It begins with Sunnydale. Joss Whedon will probably never escape the legacy of his genre-subverting feminist masterpiece Buffy the Vampire Slayer, about a Valley Girl who fights the forces of darkness, and as writer and director of The Avengers, the movie that ties together the threads begun in a series of other superhero movies, that’s an excellent thing. A grand, funny action picture, The Avengers is also fundamentally if subtly about our reaction to superheroes: it manufactures joy (sometimes to slight excess—it clocks in at almost two and a half hours) even as it argues for the importance of that reaction and that belief in great power and great responsibility. And fittingly for a movie that’s a continuation of the project he began in Buffy, Whedon’s The Avengers begins as Buffy ended: with a group of wildly talented people escaping from a town that’s collapsing into the ground.
It helps to have seen the previous movies Marvel’s released to enjoy The Avengers—each entry in the franchise builds on the other in terms of plot development and characterization—but it’s not strictly necessary. The town that’s collapsing in this case turns out to be a massive government research facility run by an agency called S.H.I.E.L.D. that’s dedicated to studying a mysterious artifact: the tesseract. In previous films we’ve learned that the U.S. came into possession of that object, which it sees as a source of cheap renewable energy (and maybe other things as well) after they defrost Captain America, who stole it from the Nazis and crash landed the tesseract and himself in the Arctic. It turns out, however, that the Nazis pinched it from Asgard, the celestial kingdom of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (a terrific Tom Hiddleston), demi-gods and brothers who have had a significant falling out, leaving Thor with a human sweetheart and a fondness for earth, and Loki with a hankering for revenge. The Avengers kicks off when Loki shows up, pinches the tesseract along with several government workers, and in the process, collapses the facility. After he gets away, S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), his assistant Maria Hill (a largely wasted Cobie Smulders), and S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) regroup on a carrier ship and proceed to recruit the help they need to get it back.
Much of the band they pull together’s in fine, previously-established fettle. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) may be in the clean energy business and faithful to Pepper Potts these days, but he’s still an arrogant quip machine. “What’s your secret? Mellow jazz? Bongo drums? Great big bag of weed?” Tony snarks at Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), eager first to figure out how the brilliant scientist maintains his hard-won calm, and second to convince Banner that he might enjoy taking the Hulk out for a spin. Captain America (Chris Evans), now that he’s thawed out, seems awfully depressed and displaced. “When I went to sleep, we were at war,” he tells Fury glumly, taking a break from obliterating punching bags as a form of therapy. “I wake up, they say we’ve won. They didn’t say what we’ve lost.” Thor’s still speaking in Shakespearean text—something Tony doesn’t heistate to ding him for—and getting huffy over family honor, though when Black Widow points out that his brother Loki, on a quest to conquer the world, has killed 80 people in a mere 48 hours, Thor notes quickly “He’s adopted.”
The two characters least-well served by their previous incarnations in Marvel movies, the Hulk and Black Widow, are the ones best served by Whedon’s greatest gifts and strongest tendencies. Previous incarnations have tended to reduce Bruce Banner to something of a victim—his movie depictions haven’t bothered to make the case that the good doctor is worthwhile company in and of himself, interesting not merely because of his struggle to contain what Ruffalo’s Banner ominously refers to as “the other guy.” Whedon’s gifted Banner with a mordant wit and the obligation to point out the downside to situations his more optimistically superheroic colleagues regard as alternately awesome or a piece of cake (to a certain extent, he’s Xander Harris before he gets his hands on a wrecking ball). “Last time I was in New York, I kind of broke Harlem,” he warns them in one moment. When he makes his belated arrival at a battle that’s going poorly, Banner tells his beseiged allies “So, this all seems horrible.” We have a sense of the self Banner loses when he transforms into the Hulk, an understanding that he is valuable, and in peril of losing not just his reason temporarily but his soul permanently.
When Banner explains he knows he can’t be killed because “I got low. I didn’t see a way out. So I put a bullet in my mouth and the other guy spit it out,” his self-loathing is palpable. And when he prepares to backhand a woman into oblivion, the Hulk seems less like an inconvenient condition that can be effectively deployed than a manifestation of toxic, brainless masculinity run amok. But Banner learns to rein himself in, to become a targeted weapon rather than a rampaging beast, resulting in the wittiest action sequences in the movie’s third act. This is simultaneously the funniest and most thoughtful representation of the Hulk on screen, and Ruffalo deserves enormous credit for his performance, which is the best thing in the movie.
Black Widow is a heavier lift, given her introduction into the franchise in the relatively lackluster Iron Man 2, and Johansson’s limitations as an actress. But Whedon once again enriches his final girl (Maria Hill sticks to the ship’s bridge and isn’t really in contention for the title) by giving her tight, pithy dialogue that implies but doesn’t confirm a rich inner life. Buffy Summers might tell an ex-boyfriend “I’m cookie dough. I’m not done baking,” and go on to offer an extensive explanation of the metaphor. Black Widow, given a personal stake in the fight when Loki brainwashes Hawkeye, tells the villain who wants to know if she’s in love with him, “Love is for children. I owe a debt,” and leaves it at that. Her refusal to clarify leaves room for Loki to speculate, and ultimately to reveal more than he intended. All sorts of skill sets matter in a conflict this big and complex. And without making her a victim or a lesser member of the team, Black Widow’s reactions are a regular reminder that superheroics and space invaders have real impact beyond the financial support of the Cinematic Demolition Industrial Complex. Watching her come back to herself after being badly beaten in a fight is a reminder of how damaging these powers can be when applied to ordinary people. And hearing her tell Captain America in an unconvincing deadpan “It’ll be fun,” when she tries a hugely risky gambit without the protection of enhancement or godlike abilities makes the enterprise seem more serious. These things may be entertaining as hell to watch, but they’d be terrifying to actually carry out.
The Avengers is much less a critique of the way we consume entertainment than Whedon’s meditation on horror movies, Cabin in the Woods. But it’s powerfully attuned to precisely why these movies elicit so much joy even as it’s in the process of eliciting it. S.H.E.I.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson, introduced in Iron Man as a fussy bureaucrat who tries to keep heroes in line, and who has developed into a minor badass thanks to subsequent appearances that tie the franchise together and a series of web shorts devoted to him, is, in The Avengers, a full-fledged audience surrogate. Specifically, he’s a huge Captain America fan: “I watched you while you were sleeping,” he explains when they’re formally introduced, referring to his presence at Cap’s thawing-out. “Did he ask you to sign his Captain America trading cards?” Black Widow asks Cap as they arrive for the big get-together. “They’re vintage. He’s very proud.” Coulson’s a believer both in old-fashioned ideas of service to country and humanity and in the rather more modern idea that enthusiasm and affinity are cool rather than embarrassing.
Whedon’s ideas about villains function the same way, carrying the story forward even as they comment on tropes. Loki, since his expulsion from Asgard, has acquired an alien army and somebody’s college Nietzsche library (his interpretations of the latter suggest that he, not Banner, has been relying a bit too heavily on the ganja to ease his inner pain). When he first reappears in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Joint Dark Energy Mission laboratory to snap up a few minions (Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye and Stellan Skarsgård’s Dr. Selvig, both introduced in Thor), he swans about declaring “Freedom is life’s great lie. Once you accept that in your heart, you will know peace.” Fury, whose order “Sir, please put down the spear” failed minutes earlier, tells the demi-god “You’re talking about peace. I kind of think you mean the other thing.” But coherence isn’t Loki’s strong suit, and not just because, as Banner artfully puts it “his brain is a bag full of cats.” Unlike supervillains of yore, it becomes clear Loki doesn’t really believe what he’s saying. He has a temper tantrum, not an ideology.
In The Avengers, the battle of ideas isn’t between the forces of good and evil: it’s between the people who are supposed to be allies. Captain America thinks Iron Man’s a showboat, while Tony thinks Steve is a hopeless square. They waste time tangling with Thor in a forest before recognizing their common aims. Once they do, those three men plus Dr. Banner, find themselves suspicious of a secret S.H.I.E.L.D. agenda they uncover in the course of gearing up to fight Loki. And Fury manipulates them into coming together as a team even as he tries to hold off the worst impulses of the S.H.I.E.L.D. council he must answer to.
In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, superhero movies like Spider-Man 2, with its famous sequence of New York City subway passengers lifting up a fallen Peter Parker, were first about what other people had done to us and our capacity to recover. In The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s Batman became a representative of the terrible things we’d do to ourselves and the compromises we’d make to fight back against an external threat. The Avengers takes a third path, positing superheroes as the people who will stand firm both against terrorists and our own darkest impulses and those of the people in whom we’ve invested official governmental power. They’ll be there when we need them, but they aren’t entrenching themselves, amassing power and growing corrupt. It’s in keeping with the suspicion of institutions that’s become a major theme in Whedon’s work.
And we’ll certainly need them again. The introduction of Thor and the conception of alternate worlds and aliens to the Marvel movies opens up huge new possibilities for subsequent films, including for the adaptation of major storylines from the comics. An unwillingness to bring aliens into the mix has weakened prior movies based on Marvel stories: X-Men: The Last Stand, an adaptation of the Dark Phoenix Saga, should have ended with a showdown in an alien arena after the destruction of a planet. Instead, it concluded in a junkyard rumble. And from the extra scenes in the credits, it’s clear that Loki’s invasion was a first salvo, not the end of our heroes’ engagement in a higher kind of war with a whole new class of combatants. The Avengers may be the result of careful planning and a neatly calibrated movie-making formula that strikes some critics as rigid corporate entertainment. But this franchise, with its long-form exploration of a rich cast of characters and its embrace of a huge, complex universe, has unlocked, at long last, the wondrous, weird potential of comic books to transport us to other worlds and to render our own transformed.