Film critics haven't been mincing words about The Avengers. From Hollywood Life and The Washington Times to the Dekalb County Times-Journal, pundits of the silver screen are not only praising Joss Whedon's take on the band of Marvel icons, but referring to his motion picture as the greatest superhero film ever made. While I don't quite agree with this superlative assessment, it hits very close to the truth.
A brief retrospective of recent cinematic history is necessary to fully understand why. The last dozen years have been something of a Golden Age in comic book movies. Ever since the success of Bryan Singer's X-Men in the summer of 2000, cineplexes have been bursting at the seams with narratives inspired by or ripped straight from the pulpy pages of graphic novels. Lucrative blockbusters like Spider-Man, Spider-Man 3, and The Dark Knight were the highest grossing films in their respective years of release (2002, 2007, and 2008), while especially acclaimed entries like Iron Man and The Dark Knight have netted prestigious Oscar nominations and spots on critical top ten lists.
In the midst of this deluge, two categories have emerged. First there are the traditional superhero stories, characterized by the familiar tropes of likeable good guys, memorable baddies, and unapologetically melodramatic three-act story archs (the Spider-Man and Iron Man series are perhaps the most popular in this group). Alongside those have been the more existential pieces, defined by their topicality, thematic depth, and attempts to transcend normative genre strictures (more famous examples include Unbreakable, The Dark Knight, and Watchmen).
Saying that The Avengers falls into the first category, though true, does it a bit of an injustice. While no single aspect of it stands out as unusually superb, every element that needs to fall into place does so beautifully.
As these types of movies rise or fall based largely on the merits of the characters, it certainly helps that The Avengers has quite a range of compelling figures in its arsenal. Leading the pack of heroes are a pair of dueling archetypes (metaphorically and literally): Iron Man/Tony Stark, a blithely egomaniacal playboy and renaissance man, and Captain America/Steve Rogers, whose Boy Scoutish persona almost comes across like Marvel Comic's answer to DC's Superman. They are accompanied by the mild-mannered Dr. Bruce Banner, who when roused to anger transforms into the terrifying green behemoth known as the Hulk; Thor, the Norse god of thunder; Black Widow, a Russian superspy; and Hawkeye, a master archer and "World's Greatest Marksman." This eclectic crew is led by Nick Fury, director of a government military agency known as S.H.I.E.L.D that is responsible for assembling the titular Avengers to deal with crises once they become global in scale.
Each of these characters is perfectly cast, from Robert Downey Jr. as the inimitably sharp-tongued Stark to Samuel L. Jackson as the sullen but gravitas-laden Fury. The standout here is almost certainly Mark Ruffalo as Banner, whose depiction of a man deftly controlling the tempest of his own emotions is memorable in its stirring poignance. Tying all of them together is a plot in which the heroes search for a MacGuffin known as the Tesseract that must be kept out of the hands of Loki, the Norse god of mischief and brother to Thor who aspires to use that device to (of course) rule the world. While the story itself is not particularly original, it is utilized to its fullest potential, keeping the narrative running at a smooth clip and causing its two-and-a-half hour running time to fly right by.
All of this is spiced up by Whedon's distinctively intelligent and engaging writing style. From witty lines (Tony Stark introducing himself to Bruce Banner: "Dr. Banner, your work is unparalleled. And I'm a huge fan of the way you lose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster.") to unexpected moments of physical comedy (such as a scene in which one character receives a surprising but richly deserved humiliating beating), the screenplay proves to be almost as much of a character as any of the protagonists themselves, adding levity to prevent the story from being bogged down in its own sturm und drang while maintaining the proper dramatic perspective throughout the proceedings.
This isn't to say that The Avengers is without its weaknesses. While Loki is an adequately detestable villain, he hardly compares to comicdom's more legendary celluloid foes (Alfred Molina's Doctor Octavius, Heath Ledger's The Joker), and the story's intelligence is more surface than substantive, causing it to lack the thoughtfulness of The Dark Knight or philosophical layering of Watchmen. Nevertheless, The Avengers stands out as a practically perfect popcorn flick, thoroughly entertaining even the most disillusioned moviegoers (of which I am one) from the opening frame to the second post-credits scene (which I highly recommend audience members stick around to see). When it comes to the traditional type of superhero movie, it's hard to do any better.