When Joss Whedon was directing the pilot to the television version of a flop movie, shot in crummy full frame 16mm, way back in 1996, he probably had no idea the kind of influence he would have over pop culture throughout the next twenty years. Not only did he create the finest television show ever put on television—Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, which played from 1997 to 2001 on the WB and from 2001 to 2003 on UPN—he was a big part of the genius Angel, Firefly, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and to a lesser extent, Dollhouse. He’s one of the most gifted writers in the industry, and a stellar director as well. Who would have thought back in those early days of Buffy that Whedon would one day helm a big-budget comic book movie that would gross 207 million on its opening weekend? It may not have been expected, but not only has Whedon delivered a top-grossing movie; he’s made one of the best summer movies in recent years, an entertaining, rousing achievement.
The film has been in the planning stages for many years. When Iron Man opened to giant grosses and solid reviews back in 2008, who would have thought we’d be watching one movie after another that would introduce us to all the superhero characters that would one day team up for one magnificent movie? Iron Man and Iron Man 2 introduced us to Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Thor introduced us to a hammer-wielding force of nature (Chris Hemsworth) and his vindictive brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Captain America introduced us to the old-fashioned Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), and The Incredible Hulk re-introduced us to Bruce Banner (who is now played by Mark Ruffalo). The Avengers also tosses in a few new faces—namely Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner). It seemed almost exhausting, having to see all these movies that introduce us to characters who we’ll see all in a film later. But thankfully, with the exception of the abysmal Iron Man 2, all of these films have been good! Which one’s the best? The Avengers, no question. Is it a game-changer on the level of The Dark Knight? No. It’s pure entertainment through and through, and it doesn’t have that special element to make it a true original masterpiece on the level of Christopher Nolan’s 2008 epic. But this film is fantastic, and probably the best summer entertainment since that 2008 blockbuster.
The Avengers could have been so horrible on so many levels. It could have been a loud, confused mess of a movie, with no direction or humor or sensible plot. It could have tried to do too much with one character (namely Tony Stark) and not enough with another character (say, Bruce Banner), but one of the joys of the Avengers is the way that writer/director Whedon manages to weave half a dozen stories and a dozen or more characters into a story that flows at the perfect pace, with humor, action, and even moments of unexpected sadness. Of course the fact that Whedon could perform this balancing act is no surprise at all; all of his television shows managed to keep us invested in not a few but a ton of well-developed characters. We get plenty of witty one-liners from Mr. Stark, but we also get more-than-expected material and depth with Black Widow and Nick Fury, and even Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), who gets more than a few terrific scenes.
But the real surprise in the film is the Hulk. He was a part of not one but two decent but unspectacular films (2003’s Hulk and 2008’s The Incredible Hulk), and finally, in The Avengers, this goofy character is given his proper due. Mark Ruffalo seemed an unlikely choice for this character, but it turns out his casting was a masterstroke. He brings a great sense of empathy to the role, and the actual moments of large green Hulk-ness provide the most applause-worthy scenes in the whole film. The confrontation between Hulk and Loki brought the house down; it was one of those genius unexpected Whedon moments that really brought the enjoyment of the film to a whole new level. It may seem difficult to find any of Whedon in this sprawling epic action piece, but for his fans, it’s easy to find him all over this thing. Each scene sparkles with dialogue, each action scene is well-constructed, and the moments of humor are Whedon all the way through. (And be sure to stick around for the final end-credits scene, which is minor but kind of brilliant in a way, and most assuredly a Whedon idea.)
You know what’s even more impressive about Whedon? In between making The Avengers, he co-wrote and produced the fun Cabin in the Woods and wrote and directed a low-budget film version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (still to be released). And when asked about what he would do if he got the chance to direct an Avengers 2? A more intimate, smaller film that puts the characters through further jeopardy. If the executives in black suits make any smart decisions down the line, it will be this: no matter how Whedon wants to make his films, keep him on board. This man is the real deal.