You can find my non-spoilery review of The Avengers in this week's film section. I wanted to talk a little bit about the movie without having to worry about ruining someone's experience, though, so be warned that there are Avengers spoilers after the jump. Seriously, don't say I didn't warn you: Spoilers from here on out, including the comments.
It's heartening that, to date, Marvel has held to the belief that directorial authorship is an important thing. The weakest of their non-sequel movies (by most accounts, Iron Man 2 was fucking terrible for a number of reasons out of director Jon Favreau's control), The Incredible Hulk, was the film by the weakest director. So they made a great choice by assigning Joss Whedon to The Avengers. All of Whedon's hallmarks are there, and those hallmarks are exactly what The Avengers needed: Humor, great team dynamics, strong female characters, and nerdy inventiveness.
But when you get Joss Whedon strengths, you also get a few Joss Whedon problems. First, and even though he denies it, he is obsessed with death as a narrative device. Maybe SHIELD Agent Phil Coulson's death was an edict from Marvel corporate, but he dies a very Whedon-y death: He gets to go out with style, and then his death is the force that drives the survivors. (Although Nick Fury's manipulation of his death with the playing cards was a nice, cynical touch that spoke to Whedon's better jdugments.) I liked the character; he brought a nice working-man foundation to the film, and he hinted at the idea that real people working in the background make these super-celebrities' mighty acts possible somehow. His death is basically a cheap trick, a plot coupon.
Whedon also creates very few beautiful shots in this movie, and there were many opportunities for visual greatness. Jack Kirby was brilliant at making mass-scale destruction look beautiful, almost holy. Whedon, at best, makes it look realistic. Marvel Comics are what they are now in part because of Kirby and Ditko and their commitment to visual art. The Avengers is visually overwhelming (and the 3D, surprisingly, is effective) and it's not visually off-putting, but it's not visually pleasing. The whole beginning of the film, for a half-an-hour before the superheroes start showing up, is boring to watch.
But still: The writing is what's most important here. (Michael Bay's The Avengers would be visually more impressive, but still a terrible thing to behold.) Whedon offers up a surprising roundness to most of the characters, and the best part is that Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow is the closest thing to a real person in the movie. (She's a fascinating character who always gets short shrift in the comics.) All the actors hold up their end of the bargain, and what's more, they all somehow give their performances the crossover treatment; they feel like they wandered in from their own movies, with slightly different flavors to their action sequences and acting styles. (Only Samuel L. Jackson fails to hold up his end of the bargain. For most of the movie, he's in full paycheck mode, phoning in lines and flopping around on screen like a B-movie actor.)
Tom Hiddleston acquits himself well, too. His Loki is a very Whedonesque villain, all smiles (it's nice to see a movie villain comfortable enough in his own power to let loose with a few grins) and inflated self-regard. Unfortunately, the Chitauri are growling blank slates, only there to be attacked and dismissed. They don't even get the tragic background of the Reavers in Firefly; they're just forgettable monsters-of-the-week. It's the one part of the film where Whedon seems to shrug, give up, and say, "after all, it is a comic book movie." The Hulk, of course, is the big surprise, and Whedon constructs him perfectly. He's the audience's runaway id, and he performs remarkably well, only launching himself into the story when the audience gets all riled up. He's the wild push over the top that the action needs. (His showdown with Loki is a perfect moment that foils the audience's expectation, to great effect. I was laughing like a maniac.)
Right around now, I expect contrarian bloggers to start whining about the movie being just a bunch of dumb fun. It's an entertainment; that's how it has to be. Marvel characters are cooler than DC's characters, but for some magical reason, Marvel's characters can't withstand serious inspection the way DC's can. Nolan could use Batman to talk about the erosion of our civil liberties in George W. Bush's America, but Whedon would have been laughed off the set if he tried to insert Captain America into a Guantanamo sequence. There's something inherently unserious about all the Marvel characters—maybe it has to do with Stan Lee's ironic, self-mocking authorial tone—and Whedon accepts that. Though the world is held hostage in The Avengers, the stakes are never really that high. It's pop art, disposable and fun. And that's all it really can be. And as far as pop art goes, it's top notch. Immediately after watching it, I wanted to watch it again. I'm going to get a lot of enjoyment out of it. It's probably as good as it possibly can be.