Call me old-fashioned, but when I heard that Disney was developing a movie version of The Avengers, my mind immediately turned to Joanna Lumley with a pudding-bowl haircut, legs up to her armpits, and a highly improbable day job which involved saving modern civilisation from a series of comically evil geniuses intent on world domination.
Fortunately, for Hollywood, at least, today's filmgoers have forgotten all about Lumley, and are instead flocking to cinemas, in truly extraordinary numbers, to witness the recent movie debut of an entirely different group of Avengers, drawn from the superhero stable of Marvel Comics.
In the fortnight since it opened, Marvel Avengers Assemble, to use the flick's full name, has made more than a billion dollars at the global box office, breaking a slew of records on the way. It is already the 11th most lucrative film ever made, has been the fastest to accumulate $300m and $350m, had the highest eight-, nine- and 10-day grosses of all time, along with the biggest first and second weekends in cinema history. The movie now sits atop the charts in the UK, across Europe, and every major region except Japan – where it has yet to open. Kerching!
With a following wind, the action-packed tale of Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, Thor and their jump-suited chums will now return enough dough to beat the final Harry Potter movie out of third position in the all-time blockbusters. To a film industry desperate for a good summer, after a mixed start to 2012, that's manna from heaven (or perhaps from the Tesseract). But what, exactly, has Avengers got so right?
Some will argue that it's simply a brilliant movie which got the success it deserves; critics have almost all admired it. Director Joss Whedon (he of Buffy fame) did an admirable job adapting the popular comic series for the big screen, ably supported by a stellar cast, who helped launch the film to universally laudatory reviews. Talk of Oscars may be premature (the Academy tends, in any case, to be sniffy about Studio "tentpoles") but it deserves at least a pat on the back come awards season.
Whedon also carefully exploited his product's pedigree. The principal characters in Avengers were already known quantities to filmgoers thanks to such recent films as Iron Man, Thor and Captain America.
This helped Disney sell it as a classic "four quadrant" movie which could maintain credibility among "fanboys" while also appealing to civilians. Fifty per cent of viewers have duly been over 25 years old, while women made up roughly 40 per cent of audiences so far, far higher proportions than for a normal superhero flick.
But artistic merit has never been a reliable measure of blockbuster status. Judging by the first of our accompanying league tables, listing the top 10 films of all time based on box office returns, it is perfectly possible for a mediocre movie to return historic piles of cash. Consider Avatar, by some distance the most lucrative movie in history. Or Titanic, number two in the league. Or, for that matter, any of the other titles. Good films, some of them. But works of genius? Surely not. (It's worth noting that many of the top 10 coincide with the advent of 3D, and accompanying cinema-ticket price hikes)
A far better yardstick of cinematic greatness is, instead, box office returns adjusted for inflation. To this end, consider our second top 10 (using figures compiled by the wonderful website Boxofficemojo). It is entirely bereft of movies produced in the past decade, and contains only two titles produced in the past 30 years. On this chart, Avengers Assemble sits at a mere 105th. A good performance, certainly. But it's no Gone With the Wind.
TOP 10 FILMS OF ALL TIME: WORLDWIDE BOX OFFICE RETURNS ($M)
1. Avatar $2,782.3
2. Titanic $2183.4
3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt 2 $1,328.1
4. Transformers: Dark of the Moon $1,123.7
5. The Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King $1,119.9
6. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest $1,066.2
7. Toy Story 3 $1,063.2
8. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides $1,043.9
9. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace £1,026.3
10. Alice in Wonderland $1,024.3
TOP 10 FILMS OF ALL TIME: (ADJUSTED FOR INFLATION, US ONLY)
1. Gone with the Wind $1,600.2
2. Star Wars $1,410.7
3. The Sound of Music $1,127.9
4. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial $1,123.4
5. Titanic $1,074.1
6. The Ten Commandments $1,037.5
7. Jaws $1,014.3
8. Doctor Zhivago $983.1
9. The Exorcist $875.9
10. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs $863.3
Figures in millions