Fair or not, the comparisons to Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" are inevitable, especially with his forthcoming sequel "The Dark Knight Rises" waiting in the (bat) wings.
But while Nolan tried to pry Batman free from the genre conventions of superheroics by placing him in a more-or-less realistic setting — not always successfully — Joss Whedon has turned "The Avengers" into the ultimate superhero film, one that embraces its conventions with unapologetic glee.
While "The Dark Knight" is a great film, and obviously a showcase for the late Heath Ledger, it's not necessarily a great Batman film. But "The Avengers" is a great superhero film — one that reminds us why the superhero genre has been so resilient.
Whedon's accomplishment is even more impressive given the logistics involved, taking the pieces of a superhero universe established across five previous films — "Iron Man," "The Incredible Hulk," "Iron Man 2," "Thor" and "Captain America: The First Avenger" — and forging a seamless whole.
The result is much like the Marvel comics on which "The Avengers" is based. It's a fully realized superhero world, where it makes perfect sense for a demigod out of Norse mythology to interact with a man in an American flag costume and an egotistical billionaire with an invincible suit of armor.
The story begins with Thor's power-hungry brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who has been cast out of Asgard, forming an alliance with a mysterious alien race to take over the Earth. But to do so, he needs an Asgardian relic called the Tesseract, which can open a portal through which the alien army can invade. The Tesseract, however, was lost centuries earlier, eventually falling into the hands of the Red Skull during World War II before being lost again and recovered by Howard Stark, the father of Tony Stark, aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). Now it belongs to the global security/spy agency SHIELD, led by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), which has its own plans for it.
But before SHIELD's plans are complete, Loki steals the Tesseract, forcing Fury to call on an unlikely group of heroes to save the day, if they ever stop fighting amongst themselves.
Apart from Iron Man, there's Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), alter ego of the Hulk; Steve Rogers, aka Captain America (Chris Evans); the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson); Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner); and Thor (Chris Hemsworth).
It's a lot for Whedon to juggle, but almost everyone gets a chance to shine. (Sorry, Hawkeye. Better luck in the sequel.) As usual, Downey's Stark owns every scene he's in, and Ruffalo brings both a warmth and a simmering intensity to Banner. But the real surprise here is Johansson, who gets the meatiest part and makes the most of it, from her hilarious first scene to her emotional showdowns with Loki and the Hulk. Whedon, creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," is known for his strong, butt-kicking heroines, and he delivers again here, while also peppering the script with the snappy dialogue that's become his other calling card.
"The Avengers" also features yet another indispensable supporting performance from Clark Gregg as SHIELD Agent Phil Coulson, who has been a fan favorite since he first appeared in "Iron Man." For this outing, Whedon casts him in the part of the Everyman, who is more than a little starstruck when confronted with his childhood hero, Captain America.
It's Coulson who sums up why movies like "The Avengers," with their old-fashioned battles between good and evil, are still important. When Steve Rogers wonders if his star-spangled Captain America costume isn't too old fashioned, it's Coulson who says the world sometimes needs a little old fashioned.
Maybe now is one of those times.