In helming The Avengers—the long-awaited convergence of four Marvel Comics properties into one gargantuan nesting doll of a summer blockbuster—Joss Whedon is burdened with glorious purpose. Those are his words, not mine, and they’re actually spoken by Loki, the effete alien overlord presenting the avenging force with its first challenge. Still, what an apt and appropriately fustian description of the monumental task Whedon has taken on. The Avengers isn’t just weighted by the typical expectations of the normal box-office bulldozer. After five movies’ worth of prologue, the film has also absorbed the expectations of the individual franchises. As a geek God, Whedon knows the stakes. Succeed and become a Comic-Con immortal. Fail, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer suddenly seems so long ago.
That’s some heavy pressure. Luckily, there is perhaps no other mass-producer of pop culture better equipped to handle it than Whedon. He is blessed with an intrinsic knowledge of what audiences want—a gift he displayed, albeit mockingly, in last month’s The Cabin in the Woods—and the ability, as a writer and director, to deliver with maximum satisfaction. In that regard, he does not stumble. It’s hard to imagine anyone who’s spent the past five years playing out a vision of an Avengers movie in their head being disappointed with what Whedon has come up with. It’s big and loud, exhilarating and funny, meaningless but not dumb. It is glorious entertainment.
In some ways, Whedon actually had it easy. The foundation was already laid for him. Unhindered by the dull necessity of origin stories, which no one needs to know anyway, he’s free to laser straight to the good stuff. The opening scene yields the arrival, via space portal, of intergalactic fascist ideologue Loki. Played by Tom Hiddleston, he looks like a European house DJ. Appropriately, his weapon of choice is a giant glowstick. Landing in the headquarters of a clandestine military agency, he massacres some anonymous guards and steals the Tesseract. What’s the Tesseract? Hell if I know. It’s the glowing, cube-shaped MacGuffin unearthed at the end of the Captain America movie, and its only purpose, as far as I can tell, is to give the billion-dollar ensemble an excuse to assemble. It takes about an hour for all of them to appear onscreen together at the same time, but from there, it’s on, with Whedon pairing them off for a series of dream fights pulled straight from a Marvel message board before the final battle royal with Loki’s army in midtown Manhattan gives us the inevitable Michael Bay-style wrap-around shot signifying that, yes, the gang’s all here.
Amazingly, no one gets lost in the shuffle. The Avengers are an all-star team, and directing The Avengers is like coaching one: Half the work is ego management. Of all he accomplishes here, Whedon’s greatest achievement is the balance of his script. It’d be easy for Robert Downey Jr. to dominate as Tony Stark, but Steve “Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, replacing Ed Norton in the role of the pre-rage Hulk) and even Chris Hemsworth’s Thor prove able sparring partners, verbal and otherwise. Even lesser heroes Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) emerge as more than side-players. Oddly, the only actor who ends up wasted is Samuel L. Jackson. As Nick Fury, the eye-patched military recruiter whose cameos in the previous films built this party, he’s the rug tying the room together, and that’s what he remains: a mere furnishing.
Outside that misstep, Whedon never lets go of his characters, and it’s that act of heroism alone that earns him a pass to the pantheon. Welcome to immortality, Joss.
Critic’s Score: 88
SEE IT: The Avengers is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at Lloyd Center, Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Eastport, Mill Plain, Cornelius, Pioneer Place, Bridgeport, City Center, Division Street, Evergreen Parkway, Lloyd Mall, Sherwood, Tigard, Wilsonville, Sandy.