The Avengers (2012)
Thor's evil brother Loki comes to Earth to prepare the way for his invading alien army and Nick Fury of SHIELD recruits the planet's most powerful superheroes to battle the menace, but when you have a load of super beings who shouldn't even be in the same room, turning them into a team isn't easy.
That sound you hear is all the money being sucked toward The Avengers at box offices all over the world. after years of build up via individual franchise films for Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America and Thor plus a steady publicity campaign that hyped the film into the biggest of the year, the payoff could only be delight or utter disappointment on a Phantom Menace scale.
It was not disappointment. The Avengers is the end product of a very clever campaign on the part of Marvel. By introducing the members of the superhero team in previous films it didn't just build an audience to channel into the Avengers, it also brought that audience up to speed on who these characters are, so we didn't need masses of exposition to explain who Thor is or why Iron Man is a snarky billionaire or the villain's back story. Instead, director Joss Whedon merely takes all that as a given and hits the ground running. Even before the title credits we have an alien artefact going into overload, Loki showing up, shooting a load of agent, placing more under mind control, stealing the artefact, destroying a top secret installation and escaping in a car chase in a mine collapse.
It would be easy to call this a roller coaster or something like that, but the best way to describe is that The Avengers is what every geeky kid ever wanted a superhero film to be. It's how a six-year old remembers Christopher Reeves's Superman: The Movie when it first came out. It's how you always hope a comic book film will be and never is. Best of all, it isn't a slavish and fanboy translation from comic book to screen. Instead, Whedon has the sense to pick and choose from the Marvel universe. He takes this bit, ignores that bit, changes others and comes up with a screenplay that is consistent with the earlier films, is respectful of the source material, satisfies all but the most hardcore fans, and (most important) makes it all accessible to audiences who don't particularly like comic books or superheroes but like blockbuster movies with characters with some life to them.
The action sequences are remarkable, not only for their scale, but also because, unlike many action films, they are properly choreographed so you have some idea of what is going on and the fights reflect and grow our of who the characters are, which many directors forget.
But it's the characters who make The Avengers work. Without bringing the plot to a halt, but using it to push it along, we see the Avengers and the members of SHIELD brought unwillingly together. Tony Stark is no team player, Steve Rogers awakens 70 years after WWII and isn't impressed with modern society, Bruce Banner just wants to stay in control of himself, Thor is sick of human bickering and Nick Fury would like everyone to kindly remember the alien invasion and do something about it. And, this being the Marvel universe, the heroes end up fighting each other at every misunderstanding. It could have been a real mess, but Whedon keeps it in focus and things ticking along.
Whedon has never been my favourite director. In fact, I rather dislike almost everything he does, but with The Avengers he scores a bullseye. I rather suspect that it's because he brings a love of comics and a knowledge of them to the project combined with a real understanding of what is needed to appeal to a general audience. He is a natural comic book film director.
The verdict on The Avengers? This is no Lawrence of Arabia, but it is very probably the best superhero film ever made. It delivers what was promised, and that's good enough.