—Monty Python and the Holy Grail
I'm not moved to write a full-on review of The Avengers, mainly because I'm disinclined to wade into summarizing plot, recapitulating backstory and so forth, but there's one aspect of the project that struck me as particularly interesting. There's a burden built into the framework of The Avengers that Joss Whedon handles with exceptional grace, and yet still weighs down the movie considerably, which is that assembling a group of previously unaffiliated superheroes to fight a common enemy involves not only the textual burden of reconciling their personalities — finding common group between Chris Evans' square-jawed Captain America and Robert Downey, Jr.'s cynical Iron Man — but fusing the vastly different styles of the mythologies (and the movies) they spring from. It's hard enough to manufacture a threat that poses equal challenges to the quasi-divine Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, who's essentially a superlatively competent human assassin. Logically speaking, a force strong enough to threaten the one could easily reduce the other to goo. But on top of that, their stories are told in very different ways: Captain America's as a self-consciously retro evocation of patriotic duty, the Hulk's as a psychodramatic battle between id and superego, Iron Man's as the glossy, mildly tongue-in-cheek story of an amoral egotist accepting the responsibility that comes with his considerable gifts. (There I go with the backstory. It's hard to avoid.) It's not that Whedon has a lot of balls to keep in the air — he's juggling balls, bowling pins, possibly a chainsaw or two.
The Avengers takes its sweet, occasionally dragging, time introducing its characters before bringing them together, and a large part of the reason the setup takes so long is because Whedon has to find a common idiom that can accomodate the styles already established by Iron Man, Thor and Captain America. (The burden of assimilating the Hulk movies is lessened by the fact that the role played by Eric Bana and Edward Norton has been recast with Mark Ruffalo, giving Whedon something of a clean slate.) The back-and-forth between Downey's Tony Stark and his girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) has a snappy, screwball-comedy sheen that's worlds away from the desaturated, even-keeled introduction of Captain America, who's just come out of seven decades in deep freeze. (Whedon cut a scene in which Steve Rogers, Cap's civilian alter ego, meets up with his nonagenarian love interest from the Second World War, which would have made for an even more pointed contrast with the Stark-Potts banter.) There's a tremendous amount of busywork involved in simply getting the film to the point where Captain America can joke about a pop-culture reference and not have the line fall utterly flat.
Whedon knows where the red meat is, and he tosses plenty in the movie's climactic battle scene, which seems to run for the better part of an hour. There are references for newbies, casual fans, and more in-depth ones I'm sure I missed. (I read plenty of superhero comics in my youth, but the Avengers were never my thing. I'd have to guess they seemed too square, although it wasn't a decision I ever made outright. I had to hit the web to discern the meaning of the film's post-credits tag, which features an appearance by an unnamed character I barely recognized.) Even in in the thick of battle, he's still shifting gears. While the more superhuman of his heroes are fighting giant, snakelike beasts pouring from an interdimensional hole in the sky, the more down-to-earth slip into a bank and rescue a clutch of hostages from a handful of alien thugs. It's hardly on a par with saving the world, but from each according to his ability...
Apart from the climactic battle, which had a slightly goofy grin plastered across my face from beginning to end, the most joyous moment was a quiet confrontation between Tony Stark and Ruffalo's Bruce Banner, two scientific geniuses who approach their powers from very different angles. In large part, it's the thrill of watching two great actors finally allowed to punch their weight rather than tossing off quips in an ensemble setting. (Downey is The Avengers' Fran Kranz, dispensing self-aware snark at every available opportunity.) In some ways, The Avengers is more a feat than a film, but it's still a hell of an act.