The 2012 blockbuster also bears the titles Marvel's The Avengers and Avengers Assemble!

Marvel began as the upstart comic book company, riding the Silver Age revival of superheroes DC inaugurated in the late 1950s. They even used, for a time, DC's press to print their product. Marvel was different though. Their characters weren't exactly realistic, but they were more realistic than their rival's. Yes, they still had powers ranging from the highly implausible to the completely impossible, and a sartorial sense that ran towards the brightly-colored and wholly ridiculous. However, they had personalities. They weren't all square jaws and nobility. They wrestled with moral questions. They gave angsty monologues. They also coexisted in one universe (one very New York-centric universe), and events that happened in one comic affected another. Marvel quickly caught the attention of comic-reading kids, loner teens, and pop hipsters. Stan Lee and company set the direction for superhero comics, and gradually usurped DC as the leading purveyer of four-color spandex-clad mayhem.

DC revised and Marvel-ized their comics in the 1980s, set a new standard for the graphic novel, and began overtaking Marvel in the 1990s. Marvel assisted with some disastrous decisions; Spider-man, at times, found himself in stories seemingly written by a drunk teenage boy. At one point, bankruptcy posed a very real threat to Marvel, Inc.

Never mind. Marvel turned it around, and began, more and more, to work with major studios on movies that more and more resembled their printed product. In 2012, they reached a climax, of sorts, with The Avengers, a film whose continuity connects it to several previous Marvel films. Joss Whedon wrote and directed.

It's not the best movie ever made, but it may be the best comic-book superhero movie to date. Certainly, it captures the spirit of old Marvel better than anything I've seen, and translates it for a broader, twenty-first century audience.

Whedon has to juggle several major characters, develop backstories for two who've had no previous film of their own, sell to the mainstream Marvel's heavily-tweaked version of reality, and create a conflict worth caring about. Once again, it's Summer Movie Season, and the Fate of the Earth is at stake. Fans could easily grow restless. Let's face it; we know the world isn't going to end. The Avengers could easily have become a series of spectacular special effects with little purpose. The effects certainly impress, but this movie gives us a little more.

First, we have a lot of time with the characters. They're simplified representations, to be sure, but we can start to see them as people-- people with unusual problems, but people nonetheless. We have violent vigilante heroics, but also some questioning of the relevant ethics, particularly by the covert actions of S.H.I.E.L.D.. We have nods, at least, to real questions raised by the presence of powerful weapons. Most importantly, we have a Joss Whedon script that acknowledges these things, but knows this film cannot go too far with any of them without becoming Ang Lee's Hulk. The Avengers doesn't forget its audience wants histrionic heroes and hilarious quips. Even in the height of overblown battle, it loses neither its sense of humor nor its grasp of its own inherent ridiculousness.

Robert Downey Jr. remains in fine form as the brilliant narcissist, Tony Stark. Tom Hiddleston hits a perfect tone as the arrogant Loki. Mark Ruffalo breaks new ground as the most convincing Banner/Hulk thus far. He works so well as the character that I could overlook the lack of clear in-film explanation for why the Hulk so willingly helps the heroes, despite their shaky initial encounter.

The film, of course, has its flaws. The key to any fantasy is to play within one's own rules, however bizarre or absurd those rules may be. For most of its running time, The Avengers demonstrates a consistent grasp of its world. It's too much of an action movie, however, to remain perfectly consistent. I can accept that Iron Man, for example, has a suit that defies all known laws of physics. I found it a little more surprising when an unsuited Tony Stark and Hawkeye crash through plate glass without sustaining injuries.

I also wish Loki's army had boasted better equipment, or some semblance of a plan besides, "show up and smash stuff." Okay—they want to take over the world, and New York and the Avengers represent a bit of violent theater intended to frighten the world into line. Still, wouldn't a society that has developed space travel attempt more effective means of mass destruction? Even if they enjoyed personal violence, wouldn't they keep better methods of destruction in reserve? Wouldn't they have hired a more competent contractor to build their flying bikes? Couldn't the final battle have played a little less like the videogame? Couldn't the ending have a little less of the deus ex?

Never mind. The Avengers remains a fun ride, with some excellent depictions of superhumans with human failings, and nods to a deeper sense of the heroic ideal.

The Marvel films generally reveal extra features after the main show has ended, and The Avengers is no exception. The first, halfway through the credits, gives us a peek at the sequel's villain. The final one, after the credits finish, features a humorous scene of a sort once common in Marvel comics. I wonder about the order. More people will see the first one, which makes no sense to those not versed in Marvel lore. Fewer will see the second, which can be appreciated by anyone who has just watched the film.

San Diego Comic-Con used to be the place where people went who SF fans bullied. Now the trendy and the beautiful crowd its panels and stalls. If you want to know why that's happening, catch The Avengers.

Directed by Joss Whedon

Written by Joss Whedon and Zak Penn, featuring characters created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark / Iron Man
Chris Evans as Steve Rogers / Captain America
Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner / The Hulk
Chris Hemsworth as Thor
Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow
Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton / Hawkeye
Tom Hiddleston as Loki
Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury
Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson
Cobie Smulders as Agent Maria Hill
Stellan Skarsgård as Professor Erik Selvig
Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts
Paul Bettany as Jarvis (voice)
Alexis Denisof as The Other
Stan Lee as Some Old Guy