By Ryan Wilson

After its record setting opening at the box office, The Avengers has far exceeded expectations commercially, but what about pleasing the high expectations of its numerous audiences? The movie can first be compared to the Marvel comic from which it sprang, possibly upsetting fanboys everywhere because something crucial is always left out. Next we can compare the film to other superhero movies, a genre of its own that keeps improving. And finally this is geek-god Joss Whedon’s giant step into the mainstream, raising questions of whether or not the dialogue and drama are Whedonesque enough for his own fan-base.

Most critics are praising Whedon for his ability to balance the combined storylines and personalities of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and the Hulk in the same movie. But this is hardly the first super-team to grace the screen, lest we forget the X-Men franchise, the first of which Whedon helped co-write back in 2000. The Avengers, however, is a much bigger challenge because this super-team doesn’t come with the implicit theme of inequality attached to its action figures. If the X-Men are the emo outcasts of Marvel’s high school, then the Avengers are the football players who also sit on the student counsel, the cool kids who know they own the school. The result is that The Avengers have been the more traditional heroes, making them bland by comparison.

Whedon seems to know this because most of the film involves everyone wanting to play quarterback and call the plays. The ego of each titan is beautifully exploited in the rather small space of the S.H.I.E.L.D. hella-carrier, where Captain America’s nobility is countered with Thor’s superiority, which is countered by Bruce Banner’s intelligence, which is countered finally by Tony Stark’s arrogance. This would play really dull if Whedon didn’t write the dialogue, which sings with his usual wit and pop culture references. For example, when Tony Stark alludes to Thor as “point break” due to his long hair and stubble, one has to marvel at Whedon’s ability to sneak a dated Patrick Swayze joke into the script. Robert Downey, Jr., by the way, was born to deliver Whedon’s lines.

Whedon’s training with large casts in television shows translates to The Avengers', group dynamic. Whether they’re quipping smart one liners or focusing on the gravity of their situation, the team reminds us of the self-described “Scoobies” in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Whedon knows how to exploit his cast for dramatic and comedic effect. His heroes play and grow off of each other, rather than merely focusing on the approaching evil.

If the movie has a flaw, it’s that the evil doesn’t seem quite grand enough until the climactic battle. Tom Hiddleston is a fine Loki, but Loki isn’t enough of a threat by himself, especially since we already saw Thor single-handedly defeat him just last year. While Loki manipulates the team, we get obligatory scenes of Thor fighting Iron Man and Captain America over initial misunderstandings. These “epic” fight scenes might satisfy fanboys who crave such match-ups, but they really slow the movement of the larger story. Also, the exposition and mounting tension of a growing threat should feel a bit more palpable. We hear a lot about what’s coming, but we don’t really feel the gravity of the situation until the hordes arrives from another world.

When the alien hordes do arrive, we get exactly what we expect: the Avengers defending New York City in iconic fashion. While the aliens are rather generic and look a bit borrowed from some other movie, Whedon conducts the battle with them as if it’s a symphony, emphasizing the nuances of each character’s strengths and weaknesses. The archer Hawkeye, who’s misused for most of the movie, particularly shines here, as does Iron Man. But without a doubt the star of the climax is the Incredible Hulk, who serves as both a lovable pet and a game changer for the team. Whedon wisely uses the Hulk so selectively in the film that when he’s finally fully unleashed, the results are magnificently hilarious.

Magnificently hilarious might be the best designation for the movie. We’re so used to our comic book adaptations being dour and dark these days (just look at the upcoming Batman and Spiderman movies this summer). But with The Avengers, Whedon reminds us of the lighter side of the genre. His movie looks as bright and shiny as the pages of a newly minted comic. It’s not to be taken too seriously, but to dismiss this sort of entertainment as just popular summer fun also overlooks the artistry and intelligence brought to the project. The Avengers may not please everyone, but since that was never really an option, the movie concentrates on pleasing itself, assembling us all by extension.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio.

© Ryan Wilson, 2012