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‘The Avengers’ is simply the finest superhero film yet

The Avengers
Written by Joss Whedon
Directed by Joss Whedon
USA, 2012

The danger of a film like Marvel’s The Avengers is that it will be treated too much as product. All of the Marvel Studios films are products, no question, but the difference between the two Iron Man films is that the first was product born of love for a character, and the sequel’s character work nearly collapsed under the weight of the various plot threads that set up future installments. Fans, fear not: The Avengers is product born of love, honed by professionals, and it surpasses any film ever made in its genre, period.

After each of the major Marvel heroes received his own origin-story film, this is a chance for them to have yet another origin, the tale of how they came together as one to fight a planet-wide menace led by the nefarious Loki (Tom Hiddleston). The key is that each character moves seamlessly from the individual films to the ensemble piece; this film feels as much like a sequel to last summer’s Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger as its own movie.

The mastery of Joss Whedon’s writing is not in the collection of clever quips for the characters – Hollywood is full of guys who can do that – but that the wit is perfectly scene-appropriate and character-appropriate. It’s not just that every character gets a moment to shine, but that those moments come at exactly the right time for the characters involved.

Bruce Banner/The Hulk is a fine example. There is something about Mark Ruffalo’s acting that make this the finest portrayal of the Hulk by far. Ruffalo is making different choices than Eric Bana and Edward Norton made in the same role, but in a way that is tough to describe. Just when it seems that it will be impossible to say what is so good about this version of Banner, a single line of dialogue at the height of the film’s biggest action sequence says it perfectly.

The story (on which Zak Penn gets a credit alongside Whedon) is mainly standard blockbuster fare, with one group of heroes or another finding themselves in a fight in almost every scene. However, it does have a light dusting of deconstruction; one of the story’s central pillars is that superheroes are inherently dangerous and emotionally unbalanced, which has been a genre convention ever since Alan Moore’s Watchmen. This picture will never be confused with Watchmen, but it contains just enough of the same angst to make the heroes’ squabbles feel sincere. When Robert Downey Jr. shouts a particularly cruel insult into Chris Evans’ face, fans of either character will recoil as if they themselves had been struck.

Whedon’s efforts behind the camera could best be described as The AV Club said of Brad Bird and Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol: this film is directed as though its director has something to prove. The climactic battle scene does to Manhattan what Transformers 3 did to Chicago, but Michael Bay’s film was supposed to operate on the idea that each of the hero and villain robots had a unique look and personality, and the action scenes were badly staged in order to capture this. The Avengers never loses track of its heroes amidst the mayhem, and never sacrifices good character moments for the sake of blowing something up.

Given the immense popularity of the other Marvel films, there is always a risk of coasting on the sizable profit that this film is virtually guaranteed to make, but that trap is nimbly avoided. The Avengers is a movie which, if it were to fail, would rather fail through trying too hard than by getting lazy. In taking that risk it succeeds wonderfully.

Mark Young