The Avengers

Now that Disney and Marvel Studios are running a well-oiled, seemingly unstoppable corporate machine that produces one megahit after another, it's easy to forget the reckless ambition of Marvel's initial plan. The whole notion of a “shared universe” was fun in theory, but came with a number of creative and financial risks. After all, when all of your movies are connected, one big flop can have a ripple effect on everything else. Marvel used the first two Iron Man films, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger as building blocks for a single mega-blockbuster designed to bring the whole franchise together: The Avengers. They needed the massively expensive movie to be a hit, of course, but they also needed someone who could find a way to blend a diverse array of tonal elements from a handful of rather different films. Could the Shakespearean grandeur of Thor, the old-fashioned sincerity of Captain America and the energetic snark of Iron Man comfortably co-exist in the same film?

Marvel handed the reigns to writer/director Joss Whedon, whose solution to the problem was sort of ingenious: why not make a movie about how difficult it is for these characters to work together? It's not quite an Adaptation-level metatextual experiment, but it directly addresses the central challenge of making the movie and deals with it in a fun, clever way. Whedon pushes the credible idea that superheroes almost certainly come with superegos, and the most entertaining scenes from the film's first half come from seeing those egos clash. Rather than a noble group of benevolent saviors, we're left with a handful of overgrown (and overpowered) children engaging in schoolyard dust-ups. It's a hilarious riff on the sort of thing Marvel does best – deflating self-serious genre tropes and bringing its godlike characters down to earth.

The Avengers is one of Marvel's best films, despite the fact that it features one of Marvel's most forgettable plots. Thor's villainous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, War Horse) plans to enslave Earth, and his efforts are being supported by a race of nasty aliens called the Chitauri. Naturally, this leads to an action-packed final hour in which a bunch of heroes punch a bunch of aliens. It's simple stuff, but Whedon uses that basic framework as a springboard for a plethora of terrific character beats. Unlike most summer blockbusters, The Avengers doesn't bury its characters in a mountain of action scenes, but instead makes the characters the central spectacle. If we're being honest, Whedon isn't much of an action director, but his knack for visual and verbal punchlines goes a long way towards covering his other technical deficiencies.

It's such a joy to witness these characters ping-ponging off each other, bickering their way to a reluctant alliance. Whedon has a deep understanding of who these characters are and what makes them tick, and he finds fascinating, funny little nuances in the chemical reactions that occur when these folks are thrown into the same orbit. I love the way Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr., Iron Man) develops an instant connection with the scientifically-minded Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher), and the way Captain America (Chris Evans, Snowpiercer) regards Stark's self-satisfied antics with just a hint of self-righteous contempt. In some cases, Whedon even improves the characters: Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow was a somewhat forgettable (and arguably extraneous) element in Iron Man 2, but here proves one of the film's richest characters (suddenly, she's a smart, nuanced heroine in the grand Whedon tradition).

Intriguingly, The Avengers begins on a fairly underwhelming note. The opening action sequence is one of the film's dullest moments, and the dark, moody imagery that dominates the film's first half-hour tends to look drab and bland. Slowly but surely, the movie begins to transition from gloomy conflict to gleeful cooperation, and the end result is a film that feels like it's getting more fun with each new reel. That's a pretty nifty trick, and one that quite a few “tentpole” movies could stand to learn from (consider the way many blockbusters seem to save their dullest setpieces for the last half-hour). Yes, Whedon's snappy dialogue tends to turn into snappy punchlines around that point, but it's hard to complain when the punchlines are so good (including a moment that uses an actual punch as a punchline).

So, The Avengers does what it's supposed to do: it gives you a sugar rush of over-the-top fun and leaves you feeling giddy when the credits roll. It's a kick, but like most sugary things, it's ultimately pretty insubstantial. While most of Whedon's other work has benefited from compelling subtext and thematic depth, The Avengers is almost entirely a surface-level lark. It flirts with complex subject matter here and there (particularly during some of Loki's earlier scenes), in the same way that Iron Man flirts with America's war fetish and Captain America: The Winter Soldier flirts with America's oppressive surveillance state. These movies want to be thought-provoking, but tend to back away from their boldest moments for fear of dampening the fun. That's fine – there's nothing wrong with pure popcorn cinema – but it's hard to ignore the glimmers of more complex movies tucked away in the corner.

Then again, you know that part where the Hulk smashes things? Yeah, that's pretty great.

The Avengers

Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 143 minutes
Release Year: 2012