Popular taste has finally converged with the oeuvre of Joss Whedon. The writer-director has been a feverishly beloved cult hero since at least the point very early in the run of the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer when it became clear that there was something deeper than mere genre tomfoolery contained within its sharp, snarky banter. Buffy may have run for seven seasons and inspired the geekiest of the geeky to trip all over themselves proclaiming its greatness, but it never rose above feeble ratings, even when an episode was hyped as if it represented the reinvention of TV itself. That pronounced indifference carried over to his other projects with a few of them arguably achieving their greatest notoriety for the disconnect between the passion of the most devoted fans and the reality of the works’ actual level of commercial success. As recently as last month, a film steeped in Whedon’s self-referential preoccupations was greeted by moviegoers with a collective shrug, despite being in the horror genre that can seemingly propel just about anything to a smashing opening weekend. And now, just like that, Whedon has presided over the first film to open to $200 million at the box office.
To a degree, Whedon is the beneficiary of an audacious plan that Marvel Studios has been tinkering with since 2008’s Iron Man, built on the assumption–correct, as it turns out–that the intricate shared universe conceit that drove their publishing model from almost the very beginning could be employed to their burgeoning film efforts. Six different superheroes were introduced (or, in one case, reintroduced) across five films, all with an eye towards setting up the moment when they could all be drawn together in a big screen approximation of one of the cornerstone comic books of the Marvel Universe. Given the admirably careful, considered way the mini-studio has laid the groundwork, Marvel’s The Avengers (so named, no doubt, because the version of the title without the possessive was already claimed several years ago) was bound to start strong, almost regardless of whose fingerprints were on it.
True as that may be, it also sells short Whedon’s contribution to the film’s colossal achievement. This isn’t a case of, say, Kenneth Branagh being handed the keys to a project entirely atypical of his work and banging together the biggest hit of his career, almost despite himself. The Avengers represents as honest of a representation of Whedon’s creative vision as any of his most vaunted prior works. His sensibility is wholly apparent in every turn of the story, every exchange between characters, every action sequence that turns on the nobly improbable. Even the makeup of the film’s casualty report will be familiar to anyone who’s picked out favorite characters in a Whedon series only to see them dispatched by the creator because making fans happy in order to later make them sad is something he especially likes to do. There were times when the structure Buffy reminded me of a well-done Marvel series from the sixties or seventies. Whedon’s no interloper, merely benefiting from the Marvel model. Going back to its original printed derivation, he was clearly shaped by it, so it only stands to reason that he’s an ideal person to try and tie all its cinematic ribbons into a big, beautiful bow.
He hasn’t tied that bow flawlessly, but it sure looks prettier than anyone could or should reasonable expect, especially given the complexity of the task. Whedon has to serve a lot of different characters and move them through a cogent storyline that gives the disparate super-powered souls a reason to be together. Plus, it would be nice for the film to have its own reason for being and somewhat stand alone. I’m sure there are precious few buying a ticket for The Avengers who haven’t seen one of the precursor films (and I’ll even admit that the notion of individual films working outside of the context of a larger franchise story is sadly antiquated), but the best version of this film should have a chance of being entertaining to a newcomer. Whedon may have been a foundational creator of a television series that rewarded and even demanded long-term knowledge, but he’s also a old school guy at heart. He operates with at least the vestiges of belief that every piece of the larger story is someone’s beginning point and he has an astonishing skill for sketching in the fundamentals of a character with a few deft lines. The full backstories may remain elusive for a newcomer, but it only takes one or two exchanges before anyone and everyone can understand who Tony Stark, Steve Rogers and all the others are.
I think Whedon missteps somewhat in making Hawkeye, already a tough sell character, the one who’s under the mind thrall of the main villain for most of the first half. Played by Jeremy Renner, the character had the most meager of introductions in his previous film appearance. Essentially scraping away what little identity he has for a good chunk of the running time sets the character back. He’s so sketchily developed by that point that it never really feels like anything is at stake. With the other roles, though, Whedon is fantastic. He writes an especially good Captain America, knowing that a certain squareness is a key to the character, which only makes it more exciting when the battle is at hand and he immediately jumps up a few ranks and starts instinctively shouting our orders like the most seasoned, ingenious general. Chris Evans already did well in the role in last year’s Captain America: The First Avenger, but he seems even more relaxed and assured with Whedon’s man-out-of-time version, a heroic figure who’s mildly hesitant until the action kicks in. There’s also a sense that Whedon’s offering a mild but vital corrective with some of the other characters, a big brotherly assurance of, “No, no, this is how you do it” for those that have previously been ill-served in Marvel movies, notably the Hulk, recast wisely with Mark Ruffalo, and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. It’s no wonder that Whedon, impresario of the Buffyverse, does well by the five-foot-four female who kicks all the ass, but it’s still gratifying to see after the bumbled introduction of the Russian super-spy in Iron Man II.
The Avengers is everything it needed to be, perhaps everything it could have possibly been. It is effectively big and bruising enough to make it seem satisfyingly like the culmination of an extended endeavor. Pieces have been moved into place and Whedon executes the final sequence to reach checkmate with happy aplomb. His take on Thor amusingly plays up the quasi-Shakespearean bombastic boasting and he understands the value in letting the villain Loki be lusciously evil, a quality that is nearly achieved with nothing more than letting Tom Hiddleston flash a gleefully nasty smile as he twists reality around his curled finger. The humor plays out with a love for the characters and the colorful world that they reside in which simply can’t be faked. And even when Whedon relies on old tricks–interrupting a villainous soliloquy with a comically plausible physical attack, for example–his complete, willing and even generous artistic plunge into the sanctity of the shared universe makes the familiar ring out anew.
I’ll admit that I’ve been a fan of Whedon and these characters long enough that watching them storm the cultural consciousness together with a worthy film tickles me beyond the merits and flaws of the work itself. I can see that there are little issues here and there, but they don’t bother me much. I was flat-out entertained and frankly excited that the full house I saw it with clearly felt the same way. And all of this with big damn heroes, sir. Ain’t they just?