The scene that for me best sums up The Avengers (2012; dir. Joss Whedon) takes place on the streets of New York City. A huge evil force from another dimension is threatening the city. It spreads in the sky above the city for miles in all directions—it’s huge and dark and it’s getting bigger and it looks mean and its target is New York. Two super heroes look up at this menace. One of them is the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), whose super power, as best I can tell, is skill at martial arts. She looks up at the beast, squints, and pulls out her revolver, which she points up at the monster and shoots repeatedly. Needless to say, this gesture has no effect.
This film lacks the energy and wit of Whedon’s Firefly series and Doctor Horrible’s Sing Along Blog.
I’m undoubtedly wrong and misguided to expect formal rules and conventions in a film such as this one. It follows a comic book logic that would be familiar to anyone who read the DC and Marvel comics from the 1950s and 1960s. In many cases that logic is translated to the films that are based on comic book superheroes such as Superman and Batman and all the others. I don’t read those comic books anymore. My only exposure to what I refer to as comic book logic is through the films that adopt it. And for me as an adult it simply doesn’t any longer satisfy.
So where are the super hero films for adult viewers? One might suggest Star Trek (2009; dir. J. J. Abrams), which was a reasonably intelligent film, full of improbabilities, but not any more so than any other action film. There are moments in the first Superman film (1978; dir. Richard Donner), in the first Spiden-Man film (2002; dir. Sam Raimi), in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films, where the adult world sometimes emerges and you can glimpse for a moment the possibility of a real world in which a super hero actually exists. (The best such moment comes in the first Superman film, which describes Clark Kent’s youth on a farm in the American Midwest with his adoptive parents.)
In the real world, governed by laws of cause and effect, physics and chemistry, super heroes don’t exist. But I would point to M. Knight Shyamalan’s second film, Unbreakable (2000), about a super hero who doesn’t realize that he is unusual, as coming close to providing us with a super hero in an adult context.