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.