Joss Whedon’s The Avengers is the best superhero movie ever.
This is not simply because he successfully capped the most anticipated film in genre history, and even left room to build and grow for the now inevitable sequels.
It’s not because he (and story co-writer Zak Penn) has done the impossible and created a single story that does justice to the four characters who have already appeared as the title characters in five prior films, as well as a decent number of supporting characters, and treated all of them with obvious respect and compassion. Especially Captain America, who I had previously expressed concern about.
It’s not because he has crafted a two hour and twenty minute film that feels at least half an hour shorter than that.
The Avengers is the best superhero movie ever because it mixes an outrageous amount of spectacle with a solid story, brilliant dialogue and fantastic acting, and Whedon makes it look easy. It perfectly blends what I want most from a movie as an adult, and what I enjoy most about movies as someone opposed to most of the conventional aspects of maturity.
Some recent lists (like this one at io9), place Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight in the number one spot, with The Avengers a close second, and I can respect and appreciate that. It is a great film, maybe even a better movie than The Avengers, with great writing and fantastic performances, and a story which is never propelled by stupidity. But even though it deals with a lot of themes familiar to comic book readers, like secret identities and the tension between justice and law, it is not a great superhero movie so much as it is a great movie that happens to feature a superhero. (Don’t even bother trying to tell me that Batman is not a superhero; he’s in the Justice League, he wears a cape, and he fights creeps who do have superpowers, so he gets a pass.)
The Avengers trumps TDK as a superhero movie because of single factor: it is supremely comic-booky.
The Dark Knight is such a great story that you could re-do it with a different cast of characters and still have a very good film; the characters are outlandish, but the spectacle is of a human scale, and terrifyingly believable. Replace Batman with an undercover vigilante and the tale would still hold together fairly well, although the melodramatics would be sorely missed in a more pedestrian re-telling. The use of darkness, both metaphorical and literal, makes for a dull palette onscreen, all the better to contrast both the Joker's pallid visage and the flames he leaves in his wake. The Dark Knight is more about not succumbing to terror and dread, not about rising to greatness.
The Avengers is brighter, without being lurid; gloriously indulging itself in the primary hues of its four-color heritage. Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk and especially Captain America all look like they have stepped right out of a comic panel and onto the screen.
It is bolder, bringing nuances to characters like The Hulk, who, thanks to a long running tv show, probably has the biggest pop-cultural footprint of any of the characters, but who can still be surprising, it turns out.
It is bigger, featuring a brilliant ensemble cast, a gathering of comic characters which is both legendary and iconic. The threat our heroes face is not just to their city or even their country, but to the entire world.
It is not a perfect film; a Joss Whedon drinking game could leave fans completely debilitated by the time the end credits roll around: An invading army of otherworldly inhumans? Got it. A portal for them to attack through? Check. The horror of mind control, an invasive betrayal of both one's comrades and values? Right here. Glib quips in the face of impossible odds? Absolutely. I should mention though, that not all of these are necessarily bad things, especially in the hands of one so skilled in their proper usage.
All of these larger-than-life characters have their foibles trotted out over the first half of the movie, from Captain America's disconnectedness and Tony Stark's hubris through to Thor's arrogance and The Hulk's powerful helpfulness.
The most surprising thing for me was just how good the writing and acting were in this film. There was a time when people would criticize overemphasized or ham-fisted acting as behaving ‘like a comic book villain’, but Tom Hiddleston does such a great turn as the antagonistic centerpiece, Loki, that if we can get a couple more films like this or TDK, people will simply have to stop saying that. I seriously hope Marvel Studios push for a supporting actor nod for him when Oscar season rolls around. He gets an exchange with Scarlet Johannsen's Black Widow that reminded me of nothing so much as Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter, without feeling derivative. Mark Ruffalo's turn as Dr. Bruce Banner, The Hulk's alter ego, rolls from the comic to the tragic without missing a beat, another Whedon hallmark.
A lot of people will treat summer movies, especially comic book adaptations, as a guilty pleasure, saying they just want to turn off their brains and enjoy the spectacle. You don't have to choose; The Avengers is a movie that deals with cosmic concepts in an earthly fashion, and it is a movie for grown ups that kids can enjoy just as much, or maybe the other way around. It sets the bar remarkably high for future comic book movies, and I don't know if it will be possible to surpass it in terms of both quality and enjoyment.
But I can't wait to see them try.