Last weekend's record-shattering release of Marvel's The Avengers marks the culmination of a multi-year plan by the comic giant-turned-movie studio to translate the shared superhero universe of its comic books to the silver screen. And while The Avengers’ broad-based acceptance by critics and audiences signals the success of that plan, it also signals the transition of Marvel's "canon" away from the comics over to their screen avatars, potentially sounding the final death-knell for a medium long buffeted by the twin travails of rising prices and reduced readership.
Since 1978’s Superman: The Movie, the first real attempt to treat a comic character with a seriousness and profundity that belied the dimestore origins of the medium, there’s been a constant progression toward giving the filmic superhero genre credibility, with ever-bigger budgets and ever-improved effects. However, the one barrier forever giving superhero comics advantage over their celluloid cousins was the inability to allow characters from different franchises to cohabit the same fictional space, thanks to various legal loopholes and hurdles related to how different properties were licensed to different studios. But that all changed in the mid-2000s.
As Marvel saw the box office bonanza its characters were generating for studios such as Fox (home of the big screen X-Men franchise) and Sony (producers of the Spider-Man film series), they set about reclaiming some of their most prominent properties. Thus, with 2008’s Iron Man, the first Marvel superhero film to be self-produced by the newly-minted studio, the first crack in that final wall between comics and movies appeared via a post-credits “stinger” scene where Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of ubiquitous spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D., assured Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, that he isn’t the “only superhero in the world.”
Just over a month later, this concept was further paid forward when Stark himself visited Universal/Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk. Suddenly, everything had changed. As seen in the collection of “stingers” placed at the close of the different Marvel Studios productions, something that had always been deemed impossible, or at the very least impractical, was now the new normal: Different franchises freely cross-pollinating with one another. From Iron Man to Thor to Captain America to, finally, The Avengers, the superhero movie has finally arrived in its purest form...though it may well have killed the superhero comic in the process.