More than anything else, The Avengers is a triumph for Joss Whedon, who wrote the script and directed the movie and is now, after years of smaller-scale wizardry in the fantasy genre, firmly installed in the top echelon of the Hollywood big time. Without his expert ministrations, the picture might have been just another comic-book superhero exercise. True, several of the characters he was handed here—Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and the Hulk—were already well-established among fan folk by nearly 50 years of Marvel comics and in more recent blockbuster franchise films of their own. But herding them together into one big super-pileup—and under the closely controlling hand of Marvel Studios—required a gifted traffic cop; and Whedon, who demonstrated a knack for ensemble maneuvering in his TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly, was, as we now see, the ideal man for the job.
He also proves himself a master of big-budget action and CGI integration, and, most important, of maintaining focus on his many characters' famous idiosyncrasies through even the most distracting clamor. The movie kicks to life with an attack on the headquarters of S.H.I.E.L.D.—the Earth-guarding agency helmed by one-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson in full scowl)—by the renegade god Loki (Tom Hiddleston), adoptive son of faraway Odin and thus resentful brother of the blindingly blond Thor (Chris Hemsworth). Loki was last seen disappearing down a space wormhole at the end of last year's Thor. Now he has arrived on Earth, "burdened with glorious purpose," as he puts it, and determined to seize the Tesseract, a "cosmic cube" of fearsome power, which has been in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s possession since the end of last year's Captain America: The First Avenger. (Whedon was brought in on both of those films to sync up their endings with the already plotted beginning of this one.)
When Loki and his gang of hideous reptilian space thugs make off the with the Tesserac—which will enable Loki to (what else?) conquer the world—Nick Fury declares a "Level 7" emergency, and sets about assembling the Avengers, that retaliatory strike force made up of the wise-cracking Iron Man, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.); World War II hero Captain America (Chris Evans), only recently awoken from a 70-year nap; Thor, of course (once again played by Chris Hemsworth), who actually just happens to drop in; and the deadly assassin Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), listed on the S.H.I.E.L.D. speed dial as the Black Widow. (They're later joined by the brooding super-archer Hawkeye, played by Jeremy Renner.) Romanoff is further tasked with locating and re-recruiting the disaffected Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), currently working on his anger-management issues as a doctor at an Indian leper colony under his real-world name of Bruce Banner. Soon most of these characters are assembled on S.H.I.E.L.D.'s vast flying battleship, the Helicarrier, and they set off in search of the demented Loki.
This is familiar superhero stuff, and madly complicated. But director Whedon maintains clarity throughout by concentrating on the team's various personal issues of brotherly estrangement, guilt, self-doubt, and so forth. He also stages a virtually nonstop series of spectacular action sequences. Early on, we find the Black Widow tied to a chair in a violent interrogation by some Russian mobsters. Receiving an urgent phone call from S.H.I.E.L.D. (very witty), she erupts into a frenzy of butt-kicking—still tied to the chair—that is a model of martial-arts devastation. The furor builds through many explosive confrontations to an elaborate (if predictable, and overlong) showdown among the skyscrapers of New York. (Concluding, if it need be said, in a fleeting tease for the inevitable sequel).
There's also an abundance of snappy lines sprinkled throughout the story (some of the best allotted to Downey—possibly a contractual obligation). Advised that the caped and armored Thor and Loki are "basically gods," the straight-arrow Captain America replies, "There's only one God, ma'am, and He doesn't dress like that." And Whedon's script keeps the zingers coming right up to the end.
But it's the unusually high-quality actors who really power the movie. Downey is…well, Downey, always a fairly splendid thing. Hemsworth is a sweetly personable muscle mountain, and Clark Gregg once again brings valuable warmth to the fantastical story as Nick Fury's suit-and-tied aide, Phil Coulson. But Whedon's most inspired casting move was to bring in Ruffalo to play the Hulk (a character previously portrayed, with minimal memorability, by Eric Bana and Edward Norton). Ruffalo's Bruce Banner is a man struggling to suppress the violent outbursts that transform him into a rampaging "big green rage monster" (Tony Stark's formulation), and the actor plays him with meticulous restraint (which vanishes, of course, when he erupts into his mo-capped alter ego).
As good as the performances are, and as extravagant as the movie's gleaming art design is, the most rousing aspect of The Avengers is the liberation it surely prefigures for Whedon. Having successfully subordinated himself to the purposes of the Marvel empire, he can now move on to bring his own visions to the screen, with the larger budgets his unique talent warrants. Unlike the pitiful Loki, Whedon would seem to be a man who really is on his way to world conquest.