As novel as it seems for Joss Whedon to have brought together the four Marvel Studios franchises into one tentpole film in The Avengers, it’s been inevitable for as long as there have been movie blockbusters. You might date it back to 1978, when Warner Brothers’ Superman helped usher in the concept, or at least to 1989, when Supes’ buddy Batman showed up to break more box-office records for the same studio.
But decades later, the various onscreen incarnations of the duo known humbly as the World’s Finest haven’t crossed paths or so much as exchanged a fond e-mail. The brand-name superhero team-up is a money-printing machine, but no one figured out how to plug it in until last weekend.
Whatever went wrong all those years, it was awful nice of Hollywood to stall until writer/director Joss Whedon came along. There was reason to expect the Buffy the Vampire Slayer mastermind was an inspired choice for Marvel’s years-in-the-making flagship, from the crowd-pleasing wit of April’s The Cabin in the Woods, which he produced and co-wrote, to the creative success of Serenity, his 2005 directorial debut. And his winkingly iconic sensibility—ideal, among many other things, for turning one character’s two-word catchphrase into the best line of the movie—has survived whatever concessions must have accompanied The Avengers’ colossal scale. But what’s crucial is that Whedon understands comic books better than any other working screenwriter, and has taken the project that needed him the most and made it the new high-water mark for the blockbuster superhero movie.
To start, there’s the challenge of bringing together a gang of franchise headliners like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and the Hulk (along with crack archer Hawkeye and superspy Black Widow, both destined for their own unnecessary spin-offs) and then giving them all plenty to do. It’s the art of the team-up, fine-tuned for generations on the comics page, and Whedon—having himself spent time writing for Marvel, including an essential run on Astonishing X-Men—is steady-handed in building the team. As Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) tries to pull them together to recover an artifact for the global espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D., various good excuses are found for the coalescing Avengers to bounce off each other in different ways, from allegiance swaps and conflicting interests to simple impromptu brawls. (History warns us against putting Thor and the Hulk in a room together.) And so, through smart storytelling couched in good old-fashioned fan service, do the Avengers assemble.
And it’s a wonder, even at nearly two-and-a-half hours, how generous Whedon manages to be with each of them. One keen pairing is Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr); the worldviews of the nearly century-old American patriot and the 21st-century technocrat playboy are at odds with each other in ways that say a lot about the men individually, as foils for each other, and as part of a larger unit. The rest of the team gets similar treatment, building on old themes and details while cooking up something that outdoes what we’ve seen before. (This is especially true of Bruce Banner and his angry, scene-stealing friend, perfectly recast in hulk-handed heartthrob Mark Ruffalo.)
The Avengers functions simultaneously as an all-in-one sequel and the first main event those other films have been idly leading up to. Sadly, that main event is the one area in which The Avengers disappoints. With such a broad catalog of Marvel baddies to draw on, it’s strange that noted villain enthusiast Whedon would borrow Tom Hiddleston’s Loki from the shaggiest, most forgettable of the Marvel films (unless maybe there’s some Hulk movie that I don’t remember seeing at a midnight show) and stranger still to ally him with anonymous interstellar uglies for a by-the-numbers invasion. Loki’s lowly task of running interference on the Avengers does play to Whedon’s taste for that perfect storm of pathetic and malevolent, but that’s not enough to keep a few of the film’s spectacular action sequences from feeling hollow for a lack of stakes or intrigue.
On the other hand, the Avengers’ first outing together should be about them, not who they’re fighting, and so it may be a defensible move after all. (A less generic set-up might not have left room for the Avengers to revel in climactic urban carnage the way that only costumed, nigh-invulnerable folks can.) And in the end there’s little about The Avengers that doesn’t satisfy, because what could have been a bloated mess of comic-book tropes feels instead like an exceptional arc of The Avengers comics brought to life. In getting everything right about why people love comic books, The Avengers is the movie to beat, and unless Marvel Studios is willing to turn their whole operation over to Joss Whedon, it may be a while before anyone manages that.