And then this happened.

Warning: There will be spoilers

My version of what everyone is saying about The Avengers is that we’re now living in the post-Avengers world. For over 3 years, everyone knew this was coming. The Avengers is a huger part of the public consciousness than it ever was as a comic and now that the movie has finally arrived, and the big ballsy gamble paid off, it’s going to get even bigger. No joke, The Avengers is hands-down the best Marvel movie yet made and is almost hilariously easily the best superhero movie yet made. This is because Joss Whedon was the right guy, with the right cast, and the right amount of money to create a big blockbuster movie that is a total treat, presenting set-ups and pay-offs not only within its own confines, but dependent on 4 years of Marvel movies and 40 years of Marvel comics.

Just how right is Whedon? It won’t even surprise anybody who’s watched shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and especially Angel that the guy is the world’s leading expert on juggling superhuman egos and powers with humanizing vulnerabilities, attachments, and aspirations. While able to juggle the likes of Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor, Whedon shows the potentially unique ability to let each character weave their way in and out of the core narrative, making sure that everyone has their moment in the spot light. And yes, this extends to Black Widow, Hawkeye, and especially the Hulk. Not only is Whedon the first filmmaker to give us a Hulk we can stand up and cheer for, he also manages to take an eye-candy non-character like Black Widow (as far as Iron Man 2 had it anyway) and turn her into someone far richer. If you’re well-versed in Joss Whedon’s work, his ability to capture depth in character and theme with a deft and effortless hand isn’t going to surprise you. All I can do is tell you that he pulls it off here, and then some, and for everyone else: this stuff is what makes this movie so very exceptional.

Loki is the perfect villain for this movie, and for Joss Whedon.

Everybody should basically know what happens to kick off the biggest superhero team-up in movies. That said, let us process:

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is back (from outer space!) to get his hands on the tesseract cube (featured in Captain America) which he plans to use to bring over an army of alien Chitauri to take over the Earth. He’s tapped to do this by some shadowy, gleefully comic book evil middleman, but he’s really still trying to fuck with Thor. Meanwhile, SHIELD are the ones who have to bear the brunt of Loki’s initial mayhem but are not ready to use any contingency but one: the scrapped Avengers Initiative. Putting the word out, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) gathers the people on hand: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). Because Clint Barton (Hawkeye: Jeremy Renner) has gone rogue, presumably under Loki’s control, Fury only has Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow: Scarlett Johansson) to help him with the recruiting. Of course, because it’s Loki, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) throws himself into the mix.

The first hour of the movie is comprised of the set-up and first meetings between these guys. Because they all, at first, have their own motivations and giant egos, it sorta gets hairy. This is what people who love these guys, as individuals, want to see: who’s tougher and why? How do they use their powers and tools effectively against each other, let alone the villains? Why are these guys worth rooting for, not just as heroes in their own worlds, but as a team in a shared one? Some are saying that The Avengers has a bit of a rocky first act as it puts all these pieces together. If that’s true, it’s when the egos and vibranium shields start to clash that this movie poo-poo’s any possible reluctance on our part. Whedon gets to say, “don’t worry, I got this guys” in just the biggest fucking way with this movie.

The Avengers is a movie of moments. Like this one!

One of the surprising things about how the plot plays out is that it is so chaotic. Different characters are in different places, doing different things, at different times and are woven in and out of the set-up until they’re finally all gathered at the Helicarrier (which, awesome) with Loki in tow. This is when the movie shows all the cards in Whedon’s storytelling deck. Once he has all these people in one location together, playing off each other with mini-bromances, bickering, and so on, this movie just takes off. Most of the best laughs (because The Avengers is seriously funny) and fuck-yeah! character moments happen on the Helicarrier. It is also where Whedon gets to exercise the theme that these people are really just a dysfunctional family that, for the nonce, can’t put their differences aside in order to work together.

How they do is interesting. With them scattered and faced with the reality of what Loki is capable of and about to do, the time comes around to put up or shut up. We obviously know all the heroes will finally realize what they can be united, but it’s so much fun to watch it play out. From the surprising and sorta touching camaraderie of Hawkeye and Black Widow to that big cliche moment where the Reluctant One shows up just in time, The Avengers is all about providing everything you could ever want in a movie about awesome people learning how to recognize the awesome in each other when it matters most.

One of the my favorite relationships in the film, especially in that it never becomes a romance.

As you’ve likely heard, the last 30 minutes and more of this movie are all about the big huge action set-piece where everybody fights together. It is true what you have heard, this sequence is a game-changer. The big moments come every few seconds, and there are tons of them so that everyone will have their own favorites (mine will always be Hulk Catches Iron Man). Whedon also shows a remarkable affinity for shooting action and staging the fights, including brief team-ups and so much fucking movement, in a way that feels fresh and new and speaks to the possibilities of these movies about crazy super-powered people doing crazy super-powered things. One of the great concerns about The Avengers was that, like the other Marvel movies, it just wouldn’t have enough spectacle. It wouldn’t feel big enough. Well, it does feel big enough. There’s a virtuoso sequence where the camera takes us through all the corners of the fight, showing how Cap’s plan works not because it is so sound to begin with but because each member of the team has strengths and weaknesses that Cap (and the audience) understands and are able to constantly adapt through the shifting nature of what is really a fucking war movie sequence with superheroes.

And now I want to see Whedon do a “men on a mission” war movie.

The special effects in the movie are lavish and incredibly well done, doing a lot of the heavy lifting for supporting the overall degree of spectacle. There are moments where the composition shows, where CG elements look pasted onto the on-location shots. This might be a side-effect of 3D post-conversion which, honestly, this movie didn’t need. That said, it’s the best post-converted movie I’ve seen. Those dodgy parts, if you even notice them, aren’t a problem at all for the movie because this is every dollar on screen, the kind of work where you know they did their best. And, of course, it helps that for every dodgy shot there’s three more fucking amazing ones right after.

Swoon.

A lot of people are talking about how the Hulk just up and walks away with this movie when he gets in his stride. It’s pretty true. Of all these titans, the Hulk is the one who has the most fun with the big fight. This corresponds directly to the amount of fun the audience is having, balancing the more serious (Thor spends most of the fight bleeding out) considerations with the egoless mania of a toddler unleashed on a LEGO castle. It is amazing.

It’s not hard to see why the Hulk would be my favorite of Marvel’s heroes, at least in this film. Everything about Banner/Hulk is an issue of control. Because of what he can become if he gives an inch of restraint and subsequently gives into his worst impulses of rage and destruction, Hulk is the guy no one really wants around much. I can relate to that, ask anyone who knows me. Hulk is the quintessential “good in small doses” superhero, at least as far as the dynamics of team composition and family/community socialization with other heroes go. Whedon understands that and helps Ruffalo create a Banner who is quietly tortured, selfless enough to keep away but lonely enough to carry the burden with bitterness covered thinly by a wry sense of humor about it all. Deep down, Banner just wants to be accepted but he (and others) view Hulk as a barrier to that. The monster-is-human trope plays out beautifully in this movie, in a way that only Whedon could pull off with such limited time.

When the Hulk is finally unleashed, no one knows if he’s going to be a hero or not, except for Tony Stark, who is the one guy that totally believes in both sides of Banner. Stark’s influence is largely what gives Banner the impetus to finally get involved, not just as the scientist, but as the single most powerful member of the team. Though they don’t share as much screen-time as they could have if it was just a two-way team-up movie, Whedon gives us everything we need to understand their relationship and how it leads to this:

Double swoon.

Now all this talk about the Hulk isn’t to say the other heroes get the short end of the stick. Only Hawkeye, because he spends most of the movie as a bad guy, doesn’t get much development. Renner is able, however, to infuse the character with a modicum of that intensity that worked so well in The Hurt Locker. This makes Hawkeye a character you want to see again, even if his bow-fu is maybe the hardest thing in this movie to take seriously. Likewise, Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) who acts as Fury’s aide-de-camp doesn’t get much to do but shows a focused competence that makes her interesting as a potential foil to Fury in later possible SHIELD-focused movies. Basically, you want to see both of these people again and that’s about as far as Whedon takes them.

On the other hand, Fury is at his best here, with Jackson playing him as resigned and maybe even a bit sad as opposed to pissed off and suave, the Sam Jackson trademarks that his earlier appearances in the Marvel films coasted on. The real triumph though is Black Widow, who is the sole female on the super-team and therefore a given for Whedon to explore and enrich. Johansson is one of the best actresses of her generation only very few people know it. She often plays quiet, intellectual beauties and her natural dignity is sort of the counter to many, many young actresses canned bubble-head super-enthusiasm, a thing that is practically required in romcoms or straight comedies, which is why she appears in few (none?) of them. Here, Widow is Whedon’s classic sinner-turned-atoner (Faith, Spike, etc) fast-forwarded to the point where she understands her role and her place in the world, even though she wasn’t always working for the good guys.

Amongst the supers, Stark and Cap are given the most development. Stark has begun to realize already that team-effort might be better than soloing everything, but his ego doesn’t allow him to confront the prospect of the Avengers with anything more evolved than “stand back and watch me work”. At least at first. It’s through Stark that we gauge the arc of the movie. When he’s ready to join in, it corresponds directly to the audience’s readiness to move past the set-up, bickering, and beat-downs to something greater. Getting to play off everyone else on the team probably the most, Downey Jr. shows such a flexibility with the banter and comedy of the role that it’s a coup to make his character the functional “heart of the team”. Like everyone else, Stark is wounded and prideful but ultimately possessed of enough self-sacrifice and nobility to rise above it. He speaks to the best in us in a way that Cap, who is just a good guy struggling with a morally slipper world, cannot. This is why their scenes together or so important; it is largely Steve Rogers who gives Stark the “push” needed to go full hero.

My only complaint about this movie is that I don’t like the redesign of Cap’s uniform. Not even a little.


Cap is the character that gets to be the hero from the start. It becomes a thing where he’s sort of waiting, along with us, for everyone else to get with it. Because Evans already showed how earnestness can work with true intelligence to make this character right, that’s largely what Whedon has him show in The Avengers. If anything, Cap can get lost in the proceedings as the one guy without an arc, but also the only guy who is a true superhero from the beginning. That’s pretty much how Cap should be, a position I think I stated already in my review for Captain America and is underlined here. That he’s the one ahead of that curve, and also the only one with leadership experience in the kind of combat that the Avengers see with the Chitauri, he’s a natural fit to lead. I might have liked just a bit more explicit movement on this element of the character, though. It feels like, once everyone’s together, they all just kinda listen to Cap. Maybe because Iron Man is? I did think the earlier acceptance and compassion Cap showed to Banner plays a role in both Hulk’s willingness to take his orders and the actual orders given, but where is that for Thor?

Even if Thor follows Cap because he earned his respect in the forest fight, it’s something that should have been mentioned somehow. As it stands, it’s easy to go with it but it does feel like a tiny missing piece. Maybe there’s a scene between them in the 30 odd minutes of cut material from when The Avengers was over 3 hours long. Even though Loki is the villain and that necessarily connects Thor to the events of the movie, it does kinda feel like they have their own thing going on and thus Thor never really connects with any of the other heroes except by fighting with them. That’s cool and everything, but I could have used a couple of more Thor scenes due to my abiding love for the film-version of the character. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Because, let’s face it, Thor does all the crazy awesome shit that Thor does.

So what we’ve learned from this movie is, simply, that it can be done. Whedon has given the world a new way to look at and understand superhero movies, a feat which may revitalize the genre even more than Favreau and Marvel managed to do back in ’08 with the first Iron Man and the distant promise that they had big plans (and balls). The Avengers isn’t just a movie that proves big, even cosmic, superhero movies can work even with large casts of heroes and big actors playing them. It isn’t just a blockbuster to end all blockbusters, showing that it’s an approach to film that still has amazing traction when used correctly. No, The Avengers is that rare event film that has intelligence, heart, great storytelling, and all the “make it a .gif” moments we could ever want from a guy who has long deserved the validation that he’s going to get for having given us this.

If nothing else, The Avengers will change how the studios look at risk in relation to comic book properties. We’re likely to finally see the ambition and scale that has too often been missing, as well as the kind of fun-loving tone, on a production level, that makes some movies so much fun to follow, talk about, go see and love.

And by the way, stay after the credits not only for a hint of what’s to come (one that’ll speak more to fans of the comics) but for an amazing pay-off to an off-hand reference Tony Stark makes toward the end of the film. Seriously, scenes like this are why Whedon was so right for this job, and perfectly encapsulate his sensibilities and the humanity he brings to the table. I could seriously watch anther movie of these guys doing scenes like this one, and what higher praise can you give the handling of character in any entertainment enterprise?

I’m a known critic of the Nolan Batman films, but if he can bring his own style and tone alongside some action chops (hopefully recalled from Inception), he will show that there’s room in this world not only for super-serious, thematically dark superhero movies, but also the kind of stuff Marvel has flirted with in their movies so many years after making it a brand with their books. With original takes on the genre like Chronicle or Super making up the difference, we could be in for a renaissance of superhero movies, where they finally become what decades of comic books promised them to be: a new type of grand mythology, of allegorical and symbolic capsules of all our hopes, fears, aspirations, and delusions about ourselves and the world.

Your move, Nolan.

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