In the realm of superhero movies, a subgenre that has flourished financially in the last decade, if not creatively, The Avengers is a small miracle. It is just as inconsequential as its brethren (evidenced by the static “Earth in Peril” scenario it employs), but, boy, does it hum. For such a behemoth, The Avengers moves nimbly and with purpose. Credit that to writer-director Joss Whedon, who seems to have recognized that films like this should not get by on their fights and tights, but on crisp writing and perhaps an implicit admission of their goofy nature. The plot involves a wormhole, an alien army, and a mysterious substance that grants everlasting power, but Whedon wisely recognizes that these elements don’t demand the attention that the characters do. He keeps a playful tone regarding the conventions of the genre—especially the degree to which many situations hinge on serendipitous convergences—while also weaving the backstories and personalities of the various heroes who must assemble to save the world. And in this sense, The Avengers is a juggling act of rock-solid precision. As many a fan and even critic will tell you, each character has a moment to shine. Moreover, seeing everything in kinetic motion together and bouncing off each other is delightful bit of viewing, even if you haven’t invested much in the characters. Of course, it helps when you have actors like Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey, Jr. on board. Tom Hiddleston is also a blast as the arch-villain, bellowing phrases like “Kneel before me!” about as convincingly an actor can. Almost as impressive as the actors is the design of the film’s main setting, a lumbering techno-vessel that soars invisibly in the sky. The inevitable third-act demolition of Manhattan is less successful and a reminder of the form's limitations. Nevertheless, it doesn’t diminish the achievement of this super-opus, which balances the solemn and the ridiculous to smooth effect.
The curious tonal disparity to the largely positive reviews of The Avengers is testimony to the reality that how we approach “event” films like this in large part determines how we receive them. Thus, some critics might appear to offer backhanded praise, as if begrudgingly acknowledging that Joss Whedon has made all the right moves with a tired foundation. Indeed, Whedon doesn’t try to subvert the genre, but instead points out how fun this kind of storytelling is supposed to be. In doing so, he also articulates exactly how his predecessors have failed. Ultimately, The Avengers’s most significant achievement is how proficiently it assimilates the more savory elements of the modern comic book movie, as well as those of the contemporary blockbuster, and streamlines them into a swift commercial package. The Avengers fits into a genre and style of filmmaking that may very well have run its course. However, as a tribute to the transient pleasures of archetypical lore, it proves that, with the right execution, a shallow story is anything but a shallow film. What to make of this underlying truth is another matter. (Joss Whedon, 2012) ***