About this time last year, we witnessed Transformers Dark of the Moon, a blockbuster that would be the second highest-grossing film of 2011. It delivered impressive digital vistas of destruction, but it was still a dispiritingly stupid movie in the dismal template of director Michael Bay, with lots of flag-waving and horrible humour thrown in to leaven the clanking cacophony of battling robots.
Truth be told, the highly anticipated multi-comic book franchise The Avengers actually seems to borrow a few key plot points from Transformers 3 regarding an alien-invasion-via-space-portal.
But we'll let that pass. For one thing, the plot of The Avengers was set in motion in 2011 with the movies Thor (The Avengers' villain is Thor's brother Loki) and Captain America (The Avengers' MacGuffin is the Tesseract, an energy cube disc the Cap had to pry from Nazi über-villain The Red Skull.)
But more importantly, The Avengers works. Unlike Bay, screenwriter-director Joss Whedon actually has a sense of humour, and the movie is elegantly punctuated with knee-slapping moments, whether a deft one liner from Robert Downey's cynical Tony Stark/Iron Man or a hilarious bit of comic book slapstick courtesy of The Hulk.
Whedon actually pulls off an impressive orchestration here, assembling the heroes of no less than four existing Marvel franchises and putting together a comic book symphony, allowing each character their theme, but layering them all together in a satisfying comic book opus.
On screen, the guy who puts the band together is Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), an eye-patched spymaster in charge of the "Avengers Initiative," a secret strategy of pooling the resources of extraordinary superheroes in the event of emergency.
That emergency arrives in the person of Loki (Tom Hiddleston), a trickster demi-god from Thor's mythical realm of Asgard. He steals the Tesseract from Fury's top-secret facility, and threatens to employ it to transport an alien army from across the universe. Fury enlists Tony Stark and Hulk alter-ego Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, taking over the role from Edward Norton) to use their scientific acumen to track the cube while unleashing the recently thawed Second World War hero Captain America (Chris Evans) and his super-soldier abilities to harness Loki.
Employing the kinky reasoning that all superhero movies benefit from a woman in form-fitting leather, Whedon gives us two: Scarlett Johansson's feline superspy Black Widow and Cobie Smulders' can-do Agent Maria Hill. Smulders provides a sexier counterpoint to Clark Gregg's droll Agent Coulson, whose participation in all the franchise entries comes to a kind of fruition here.
Where some filmmakers, like Bay and The Green Lantern's Martin Campbell don't seem to understand the comic book genre, Whedon gets it. He stages individual battles (Thor vs. Iron Man) with an admirable understanding of comic book dynamics, but he gives each character the benefit of a distinctive human personality, be it Tony Stark's arrogance or Bruce Banner's rage issues.
Whedon does spectacle really well too, staging a sustained battle finale with great flair. Like Bay movies, the action is fast and furious, but unlike Bay movies, you can actually understand what's going on.
And what's going on here? Only the best comic book movie since The Dark Knight.