Take a minute to consider how incredible it is that The Avengers exists. This movie, after all, is more than seven years in the making. Along the way, five others had to be filmed, released, and succeed at the box office. A small army of superheroes had to be cast, and those actors had to sign on for additional work. All told, Marvel Studios spent more than a billion dollars -- a billion freaking dollars -- to carry its substantial endeavor to this moment, the eve of its best-laid plans.
And standing at the helm of it all, entrusted to write and direct this flagship, monumental billion-dollar investment, is a man who's had more commercial failures than almost anyone else in the business. Of course, as Joss Whedon's fans already know, he's also perfect for the job -- and it's not just because he's a certifiable king of the geeks.
Marvel's The Avengers
The Avengers picks up where Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger left off: Loki (Tom Hiddleston), a formerly banished baddie, gets zapped onto Earth to steal an all-powerful energy source called the Tesseract. (Confused? Unfamiliar with these stories and characters? A tidy opening sequence will bring you up to speed.) To find the Tesseract, stop Loki, and prevent an alien invasion of Earth, super-spy director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) gathers together the world's most extraordinary heroes: Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Getting them to work together, though, isn't as easy.
Obviously, The Avengers is not an average superhero movie -- it owes almost as much to ensemble action classics like The Dirty Dozen as it does its own comic-book characters -- and that reason, more than any other, is the secret to its appeal. Where else could we watch Steve Rogers trade blows with Thor? Or see what happens when Tony Stark hangs out in a laboratory with Bruce Banner? Whedon uses these geeky hypotheticals -- the traditional fodder for one-shot comics and fan fiction -- to weave a story that simultaneously plucks out the best aspects of Marvel's past movies and stands wholly recognizable as his own creation.
So while Whedon's passion for these comic-book icons holds The Avengers together, it's his style that shapes the movie into that rare kind of blockbuster that's both smart and fun. His Avengers snipe at each other, making quips and asides even in the heat of battle. They spend as much time fighting one another as they do Loki's horde of alien soldiers from planet MacGuffin. They're heroes amid debate, struggling to drop their headstrong, individualistic ways for a greater good.
(The downside to all that arguing? It means the movie clocks in at almost two-and-a-half hours.)
The cast, thankfully, shines under that character-driven pressure. Downey, as expected with two Iron Man movies already to his name, feasts on Stark's bravado. Evans isn't as subtle or as sharp as he was in Captain America, but he carries himself with an unassuming confidence that shines through when tempers flare. Hemsworth's bombastic charisma is a great foil to play against -- try not to laugh when Downey fires nicknames like "Shakespeare in the Park" or "Point Break" at him -- and Ruffalo is an absolute, stone-cold scene-stealer. As the only member of this superhero powwow who's tortured in the slightest, his sensitive performance is amplified into something potent and affective.
Of course, the nitty-gritty of The Avengers is the fights. If you know these characters and their stories, the action will make you beam from ear to ear. If you don't, you'll be smiling anyway because it's too damn good not to enjoy. Whedon has a terrific sense of framing and timing with his action sequences -- an early one is overlaid by an honest-to-God violin concerto, which would be bigheaded if it weren't immediately followed by the movie's most outrageous, gruesome moment. A later shot, set in a ravaged Manhattan just as the gang starts to work as a team, is a flowing visual beauty that delivers Whedon's message better than even he could do with words. The moment is idyllic, the precise instance where this whole billion-dollar scheme finally pays off.
That, after all, is the point of The Avengers. It's the star attraction of Marvel's circus, so it could never be anything less than a great comic book brought to life -- and nobody is better suited than Whedon to do exactly that. His movie is a behemoth. It's humongous. It's gargantuan. See it in the largest, loudest theater you can find.