The Avengers is impossible. It shouldn’t work. It has no business being good.
And yet, The Avengers is the greatest superhero movie ever made. It is the best comic book movie ever made. It will be damn close to the funniest movie you’ll see all year. It will also undoubtedly have the most thrilling action sequence, which tears through the New York City skyline for 30 minutes in what feels at times like one long tracking shot. It ranks among writer/director Joss Whedon’s best, who for my money still has a perfect track record (Alien: Resurrection excluded on a couple technicalities). It is better than every Marvel movie that feeds into it. It is better than Spider-Man 2. It is even better than that most sacred of cows, The Dark Knight. I should say up front that I’m not much for hyperbole.
Here’s the situation: Loki (played by an appropriately grandiose Tom Hiddleston), has smuggled himself out of Asgard and onto Earth. There he seeks to steal the Tesseract, a big, bright and shiny blue cube he can use to summon his armies and enslave the planet. Appropriately worried about that possibility, Nick Fury (one-eyed Samuel L. Jackson) assembles the Avengers to stop him. There’s Tony Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man, a.k.a. Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Hemsworth), Bruce Banner (Hulk, Ruffalo), Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow, Johansson), Clint Barton (Hawkeye, Renner), and Steve Rogers (Capt. America, Chris Evans). It helps if you’ve seen the stars’ respective Marvel movies, but it’s hardly necessary. So what makes The Avengers so damn good? It’s hard to pinpoint. Every part of this movie feels polished and designed for success.
The ensemble, for example, is excellent. Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark is still a perfect fit, while Renner and Johansson get to settle into their roles nicely. The surprise of the bunch is Ruffalo, who manages to bring a level of depth to Bruce Banner that’s never been captured on screen previously. Watching him (and the improved, excellent animations on “the other guy”), made me yearn for a new Hulk movie. And that’s saying an awful lot.
The writing is, of course, top notch. Whedon breathes life into characters we weren’t that familiar with and makes the ones we already enjoyed even more enjoyable. The Avengers sits on a line between camp and seriousness, and wisely never strays too far into one zone. It’s exciting, funny, and dramatic, and it never takes itself too seriously. This, I believe, is the secret to the film’s success.
Whedon, though he has a long and storied history in television, has helmed only one previous feature, the affable Serenity. And while I do love that movie, it comes nowhere close to the style, precision, and confidence on display here. He’s a master of manipulating the camera in ways you wouldn’t expect; especially for a superhero movie. The group argument scenes are heightened by the leisurely pace at which the camera tracks around the room, giving each hero his/her due whilst maintaining the overstuffed, chaotic sense the film needs to thrive.
He’s not afraid to pull back, either. The final action sequence staged in Manhattan, is a work of unparalleled cinematography and genius. Whedon substitutes the rapid-fire cutting methods of yore with his own, cleaner methods. We may start following Captain America, until Iron Man whizzes by and we’re swept up by him. Then Iron Man gracefully deposits the camera near Hawkeye, where a single arrow is fired and followed to its destination: the head of one of many alien marauders, manning some sort of air speeder that Black Widow happens to be hijacking. It’s graceful and musical and humorous. It might be my favorite action sequence of all-time.
None of this would matter if we didn’t care about the fighters, but the script deftly gives our heroes humanity when other movies would give them stoicism and ponderous self-seriousness. Too long have people ignored the “comic” in “comic book movie.” It’s not so much a matter of one-liners (though there are plenty), as it is a matter of performances, direction, and use of color. It’s buoyant in a way few movies, superhero-based or not, could even hope to attempt.
The Avengers works, in the end, because it knows its absurd. Comic books aren’t realistic for a reason. Most attempts to capture that fun, almost weightless feel have come at the cost of caring about the characters. But while The Avengers plays with its absurdity, it doesn’t mock its characters. It recognizes that these heroes shouldn’t work on a team, and it knows how to have these egos and personalities play off each other in a way that’s both compelling dramatically and riotously funny. This is a master-class of action and comedy. It exposes humanity where many (myself included), thought there was none.
The Avengers is the greatest superhero movie ever made. And the rest aren’t even close.