In the beginning - and only the beginning - super-heroes inhabited their own worlds. Batman struck terror into the criminals of Gotham, Superman brought robber barons to justice in Metropolis, Wonder Woman fought Nazis. But it was only months before Sheldon Mayer and Gardner Fox decided that their four-colour heroes should meet, and thus, with the publication of All-Star Comics #3 and the Justice Society of America, the concept of a shared superhero universe was born.
Decades later, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby decided that the next wave of super-heroes, Marvel's Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk and so on, should also explicitly inhabit a New York teeming with super-heroes. For decades, shared universes of larger-than-life characters have been the norm in comic books.
But a trope taken for granted on paper has proven difficult to translate to film. The Superman movies of the 70s and 80s made no mention of Batman or Green Lantern; the Batman films have referred to Superman only in passing.
That all changed when Marvel Studios began the most ambitious comic book film project ever: introduce a handful of Marvel super-heroes to the big screen one movie at a time (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger), weave over-arching narrative threads and supporting characters through each film, then bring all the heroes together in one spectacular team-up.
That team-up, of course, is Joss Whedon's The Avengers, the story of a small group of people with remarkable gifts and equally potent hang-ups who are recruited to save the world. It's a super-hero story in which the paper-thin plot serves merely as an excuse to play these characters off one another, and frankly that's fine with me.
Even though each of the titular Avengers - Iron Man, Hulk, Black Widow, Captain America, Hawkeye and Thor - have already been introduced to movie-going audiences via the preceding films mentioned above, Whedon spends a little time to re-establish each character, mainly to ensure that when they're brought together the various personalities clash in believable and amusing ways. Norse demigod Thor is torn between respect, frustration and amusement for the "little people" he sees as children in need of protection. Captain America, frozen in time since World War II, struggles to adapt to modern mores. Bruce Banner - the Hulk - reigns in his berzerker rage with dark, quiet humour. Tony Stark, the billionaire genius under the Iron Man armour, tosses sarcastic barbs at his comrades to mask his own hopes and fears. And Black Widow's lethal professionalism is tempered with a tiny hint of realistic - not sexist, not pandering - vulnerability. (She alone seems to understand the full danger of recruiting the Hulk.)
While the film is generally serious in tone, its greatest asset is the warmth and humour generated by putting all of these characters (and their fine actors) together in the same milieu. Each of them is given multiple moments to shine, and at the screening I attended these moments were greeted with great enthusiasm by the audience.
Oh, there's a threat, of course; Norse god Loki recruits an alien armada to eke out revenge for his treatment in Thor, but the existential threat hardly matters to the audience; what's fun is seeing how these messed-up characters learn to work together. The last third of the film is a glorious mess, a hyper-kinetic action set-piece that puts each hero through his or her paces and sets the stage for more adventures to come.
The show-stealers this time around are Black Widow and the Hulk, for reasons I can't reveal without spoiling the fun. And as with other Marvel films, be sure to stay all the way through the end credits for not one, but two additional scenes.
The Avengers may not be as complex as Christopher Nolan's recent Batman films, but its greatness is of a different kind. This is comic-book fun of the first order: unselfconscious, brazen, hyperbolic, and most of all, just plain fun.