If for some reason I had been unfamiliar with the works of Joss Whedon (an alternate universe in which I endured a joyless adolescence, no doubt) after seeing The Avengers he would indeed be My Master Now.
I hardly know where to begin. It's far easier to be articulate about the things one dislikes in a film review, but since there was nothing I disliked, this review shall be a disjointed affair. (I could blame that on the fact that it is currently 4am, but to be honest I'm still so buzzed from the movie sleep is not an option.)
For starters, I shall bestow the official Superpowers That Be grade: A+
(Spoiler Warning, cause how else can I geek out without going into details?)
Right from the start the pacing of this epic was flawless. Opening on shadowy, diabolical antagonists announcing their plans to conquer Earth (as part of a larger plan, natch) is a pleasant nod to genre (a specialty of Joss') that was familiar but in no way a let down; we didn't linger, and the visuals were stunning.
The first half of the movie re-introduces us to this universe by following Nick Fury and his various, and wonderful, SHIELD agents as they confront the growing threat of the mysterious Tesseract and the arrival of the perfectly villainous Loki. Sam Jackson does a great job of hitting the balance between hardcore Top Cop leader and the suspiciously layered scheming of a lifelong spy. Cobie Smulders, the obligatory slightly-annoying character, pulls off the hard ass Maria Hill; observant, a good soldier, and soaking up all of Nick Fury's expertise. I look forward to seeing more of her.
And as for Agent Coulson....well, aside from being a master at deadpan, and endearing human vulnerabilities, I believe he may rest in peace knowing he is in the fine and august company of characters killed suddenly, brutally, and courageously by the merciless Joss himself.
Having Hawkeye brain washed and working against the team for the majority of the story was completely unexpected for me, and equally brilliant; with so many characters to (re)introduce and welcome, his was a refreshing arc that did much to add to Black Widow's character. Their quiet tension together and clearly deep, violent, and most likely sexual history was a subtle yet strong relationship that anchored the team with humanity, professionalism and rebellion.
ScarJo's Black Widow was similarly impressive. If I had any doubts prior to The Avengers' debut, they lay with her, but knowing Joss' ability to write for women and his respect for them eased those somewhat. Her performance did the rest. Discarding any distracting focus on sex-appeal, she was instead the consummate assassin. She had many scenes, ones where she impressed with her action skills, her calm resolution, her crafty interrogation skills (re: Loki, though beating up Russian gangsters was pretty damn sweet and classic Whedon) her determination and courage, and most memorably her cathartic human frailty when faced with the Hulk.
That scene, of Banner's first Hulk-out after over a year, deep in the shadowy holds of the Helicarrier was one of my favorites. Out of absolutely nowhere Joss threw in a horror scene. ScarJo's terror and helplessness, her hiding in the shadows in a game of cat and mouse with such an unstoppable, savage creature, was absolutely terrifying. How he managed to scare the bejeezus out of me when one second ago I was practically cheering with joy is a question I haven't fully answered. But he did and I love him for it. Her slight nervous breakdown really helped sell Natasha for me.
As for the Hulk, again, I was mightily impressed. Ruffalo nailed the human half's vulnerability with total conviction, while the rage and fear and disgust simmered just under his mild mannered surface. And his action scenes were Incredible (see what I did there?) The most cathartic moment of the entire movie was his utterly beautiful and brutal thrashing of Loki, a thrashing long time coming after the continuous pettiness and jibes and speechifying. And his punch-off-screen of Thor was hilarious. While the sudden shift into a more focused, useful Hulk was not entirely explained, that is the only possible fault in the storyline and I can justify it easily (greater control, focus, connection with humans, new bond to colleagues as well as Coulson's death, and his human contact with Harry Dead Stanton.) I have never liked the character of The Hulk more.
Robert Downey Jr., as is only natural, stole pretty much every scene he was in and was given the greatest, most hilarious lines by far. The fact that he delivered them superbly was no surprise, though I am impressed they managed to pull it all off: this was the most fully realized version of Tony Stark I have ever seen, and that's saying something when you consider the first Iron Man. It's also unspeakably lovely to see him and Pepper truly together. Every trait of Tony we have come to love was present - his reveling in his own brilliance, his ambition and speed, his industriousness - but it was the chance to see something new that was so pleasing. Tony in a group dynamic, not necessarily the strongest ego in the room, pitted against the perfect foil of Captain America, the shift in his belief and conviction until he truly morphed into an Avenger, it was all just gold.
The unsung hero here would be Chris Evan's Captain America. In scenes dominated by Tony, where he got the juiciest lines, more action and more immediate effect on the plot, Evans still managed to shine. His gravitas, his innate and completely true goodness, his leadership, it all came through crystal clear with an economy of acting that is utterly impressive. Here too we see a struggle to join a group, a suspicion of the purpose and rightness of their assemblage, a man at odds with the world around him. But in the end Captain America, as always, knows what is right, and steps into the role of leader, not overpowering, not bullying, not superior, but the true model of what an Avenger, a hero, should be. So much so that when a genius and a God fall in line behind him, it is the most natural thing in the world.
As far as Gods go, Thor was perhaps the least influential or remarkable of the group, and yet he too had his own journey. From his initial entrance, typically headstrong and violent, we see him grow into a man also finding his place in a foreign world. It was the perfect extension of his own film's story, expanding on the feud with his brother, the endless fight to redeem and save him, the constant disappointments but equally constant striving. By the end of both his film and this one, he has become a better God, a better hero, and a better man.
There was so, so much more to love. The beautiful helicarrier, and its inevitable trashing, so true to its comic history. The SHIELD agent busted for playing computer games. The immensely long and varied battle, with its comic-meets-cinema filming, jumping to each individual character in their own private fights. Thanos. The post-war chowdown (I, for one, had no problem with the lack of a bon mot.) Tony's characteristic joy in rebuilding his newly built tower. The civilian saved by Cap and telling of her newfound faith in heroes. I could keep going. But I won't.
At least until I see it a second time and come up with a few hundred new reasons to love it.
For now I will just recommend strongly, while still grinning with complete joy like the content preteen fanboy I am, that you go out at once and watch this film (Judging by their gratifying box office numbers, you already have.)
Oh and one last thing: Thank you Joss. Thank you thank you thank you.