The Avengers

Director: Joss Whedon
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johanssen, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, Todd Hiddleston
Review: 4 stars (of five)

The Avengers is the ultimate comic book movie. No previous superhero film has so perfectly translate the bombast of a big superteam comic to cinema. If I had to illustrate what superhero comics are like without using an actual superhero comic, I would show you this movie.

There are arguably better comic-book films (ones with smaller casts and a better character-to-violence ratio), and there are many, many worse ones (at least 70% of the Batmans and 60% of the Supermans, from 30% to 60% of your Spider-Mans, and all previous outings involving the Hulk. For instance.) But often the better comic book films translate the source material into cinema in such a way that the result doesn’t feel like a comic book. There may be similarities, and the film may succeed in giving a comic-book feel to something rendered in the language of cinema, but it’s a translation, a new thing evoking an old thing. Joss Whedon, accomplished both as a TV/film wizard and comic book auteur, manages to transpose, rather than translate.

Whedon takes a large, established cast from three established franchises (four if you count the Hulk, with a new actor yet again as Bruce Banner) and gives each character enough screen time, action and dialogue to satisfy the respective actors’ devoted fans. Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man gets the star treatment, suited to his character’s charisma and ego, and Chris Evans’ Captain America comes in a close second. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor could’ve stood a bit more development, but the rest of the heroes, comparatively second-stringers, get good play. Scarlett Johanssen’s Black Widow is much, much better handled here than in her debut in Iron Man 2.

Despite the oversized cast, the film stays in balance. It’s really long—nearly two and a half hours—but a movie with this cast and this scope needs the space to breathe, and kudos to the studio for understanding that. If you want an action blockbuster, a comic extravaganza or merely a worth (and then some) successor to the successful Captain America, Thor and Iron Man flicks, this is your movie and you should be delighted to pay 3D prices for it.

Whedon is already accomplished at directing large, established casts in sci-fi action films—see the vastly underrated Serenity for early and economical proof of that—but this is a whole ‘nother level. His two secret ingredients are humor and knowing what a superhero team-up is supposed to entail.

With the humor, he matches his sharp style to the characters and actors that predated his involvement in the uberfranchise. While Cabin in the Woods had a style so intensely Whedonesque as to be nearly parodic, this doesn’t feel like Buffy or Firefly at all, and shouldn’t. It feels like a continuation of the previous films. The humor, by the way, is just enough to stave off a sense of numbing shock at the sheer amount of action in the film, providing a lifeline for those viewers who don’t think the sight of Thor smiting extraterrestrial hordes is all any film needs.

And as far as a superhero teamup goes, here’s a spoiler for anyone who’s ever read a comic book: What must happen the first time any two superheroes meet? Yeah, that’s right, and it happens here in spades. And if you get together the biggest heroes in a shared universe, how large a threat has to be mounted against them? Yeah, Whedon goes that big.

There are also just some really smart moments tucked among the explosive action sequences. The villain is Loki, Thor’s troublesome half-brother. Whedon remembers that the character is a god, and has actor Todd Hiddleston play him as such. He’s always a bit above the heroes, and his machinations are more clever than our good guys realize. In the end he’s a bully who’s going to get his ass kicked, but he’s a bully with divine stature.

Character moments are a bit thin. Some misfire—the idea that Scarlett Johanssen’s super-action-spy, the Black Widow, is terrified of the man who can turn into the Hulk, and is actually traumatized when the scientist’s big green Id is released, is a great notion, but either the actress or the script fall short of pulling it off. Lots of snark breaks up the action, but doesn’t provide real character stakes. Still, in this kind of story, character can’t take center stage. There’s too much action to squeeze in.

Hey, I didn’t go to The King’s Speech to see a government assassin with trick arrows take on an army of flying lizard people, and I didn’t come to The Avengers to gain insight into the realistic plight of modern mankind. Flowing out of more than a half dozen previous films (counting all Hulks and Iron Mans), there’s never been a better case for “you know what you’re getting when you buy the ticket.” And there have also been few cases in which a film did a better job of exceeding those expectations.