Joss Whedon, the reigning alpha-geek of pop-culture storytellers has succeeded in a task that seemed nearly impossible: he’s created a superhero movie with seven different comic-book heroes that is hugely entertaining, mostly comprehensible, and provides a satisfying pay-off to the promises made by each of the previous movies.
The Avengers has assembled a whole lot of talent; that’s a lot of high-wattage–and no doubt expensive–star power up on the screen. But I really think the most important factor here is Whedon’s solo credit for writing. I can’t remember the last time I watched a big-budget summer movie where the screenplay wasn’t credited to at least three or four people. It turns out that Whedon’s fans were correct in assuming he was up to the task. What struck me most about the movie was how well Whedon managed to stay true to the various characters (and even the disparate tones) from the previous Marvel movies. After all, Iron Man is not very much like Thor, and neither were very much like Captain America (my personal favorite of the pre-Avengers bunch), despite each living in the same comic universe. Yet, when each character speaks, they do so from their own personality and background, even in scenes where many different characters are playing off each other. Whedon’s Buffy and Firefly background no doubt provided the Gladwelllian 10,000 hours he need to perfect his skill at character-driven writing. Within this new movie, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and to some extent The Hulk are developed as breathing characters, without the benefit of significant screentime in prior films, and in spite of the role each has in generating the movie’s manic action pace. (I’m not sure I consider either recent Hulk movie as a contribution.) And Whedon gets good performances from his actors, too. Much has been written (and deservedly so) about Mark Ruffalo’s performance as Bruce Banner, but Scarlet Johanson also puts in a pretty great performance here. (It’s no secret Whedon does strong female characters particularly well).
The other thing that Whedon provides is a keen sense of humor. This is by far the funniest Marvel movie I’ve seen. The comic relief works exceptionally well and isn’t limited to Tony Stark’s trademark snark. Each character has good laugh lines, and I truly did laugh out loud, as did the other audience members at the first-matinee-of-opening-day showing I attended.
The Avengers, like roughly 80% of all superhero movies, is an origin story. The arc of the plot, stripped down, is about what it takes for this various heroes to come together as a cohesive, and inclusive, team. Apparently this means a lot of fighting among themselves before they can fight alongside each other. Lots of him-vs.-her (and her-vs.-him) action sequences involving our heroes before the Avengers ever get around to fighting the baddies. When they finally do come together, though, it feels right. (It also makes lot of use of the New York setting. The Chrysler Building, Grand Central Station and Central Park each make significant cameos.)
It’s not a perfect movie. There’s probably a bit more exposition than necessary (though it’s still maybe below average for this type of movie), and the action sequences in the last act have just a bit of that mind-numbing CGI effect that you get from Transformer movies or Star Wars prequels. Loki is a competent, though not terribly compelling supervillain. Overall, this movie is really good, though, and it’s definitely a whole lot of fun.