Given Hollywood's hunger for comic book films and the name recognition behind Marvel's characters, it's perhaps over complimentary to call Marvel's multiple-movie lead up to The Avengers a gamble. But their grand experiment does take the idea of a vast shared movie universe to unprecedented levels. While not necessarily brave, it's all been very exciting and fun to watch, even when the individual films have not actually been as exciting or fun to watch as they could be.
The Marvel movies thus far (Iron Man 1 & 2, Thor, and Captain America -- I don't recall any Hulk movie) have shared the same primary strength and weakness. They all absolutely nail their characters only to put them in middling conflicts resolved through bad-to-mediocre action scenes. Captain America, the best of the bunch, represents the widest span of this quality dichotomy by following up one of the best origins of recent memory with a series of action montages I've seen twice now and still can't remember.
But they did nail the characters. And they made money, giving The Avengers all it needed to be great, except precedent. So they got the next best thing: pedigree.
Maybe The Avengers' biggest surprise is what a Joss Whedon movie it is. You walk out of it wondering who else could have done an equal job showcasing these characters to the fullest potential just over two hours of screen time will allow. This isn't a movie where everyone gets their big moment; the whole movie is their big moment. If a scene features a character, they're likely having a big moment, and it tends to be a better moment than we've seen them have yet. If the coolest part of the Iron Man movies was Tony's suitcase armor in Iron Man 2, Whedon's version completely trumps that, and yet doesn't even stand out.
These characters, iconic as they are and as well-transitioned into film as they have been thus far, may have lacked the size to provide their own giant films, but together--under the pen of a writer who really understands them--they have vast entertainment potential due to the various contrasts and similarities made possible by what their own films got right. Take Captain America, for instance. Whedon sees and utilizes his ability to both bring out the rebel in Tony Stark and complement the nobility of Thor. Agent Coulson explains Hulk's origin to him in terms directly related to his own story, giving his and Banner's first meeting an important extra sliver of foundation. Similar favors are done in turn for his character.
Despite the fact that they're both genius scientists, I never even considered what a fun bromance might develop between Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, one made even a little poignant by the way Stark's selfishness ameliorates Banner's self-doubt and vice-versa. Whedon offers a lot more of these knowing touches than I'd even thought to expect. I guess I should have, but it's been a long time since I approached movies like this with that kind of optimism.
And that's just the character stuff. The action is the real surprise. Joss Whedon has a pretty good track record of making conflicts matter regardless of spectacle, but here he gets the spectacle too. He knows what we came for action-wise and delivers.
The film's trailers raised a lot of questions about scope, inspiring jokes about The Avengers assembling just to save a New York City block. Oddly enough, the big end fight actually does take place on one New York City block, and it's kind of a masterstroke. By minimizing the battle area, Whedon concentrates activity and maximizes potential for casually great action beats. It never gets old because there are six different badasses moving all over the place in tons of various mini team-ups. The camera can go basically anywhere and find something great. It's a conceptually ideal way to deliver a seemingly endless series of "fuck, that was awesome" moments.
As for the villains, it's pretty much all Loki. Yes, an alien horde invades, but all that's treated with as much time and attention as it deserves (not much). Whatever Marvel aliens they are, they function solely as a vague voluminous threat and consequence of Loki's insecurity. I'm not the biggest Thor fan, but Tom Hiddelston was brilliantly cast. Regardless of his actions, you can always see the pathetic fear in his eyes that specifically makes him a more interesting threat than most typical sneering villains. Add his personal connection to Thor, and you've got an Avengers-worthy bad guy.
But it's not even about Loki, really. It's all about the team. Whedon wisely eschews typical Hollywood formula and divides the film between two acts instead of three. For the first half, The Avengers basically fight each other, which is a great way to introduce them, establish their splinter relationships and vulnerabilities, and give the film a good amount of action scenes (Holy shit, one team member vs. team member fight in particular gave me my money's worth all by itself). In fact, the film's true climax isn't the big fight, but when everyone decides to finally work together. After that's it's just falling action... that also happens to have a lot of action and people falling off things.
Such a structure makes character arcs difficult, and this isn't really that kind of movie anyway. Neither Captain America nor Thor really grow as characters, which is especially strange in Thor's case given his special relationship with Loki and the fact that The Avengers works much more as a direct sequel to his film than any of the others. He and Loki's brotherly bickering sounds exactly the same; it features a lot of Stellan Skarsgard, and both have superfluous Hawkeye appearances. But while Thor lacks an arc, he has the film's funniest line, best entrance and seems to be a big part of all the film's best fights. He's a badass here in ways Kenneth Branagh never dreamed of.
Captain America's better as a character than a superhero, which is part of why it doesn't really matter what his costume looks like. The best compliment I can offer him is that he nears Christopher Reeve's magical ability to make being a virtuous nerd look appealing. The Avengers uses and honors the groundwork laid by his film but offers the character little forward progression. Physically, he's still the bland puncher we remember but much cooler since the action scenes are better executed. Plus, he uses the shit out of his shield.
Some may retain especially fond feelings for the first Iron Man, but this strikes me as the very best Iron Man film. In fact, I wonder if there's not an equal or even greater amount of Iron Man action in this as in his own films. I never understood why we only ever saw him fight other Iron Mans. I understand it a lot less now that I've seen him deal with a variety of enemies. He has an arc, but except for his relationship with Bruce Banner (probably the film's greatest single element) it just amounts to his learning to be altruistic for the third movie in a row (he's like Marvel's Jeff Winger).
Black Widow and Hawkeye don't halt the film in their scenes like I feared, but I'm not yet ready to watch them in films of their own. They're good enough, however, that an all S.H.E.I.L.D. film doesn't sound like a bad idea, though Samuel L. Jackson continues to play Nick Fury with the false bravado of being Samuel L. Jackson combined with the unearned iconography of a character who has yet to convincingly define himself.
But let's not fuck around. This is The Hulk's movie. Even if the rest of the film were mediocre, it would still be special for its Hulk. His moments aren't just great; they're absolutely rousing. That bit in the trailer where he saves Iron Man is nothing. The Hulk is why you need to see this movie as soon as you possibly can before people spoil all his big moments. He also may be the key element that keeps The Avengers from ephemera. I want to watch this movie again as soon as I possibly can, and all I'm thinking about in the meantime is The Hulk.
It make sense that Hulk would only achieve his full potential in a team film. As a mindless force of nature, he's interesting but only for a while. Plots focused on capturing him can sustain a Hulk movie, but not one that gets the most out of the monster because his beating the hell out of everyone quickly grows repetitious and loses effectiveness. With just a little agency, however, Hulk becomes a superhero, and Hulk as a superhero is a whole different beast. Watching him use his strength in ways that require not only thought but limited emotion on this level pretty much negates even Ang Lee's film (much as I like it) because why would you ever want to go back? Bane will probably prove plenty interesting later this summer, but I'm putting The Hulk down now as mainstream character of the year.
I'm gushing because The Avengers supplies ample doses of the two ingredients that always negate the critical side of my brain: big, bright, earnest fun and a good supply of awesome surprises--not plot surprises but moments that work best when you don't see them coming, exactly the kind of thing that actually can be spoiled and yet become the benchmarks you look forward to on repeat viewings. This is about a fun a movie as I can imagine. I watched it with a massive smile on my face, not all the time but most of the time, and I certainly don't have a great amount of love for these characters. It's just that we've arrived at a time where the "why don't they do this?" movie questions from my childhood have become reality, and in this case at least, it works just as well as eight-year-old me always assumed it would. I can nitpick The Avengers, but I honestly don't have an imagination capable of hypothetically improving the film. Last year, we got Fast Five, another team film combining the strengths of preceding films. This year the idea grows in scale significantly while delivering an exponentially better film. As the trend continues, I doubt the quality will follow suit, but I count myself lucky that I was around to catch this one, and I can't wait to catch it again.