Let me start out by admitting that I'm a huge Joss Whedon fanboy. I've always loved his work from Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly; even the often misunderstood Dollhouse. And I've always wanted to see what Whedon could do with a big budget movie. So Whedon would have had to have failed pretty badly in order to disappoint me. With that caveat out of the way, I just have to say it: The Avengers is the best superhero movie ever!
The Avengers has pretty much everything you would expect from a superhero movie: great action set pieces; a great villain; and a slow, steady build up of tension to a great climactic scene. It also has all the elements of Joss Whedon's work: great rapid-fire dialog, wonderfully flawed characters, a shocking death of a popular secondary character, and the story of a group of misfits who come together to form a family. The plot itself is fairly simple. Thor's evil brother Loki is sent to Earth by powerful alien benefactors called The Chitauri who want him to steal a powerful artifact which will allow them to conquer the universe, starting with Earth. Loki does just that and Nick Fury must assemble The Avengers Magnificent Seven style. And we get a brief introduction to each of our heroes as they come together.
The Black Widow gets the classic Whedon treatment as Scarlett Johansson's character from Iron Man 2 is upgraded from hot chick with some kick-boxing skills to empowered ass-kicking machine with a dark past and impeccable comic timing. In fact, the humor of the film is so funny that it was sometimes difficult to hear some of the dialog over the laughter of the audience in the theater.
Hawkeye probably gets the least character development in this film but it is pretty clear that he is an every man who must hold his own against against superheros and demigods using only his courage and finely honed skills. Think Buffy's Xander Harris without all the teenage anxiety.
Captain America is lost in time. He feels like a relic and is without purpose in a strange new world. But he is ultimately a soldier first and when Nick Fury comes calling he eagerly prepares to fight in a war he doesn't understand.
Iron Man is of course Tony Stark and Tony Stark is of course Robert Downey Jr. If ever a writer was made to write dialog for Robert Downey Jr., it was Joss Whedon. Whedon's brand of witty, rapid-fire dialog was made for made for Downey's witty, rapid-fire delivery. It's a match made in heaven and it's hard not to smile when Downey is talking during this movie and he talks a lot.
The Hulk is a revelation in this movie. It is without a doubt the single best representation of The Hulk on any screen since at least Bill Bixby's The Hulk TV series in the 1970's. And Mark Ruffalo's Hulk surpasses in Bixby's Hulk some ways—he's much funnier for example. The Hulk was something of a childhood hero of mine. I went through a stage as a child where I was full of petty, impotent rage and sorely wanted to be able to SMASH! the way The Hulk did. I think that it's safe to say the recent Marvel Hulk movies have been disappointing and it's nice to see a movie which not only does justice to The Hulk but where The Hulk actually steals most of the scenes that he is in.
Of course merely saying "The Hulk" tends to oversimplify matters as The Hulk is really two characters. There's the monster itself and Dr. Bruce Banner. And both characters are very compelling here. My nephew pointed out something very interesting to me following the movie; Mark Ruffalo actually looks like he could be a scientist much more so than previous Hulk actors Eric Bana and Edward Norton. And I think that he might have a point. Which naturally raises the question: Which of these gentlemen would you trust with your gamma rays?
Ultimately this is a superhero film and in the end good superhero films tend to be less about the hero's final triumph than they are about the hero's journey. And in this film, the story is mainly about how this group of misfit heroes comes together to fight a common foe. Many of the best moments come when the heroes are simply standing around bickering among themselves. And any movie can make a verbal argument between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers as exciting as a knock down, drag out fight between Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America is definitely doing something right.