The director’s fans have been saying it for years: “Joss Whedon is my master now.” With “Avengers” breaking records at the box office, it looks like the rest of the world is catching up.
Whedon (Serenity, television’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is in his element as both screenwriter and director, and his trademark, witty dialogue is on full display here — especially when delivered by Robert Downey Jr.’s already-delightfully-snarky Tony Stark/Iron Man.
If viewers haven’t already seen the earlier films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (“Iron Man,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “Thor,” “Iron Man 2” and “Captain America: The First Avenger”), they might miss a few of the plot points, but ultimately “Avengers” stands alone.
The film begins where “Thor” left off — Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Asgardian god of trickery/sufficiently-advanced alien/general intergalactic ne’er-do-well, after banishment from Asgard, makes a deal with an alien race called the Chitauri to deliver the Tesseract (last seen in “Captain America”) to their master in return for control of Earth.
Loki appears on Earth in a S.H.I.E.L.D. research facility, gleefully wreaking havoc, stealing the Tesseract and mind-controlling the lead scientist as well as Agent Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). S.H.I.E.L.D. leader Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), calls in man-out-of-time Captain America (Chris Evans) and incredible-anger-management-issue Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) to retrieve it. Along the way, they pick up Stark, Agent Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Loki’s estranged brother, Thor (Chris Hemsworth).
Though the road to an effective group dynamic is rocky at best, with plenty of interpersonal conflict, by the last third of the film the Avengers come together to fight Loki’s Chitauri army on the streets (and above them) of New York City.
Ensemble numbers are tricky, and bringing together seven title characters into one show more so. Whedon delivers by knowing what’s important: while the fight scenes are admittedly spectacular — look for the one long shot during the battle; you’ll know the one when you see it — the real staying power “Avengers” has is the interpersonal dynamic.
The friction between Captain America and Iron Man is particularly well played: viewers who saw “Captain America” will remember Tony Stark’s father Howard as one of Cap’s friends (something Tony is uneasy about at best), while Tony’s selfish background (thoroughly explored in “Iron Man”) rubs self-sacrificial Cap the wrong way.
While Johansson’s character spent most of “Iron Man 2” alternating between eye candy and stone-cold killer, “Avengers” explores her past, motivations and relationship with her fellow agent, Barton, in a way that makes them both believable, sympathetic characters.
Ruffalo kills as Bruce Banner, silencing critics annoyed by the lack of Edward Norton by delivering the best Hulk seen on the big screen. Whedon’s writing is again on display here; between excellent motion-capture work for facial expression and Ruffalo’s lines in human form, it’s finally clear to audiences that yes, Bruce Banner and the Hulk really are two sides of the same coin.
At the end of the day, “Avengers” is well worth the price of admission. Go see it while it’s still in theaters, and don’t forget to stay until the end of the credits.