences a chance to catch their breath, while giving the movies themselves an opportunity to recharge and come back stronger. We're excited about both The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, and we couldn't think of a better way to finish things off -- for now, at least: like the books themselves, the characters and the movies will probably always come back.