Rich Heldenfels

In the pre-dawn hours Friday, Comic-Book Hero Summer will begin.

It’s a summer that will include new big-screen versions of Spider-Man (with Andrew Garfield taking on the role) and Batman (The Dark Knight Rises, the conclusion of the story from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight). Men in Black, which also began as a comic book, will be on view in a third movie in that Will Smith series.

Then there’s The Avengers.

Premiering Friday, the film shot partly in Cleveland aims to be the biggest of the summer — and to finally fulfill the promise made at the end of 2008’s Iron Man.

Iron Man, starring Robert Downey Jr., seemed risky since the title character was far less known than other Marvel Comics heroes like Spider-Man (who by that time had been featured in three international hits starring Tobey Maguire), X-Men and the Fantastic Four. But Marvel Studios was confident enough of success to follow Iron Man’s closing credits with a teaser scene of Marvel mainstay Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) approaching Tony “Iron Man” Stark about an “Avengers initiative.”

Then Iron Man, fueled by an exciting story and an edgy Downey performance, took in about $100 million in its first weekend.

Within days of that premiere, Marvel announced release dates for Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America and, yes, The Avengers.

And, as if that weren’t enough motivation for the movies, The Dark Knight premiered later in 2008 and became one of the most successful movies of all time, with worldwide revenues exceeding $1 billion.

But how do you persuade an audience accustomed to big thrills and compelling characters to come back for more — especially when the special effects needed for super-heroics can necessitate budgets so big that you need to fill a lot of seats? Green Lantern took in more than $116 million in the United States, according to Box Office Mojo, but had an estimated budget of $200 million; even counting overseas revenues, it was a dud.

It takes thought, and time. The Avengers was originally scheduled for the summer of 2011.

Reinvention of characters is one way to invigorate the audience (and possibly alienate it), as Batman’s long screen history has shown. But a more obvious course has been to up the ante, whether through better technology such as 3-D (which will be offered for The Avengers), and bigger or more villains.

The Avengers, though, has settled on one main villain — Loki, Thor’s brother, again played by Tom Hiddleston — and an ensemble of heroes. Iron Man (Downey), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Captain America (Chris Evans) have all appeared in recent Marvel movies; Jackson’s Nick Fury has been a recurring presence in those films. The Hulk has also been a film franchise, most recently in the 2008 movie starring Edward Norton, but Mark Ruffalo has taken over the role for The Avengers. Then there is a new guy: Hawkeye, played by Jeremy Renner.

Such team-ups have been relatively common in comic books, where DC heroes often worked together, including in the Justice League of America, and Marvel has had not only the Avengers — who premiered as a somewhat different unit in 1963 — and the Defenders. But movie groups have been much rarer — the Watchmen are one notable attempt — not least because you have to serve many characters in a relatively limited amount of time.

Adding to the challenge for the Avengers is that they, like most Marvel characters, have unhappy sides and do not always play well with others. They are also from different creative places; as one Avengers trailer notes, their roots range from the technology of Iron Man to the mythology of Thor.

In press notes for the film, writer-director Joss Whedon (TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer) concedes that “Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor and Captain America don’t seem like they could co-­exist and ultimately that is what intrigued me and made me go, ‘This can be done and this should be done.’ ”

Indeed, Whedon was especially intrigued by the idea of people who would not get along being united for a common purpose. And trailers for the film have given plenty of attention to both sides of that: the banter among the heroes, and Stark’s warning Loki that he will face a united front.

While the Marvel movies of the last four years have been a mixed lot, with the original Iron Man still the best, The Avengers is most intriguing precisely because it is putting so many intriguing characters in one place.

Both audience and studio expectations are high. Showings will begin at 12:01 a.m. Friday. Many fans will pay the premium price to see The Avengers in 3-D. Some will already have been in theaters for 10 or 12 hours before the premiere, sitting through marathons of other movies in the Marvel canon.

I am approaching my Tuesday preview of the film somewhat nervously. (Look for a review on Thursday.) Can it achieve all it wants, even in 142 minutes of screen time? Will there be enough Black Widow? Too much Thor? But the fan in me has been waiting for this a long time — looking at the various trailers and simply thinking, “Cool.”

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and in the HeldenFiles Online blog at http://heldenfels.ohio.com. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.