You've already seen the rave reviews of The Avengers. If you live outside the U.S., you might already have seen it. But you still might not have heard the best things about it.
Here are a bunch of reasons why The Avengers is more than just a well-made comic book movie. They're as spoiler-free as we could make them, while still using nouns.
The Avengers is all about payoff, after five Marvel movies worth of setup — but part of the pleasure of this movie is that it never feels like it's trying hard to give us what we want. Or what we're "owed." The Avengers takes for granted that we're going to get what we've been waiting for, and then sets about giving us something more. And different.
Obligatory capsule synopsis time: The Avengers brings together the exoskeleton-clad rich inventor from Iron Man, the scientist-turned-rage-monster from Incredible Hulk, the rash Norse god from Thor and the patriotic ubermensch from Captain America, to fight another Norse god, Loki, plus his alien army. But first, these heroes from very different backgrounds have to learn to work together. As a team. It's a very comic-book setup, and this film plays it pretty much straight-up, with fairly little ironic winking.
That said, it's true that Avengers is not a perfect movie, by any means. In particular, the first hour drags quite a lot. There's one scene where Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow exchange banter for like half an hour, and it's like you've fallen through a gap in the fabric of movie reality, into Iron Man 2. Some of the slowness is necessary, to establish this many main characters in one movie — but there are also some darlings that needed to be killed. Still, compared to the padded first acts in a lot of other movies lately, this isn't so bad.
Plus even that first hour is jammed full of great moments, and everything that comes after is pure hold-onto-yourself awesomeness.
So here are some reasons that The Avengers really is a terrific film — and not just a craftsmanlike comic-book movie — that you haven't already read:
1) Samuel L. Jackson is sad rather than angry.
There's a sort of standard-issue Samuel L. Jackson performance, that Marvel no doubt had in mind when they cast him as S.H.I.E.L.D. leader Nick Fury. (First in the comics, then in the movies.) You know the one — the "get these motherfucking snakes off my motherfucking helicarrier" tough-guy act. Jackson is capable of a lot more than that, but he can do that routine in his sleep.
Luckily, The Avengers gets Jackson to do some real acting. There's a weird mournfulness coming off Jackson throughout the entire movie, as if he's regretting the terrible things he has to do to keep the world safe. Or feeling the burden of responsibility. In any case, given that Nick Fury is the guy bringing the heroes together, the fact that Jackson starts out kind of sad, and only gets sadder throughout the movie, is kind of awesome. Most of the characters are fun and jokey, and then there's the depressed Nick Fury. (It's not overplayed. But check out the clip at left for an example.)
This helps underscore a lot of the movie's themes about power and the use of weapons, as well as the relationship between society and its defenders. (See below.)
2) The action vocabulary of superhero films is utterly revamped, in a beautiful way.
You don't really think of writer/director Joss Whedon as the action guy. You think of him as the "funny banter" guy and maybe the "killing your favorite characters" guy, but not really as a big action director. And yet, The Avengers might make you rethink that. There are some really gloriously filmed action scenes in this movie, and they're different than what you've seen in other superhero movies or action movies.
There's a lovely casualness to the violence in this movie, because at least some of these people are warriors rather than reluctant heroes, and this isn't their first rodeo. And there are a hundred different moments of physical comedy, brawling, death-defying stunts and smackdowns, which flow together really well. Especially the final half hour, which features the kind of destruction that would make Phil Sheldon cry his eye out. The great thrill of superhero movies has always been superstrong people beating the crap out of each other, and this movie understands that.
There are just so many great sight gags, and so many moments where the mechanics of a hero's powers or of a particular fight have been really thought through. This makes movies like X-Men Origins: Wolverine or Green Lantern feel that much more sloppy and lacking in satisfactory violence.
3) Tony Stark becomes the damaged heart of the team
In Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. established Tony Stark as a sort of wounded heart, wrapped in a shell of steel, flashy lights, and overweening ego. And now, in Avengers, Downey Jr. really follows through on the promise of that first movie, as his cockiness and arrogance slowly give way to reveal a compelling vulnerability. And a capacity for self-sacrifice that none of the other heroes in the film quite reach, even Captain America.
I've seen lots of people saying that the Hulk steals the movie — and it's sort of true — but a lot of the emotional moments that get etched into your brain involve Tony Stark. His damaged soul winds up feeling like the axis that the rest of the team sort of revolves around, in a dynamic that caught us by surprise.
4) It's a film that's hopeful about people and society, in the face of huge threats
The plot of The Avengers is necessarily sketchy. But there are some really cool moments of optimism dotted throughout the movie, even as you see all the characters struggling with their dark pasts and the terrible mistakes they've made, yadda yadda. Whedon is often described as a humanist creator, and there are some great expressions of faith in humanity in this film.
Our ability to stand up to bullies and would-be tyrants, our capacity to choose the right thing when the chips are down, our reserves of gratitude when someone helps us — this film finds ways to celebrate all of them. And this is in between approximately 200 times the recommended allowance of "Fuck yeah" moments, where the heroes do something that you wish you could rewind and watch three more times. As crappy and dumb as people can be, we have an innate nobility as well, and it's probably a good thing that a film about heroes in bright jammies takes the time to recognize that. (Contrast that with the lazy cynicism of many, many other superhero films.)
This is also reflected in the differing attitudes towards humanity of Thor and his psycho brother Loki, the film's main villain. (And Tom Hiddleston does a pretty great job with a thankless role, one villain against a mob of goodies. He's full of oily manipulation, covering a deep and boundless store of resentment.)
And on a related note...
5) It takes the classic Marvel themes and turns them sideways a bit
By now, anybody who hasn't been living in a sensory deprivation tank has heard the maxim, "With great power comes great responsibility." Marvel stories often explore related themes, too, of hubris and guilt — people like Bruce Banner and Tony Stark strive to create better ways of killing people, and wind up damaged and atoning. Either way, it's about people who've gotten power, or abused power, and now owe something to the world.
Since these themes have already been established in ten hours of movies, Avengers doesn't spend too much time belaboring them — instead, it takes these familiar themes and pushes them to a new place. The Avengers, as a team, are collectively just a weapon in the hands of Nick Fury, who show he's willing to get his hands dirty. The team-member who struggles the most with old guilt ("red in my ledger") ironically isn't superpowered at all. Captain America's "good soldier" attitude is usefully contrasted with the less gung-ho approaches of Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, who've both been military contractors and suffered for it.
The classic Marvel themes of power, guilt and responsibility are spun in enough of a new direction that any movie that tries to rehash them after this had better bring its "A" game.
Which, in turn, brings us to...
6) Avengers provides a template for superhero movies going forward, as opposed to copying what works from past cape epics.
Superhero movies have been proliferating for over a decade, and by now a certain sameness has crept in. Even considering that the genre encompasses spy movies, vigilante movies, cowboy movies, vampire movies and mutant-angst movies. You sort of know what you're going to get from a superhero movie (that isn't made by Christopher Nolan.)
And to be sure, Avengers features a lot of the stuff you expect, including punch-ups and big set pieces. But it also has a lot of neat ideas for how to give these sorts of hero characters a dramatic arc, without resorting to cheap tricks or excessive Burma Shave-style signposting. It leaves you feeling as though a superhero movie could actually say new things about heroism.
7) It's the most comic booky movie ever.
It's funny — Joss Whedon doesn't have the most impressive record in comics, to say the least. On the one hand, there's Fray. On the other hand, his Runaways run is a study in soul-pulping disappointment. Most of the post-television Buffy comics feel like a bad dream sequence, and his Astonishing X-Men was astonishingly dull. Whedon rules in television and movies, but weirdly not comics.
So it's sort of amazing how much he captures everything that's great about classic superhero comics in one movie. He doesn't adapt or reimagine classic superhero storytelling — he just ports it to a new medium, and makes it look almost effortless. It's all here — the "heroes fight and then team up" story, the earnest discussions over whether this is a team, the improbable death traps, angsty soap-operatics and theatrical heroics. It's like he's taken a big stack of those Marvel Essential phone-books, crushed them up, and turned them into a fine powder you can snort like cocaine. If you ever loved Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Bill Mantlo, Roy Thomas, Archie Goodwin, Mark Gruenwald or countless other great creators, you'll see their fingerprints everywhere in this film.
And that's the coolest thing about this movie — some people have said that Marvel took a heck of a risk, suggesting that all its movies took place in a shared universe, instead of creating a new world every time your butt hit a movie theater seat. But movies about a world with just one superhero are a poor shadow of the rich, interconnected world that comics give us. Superheroes mean more in a world where they are a community, with all the stress and crazy politics that involves.
Ironically, the more we see superheroes interacting with each other instead of just normal humans, the more we see their humanity. With The Avengers, we finally have a movie that approaches the emotional and political complexity of a really good superhero comic book. It's about time, too.