As much as I generally loathe Marvel comics, I have to admit that when it comes to movie-making, they have the formula down pat. Under director Joss Whedon's hand, The Avengers is an exemplum of the superhero movie, and even action movies in general, following the success of the Spider-man, Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America franchises.
Choosing Whedon as a director and screenwriter was a brilliant move not only because of his stated love for the characters, but because he also knows how to tell a story that gives adequate time to each character, including putting them in combination. Whedon's dialogue feels natural, exemplifying the traits that dominate each character, while allowing space for conflict. Of course Captain America (Chris Evans) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) would dislike each other from the start, with Captain America questioning Stark's heroism. And while Whedon falls back on some comic book clichés, potentially invisible to viewers who do not read comics, he also avoids the worst tropes. For example, it's something of a ritual that when two heroes meet one another for the first time, there is some kind of misunderstanding and they start fighting without thought, until one of them is able to pause and wonder why they are fighting. When Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Iron Man meet, they actually do have reason to immediately start fighting, smashing at each other and destroying the landscape until cooler heads prevail.
But Whedon also knows comics well enough to adapt the things that work best as well. The overall arc of the movie is pretty standard comic book fare—a calamity occurs, a group of disparate individuals are called together, they fail in their first battles because they remain individuals, something happens to bring them together, and they win as a team. The fun of The Avengers in great part comes in how the story fills these standard slots, and also by how much life the individual actors give (and are allowed to give) their characters. Despite a primary cast of six Avengers, Nick Fury, and his two immediate aides, only two of these characters remain somewhat flat.
Another real strength of The Avengers is that it went away from what has become the mode by which nearly every action sequence is shot recently; instead of what I like to call shaky cam and ridiculous close-ups that do not allow the viewer to put what they are seeing in context, the action sequences remain tightly choreographed but shot with a steady camera and with enough distance to provide a perspective. Instead of seeing two Transformers' fists pummeling randomly at some part of each others' anatomy, the audience can see the entire posture and facial expressions as Iron Man and Thor duke it out, allowing the scene to advance the story rather than exist solely as a special effects spectacle. And because of this, the viewer is more intimately drawn in to the story than they would be otherwise.
Whedon also allows space for humor, also using it as a tool to draw the viewers in more intimately to the story. Because of the nature of the story being told, sometimes the humor is not very sophisticated, but Whedon also recognizes that he can't sustain tension for more than two hours without something being used as a release valve. A lot of the humor belongs to the wise-cracking Stark as in the Iron Man movies, and I suspect that Whedon sometimes just set the scene and let Downey go until he had to stop. But Whedon has also demonstrated his ability for the snappy comeback in his movies and TV shows, so I would not be at all surprised to find that some of those one-liners are actually scripted. Whedon also derives humor from ongoing jokes—Captain America being 70 years out of date is the source for jab after jab, for instance, until the thread is closed off by Captain America actually getting a reference made by the people around him. Not quite as funny but equally compelling, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) makes references to the secret of how he has been able to maintain his composure such that the Hulk has not erupted in over a year. And when the secret is finally revealed, there is a nice pay-off for the character development.
Between the witty script, the smart action sequences and the general motion of the overall narrative, The Avengers creates a huge momentum in its viewing time. There are very few pauses for breath once the action starts rolling, and little space to notice small flaws. For instance, it's never really clear what Banner has learned to control the Hulk once he is free, but it also isn't crucial to the plot. The movie just rolls along, getting bigger and bigger until finally an alien army invades New York City, wreaking mass destruction. And even the face of this calamity, the movie still allows the characters to have personal moments. My favorite is Iron Man rallying the team when things look their most bleak by suggesting they all go out for some Middle Eastern food when the alien horde is defeated (this scene pays off beautifully for those viewers who stay for the entire credits, providing what I can only see as a Whedon signature moment).
The word I have heard most often from people who have seen The Avengers is "awesome." It really is huge and breath-taking and yet intimate and character-driven all at once. It sweeps its viewers up and rushes them to what had to be the conclusion, leaving them breathless and anticipating more at its end. It really is a masterpiece of the action genre, leaving me with aftershocks and desire for more much as initial viewings of Back to the Future and Die Hard did. That's some heady company, and The Avengers well deserves to be in it.