There is a particular moment in Joss Whedon’s masterful comic book epic The Avengers – we’ll get to the scene later – where I found myself thinking, When was the last time I had a reaction like that in a cinema? Sitting there with my mouth agape like a child, repeatedly saying “Wow…wow…wow…” as if anyone could hear me through the cinematic bombast, turning to my friend next to me with a wide-eyed rhetorical “Holy shit, did you see that!?” expression, only to find the same look being shot my way. On the drive home it hit me – it was in June 1993, the first time I saw Jurassic Park, and specifically, that god damn T. rex. It was that experience of seeing something literally awesome – not in the Valley-speak way of our modern parlance, in which we may classify a particularly delicious donut as “awesome,” but literally, truly awesome.
The Avengers is awesome – and in a rare and commendable feat, not just because of the peerless visual extravaganza that it is. Complementing what might be the most mind-blowing climax since X-wings took on the Death Star in 1977, Whedon’s screenplay – based on a story he developed with Zak Penn – manages to establish and maintain a real gravity to the proceedings, humanizing the adventures of a giant green monster and a man in blue tights in a feat of precise narrative control that Michael Bay can only dream of (assuming he cares about such things). By the time the aforementioned moment is delivered – a breathtaking sequence where, in a seemingly single take, the camera zooms through a New York mega-battle to catch us up on the whereabouts of all our heroes, whizzing from crumbling building to rooftop fight to street explosion in a sweeping and almost operatic display that left our press audience roaring in applause – all of our heroes have been so well introduced that, despite superhuman powers and the fantastic nature of the proceedings, the stakes feel true and high.
It’s almost as if Whedon anticipated virtually every criticism fans and critics could have thrown his way – most no doubt based on the failures of past comic book adaptations – and deftly deflected them. Not enough time spent fairly on all the heroes? Not here – the characters of Bruce Banner/The Hulk, Tony Stark/Iron Man, Steve Rogers/Captain America, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, Clint Barton/Hawkeye, and Thor all get their due moments, with Scarlett Johansson’s Romanoff particularly receiving a spotlight that is overdue after an innocuous appearance in Iron Man 2. Epic climax, but too few action sequences along the way? Definitely not – The Avengers complements its majestic climax with more than a few exhilarating action sequences, including enough fights to settle the age-old fanboy “Who would win in a fight?” questions, with iron pitted against hammer, shield pitted against hulk, mighty god pitted against nimble Russian spy.
An argument can even be made that it’s not necessary to have seen any of the previous Marvel films that have showcased these characters to truly enjoy the film. It helps, no doubt, as many of the back-stories are featured therein – particularly the key story of the film’s villain Loki, established in 2011′s Thor. But with The Avengers, Whedon makes the genius choice to present a plot that is actually quite simple – malicious god Loki, in bitter resentment that his brother Thor receives all the glory on their homeworld of Asgard, steals the powerful and potentially apocalyptic Tesseract in an attempt to rule the Earth and bring humans to their knees. Military law enforcement organization S.H.I.E.L.D., led by Nick Fury, assembles the Avengers to put a stop to Loki and retrieve the Tesseract. That’s essentially it. By avoiding the common traps of multiple story-lines and multiple arch-villains (see Spider-Man 3…), The Avengers allows for greater development and exploration of character, as well as some cleverly written and expertly handled self-referential humor, mostly delivered deadpan by Tony Stark.
Layer after layer, there is so much that works about The Avengers that it’s hard not to consider that it might be the Best Comic Book Movie to date, and a shining example that a popcorn movie can still deliver on brains and heart. An inventive and consistently engaging epic that combines the pomp and glory of Superman, the thrills of The Dark Knight, the heart of Spider-Man, the humor of Iron Man, the spectacle of Thor, and even the hyper-kinetic eye-candy of The Matrix, The Avengers has set the bar tremendously high for those working on bringing comic book movies to the screen. Even with upcoming releases like The Dark Knight Rises, Men in Black 3, and The Amazing Spider-Man, it is safe to say, coupled with last month’s deliciously wonderful The Cabin in the Woods, that 2012 belongs to Joss Whedon.