07/07/2012 07:28 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Dark Knights , Avengers , Bond ing Retro Action Heroes: How Long Will the Superhero Phenomenon Last?

America likes action, and so does the world, no question about that. And with a slew of big superhero movies and action hero movies this year, we're getting plenty of it.

We've already had, and still have, The Avengers, that triumph of long-range marketing that works well as a movie. Though it still feels more like the set-up for, wait for it, another movie than any particularly culturally resonant event.

The past few days have seen the advent of a new Spider-Man and ... A new Spider-Man? Yes, rebooting a franchise that began only 10 years ago, with each of the original three films big hits. (The third, no critical favorite, grossed nearly $900 million in global box office.) Another origin story, not so long at all after the first origin story (and suspiciously like the first one). This is strange. But it will take in a lot of money.

How high will The Dark Knight Rise?

And in less than two weeks we have no less than Bruce Wayne, a.k.a. that very well-adjusted gentleman himself, the Batman. The Dark Knight, second in Christopher Nolan's trilogy, and a very culturally resonant event, was for the me the key film of 2008. (Just as Nolan's unrelated Inception was the film of 2010.) The trilogy ends with The Dark Knight Rises, which strongly hints, through production secrecy, at being a deeper ending.

And there are other big action movies with heroes who don't have superpowers. (Batman's only superpower is his billionaire status, which gives him "those wonderful toys" for tools as Jack Nicholson's Joker called them in the outstanding 1989 film. Aside from that, he's just very smart and very athletic. It all adds up to the sort of edge that a regular action hero can't have.)

Superheroes (almost) invariably prevail, when they do prevail, with unique powers. Whereas action heroes have to do it the old-fashioned way, through athleticism and strength.

Think of them as classic action heroes. Sounds better than retro, doesn't it?

There's the mash-up of '80s and '90s stars, some of them the biggest, in The Expendables 2, sequel to Sylvester Stallone's 2010 summer hit. Arnold Schwarzenegger, still in the second term of his sidelight gig as governor of California, could only do a cameo, a memorably amusing scene with Stallone and Bruce Willis, who also did only a cameo. But Schwarzenegger, Stallone's mercenary rival in the first picture (just as he had been his rival in movies), and Willis, a dodgy CIA type, are back for more action this time around.

There are several others, including the latest Bourne saga, albeit missing Jason Bourne this time around, and a reboot of Schwarzenegger's 1990 scifi action classic Total Recall, with Colin Farrell taking on the real or reel/construction worker or superspy dilemma of Douglas Quaid.

And of course there is the new James Bond movie, at last, gods be praised, with all the corporate/financial troubles that led to a four-year delay since Daniel Craig's second excellent outing as 007 finally sorted. This year is the 50th anniversary of the Bond film franchise. Which had a particular resonance with the close of the latest season of Mad Men, notably utilizing the perfect theme music of You Only Live Twice to make sense of the close of a chaotic season, bringing the central character back to his man of mystery persona, as I discussed here on the Huffington Post in "Looking Forward From Mad Men's Meandering Season 5: You Only Live Twice (One Can Only Hope)."

More about Bond in a moment, and much more to follow as I write about the 50th anniversary of the film franchise, as I began to do here earlier this year in "Impossible Missions and 50 Years of Bond" before the Mad Men season began.

Actually, Mad Men, which I just finished writing about a few weeks ago, pointed up the allure of these movies very early on in its run. As one character said of ace ad man Don Draper and the mystery and mystique that surrounds him: "That guy could be Batman for all we know." Then the actor who plays Draper to such great effect, Jon Hamm, was touted for Superman. While Hamm, who dubbed himself too old, didn't go on to be cast as the new Superman, the actress who plays Betty Draper in the show, January Jones, played mutant super-telepath and more Emma Frost in 2011's X-Men: First Class.

Incidentally, you can see all my Mad Men pieces, going back to 2009, here in The Mad Men File.

Rather amazingly, The Avengers is the number three movie of all time in both domestic and global box office, behind two movies from some guy named James Cameron. One about a boat that sinks, the other about some folks with the blues.

The Avengers, of course, has become the biggest superhero movie of all time, trailing only two movies directed by some guy named James Cameron on the domestic and global box office lists. It's very well-made, with some clever touches from director Joss Whedon, who was very clever with his cult TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And it's very well-cast, with a team of superheroes -- the great Robert Downey, Jr.'s Iron Man/Tony Stark, Chris Evans's Captain America/Steve Rogers, Chris Hemsworth's Thor, and Mark Ruffalo's Incredible Hulk/Dr. Bruce Banner -- joined by other action heroes like Scarlett Johanson's Natasha Romanov/Black Widow, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, Clark Gregg as Agent Coulsen, and Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury.

It's very entertaining, it's great spectacle, but it doesn't have that extra something, that depth that can make a genre movie resonate in the culture far beyond the vicarious thrills and the ringing of cash registers. For example, Star Wars had the Force and a noble quest. Nolan's Batman films have a great, conflicted, central character very ably played by Christian Bale and social relevance with turbulent times.

Even some among the movies that were, in essence, feeder films for The Avengers -- the first Iron Man, the recent Captain America and Thor movies, the earlier Hulk movies -- had greater resonance.

The first Iron Man was a revelation, both about Downey as a credible figure in such films with entertainingly fascinating twists and about an insouciant merchant of death who discovers a conscience. Captain America was a wonderful return of '40s values and styles, with Evans winning in the role as a very good man who wants to do the right thing. He becomes, essentially, the best athlete in the Olympics -- in every event! -- but the superpower afforded him by the super serum doesn't change who he is as a person. And director Joe Johnston's time working on Raiders of the Lost Ark, perhaps the greatest action-adventure film of all, certainly stood him in good stead for the gig.

The Avengers, well, that is a very entertaining movie. It doesn't have the cluttered feel that made Iron Man 2 somewhat disappointing, as this time around there are important things to do for characters who seemed, in Iron Man 2, jammed in for the sake of setting up The Avengers. But it still feels like it's setting things up. Because it's the team getting together at last, learning to work together against somewhat random alien invaders, etc.

Which is not to make light of the movie. It has grossed over $600 million at the domestic box office and I look forward to seeing it again at some point. I certainly won't miss the next one.

But if we're looking for the deeper superhero movie, that will have to be The Dark Knight Returns.

It's certainly shaping up to be dark, which frequently passes for deep. In Nolan and Bale's hands, I have faith that it will be deep. Its predecessor certainly was.

As I wrote here in 2008 in "Dark Knight America," "When America is in a dark mood, Batman pictures do well. America is in a very dark mood."

America is in a dark mood now, and very divided. But it was in a darker mood in 2008, with the economy crashing into the worst recession since the Great Depression and the country reacting to the excesses of the Terror War.

I suggested then that "The Dark Knight ends up in much the same place we find ourselves today. Bereft of a clear-cut hero. Having narrowly survived a fundamental assault against our essential selves. And wondering what comes next.

"Both in terms of our attempts to protect ourselves against a threatening world. And in terms of our attempts to protect ourselves against our own worst instincts to protect ourselves."

I haven't seen The Dark Knight Rises. The Nolan team has done a great job of not revealing much about the plot, though some things are coming into tantalizing focus.

But what we do know suggests a dark and action-packed ride through resentment, division and widespread conflict.

Which may turn out to be a funhouse reflection of where we are now.

There will be much more to say after seeing the movie. But I wonder if it might not be too dark. Too dark, not to become a mega-hit, but too dark to eclipse the performance of The Dark Knight, which in turn was surprisingly eclipsed at the box office by The Avengers.

Batman, as I mentioned earlier, is something of an anomaly as a superhero -- a figure defined by having powers that a normal human being is incapable of. It's only his great wealth, and will, that enables him to approximate superhuman powers.

The Avengers, Spider-Man, they, like the X-Men -- who were re-booted to excellent effect last year in the '60s origins story X-Men: First Class -- do have the more characteristic extraordinary powers beyond human capability. I distinguish Tony Stark's Iron Man from Bruce Wayne's Batman in this, because the technology that Stark brings to Iron Man is so advanced and unavailable that it gives him superpowers.

The superhero phenomenon is an interesting development in our culture that may coincide with rampant coach potato-ism and screen-orientation. Especially as the feats are pretty much all CGI.

It makes it much easier for sofa spuds and screenies to avoid thinking about becoming physically capable. All you have to do is imagine being a Norse god from another planet, or a high school kid bit by a radioactive spider, and you're there. No need to work out, no need to risk injury. It can all be fixed, as the saying goes, in post.

The Expendables 2, not about California budget cuts, arrives on August 17th.

Next month sees a return to the old school of action heroes with The Expendables 2, starring Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Chuck Norris, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, Liam Hemsworth, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. It's the sequel to 2010 summer hit, which was a lot of fun but got pretty generic toward the end.

In their movies of the past (though Hemsworth is a newbie), the stunts are real, the action is, er, real-enough. These are guys who, if they can't do everything in their movies, they at least look as though they can.

I remember encountering Schwarzenegger in 2002 after I revealed, to his political consultants' embarrassment, in this LA Weekly piece that his campaign for an after-school programs initiative had just polled on his potential as a write-in candidate for governor. (This was the year before the famous California recall election, then not a glimmer on the horizon.)

Schwarzenegger glowered and pointed at me: "You!," he shouted. And though I figured that he found it (mostly) amusing, the thought crossed my mind that, if I weren't agile, he could knock me through a nearby plate glass window.

Then there's Stallone, quite convincing in his Rocky films (though it occurred to me, having done a little boxing in the Navy, that Mr. Balboa would probably have died about 17 times) and is maybe more convincing in the Rambo pictures (but for the part about being a soldier who doesn't wear a shirt).

Both he and Schwarzenegger have had numerous surgeries from the wear and tear of performing their stunts and action scenes. Of course, there's no need for that when the action is essentially added on a computer in post-production, as is the fashion with superhero films.

As his first movie to appear since the governorship (he's shot three so far) comes out this summer, it's also the anniversary of a couple of key Schwarzenegger action hits. The 30th anniversary of Conan the Barbarian, showing him in full primal mode. And the 25th anniversary of Predator, in which he is in primal and technological modes.

The new James Bond film for the 50th year of the franchise, Skyfall, opens in the U.K. on October 26th and in the U.S. on November 9th.

Late this fall we see the return of arguably the original action hero, tuxedo, martinis (despite the silly media kerfuffle about him supposedly only drinking beer now), and all.

There's far too much to say about the cultural impact and interpretations of James Bond -- which is so pervasive that it inspired the smash hit Austin Powers spoof series, as well as Schwarzenegger's own take on the suave super-spy phenomenon in True Lies -- to delve too much into it in this particular piece. But the thing that is most pertinent, for this essay, is that Bond is an action hero, not a superhero.

While the charming Roger Moore wasn't all that convincing delivering the action -- his martial arts moves make it look as though he has just awoken from a sound sleep -- the others all definitely had their moments. Sean Connery in many ways was the original action hero.

And the current 007, Daniel Craig, is very believable as an action star.

Those are real stunts in the Bond pictures. No CGI. Craig does many of them himself and those he doesn't are done for real.

I'm very fond of much of the superhero cinema. My personal favorites are the X-Men (who of course include very notable women), because they bring more heart and social relevance, as well as the intriguing scientific premise of uneven evolution and mutation.

But I wonder when, or if, the patent unreality of the now pervasive superhero phenomenon becomes too much.

I breathed a big sigh of relief when I saw the first trailer for the new Bond film Skyfall. At last, I thought, some reality-based fantasy with grown-up style.

I can remember when Bond films were viewed as the height of unreality. Now, especially with Craig's gritty back to basics style, they play almost like documentaries.

Well, er, not really. But you know what I mean.

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