Spoiler Level: Safe
The expectations for Joss Whedon's The Avengers have been so high—and the early critical reception so generally positive—that I almost feel like I'm pissing on the parade if I qualify my praise in the slightest. But the buzz around The Avengers has been so good that I feel both free and obligated to temper expectations ever so slightly. So, before I get to the unbridled enthusiasm—which is coming, rest assured—let me get my very mild qualifying remarks out of the way.
The Avengers is not a game-changer: Marvel has been producing better and better comic book movies for several years now, and this latest entry is a culmination of that work, but it is not a quantum leap forward. If you have mostly enjoyed the tone and direction of the Iron Man movies, Captain America, and Thor, you are almost certain to think The Avengers is far and away the best of the bunch. If, however, you did not particularly care for any of those, The Avengers is unlikely to suddenly convince you that there are heretofore unrealized delights to be found in the genre. It does not layer deep symbolic meaning or stuff poignant emotional drama beneath its super-powered shenanigans, and it does not attempt to elevate the genre to the level of high art.
(There was a part of me, I'll admit, that hoped Whedon would deliver a superhero movie that could satisfy the common masses and the snobby elites alike, but The Avengers is not that film. And that's probably for the best: Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight probably comes closest to meeting that dubious criterion, and it's a film I personally find joyless and slightly lugubrious.)
So The Avengers is not a Citizen Kane for the capes-and-cowls crowd, nor does it try to be a superhero film for people who hate superheroes. What it tries to be instead—and pretty much succeeds in being—is the film people who love superheroes have been waiting for all their lives.
The history of superheroes in film and television is one of extremely low—but gradually increasing—expectations. When I was at the height of my comic-book obsession—as a kid in the late '70s and early '80s—it was such a thrill to see live-action superheroes in any form that I watched the Amazing Spider-Man (1977) and Incredible Hulk (1978-1982) TV shows religiously. Neither were very good, and both were puzzlingly mundane. The comic books had presented a universe in which the skies were crowded with capes, and where even the non-powered criminals had costumes, and gimmicks, and thematically fashion-coordinated henchmen to fight. The heroes of these TV shows, on the other hand, fought boring common crooks, and not very convincingly: these shows didn't offer the brightly colored comic book world of deities and demigods; they were more like slightly radioactive versions of Barnaby Jones.
The same problem plagued many projects in my childhood, from the Wonder Woman TV show (1975-1979) to Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie (1978): when there's just one idiot running around with their underwear on the outside, that person looks incredibly silly. Obviously, this was largely a problem of budget and technology: there was simply no cost-effective way to recreate the worlds of the comic books in all their wonders. But it was also a problem of vision: there was no reason a comic book world could not have been as fully realized as—for example—the space opera world of Star Wars, but few filmmakers seemed to think that was a worthwhile goal.
Depictions of superheroes got better, but they never got it quite right. By the time Batman came around, in 1989, comic fans were so grateful to get something vaguely close to the comics that Tim Burton's film seemed like a masterpiece—but it really isn't. It was a major step forward from the campy '60s TV show, but it has its tongue lodged firmly in its cheek, as though everyone involved is still a little embarrassed to be making a movie based on a comic book. (And each subsequent Batman film—as the later Superman films had done—slid further and further towards camp and self-ridicule. You could almost hear the directors saying, "It's just a silly superhero movie.")
Technology—and sensibilities—seemed to start catching up with the comics around the year 2000, when Bryan Singer's flawed but serviceable X-Men premiered: that was the first film that seemed to take its source material seriously, and it also got much closer to the tone and style of the comics. It was not exactly the X-Men I'd loved as a kid, but it was an honorable alternative-reality version. Hollywood has been producing big budget superhero movies ever since, and some have been pretty good: I'd count Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2 (2004), Christopher Nolan's Batman movies (2005 and 2008), and Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class (2011) among the better entries. Others have been pretty awful: the Fantastic Four movies (2005 and 2007), for example, were a reminder of how badly these things can go wrong—even with a decent special effects budget—if the filmmakers don't understand—or care—the first thing about the source material.
But all of these films were made by outside studios. (As far as the Marvel stable of characters goes, 20th Century Fox owns the rights to the X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Daredevil characters; New Line has the Blade franchise; Sony has Ghost Rider and Spider-Man.) As a result, even the best of these films show evidence of studio interference and creative compromises: they tend to take weird liberties with the origin stories and characters, to pack in way too many villains, and to insert unnecessary comedic elements and the occasional musical number. As a result, comic fans have grown accustomed to seeing the glass as half-full: our expectations are so low that we praise a film when what we really mean is, They didn't fuck that up as badly as they could have. Deep down, however, we were always thinking, When is someone going to get a superhero movie right?
In 2008 Marvel Entertainment (and its parent company Disney) took the reins on its remaining properties, and it's made all the difference. With so many other characters from the Marvel universe already housed elsewhere, the heroes of The Avengers were the major untapped assets, and beginning with Jon Favreau's Iron Man (2008) Marvel has been producing consistently strong movies based on those characters. These films have not all been perfect—I thought Kenneth Branagh's Thor (2011) was a bit of a slog, for example—but they have been the most faithful comic book adaptations ever produced, and much closer to the comics than most of us would ever have dreamed possible.
And it's all been leading up to The Avengers. While other filmmakers have seemed to view the comics as merely a jumping-off point—a "let's see if we can do something interesting with this nonsense" approach—writer-director Joss Whedon is a fan at heart—one who understands how these stories work—and he seems to think that the best thing you can do with a superhero comic is PUT IT UP ON THE DAMN SCREEN JUST AS IT IS.
And that's more or less what he does in The Avengers—drawing heavily on Mark Millar's comic series The Ultimates—and it works like gangbusters. When the Asgardian Loki (a delightfully wicked Tom Hiddleston) comes to Earth to lead the vanguard of an alien invasion, SHIELD Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) rounds up a posse that includes Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).
All of these heroes are familiar to viewers of the earlier films, but Whedon takes his time re-introducing all of them, and with a stronger focus on characterization—and much wittier dialogue—than any of them have had before. (The marriage of Robert Downey, Jr.'s delivery with Joss Whedon's dialogue is one of the happier collaborations in recent memory.) Whedon had an uneviable task: having inherited the heroes from earlier films, and having to leave them in a place to have further adventures, he was charged with making us care about six protagonists—seven, counting Fury—that he was not allowed to significantly change in any way. Considering these limitations, he succeeds remarkably: I won't claim there are completely satisfactory character arcs for each hero, but they each get their due, and they are layered with hints of personal background and emotional underpinnings that not only make them sympathetic but also suggest a deep, rich continuity ripe for further exploration. We don't have time to learn that much about any one of them here, but we definitely want more.
(Downey, as always, can just about out-dazzle anyone on the screen, but the entire cast is consistently strong, with a particular standout in Ruffalo's Bruce Banner/Hulk. After two earlier movies—and two earlier actors—The Avengers finally finds a performer who makes this character work, and a way to use the Hulk that finds the fun. The largest laughs in the film, in fact, belong to The Hulk, as do many of its best action sequences.)
Whedon knows what we want: he understands that the charm of team-up stories is seeing these larger-than-life personalities clash, and so we get plenty of misunderstanding-driven hero-vs.-hero fights—a staple of such tales in the comics—and lots of bickering and banter and clashes of style. (Downey's Tony Stark is the most frequent—and funniest—provoker of his fellow heroes: "Dost thy mother know thou wearest her drapes?" he mockingly asks Thor.) Ensembles and makeshift families are Whedon's stock in trade, and by the end of the film we want to go back to Avengers Mansion and hang out with these people some more, to keep exploring the tentative friendships, fledgling mutual respect, and good-natured rivalries that are born here.
But, I hear you ask, what about the action? Well, I'm at a point in my life where I'm a little tired of destruction-heavy third acts of films—property damage running into tens of billions of dollars doesn't entertain me like it used to—but I still have enough of that 9-year-old boy in me to have become positively gleeful over the action scenes in The Avengers. I've spent a great many reviews complaining about messy fight scenes composed by directors who can't convey a sequence of events effectively, and so I was greatly relieved (though not surprised) to discover that Joss Whedon does not lose his remarkable storytelling abilities just because he's handed $220 million. The fight scenes in The Avengers are glorious: if I were feeling churlish I could complain about the uniform monotony (and murky motivation) of the opposing hordes, but they exist simply to allow our heroes to do their things, and do them they do. Previous films have always seemed limited in what kind of action they could present—Batman, for example, has never fought on-screen quite the way he does in the comics—but there are no such limitations here. Superhero action has never been done this well: these are the skyscraper-destroying clashes that I know from my misspent, four-color youth, and all the years I despaired of ever seeing them realized on-screen just make them all the sweeter now.
The Avengers is not a perfect movie, but it's weaknesses are minor and all wonderfully appropriate to its genre: it has a few corny moments, some fairly thin motivation from its antagonists, and some unintentional laughs from comic book elements that will never completely work on-screen. (I saw the film for the first time in a midnight screening of hardcore, overly enthusiastic fanboys, and even among that crowd Captain America's cheesy uniform elicited some groans and laughter.) But what does it matter? There are few of us who would claim superhero comics are high art, or even that many of those classic Marvel stories we loved as children make a great deal of logical sense. What they are is a hell of a lot of fun, in ways that most previous adaptations completely fail to understand, let alone recreate. Joss Whedon not only knows why they're fun, but also knows how to bring that joy to the big screen in ways that feel like the very best moments of my childhood comics come to life.
When is someone going to get a superhero movie right? Thanks to Mr. Whedon and crew, that day has finally come.
Note: I've seen The Avengers now in both 3D and 2D, and the 3D—though not terrible—adds very little to make up for the annoyance and loss of light that it involves. I highly recommend the 2D version.
Additional Note: It probably goes without saying at this point, but you should stay through all of the credits. They're not essential, but there are two short post-credit codas you don't want to miss. The first is the obligatory sequel bait—which comic fans will need to explain to non-comic readers—and the second...Well, all I'll say is that it is pure Joss Whedon.