Is this what Joss Whedon is like when he gets to control everything on his productions? If so, I love this side of him. The Avengers could have easily been a catastrophe. Instead, under his steady hand, it might actually be the superhero movie that plays the most like a living comic book. Loki has returned to Earth to steal The Tesseract--a glowing blue cube of pure energy--from S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters to take over the world. The S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives convince the members of the disbanded Avengers project to come back together, reclaim the cube, and save the Earth. However, their egos are so huge that they refuse to cooperate. Tony Stark/Iron Man tries to make Bruce Banner transform into The Hulk. Thor uses any opportunity he can to attack Captain America. And nobody trusts the S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives, Black Widow included.
Though the exposition starts out slow (many of the flashier scenes in the first forty minutes could have been trimmed down to flow better), The Avengers regains its footing when the heroes finally assembly. From there, it's a joy to watch.
Joss Whedon captures the essence of the characters while softening their speaking patterns to mesh in the same universe. Thor still speaks in antiquated English, but he's no longer performing like he's at a poetry reading. Tony Stark is snarky, but not the unbeatable wit. Bruce Banner is self-effacing without self-pity and Captain America is out of touch with modern times but able to hold a conversation. Black Widow and Hawkeye are given strong, clear character traits that balance out the dynamics of the team.
The fight scenes--verbal and physical--are some of the best to appear in a comic book movie. Some of the arguments are more thrilling than the big budget effects. Whedon wisely puts a lot of focus on Black Widow and Hawkeye's hand to hand combat skills to demonstrate their worth to the team. Yes, it's still silly when Black Widow pulls out a hand gun to fight an alien invasion, but at least you know she can best anyone in close range combat.
Everything, from the performances to the staging to the storyline, comes back to Joss Whedon. The man understands how comic books work. He also understands that you could never just film a comic panel by panel and make a good movie. Whedon plays within the film framework established in The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America, and the two Iron Mans rather than source the story entirely from the comics.
It's pretty well known at this point that Joss Whedon was told Loki would be the main villain. Everything else was up to him. He succeeded. There's no other way to say it.
The only real failing of The Avengers is having to reintroduce all of the players in the movie. That's the source of the minor pacing problems at the start but it is unavoidable. If he didn't reintroduce everyone, the film would be inaccessible to non-comic/superhero fans. If he did reintroduce everyone, it would be a retread of all the other movies the comic/superhero fans watched. To Whedon's credit, it didn't feel like a brick of exposition dropped down for the first act of the movie. I just think it could have moved a little quicker.
That's honestly the one bad thing I can say about this film. The Avengers is the kind of blockbuster you wish Hollywood would consistently make. It's smart, it's funny, and it's planned out down to the last detail. No plots are dropped. No characters are relegated to nothing roles. Everyone who is introduced plays an important role in the story and every scene fits into the plot like a puzzle piece.
There are times that The Avengers tips its hand to silliness. Even that fits. It is a comic book movie. Frankly, more people would be disappointed if someone didn't say "Hulk smash" or if Iron Man didn't get beat up due to technical flaws in his suit.
If you like superhero movies, you won't be disappointed. I can't even imagine someone genuinely hating The Avengers if they actually watch it. It's just fun.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.