The odd thing about reviewing a movie like The Avengers is that it could be total crap, but so many people will walk out going “EXPLOSIONS HULKSMASH THORHAMMER STARKQUIP BLACKWIDOWBOOBS WHEEEEE!” that it won’t matter if it is total crap, or even TOTAL CRAP. There’s a hefty amount of built-in cool to this flick. Just the idea that we get to see all of these characters on the screen at the same time, with this much money and this much build-up beneath them, is enough to generate a little, well…let’s call it a tingle. That means it sort of doesn’t matter what I or any other film writer has to say about it. Then again, if it turns out to be a good movie – or even, dare we hope it, a GREAT movie – well, then we get to have the fun of talking about just what makes it so great. Well, spoiler alert: The Avengers is a great movie. Here’s why:

I don’t really need to go to the trouble of explaining the plot set-up to you, do I? Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is evil, he wants to rule the world, he has an army. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) and the rest of the gang at SHIELD would like to prevent that. They assemble Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) to combat the threat. They struggle for a bit, and then there’s a big ole’ alien slugfest.

The only place to start is with the most obvious thing: the visuals. Everything in the movie looks goosebump-inducingly cool, from the liftoff of the SHIELD Helicarrier to the arrival of alien space serpents in Manhattan. Everything is suitably polished and well-crafted, but for this kind of money it would be just plain shocking if it wasn’t. After all, the Transformers franchise is visually impressive too, and so are the Star Wars prequels. With that in mind, here’s the point I want to make about why The Avengers is better (and smarter) than the average blockbuster:

You could take this cast and this budget, give them the same overall plot and the clout of Kevin Feige‘s production team, and The Avengers would be a pretty damn badass movie no matter who scripted and directed it (well, as long as they were reasonably competent in their knowledge of what a camera is and what “cut” means and stuff). Like I said, built-in cool. It’s Joss Whedon that makes it great.

Whedon is a master of small moments. Yes, he tells stories filled with monsters and sci-fi goodies and big ideas translated through bigger characters, but lots of people have tried that. What I remember most from Whedon’s work are things like Anya’s fear of bunnies, Giles’ secret acoustic guitar sessions, that time Cordelia put cinnamon in Angel’s morning cup of blood, the use of the word “shiny” in the Firefly-verse and the toy dinosaurs Wash kept on Serenity’s dashboard. The Avengers is a well-paced action romp packed with visual treats, but Whedon also stuffs every frame with small moments. Look for the little character touches Hulk has even when he’s in full green rage monster mode, or the way Tony Stark makes an entrance, or how Coulson has a kind of man-crush on Cap. Those are the things that infuse this movie with a sense of life beyond the superhero sparkle.

Which is not to say there aren’t action moments that you’ll never, ever forget. Oh yes, they’re there in plenty and I’m sure we’ll all be talking about them next week, but I’m not going to spoil any of them for you here. I do want to touch on two major plot points, though, (without spoiling them) that reveal just how brilliant Whedon’s storytelling prowess is. The first half of the film is a team-building exercise. The Avengers are assembled, but they’re not exactly getting along. It’s clear that it’s going to take something to get them together, something to transform them from a group of egos (or, as Banner puts it, “a time bomb”) into a superhero team capable of rescuing the Earth from certain doom. It could have been something awful and predictable and terribly corny, a “Come on guys, we can do it if we work together!” saccharine, power ballad-y moment that we’d all make fun of later. It’s not. It’s something much more powerful, and it works completely. You’ll see.

The other thing I want to talk about is the battle. I’m not telling you exactly what they’re fighting or how they’re fighting it, but I will say that when the battle started, I was a bit concerned. I glanced at my watch and thought “Damn, there’s a lot of movie left. How does he keep this pace without getting repetitive?” Well, honestly, the battle’s such a whirlwind of images and awesome moments that I don’t really know how he did it. I just know he did it. It never gets old. It never stops being badass. By the time it’s over, you just want more.

And the cast. Oh, the cast just nails it. Even when it feels like there’s nothing for one particular character to do, they’re getting something right. Whedon was very aware of the need to find a balance in this team, so he deserves credit for much of it, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t recognize these performances. Downey is in full-on Stark quipmachine mode, but he also manages to get in a few moments of key emotion that reveal what a truly great talent he is. Evans and Hemsworth never let up on their respective man out of time and god away from home schticks, but they too find the heart in these characters. Black Widow is much more of a fully formed person this time around, thanks in large part to Johansson, and even Renner finds some meat in Hawkeye, bringing a vulnerability to the man behind those stony archer eyes. Jackson and Hiddleston are both bigger than life and loving every minute of their performances, particularly Hiddleston, who bounces between deliciously evil and sometimes strikingly pathetic with ease. The highest praise, though, should go to Ruffalo. He seemed to be the one out of this group who had the most to prove. Everyone’s worried about whether or not they’ll get The Hulk right. Well, The Hulk is right, believe me, but Banner’s even better. Watch what he does with his hands, the mixture of sadness and bittersweet humor behind his eyes, the way he always looks sort of shrunken, as though he’s trying to hide behind air. There’s so much subtlety woven into his performance that you just want to watch him talk for two more hours. If you’re not convinced that he deserves his very own Hulk flick, you will be after you see this film.

I went into The Avengers expecting to love the hell out of it. After all, look at all these elements coming together. How could it not be awesome? I came out feeling that even with all the anticipation I’d built up, I’d undershot it. I’ve seen better films, sure. I’ve seen films that had a more profound emotional effect on me and had more of an “art” value, whatever that means. But in my life I’ve never had more fun in a movie theater than those two hours and 20 minutes I spent with Whedon and company. Your nerd faith is not misplaced, friends. He didn’t just pull it off. He Hulked out and crushed it.




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