By the time ‘Batman Returns’ was in production in 1990, the two flagship DC characters were proven commodities at the box office in addition to their half century of comic book success. It was not until Marvel released ‘Iron Man’ in 2008 that films based on comic books were expected to be blockbusters.

Iron Man’ changed everything. While continuously relevant to the Marvel Universe, the character was not the instantly recognizable, emblem bearing brand name that Superman and Batman have been for Warner Bros. Not only was the film a breakout hit, but a now-standard post credits scene brought the Marvel Universe and the idea of a super group to the big screen for the first time. DC and Warner Bros. had teased a Superman/Batman crossover before but Marvel beat them to the punch.

Now ‘Iron Man 2’, ‘Thor’, ‘The Incredible Hulk’ and ‘Captain America’ have all continued to the lead up to ‘The Avengers‘ through post credits scenes and “easter eggs.” 2012 will see the release of one of the most anticipated films of all time.

It seems like a great time to be a geek. But with expectations, every flaw, every shortcoming will be amplified a hundred fold. The bar has been set high. While ‘Thor’ has brought in nearly $500 million and ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ another $368 million, not every superhero has met the goals of the producing studio. Green Lantern’ earned $220 million on a budget of $200 million and was a critical failure. More significant (and indicative of high standards), 2006’s ‘Superman Returns’ did not garner a sequel and disappointed Warner Bros. despite hauling in almost $400 million. Apparently, they expected $500 million so director Bryan Singer was separated from the franchise and we will see a reboot next year starring Henry Cavill.

With five movies and God only knows how much of a promotional budget, ‘The Avengers’ will be a huge milestone for superheroes on the big screen. Not only will it bring together some of the biggest Hollywood stars, but it is written and directed by Joss Whedon. If ever there was a king of the geeks, Whedon would wear the crown. Fans are almost universally excited. I’m sure that Marvel Studios will look on the film as its crown jewel. But there’s no such animal as a sure thing. If there was, DC would be working on viral marketing for ‘Green Lantern 2’.

Few have earned more credit with the Comic-Con crowd than Whedon. ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and ‘Firefly’ are still inspiring cosplayers and selling DVDs. A script doctor turned show runner, it would be easy to mistake the entertainment dynamo for an instant home run. ‘The Avengers’ is expected to have universal appeal and to make more money than any of its five predecessors. While die-hards continue to keep the legends of Buffy, Angel and Captain Malcolm Reynolds alive, you’ll note that no Whedon run show is still on the air. ‘Buffy’, ‘Dollhouse’, ‘Firefly’, and ‘Angel’ were all cancelled. None of them were ended when Whedon decided. While the oft-bearded powerhouse has been a script doctor or screen writer on some incredibly received films (‘Toy Story’), he has never been at the helm of a project that was an unequivocal success. While there are few properties as treasured as their fan base as ‘Buffy’  and ‘Firefly’, they never broke out their hardcore niche to garner the eye-popping ratings that, say, ‘Walking Dead’ achieved in its first season.

River Tam couldn't shoot her way to a second season.

There is absolutely no doubt that Whedon takes his ‘Avengers’ responsibility seriously. There is also no doubt that Marvel Studios and Disney expect their flagship property to stand up to the billion dollar juggernaut that is 2008’s ‘The Dark Knight’. For better or worse, Batman has become the new benchmark and that level of cineplex love is harder to achieve than many assume.

If it was a shock that threw a franchise into doubt when ‘Superman Returns’ failed to reach the $500 million mark, it will be a huge blow the genre if ‘The Avengers’ falls short. Such a public and unexpected failure would surely spell an end to the seemingly automatic green lighting of super hero projects.  That might mean some of the most hoped for adaptations to be rumored, such as ‘Y: The Last Man or The Flash’, might never see the light of day and make Patty Jenkins leaving ‘Thor 2‘ moot.

The Batman franchise, under the stewardship of Christopher Nolan, has shown how far a hero can go at the box office. But Batman is instantly recognizable. He has taken on so many forms and meant so many things to so many people, that if you make a decent movie, of course it will be a success. Despite their stature in the comic book world, even the Big Three of ‘The Avengers’ all rank behind the caped crusader in terms of recognizability. Or at least they did before they all had mega hits on the silver screen.

Even if the ‘Avengers’ lives up to the expectations of comic book readers (no easy task), it may not be the tent pole film that Marvel Studios believes it will be. Even though Captain America and the Hulk are better known, ‘Kick Ass’ was a fair adaptation of a popular comic that was praised by readers but only made $96 million. That won’t even be close to the bare minimum for Joss Whedon. I believe the final result will live up to expectations from comic book fans and Hollywood executives. ‘Iron Man 2’ brought in more than the original film and Cap and Thor brought even more fans into the Marvel Zombie fold. Five films are the best marketing campaign any filmmaker can ask for.

There is every reason to think that The Avengers will mark the culmination of over a decade of increasingly popular super hero films.  It will co-star the highest grossing actor ever, after all. More than any movie before it, it will most likely prove that the genre is no passing fad and show that a shared universe is a huge asset at the box office. But it is no given.

The hopes of fan boys and girls everywhere rest in the hands of a man that’s known for writing witty banter and adding ‘y’ to the end of any noun he can find. Rather than television failures ‘Buffy’ and ‘Firefly’ could be seen as the forerunners to a nerd idol’s lasting legacy. Let’s hope that this time, Whedon gets to decide when to walk away.