BRASS TACKS: The Avengers, the long-threatened cinematic metastasization of Marvel Comics' cash cows—Thor, Captain America, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man—is very good. It's the best of Marvel's movies so far, and it's one of the best that the superhero genre has to offer. It'll be genuinely hard to top as a fun, clever, big, spectacle-crammed blockbuster. It's funny, it's surprising, and, in a fresh manner, it serves up the meat-and-potatoes essentials of a comic book movie: superheroes fight, supervillains sneer, superheroes quip, ant-sized mortals run around in the background, screaming in terror. Also: explosions!
Ever since Marvel decided to start making movies, The Avengers has been their endgame; the fact that no fewer than five films, from great ones to not-so-great ones, have led to this film is, sure, technically impressive. It'll be more impressive when it makes 400 kajillion dollars. And what's most impressive of all is how writer/director Joss Whedon—heretofore a cult TV creator who'd only directed a single feature film, which, FYI, bombed—manages to push aside all the hype, all the buildup, and all the chintzy licensed tie-in merch to deliver a summer blockbuster that works. And works really, really well.
It shouldn't. With this many characters and this many plots, it's reasonable to expect this unholy amalgamation to topple in a splay of disparate pieces. ("Jenga!" fanboys would gleefully type in various nerd forums before sobbing themselves to a fitful sleep, dreaming of The Avengers that should've been.) The Avengers not only pulls from the films that have led into it, it also, insanely, crams in a bunch more stuff: Aliens! Monsters! Sinister cabals! Aircraft carriers that fly! Even more characters! And then Whedon has the audacity to add in character and comedy and conflict: He makes Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) a genuine delight to watch regardless of whether or not he's hulking out; he grounds Robert Downey Jr.'s mugging while keeping his edge; he somehow transforms Captain America (Chris Evans) into someone halfway interesting; he hams up the goofy faux-Shakespearean diction of feuding immortals Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), while never losing sight of how much fun it is to see two bickering gods tear Earth apart. Hard as it is to believe, Whedon even uses Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow in a way that seems neither clumsy nor skeevy; it's a moment both jarring and relieving when one realizes she's become not only a fun character, but one of the most fun characters in a movie bursting with them.
Whedon's sharp dialogue zips back and forth, with Downey having the most fun and Samuel L. Jackson sounding the most badass; the million moving plot pieces click into place in a manner that gives even the most minor characters—like beleaguered government agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg)—moments just as great as those of corn-fed supersoldiers and irradiated abominations. Whedon's strength in TV was handling long-form plots and big, (mostly) likeable casts; there's more going on in The Avengers than anyone should be able to juggle, but he does, skillfully and confidently and apparently having the time of his life.
What wasn't Whedon's strength in TV was action—and since this film is nothing if not The Dirty Dozen in spandex, action's kind of important. Which is what makes the final third of The Avengers remarkable: Unlike just about every other post-Transformers action flick, the spectacle here thrills rather than bludgeons. Most of The Avengers is built from character moments—from conversations, from threats, from banter, from superheroes talking about their super-feelings—and then, boom: Whedon cuts loose, delivering bombast and humor and surprise in equal measure.
Watching The Avengers isn't unlike the experience of watching Marvel's previous movies, actually: Knowing that all these characters will inevitably come together at some point—there's too much chintzy licensed merch for them not to—but unsure of how it'll actually work. Toward the end of The Avengers, seeing these heroes standing together—defending a burning, crumbling New York, heading into a showdown that sets a new bar for comic book movies—is exactly the grandly preposterous, earnestly silly, and unexpectedly rewarding moment that's been in the works for the better part of a decade. I'm going again on Saturday.