It seems like a fine idea to put Joss Whedon in charge of “The Avengers.” Given his knack for wisecracking-ensemble revitalizations of chancy entertainment properties (there’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and then there’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), Whedon’s superhero summit, adapted by him and Zak Penn from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s comics, might well be the ultimate Marvel.
Culled from their respective blockbusters, clad in flashy costumes and CGI, Captain America, the Hulk, Iron Man, and Thor (Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth) come together at long last. As established by covert military administrator Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), their ranks also include the archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and the martial artist Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who haven’t yet had movies of their own and now don’t seem to need any.
So this amounts to an enormous and very expensive juggling act. As if in a forced march from one set-piece to the next, “The Avengers” gathers at least enough momentum to get beyond two hours without getting discernibly bogged down. But really it works best in the downtime, when Whedon just seems to be hanging out backstage with some sort of temperamental action-figure supergroup. It’s sweet to see him treat these characters with his typical teasing reverence, as if little individual rituals of gentle ridicule can redeem the sheer silliness of loving how they look together.
Obviously Whedon wanted the essential infighting, be it verbal or forest-flatteningly physical, to seem more intimate than a mere din of clanging metallic collisions. Accordingly the best internal-battle scene involves Ruffalo’s scientist recounting desperation over his innate Hulkdom, which prompted him to put a bullet in his mouth — whereupon “the other guy spat it out.” In a movie like this, telling instead of showing takes confidence, to which good actors take well. Other Whedonisms include redemptive self-sacrifice as grand thematic theory and regrettable supporting-player sacrifice as operative practice. Whedon does understand that at the core of superhero mythology is the thrilling possibility of transcendence, even if it’s, oh, you know, an aircraft carrier becoming an aircraft.
For the humans, reconciliation requires an external enemy, and our villain this evening will be Thor’s brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), an arrogant extra-terrestrial Viking with one of those bullies-are-secretly-insecure personalities and the sort of fascist urge that really gets Captain America’s goat. When Loki summons a warmongering horde through a hole in the sky, the Avengers get collectively to work, dispatching disposable baddies as if rushing through some technically sophisticated yet narratively forsaken video game. These invaders make more of a mess than a threat, but at least we can tell what’s going on: the climax.
What’s most fun is Loki’s suggestion to a throng of kneeling civilians that they’d be happier in supplication anyway. Might that also be aimed at hardcore fans of movies made from comics? As the T-shirt says, “Joss Whedon Is My Master Now.”