The Avengers is an awesome superhero movie. But that's all it is.
Written and directed by Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly), The Avengers gets the benefit of Whedon's high creative ceiling, and it manages to bump its head against it, too. Whedon has a sure hand in balancing the narrative needs of an ensemble, few are better with zippy one-liners, and the fun is fun. Those are mostly screenwriting talents. Curiously, considering his involvement, the film is lacking thematically — a notion, briefly examined, that humans are made to be ruled, doesn't connect. And after pondering the plot, I'm not sure everything adds up from a cause-effect perspective, particularly in the second act.
Whedon seems to be kitchen sinking bits from his best invention, too: The Avengers borrows from the Buffy climaxes from seasons four (a thrilling New York set piece occasionally devolves into the Battle of the Initiative HQ, all cheesy stuntman tricks and pyrotechnics), five (a portal to another dimension is opened allowing monsters into our world), six (a protagonist's anger threatens to destroy the rest of the team), and seven (the earth craters as a vehicle speeds away, just escaping).
Hope you saw Thor. Though The Avengers has been assembling since 2008 with the Iron Man films, The Incredible Hulk, and Captain America, it's from last year's Thor entrée that The Avengers gleans its plot machinations.
Loki (Tom Hiddleston), a trickster god from outer space and brother of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), wants to take over Earth so he steals a cosmic cube and brainwashes the archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). In response, government spymaster Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) calls a response team of superheroes, including Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). The good-guy group dynamic, as personalities clash and must be overcome when the chips are down, is eminently enjoyable. Loki calls them "lost creatures," and it's easy to see his point. (He also calls Black Widow a "mewling quim.")
Ruffalo steals the show as Bruce Banner/Hulk. Even in light of his thought-provoking cinematic forebear, Ang Lee's Hulk (one of the most underrated films of the last decade), Ruffalo's incarnation is the best.
I don't know if it's true that acting is in the eyes, but consider The Avengers as exhibit A that it is. A few of the performers really sell their characters and circumstances — Hiddleston and Ruffalo especially — but also Renner and Hemsworth. On the other end of the spectrum, Downey Jr., Johansson, and Jackson go through the motions but aren't convincing.
The Avengers has above-average action and even sustains it for dozens of minutes in an extended last sequence. It reminds us that superhero movies don't have to be gloomy, à la the recent Christopher Nolan Batman films, Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy, or the X-Men series. The Avengers gets to bask unfettered in the splendor of super beings doing super stuff and not getting hurt. But there's a ceiling on that kind of thing, and a visionary directory Whedon is not. The action is not transcendent — not on par with films like Aliens, Jurassic Park, or Terminator 2. I'm not even sure it's as good as the trailer for The Dark Knight Rises.