Before we get into the details, let me put out a disclaimer: The Avengers has been my favorite comic book series since 1986. It's no exaggeration, therefore, to say that I have been waiting for over a quarter of a century for this movie to come out. So I am not an unbiased viewer. On the one hand, this means that I am predisposed to like The Avengers, assuming they do it right. On the other hand, I am also probably a lot pickier than your normal moviegoer as this material is close to my heart. So you can consider those facts when reading my review.
So what works with The Avengers? Well, let's start with the basic concept, which is probably the trickiest part to pull off. After all, Marvel has been carefully (some would say ponderously, slowly and tediously) laying the groundwork for The Avengers for years, setting up plot threads in every one of their previous films. That sort of thing could lead to an exposition heavy, continuity clogged data dump and could easily derail the entire film.
Instead, director Joss Whedon and company manage to intertwine all the elements and all the characters as seamlessly and organically as the situation allows for. And the result of that is that, while knowing all those earlier bits of setup help make The Avengers a more interesting experience, being up to speed on every niggling detail isn't necessary at all to enjoy the film. In other words, it stands on its own.
Much of that credit, of course, has to go to the cast, which is uniformly excellent. Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans, as the leads of individual franchises, are very strong, as they each manage to maintain the integrity of their character while still fitting into the smaller role called for by the team environment. It's a tricky balance that everyone manages to pull off just right.
Even better, though, are Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner as Black Widow and Hawkeye, characters who could have been throwaway space fillers but who instead manage to come to life and be vital pieces of the Avengers puzzle. And best of all is Mark Ruffalo, who somehow actually made me enjoy a Hulk appearance, which I literally did not think was possible. Ruffalo's wry and bone dry humor was a perfect match to the character here and worked superbly within the context of the team.
The upshot of all of this is that The Avengers doesn't just satisfy all the expectations that were created by the years of buildup in Marvel's previous films, it actually justifies Marvel's previous films. Iron Man 2, for instance, felt at the time like a bit of a bloated mess, with a bunch of Avengers stuff shoehorned into the action to the detriment of the film. Now, however, it retroactively gains entertainment value thanks to The Avengers.
Not that redeeming their few missteps is Marvel's primary goal here; entertainment is the top priority, while setting up even bigger future blockbusters is clearly a close second. Which may be the best news of all about The Avengers, because if you liked this one, well, trust me: There's going to be a whole hell of a lot more where this came from.
My Grades: The film as a whole gets an incoherent fanboy squee, which roughly translates to an A+. All of the actors get an A, with the exceptions of Mark Ruffalo and Tom Hiddleston, who both get an A++; and Scarlett Johansson, who was mostly really good but did flatline a couple of bits, so I'm just going to give her an A-. The post-credits teaser for the upcoming Avengers arc gets an I for incomplete only because the character teased has had far more crappy appearances than great ones, so even though Marvel has a really strong track record, I'm still not entirely sold yet. But here's hoping.