Welcome to the finish of the longest “origin story” in history. It began with Iron Man, went through four more movies establishing characters, and has now concluded with an epic story that, in the highest superhero tradition, threatens the world and destroys half of New York. It’s always New York.
My main concern going in was, how could Joss Whedon (the director/writer of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly) possibly do justice to four Main Characters? After all, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and The Hulk each had their own comic series and movies. When you add on three strong second-stringers–Hawkeye, Nick Fury, and the Black Widow–you’re asking for a movie that is too busy saving the world to have time to do justice to everybody.
Now that I’ve seen it? I should have remembered that Joss Whedon wrote and directed Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. Between Buffy and her Scooby’s and Mal and his crew, in two of the best ensemble-cast adventure shows on TV, Whedon is the master of nailing down a character with a couple of lines while moving the action at breathtaking speeds.
Warning: Mild Spoilers Ahead!
It’s also important to remember that for Whedon threatening to end the world is old hat. Buffy saved the world at least three times, and the Dollhouse series ends with a weird zombie-apocalypse. In the ‘Verse the green hills of Earth are literally history. So he’s not going to let the threat of an alien invasion get in the way of good dialogue.
And what fun dialogue it is, although Whedon does occasionally get seduced by a perfect set-up shot that, while it gets the laughs, doesn’t ring true. Specifically, about halfway into the movie, we get this back-and-forth:
Thor: He’s my brother.
Natasha Romanoff: He killed 80 people in 2 days.
Thor: …He’s adopted.
It’s a great line–but too modern for Thor the God of Thunder, who’s every utterance is practically Shakespearean. Also there’s this one:
Steve Rogers: Stark, we need a plan of attack!
Tony Stark: I have a plan: attack!
Again, great line–but not from Tony Stark, the man who prides himself on his unmatchable mind. Then there’s this one, which is simply historically inaccurate.
Loki: Ah, the super soldier of the great war.
Steve Rogers: Trust me, it wasn’t that great.
Loki: Mine will be.
First, The Great War was what we called World War One before World War Two beat it on both body-count and sheer scale (after all, we couldn’t call WWII The Greater War now, could we?). So Steve Rogers would have responded “No, the other one.” Second, Loki, stooping to a stupid pun? (Although Cap does go there first.) Third, just how much human history would Loki–who’s ego was certainly godlike–bother to learn, anyway? Wait, maybe that’s why he got the war wrong.
But this is nitpicking, and cannot detract from the genius that is Whedon. The man insured that each of our heroes got at least one crowning Moment of Awesome, and the two most mind-bendingly funny moments in the entire movie are supplied by The Hulk in what have to be the greatest examples of non-verbal and character-appropriate humor I have ever seen. Whedon also does his usual masterful job of putting characters with drastically asymmetric levels of ability in the same fight.
It is a testament to Whedon’s expert touch that, in the middle of all the epic violence, the one moment of real character-growth passes almost unnoticed. No spoilers but, around halfway into the film, an Important Character makes a doomed attempt to stop Loki and fails, fatally. Captain America, the war veteran who flew a Hydra jet into the sea to save New York City (it’s always New York), recognizes that the dead agent was just doing his job, but Tony Stark calls him an idiot for making such a stupid sacrifice. In the end, it’s Tony who makes a Sacrifice Gambit of his own.
So, is this the greatest superhero movie of all time? I’m not sure yet; I’ll have to see it two or three more times. And the sheer box-office success the movie is enjoying guarantees that each of the heroes will continue his own franchise and we are going to see at least one more Avengers movie. The superheroes will rule Hollywood for at least another decade. Avengers assemble!