"The Avengers" has kicked off the summer season with a bang equal to its superheroes' explosive antics. The movie is the culmination of a years-long franchise, featuring four heroes with their own films, action scenes of epic proportions and a director, Joss Whedon, with his own devoted cult following.

The combination is setting all kinds of box office records: biggest opening weekend total, biggest seven-day total and best second weekend, according to the website Box Office Mojo. More than a month after its debut, it is still the fifth most popular film domestically.

The figures are impressive across the board. But "The Avengers" is not most popular by every measurement. It ranks eighth (with $18.7 million) among the top 10 movie openings at midnight. The highest honor in that category goes to "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2," the final installment in everyone's favorite boy wizard saga, which made more than twice as much as "The Avengers" that first night.

In fact, the first seven spots of the top ten midnight records are held by movies based on young adult novels: Harry, followed by three episodes of the "Twilight" series, then two more Harry adventures, and finally "The Hunger Games," just released in March.

Those numbers speak to the rise of an increasingly prominent moviegoing demographic: young female fans, who will stay up and pay up to see their heroines and heartthrobs come to life on the big screen — even at midnight, even on a school night. Their devotion takes a number of forms, from costumes to conventions to their own creative twists on the stories they so cherish.

As these fans storm box offices nationwide to watch a beloved character shoot an arrow, cast a spell or a kiss a vampire, they are simultaneously making discoveries: finding, through their fandom, a supportive community, controversial issues to contend with and a way to understand their own identity.

A century of fans

Fans are nothing new. Trekkie conventions, shrieking hordes caught in Beatlemania, and tense and sorrowful men in Red Sox baseball caps are long-established symbols of twentieth century fandom.

But according to Dr. Nancy Reagin, historian at Pace University, literary fandom — the same powerful force that has elevated Harry Potter, Twilight and the Hunger Games to such crashing fame — has been around since the end of the nineteenth century.

"It dates back to the development of the first mass market commercial fiction," said Reagin. Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes series, for example, quickly developed an ardent fan following, which communicated through letters and made pilgrimages to the London locations of Holmes' adventures. Readers were drawn to Holmes and his almost superhuman reasoning abilities, as well as the mysteries he so miraculously solved, she said.

According to Reagin, like many fans today, Holmes devotees wrote fan fiction, making Doyle's style and stories their own. "Those were called pastiches," she said, and were even published commercially.

The traditions of fandom, Reagin said, are still resonant today, showing remarkable continuity from their origins to 2012. But the advent of the internet — and its instant and global accessibility — marked a "watershed moment" for fans, permanently changing the game.

Commercial impact

Now fans can communicate with each other at lightning speed all over the world, sharing their own modern 'pastiches.' Fan fiction today takes many forms and is astonishingly prolific — the website fanfiction.net has 594,962 entries of just Harry Potter fan fiction published to date. Twilight has nearly 200,000 entries of its own on the site. Fan fiction is writing about a fictional universe already created by a published author. Some fans write alternate futures or relationships for their favorite characters, or delve into the history of a minor character in a series. Tea Fougner, 33, who goes by Tea-Berry Blue, has been involved in internet fandom since about 2001, starting with the Harry Potter series, she said. Her canon of fan fiction includes, for example, stories about older characters and their childhoods in the 1940s, including historical events from the period, like the London Blitz and the Holocaust.

Fans today can respond to what they love and hate in books and movies with viral effectiveness.

"The entertainment industry has had to pay attention," said Madeline "Flourish" Klink. Klink is a longtime fan fiction author, a scholar of fan studies who teaches courses on the subject as an adjunct professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and an employee at the Alchemists Transmedia Storytelling Company, which consults with organizations who hope to develop positive relationships with fans.

Fan approval is lucrative. The Hunger Games series has sold over 26 million copies including move tie-in books, according to its publisher. According to author Stephenie Meyer's website, her Twilight series has sold a whopping 116 million copies. And the Harry Potter series is listed on Wikipedia as the best-selling book series ever, at about 450 million copies.

The books' accompanying film franchises have made a killing as well. Each eight Harry Potter films made at least $250 million. All the Twilight films except the first have so far passed that mark as well (the last will be released this fall). "The Hunger Games" has passed $400 million.

"The ability for a strong female fanbase to really rocket a franchise to success" is a new but powerful idea, said Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz, a scholar of mass media at the University of Missouri. The phenomenon emphasizes the power of fictional worlds in young lives.

Worlds with ideas

Klink said reading Harry Potter as a child "gave me a way to think about the moral universe." For Badger, 22, J.K. Rowling's books "provided a way for (as the Harry Potter generation) to believe in magic again when were supposed to be growing out of such things," she wrote in an email.

Rachel Gitlin, a high school senior at Hillcrest High in Midvale, saw ideas of egalitarianism in the Suzanne Collins' post-apocalyptic novel. "(The book) gives like a humanity message," she said. "I think it kind of teaches you that people are equal."

The series' heroine, Katniss Everdeen, is "kind of a role model for some girls," said Ashley Vance, 23, of Alpine. Her story, Vance said, teaches women that "we can take care of ourselves. We don't need a guy."

The ideas imparted through the Twilight series have received mixed interpretations and reviews. Behm-Morawitz and her colleagues have recently studied and published on the Twilight phenomenon, evaluating the results of an online survey that received 5000 fan responses and then speaking directly to fans at Twi-Con, a convention on the series.

They found, Behm-Morawitz said, that the fans' understanding of the books' romantic relationships influenced their own ideals for romance in their lives. Some of the women interviewed reported breaking up with their significant other after reading the Twilight books, because their relationship looked poor next to Edward and Bella's. Others who yearned for an Edward-Bella relationship seemed especially keen on maintaining traditional gender roles in their relationship. Some fans were drawn to the pair's commitment to abstinence before marriage.

Bella does not wield a bow like Katniss and focuses more on romance than schoolwork. But her life even beyond Edward provides lessons for teenagers, said Klink. "Bella has opinions about what she wants," she said, and exerts her independence at a young age.

Sharing experiences

"These characters and the narratives are impacting (fans') sort of stored memories about romance and about identity and about gender," said Behm-Morawitz.

In the meantime, however, the experience of being a fan is impacting the lives of young women just through the community found through their devotion.

"When you meet people who are fans of the same thing" said Badger, "you form a sort of instant bond because you've experienced the same feelings and 'magic.' There is a great sense of camaraderie that comes from loving the same things." Badger said she's "become friends with some people I never would have otherwise if it weren't for our mutual love for Harry Potter."

Other fans, like the Sherlock Holmes devotees of old, find communities through fan fiction. For Fougner, the fan fiction community is a group of "really smart, articulate and really accepting people," she said. "I've met so many really good friends through fandom." She's even spent time with some of them outside of the online writing community, she said. When she received a tour of Minneapolis from a fellow writer friend, "that was the moment where (my dad) said, 'Wow, you're really lucky because you have friends everywhere around the world,'" she recalled.

Filmmaker Hansi Oppenheimer is in the midst of making a documentary on this community, said "you kind of expect people to be kind of geeky and they're not, they have jobs and families." Oppenheimer is intrigued by how "passionate (fans fiction writers) are about the stories they're telling."

"They have found a community that supports and encourages them," she said. Gitlin, while not involved online, has seen similar benefits at her high school, which boasts an Order of the Phoenix club, a reference to a secret organization within the Harry Potter series. "It's a vast community of people that are connected," she said.

Expressing identity

At the same time, being a fan can be as much about individuality as it is about community. "The stuff you're a fan of relates deeply to who you are," said Klink.

"Telling people that I'm a fan of Harry Potter speaks volumes about my personality," said Badger.

Fougner's writing "definitely has a lot more to do with expression," she said, than devotion to some particularly charismatic character. Fan fiction allows her and others to draw out characters they relate to most, a way to understand "who I might be if I were part of this world."

"Fans use stories to become part of their own identity and the express that back out to the world," said Klink.

And in the end, the search for a young fan's identity is reflected back at her through the stories of Harry, Katniss, and Bella, despite how distinct each world remains. All three, Fougner pointed out, start out both ordinary and lonely — a boy living with unkind relatives, a girl caring for her family in an impoverished region, a teenage girl in a new town. Each hero, through magic or fame or romance, becomes extraordinary.

"I think every child hopes for that sort of magic to come into their life, " said Badger, "to discover that they're somehow special."

EMAIL: lmarostica@desnews.com