Standard Article

The Blockbuster Superhero

4. 1976 to the Present

4. 1999–Present

  1. Bart Beaty

Published Online: 13 NOV 2011

DOI: 10.1002/9780470671153.wbhaf090

The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film

The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film

How to Cite

Beaty, B. 2011. The Blockbuster Superhero. The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film. 4:4:85.

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 13 NOV 2011


In a post-credit scene included at the end of Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008), the titular hero (Robert Downey, Jr) returns to the home of his alter ego and is confronted by an intruder, S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Fury asks him: “You think you're the only superhero in the world? Mr Stark you've become part of a bigger universe. You just don't know it yet.” While Tony Stark lacks a sense of the bigger picture, the same can hardly be said of the filmgoers who came to this film armed with a background in the superhero comics produced by Marvel Comics. The audience of knowledgeable comic book fans anticipates key relationships, character developments, and actions that cannot possibly be encompassed by a feature-length film. These spectators are alert to such things as the foreshadowing of the emergence of War Machine, the rival to Iron Man that will be taken on by his friend James Rhodes (Terrence Howard, replaced for the sequels by Don Cheadle), or the background shots of Captain America's partially assembled shield on Stark's workbench, an allusion to Iron Man's partner and sometime rival in Marvel's Avengers comic book series. Thus, when Fury, with the last line of the film, informs Stark that he would like to speak to him “about the Avenger Initiative,” it serves not only to anticipate Fury's role in the Iron Man sequel scheduled to be released two years later, but begins the process of advertising the Avengers film scheduled for release for the first weekend in May 2012. In the world of Marvel Comics, The Avengers is the superhero team that originally featured Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Ant-Man and the Wasp. In the world of Marvel Studios, Iron Man was the second Avengers-related film, following Hulk (Ang Lee, 2003) and preceding, by one month, The Incredible Hulk (Louis Leterrier, 2008), and it will be followed by Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2011) and Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011), with the casts of those four franchises combining for the potential mega-event film The Avengers (Joss Whedon) in 2012. Significantly, Fury's specific use of the term “universe” directly alludes to the lexicon already in place in the comics world referring to the fictional worlds inhabited by characters across different titles and series. This quick scene informs the audience that Iron Man exists in the same world as the heroes of previous films based on Marvel characters, including Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men, and it also anticipates future films.


  • superheroes;
  • blockbusters;
  • franchises;
  • adaptation;
  • special effects