So here's what I thought going in: This is supposed to be pretty good, but is probably only pretty good for a superhero movie. I dreaded the two-and-a-half hour running time. I expected the spats between the superheroes to be annoying, unmotivated attempts at crowd-pleasing. I expected the climax to be a repeat of Transformers 3. I expected the superheroes to come together in rather trite ways and not have much interaction, and it to be obvious how the movie is setting up little set-pieces for each one of them. But, happily--I was wrong! And while ultimately it may still be only quite good for a superhero movie, with all the various superhero movies there has been, that means a fairly high level of quality.
What this movie does successfully is bring Joss Whedon's sensibility to the proceedings, good because of his smart, crowd-pleasing instincts, but also because it comes from ONE PERSON'S sensibility, thus largely erasing a lot of the impersonal, made-by-committee feel of most superhero movies. You can feel in the first scenes that the direction has rhythm and snap, and the dialogue has panache, and the opening sequences are shot to make the most of the 3D before you get used to it and forget about it. Then, as it goes on, one appreciates Whedon's ability to inject surprising turns into a story, put character interactions at the center of larger action, and give the people what they want in a way that pleases them, rather than seeming focus-grouped.
So Loki, Thor's brother from that film, comes to Earth to steal this energy cube that was the big deal from Thor and Captain America. He does so in the first big action sequence. This causes Samuel Jackson, who has shown up in a few of the previous Marvel films, to gather up Bruce Banner, now played by Mark Ruffalo, Captain America and Iron Man. We also further develop Scarlett Johansen, who was in Iron Man 2 but had nothing to do, so she becomes a full part of the team. Jeremy Renner has also appeared out of nowhere, but fits in decently.
By now we've had some amusing dialogue and fun scenes, then we come to a glamorous party with small orchestra. Loki comes in to do some damage, and soon you realize that the entire scene is edited to the music. We then see that all Loki really wants is power, a refreshingly basic motivation. They capture the villain, but then Thor shows up and takes him off for his own justice, which ends up precipitating the superhero brawl. This subverted my cynical expectations by actually being somewhat motivated, and occurring before the heroes really knew each other, so it's not like we have to sit through trumped-up conflicts inserted just to generate action. Whedon then has fun with the idea of a brawl among these super-powerful men, throwing each other straight through tree trunks and suchlike, which, because it is motivated by the characters, works and you can just enjoy the spectacle.
The script crackles with snappy dialogue and little jokes: one particular throwaway about early video game Galaga likely never would have made it past a script committee, but with Whedon in charge, he can do what he wants. He also does what he can to keep our characters distinct, especially having Captain America remain an upright, morally-square fellow, like Superman in the Donner film. When he's taking off after Thor and is warned not to bother, because "they're basically gods," he replies "There's only one God, Ma'am, and I don't think he dresses like that." It comes off as part of his upright character, not something thrown in to please Focus on the Family. Soon after, the film is having Tony Stark encourage Bruce Banner to embrace his Hulk side, rather than hide it, and one is impressed that Whedon had thought about who these characters are and what they might say to each other, what they might have to offer each other--not just throwing them together and having them fight side by side. We then find them suspicious of the agency that brought them together, which is in fact keeping secrets from them. Whedon may have a solid screenwriter's training in layering levels of conflict and intrigue and character interaction over his general plot, but you know what--it works. It makes you feel like you're watching a naturally-unfolding story rather than a rote structure of set piece 1, down time, set piece 2, down time, climax, as with the majority of superhero films. The friend I was with had seen Thor with me, and we complained that the we couldn't tell the climax from any of the other action scenes--the whole thing had no shape. Here we have our major set pieces, but they are organically integrated, and there is a definite climax that is unlike anything else in the film.
Another thing missing from most superhero films is a personal element, or sense of loss. We see large numbers of people in terror or wiped out, but have little personal involvement. Not to mention that we know that none of our heroes will ever really get hurt or die. Whedon brilliantly gets around that by giving one character a lot of charming material, making us like him, then killing him. This gives the story some emotion, and sense of loss, which is carried through as the characters mourn him to an extent we don't usually see in such films.
Also in the triumph category is the rehabilitation of the Hulk, a character who failed to generate interest in two previous incarnations. Here he is treated as a force of nature, something to be feared, even by our heroes. Ruffalo plays Banner as someone always on an emotional edge, making him emotionally tortured in a way he didn't come off in either prior film, and the film's Hulk really is just a dangerous ball of rage. The Hulk also gets three of the best moments on the film, a surprise punch to Thor, and an unexpected beat-down of Loki that had my audience essentially delirious. There's also a moment when he is on a fighter jet, ripping it apart, and the pilot ejects. When Hulk grabs the pilot mid-air, it is a genuinely surprising moment that made my audience gasp. Finally, there's an inspired delivery of the phrase "Hulk, smash."
If you've been following Joss Whedon you know that he puts out entertainment that is just different and interesting enough, crowd-pleasing, but not in a stupid way, but different enough that almost all his series' get canceled and his movies fail to generate success. Even Cabin in the Woods was held for two years before being released. So there's another level of seeing him bring his sensibility to a huge film and have it all really work, to go from a number of frustrating false starts to having a massive tentpole with the biggest opening of all time. One always knew he was going to get it together one day, and that day is here.
Nevertheless, really excellent for a superhero film is still a superhero film, and while this is an excellently-crafted piece of pop entertainment, it's still just that. The friend I went with missed the emotional element Whedon is usually able to bring to shows like Buffy, where he is often able to get one a bit choked up between action scenes, which isn't so much on display here. But we agreed that it has a decent amount of character interaction and quieter scenes to balance out the massive action scenes. And while it's not going to win Best Picture, it's a carefully-crafted and graceful pop entertainment that is much, much better than it needed to be.
You sure should. Even your Mom would probably like it.