There may be small spoilers...be warned.
The road leading to the Avengers is like making love to a woman. First, there's the initial kiss, the tease...the unexpected thrill. This came in John Favreau's Iron Man (2008), where in Samuel Jackson appeared in the post credits teaser as (Ultimate) Nick Fury of S.H.E.I.L.D., hinting at an "Avengers Initiative." Then came the caress in Louis Leterrier's The Incredible Hulk starring Ed Norton, wherein Tony Stark (Robert Downy, Jr., Chaplin, Back to School, Air America) brings the initiative to the attention of General "Thunderbolt" Ross (William Hurt, Body Heat). The caresses get bolder in 2010 with the release of Iron Man 2 where the Avengers Initiative becomes a full blown subplot and the greater presence of S.H.E.I.L.D. in the forms of Fury, Natasha Romanov/The Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) and fan favorite Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Greg). In Kenneth Branagh's Thor (2011) the embraces begin in the form of the continued participation of Agent Coulson and another post-credits teaser hinting at a MacGuffin. Penultimately comes Joe Johnston's Captain America: The First Avenger, which, while a powerful stand alone film on its own, is the "point of copulation" as it's final moments directly lead into the events of The Avengers. After almost five years of foreplay, Marvel Studios and director Josh Whedon had a lot at stake; a house of cards that could rise or fall. After such a long build up, does The Avengers lead to a disappointing amount of nothing?
Far from it.
The Avengers is a powerfully orgasmic cinematic feast.
It is also perhaps the best translation of a comic book to silver screen...yes, even better than Superman: The Movie, which will always be my seminal favorite, but honestly not since Christopher Reeve's portrayal of the Man of Steel has any actor, much less actors, so epitomize their comic book counterparts as the cast in this film have done.
Director Josh Whedon obviously knows his comics. Not only has he written "The Astonishing X-Men" for Marvel Comics, he has also been the driving force behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is essentially a superhero concept (simply exchange "Slayer" for "Super hero" and "Vampires" for "Super villain"). His pedigree is such that this film was his to fail. And he does not. He presents the material as it should be...straight. His screenplay, written in conjunct with Zak Penn, presents the story in four acts that follow the tropes of classic "Marvel Bullpen" storytelling: The establishment of the threat; the meeting of the heroes; the misunderstandings that lead to the heroes throwing down against each other; the classic infighting, the sacrificial lamb, and the overriding of differences to meet the threat (note to Bryan Singer: This is comics storytelling done RIGHT). Whedon moves the story along briskly with very little by way of slow spots; but when the story slows down in terms of the primary plot, Wheadon uses the time for what he is best known for: character development.
And what characters there are: At this juncture Robert Downy, Jr. is to "Tony Stark" what Sean Connery is to "James Bond". The role fits him like a familiar tuxedo and should those series of films continue beyond Downy's participation, he will still be the standard to which all future torchbearers will be compared. His Stark is the charming arrogant rogue, presenting himself as the smartest man in the room. Chris Hemsworth is "The Mighty Thor", as forthright and unbeguiled as he was in the eponymous film, but this time tempered with an understanding of consequences. Scarlett Johannson returns as "Black Widow" and given more character development than in Iron Man 2. With her character, Whedon references his Buffy roots by bringing developing a character that can stand toe to toe not only with Ms. Summers but perhaps a certain raven haired Amazon from the "Distinguished Competition".
Just as noteworthy are Chris Evans' "Steve Rogers/Captain America", a Super-Soldier out of time who finds himself woefully out of place compared to the world he's awoken; and, of course, there is Jeremy Renner who as "Clint Barton/Hawkeye" shows a Daniel Craig-like looks and charm as a tortured marksman in his own right (the comparison being more palatably felt with his starring turn in the forthcoming The Bourne Legacy). Being the most human of these characters, they serve as the audience's surrogate. But perhaps the most stand out performance comes in the understated, affable form of Mark Ruafflo as "Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk" (the latter role he shares in this film with the vocal participation the original live action "Hulk", Lou Ferrigno). Apologies to Eric Bana and Edward Norton, but this is another example of Whedon's understanding of the medium. Under Whedon's direction and Ruafflo's talent, they bring a Bruce Banner that works...one who's template is not only akin, but honors Bill Bixby's portrayal of (then David) Banner. Not since the television series went off the air has a live action Banner been presented as a fully, fleshed out three-dimensional human being. One whose emotions run the spectrum (not just "tortured"). His Banner is a delight to watch...but The Hulk steals the show. This is the best CGI rendering of The Green Goliath ever. He is not John Woo's "Gumby Hulk." This Hulk has weight and presence. And he has some of the best moments of screen time in both action AND humor. Plus, one of the highlights of the film (especially for any comics fan) is seeing an offshoot of the battle between Hulk v. Thor from "Journey Into Mystery" #112 realized...and leads into one of the better comedic moments.
But the confrontations are not simply physical. Whedon uses chess master precision to use the characters as foils of the each other, bringing out the central conflicts and doubts between them, some of which are character arc carryovers from the previous stand alone films: Stark's aversion for the military and discipline; Rogers stalwart patriotism being a result of chemical enhancement, Thor's demi-god status and his filial loyalty to the film's main villain, Fury's camaraderie with his nascent team at odds with his patriotic duty; Romanov and Barton's respective needs for redemption; Banner's war with "the other guy"...The beauty of Wheadon's direction is how the elements gel. The humor is organic and interwoven into both the story and the characters. It is one of the few films that the laughs are not forced or contrived; better than some of those in the comedy genre. The character arcs progress and, unlike other superhero productions where the heroes revert to a gestalt state, these characters grow and evolve...discovering aspects of themselves that they would not have without the reflection provided by their foils. In the comics, The Avengers are more than just a team. They are a family; a dysfunctional one, but a family none the less. More than any other director since Richard Donner, Whedon gets it.
The growth is not simply epitomized in the protagonists. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is a much more credible threat than the petulant, neglected second son he was in Thor. While no match for Terrance Stamp in a scene that was clearly evocative of Superman II, this is villainous demi-god to be reckoned with; one made more so by one pivotal, heart-wrenching scene. He is a super-powered "Simon Legree" and when he gets his comeuppance, it is supremely satisfying. The true heart of this film, however, comes in the form of Agent Phil Caulson, who despite being beyond the age of innocence and everything he has seen, still believes in heroes (especially Rogers) and provides the "push" the team requires; in essence, he is an unacknowledged Avenger.
The film comes together in the third act, which makes the climatic Metropolis battle from Superman II (a template for this sequence) look like a child playing with Tinker Toys (though one moment in the climax cribs heavily from that of Independence Day). The CGI is interwoven with old fashion stunts and pyrotechnics and the action, accompanied by Alan Silvestri's powerful (though not as evocative as his previous Captain America effort) score. Like a marathon lovemaking session, it pounds the senses until the battle's final moments and, when the credits roll (and be sure to stay through all the credits), one really needs to have a post-coital cigarette.
Yet all throughout, the material is treated straight. There is no hint of condescension of the source material. There is one scene involving Captain America that skirts towards that territory, but instead reasserts why Captain America (jingoism aside) as a character is a source of inspiration. Not since 1978 has a symbol for patriotism and morality seemed more, put succinctly, bad ass.
Unabashedly, I have been a comic book fanatic since the age of five. Understandably, my view of this film may be a bit biased. But then, Marvel has admittedly not been my company of choice. I wish I could be as effusive of praise on DC Comics' more recent cinematic offerings. Yet to try to be otherwise would be disingenuous. The fact remains that as a comic book movie...as an action movie...as a science fiction movie...as a movie, period, The Avengers works! It balances action and character exposition, humor and pathos, deftly. Any other critics who see this as a popcorn film are missing the moments of characterization and the evolution they go through. If I am too effusive in my praise, it is only because this film truly merits it; not many films have engendered such a reaction in me. It has been a long time since I have enjoyed a film based on a comic book this much...and that includes The Dark Knight. The film is enjoyable for the average moviegoer but also respectful shout outs to the hardcore fans as well (Captain America's instruction to The Hulk is especially "geektasmic"). The film is, in effect, a masterpiece of genre filmmaking.
Long story short: Go See The Damn Thing! And one last thing...what the hell is Marvel going to do for an encore?!