The Avengers, with its all-star lineup of Marvel superheroes, is one of this summer's most eagerly awaited movie events.
With the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, Nick Fury, Thor, Hawkeye, and the Black Widow sharing a single story, the potential for action, character conflict, and verbal repartee is exponentially higher than in a standard-issue single-protagonist adventure. How will the plot link the worlds of four separate movies? How will the headstrong heroes move past infighting to teamwork? Can the script balance so many personalities without leaving some of the players shortchanged?
The answers are still a day away. To tide you over until the film's Thursday midnight opening, here are some of the most notable hero-team movies of the past half century.
Seven Samurai (1954): Akira Kurosawa's massive, many-faceted epic combines unforgettable characters, breathtaking action, subtle humor, and a thrilling story into 207 minutes of cinematic magic. The title characters are a ragtag group fighting on three fronts: against the bandit raiders they were hired to repel and internally against the cowardly farmers they defend and each other. In the comic-heroic role of a pretender-samurai, swaggering Toshiro Mifune became an international star. The setting is 1500s Japan, but the diverse characters and thundering combat scenes were so relatable that the film was remade, quite faithfully, as John Sturges' all-star Western The Magnificent Seven. Though Samurai was coolly received on its initial release, it became the most successful film in Japan's history, and regularly tops critic's polls even now.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966): "For three men, the Civil War wasn't hell. It was practice." Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach play antihero gunslingers who form and break alliances with cynical abandon on their quest for a hidden cache of gold. Sergio Leone's corpse-strewn spaghetti Western classic is a heady mix of machismo, gallows humor, soundtrack hysterics, and grandly operatic photography. The characters' crafty double-crosses lead to a climactic three-way showdown as tense as an overwound clock spring.
The Dirty Dozen (1967): Bad-attitude Maj. Lee Marvin leads military prisoners with death sentences on a pre-D-Day suicide mission against a French chateau full of Nazi generals. Director Robert Aldrich, who made his name in fatalistic film noir and morbid horror, assembles an impressive roster of psychopaths (Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas, John Cassavetes, Donald Sutherland, and more), then mows them down in scenes of brutal, breathtaking havoc. Released in the midst of the Vietnam War, the film upended the heroic conventions of the World War II genre and set the template for Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds.
The Wild Bunch (1969): Bookended by two of the most ferocious scenes of mass slaughter in the history of American Westerns, Sam Peckinpah's cynical outlaw epic hits like a Gatling gun. The film pounds coffin nails into the John Ford myth of the noble desperado. Callous killers William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, and Ben Johnson set out to rescue a captured comrade in Mexico while evading a posse of bounty hunters led by their turncoat cohort Robert Ryan. The gang members are evil by any rational morality, yet they follow their own code of honor; you feel a sense of great loss when these villains reach the end of the line.
The Three Amigos (1986), Mystery Men (1999), The Incredibles (2004): Three action-comedies whose hero teams bumble and grumble their way to victory. Pixar's Incredibles speaks to families everywhere, with a suburban fantastic foursome whose potential is stifled by the obligation to conform. Brad Bird's witty script and nimble direction lampoons the sci-fi crimefighter genre while serving up genuine suspense and thrills. In the broad but agreeable Amigos, Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short spoof Hollywood's bygone singing cowboys as a trio of movieland has-beens hired by the besieged Mexican villagers of Santo Poco, who take the dimwits for real heroes. The Mystery Men are Ben Stiller, Hank Azaria, Wiliam H. Macy, Janeane Garofalo, and Paul Reubens, not-so-superheroes with lame powers (Stiller's "Mr. Furious" has the ability to become incensed). The more schooled you are in fanboy lore, the funnier it becomes.
The A-Team (2010): Take a smart guy, a handsome guy, a crazy guy, and a guy with a Mohawk Afro and you can accomplish almost anything. Director Joe Carnahan, usually associated with straight, bruising action, was a heavy-handed choice to helm this reboot of the old action series. The characterizations remain 1980s-TV primitive (Liam Neeson and Bradley Cooper mug their performances, "Rampage" Jackson is no Mr. T, and only Sharlto Copley commits himself to his madman pilot character). Still, fans of the Michael Bay/ Tony Scott school of "explosions, massive explosions, even bigger explosions" will enjoy its brand of overkill. It's not every day you see your heroes escape a disintegrating Hercules transport plane by riding an armored tank out of its cargo bay.