Until recently, “nerd” was a derogatory term. If your middle- or high-school peers branded you with this four-letter word, you had a rough life ahead of you, one in which you were doomed to forever be in the out-crowd and to get your share of swirlies — or so movies and TV would often suggest. And the easiest way to attain nerd status was to be seen reading comic books.
Though many of us don’t remember it, there was a time when superheroes simply weren’t cool — at least, not for grown-ups — and had very little presence in the zeitgeist. Though there was the occasional Saturday-morning kids’ cartoon and the even rarer Hollywood film made from stories first told on paneled pages, these rarely had any sort of lasting, mainstream cultural potency.
Until only a decade ago, Marvel Comics, in particular, had struggled to achieve such relevance. Most successful comic-based films had been based on property owned by rival publisher DC Comics, including a string of “Superman” films starring Christopher Reeve, the super financially successful 1989 film “Batman,” and of course, Christopher Nolan’s lauded “Dark Knight” trilogy. With the exception of Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trilogy starring Tobey Maguire, Marvel, though highly successful as a comic publisher under the legendary creative leadership of Stan Lee, was having a difficult time finding its place as a household name in popular culture.
This was further complicated by the fact that some Marvel characters, such as the Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther and Doctor Strange, were largely unknown outside of comics, while others inspired films that were lambasted by critics: Daredevil, Fantastic Four, Hulk and Ghost Rider, to name a few. Not to mention, the previously well-reputed “X-Men” series had taken a critical dip with the poorly-received “The Last Stand.”
Then, in 2008, moviegoers everywhere were introduced to a name few of them had heard: Tony Stark.
“Iron Man” was, in many ways, a super-sized risk. For one, it was Robert Downey, Jr.’s return to big-budget cinema after years of controversy fueled by substance abuse — he has been sober since 2003, according to a 2008 profile in The New York Times. Additionally, it was the proposed kick-start to a years-long saga that would encompass multiple franchises and characters that had yet to achieve big-screen prominence. Needless to say, there was a lot of pressure on “Iron Man” to not only be good, but to sell tickets.
It made over $580 million worldwide, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (M.C.U.) was born. Now, 11 years later, the M.C.U. has given us some of the most critically and financially successful action films of the century: “The Avengers,” “Captain America: Civil War” and “Avengers: Infinity War” were all the highest-grossing films worldwide of their respective years, and all remain among the 20 biggest box-office earners in history. Against all odds, a ragtag team of superheroes, once considered second-rate compared to the likes of Batman and Superman, stood firm at the center of global pop culture. For what must feel like the first time for many, it is finally cool to be uncool.
So, why reflect on all this now? To say that Marvel has been dominating the zeitgeist is nothing at all new — in fact, for some, it’s getting rather old. Still, even considering the gargantuan established success of the M.C.U., it is worth celebrating that “Avengers: Endgame,” the closing chapter to a stretch of 22 films, had a $1.2 billion opening at the box office, nearly doubling the opening take of “Infinity War,” the previous record holder.
Again, some might be rather apathetic to such a statistic, quick to dismiss it as as yet another nauseating instance of big-budget, CGI-heavy, corporate cinematic takeover. However, it is worth recognizing that, even amid great financial success, these characters still represent — have always represented — a dedication to serving and protecting the underdog. The tales of characters like billionaire Tony Stark, haughty neurosurgeon Stephen Strange and god of thunder Thor emphasize the importance of combining one’s strengths and resources with a learned sense of humility, in order to look out for those who may not be blessed with such power. These characters, some of whom have been around for nearly 80 years, have long been icons and role models for the disenfranchised, and they’ve finally found a well-deserved spot in the limelight.
And that, one cannot deny, is quite super.