Marvel's approach to hiring directors has been somewhat scattershot, but they do at least deserve credit for going for some less obvious choices, Kenneth Branagh for "Thor" being chief among them. Joss Whedon was unlikely enough when he was hired that many took the news as an April Fool's Day prank (the news of his potential involvement first leaked April 1, 2010); though, a beloved geek figure, his sole directorial effort to date was "Serenity," a $40 million flop spin-off of his own TV series. But it's clear that Marvel's gamble paid off in spades, and it's difficult to think of the film working with anyone but Whedon in charge. His traditional strengths are firmly in evidence, but he's also wise enough not to overwhelm the piece with too many Whedon-isms, while still writing the hell out of that script. And his directorial skills have come on leaps and bounds since "Serenity," with a fine eye for iconic framing, pace and memorable action. That sound you hear is a million doors opening for him.
The Characters Are Done Right
Given that the main four characters had each led at least one movie so far, it was always going to be an incredibly tricky balancing act to develop each one without letting one or the other get short shrift. Not only did Whedon manage to juggle his enormous cast of heroes deftly (with one semi-exception -- see below), but he also, perhaps most importantly, gets these characters in a way that few others have managed so far, and with an impressive economy of writing. Tony Stark is snarky and egotistical without becoming smug and unlikable (as he did in "Iron Man 2") and never overpowers the movie. Thor is used sparingly, but feels genuinely god-like in a way that never happened in the solo movie. Captain America is the golden boy he was in the original, but with a man-out-of-time feel that gives him real pathos (that "Wizard of Oz" line? Great screenwriting). Nick Fury is no longer Exposition Man, and instead is the world-class manipulator that he always should have been. And Black Widow feels like an entirely different person than the blank scenery she proved to be in her previous appearance. And some of the most compelling moments in the film aren't the big action scenes, but the little character beats when the heroes rub up against one another, or give each other support in the midst of battle. And all of that is to ignore the biggest character victory of the film...
After two attempts in a decade, no one had ever managed to get the Hulk right on screen -- until now. Mark Ruffalo was an inspired choice to play Bruce Banner, playing troubled, rather than angsty, and his flashes of anger are genuinely shocking as a result. And once the "other guy" comes out, he's bang on -- frightening and uncontrollable on the helicarrier, and then a ton of fun once Ruffalo is in control and smashing alien heads. The film's two biggest laughs (Hulk laying the smackdown to Thor and Loki, respectively) are down to the green giant, which doesn't just serve as a gag, but also a reminder that you can only control the Hulk so much. He's also sparingly used, with only two Hulk-outs in the movie (the second of which is a cunning character payoff). It's unsurprising that the clamor for a solo Hulk movie has already started.
The Action Has Real Stakes
Comparisons to the third act of "Transformers 3" have come up when it comes to the final New York-set battle of "The Avengers," but it's a useful case study to note what makes it involving, and what makes Michael Bay's similarly epic sequences pretty dull. Namely, it feels like something is at stake. Whedon has always been good at making the victories feel earned and losses really hurt, and the heroes are on the back-foot from the get-go, with S.H.I.E.L.D.'s operations devastated and the heroes un-assembled. As soon as they're together, Whedon then rips them apart again, and in a classic Whedon move that really stings, he kills off Agent Coulson, Clark Gregg's scene-stealing comic relief character who's appeared in three previous Marvel movies. It gives them, as Fury says, "something to fight for," and also makes you realize that if he doesn't make it out, maybe the survival of the rest is more in question that you might have thought. And when it comes to the final battle, Whedon keeps upping the ante -- as soon as one seemingly unkillable dragon/spaceship thing is vanquished, another dozen come swarming through the portal. Even as the characters start to get overwhelmed, suddenly they've got a nuke on the way to deal with. It's what makes it feel like it matters. It also helps that Whedon keeps the action grounded in character too, as each fights and strategizes like you'd expect them to.
Christopher Nolan's Batman movies were almost revelatory in the way that grounded their superhero characters in a world that felt like reality. But it's also been a little dull to see other movies move towards that feel, while Marvel's earlier films have often felt like they've been pinching the pennies, with stock locations and small-scale action. "The Avengers" feels important not just because it's so huge in scale, but also because of the way it suggests that being comic book-y doesn't have to be a dirty word. The film is bright and colorful without being gaudy (at least in 2D, it's pretty murky in 3D), and the action seems drawn from the pages of the funny papers, big and expansive and impossible, and yet the direction isn't in thrall to comics in the way that Ang Lee's "Hulk" or Zack Snyder's "Watchmen" were. Plus, with Whedon involved, the film is as funny as any comedy of recent note, from Robert Downey Jr.'s pop-culture wisecracks ("Shakespeare in the Park," et al) and Thor's dryly delivered "He's adopted" to idiosyncratic asides like the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent playing "Galaga" and the Hulk's aforementioned smash moments. We're absolutely happy with Nolan's darker take, but we're pleased someone's managed to use some different colors in the pallete to equal success.