The Astonishing 'Avengers'

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Joss Whedon's superhero extravaganza is among the best big-budget entertainments in years.

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This American Life's Ira Glass once aptly described writer/director Joss Whedon as "one of those people who, either you have never heard of him at all...or you love him." To those of you who, in your millions, are about to make the transition from the former cohort to the latter: Welcome.

The probable catalyst for this conversion is, of course, Whedon's The Avengers. (I should note here that I am technically supposed to refer to the film as Whedon's Marvel's The Avengers, but I'm not going to, because that would be ridiculous. Were the honchos at Marvel concerned that their 60-something target audience would be confused by the absence of Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg? I think not.)

When news first broke that an Avengers movie was in the making, I thought there was no possible way it could work: too many supers, too many awkwardly intersecting storylines, too much everything. When news broke that Whedon would be helming the project, I thought, well, if there's one person who could conceivably make it work, it was him. I was wrong the first time and right the second. The Avengers is sharp, witty, intense, and at times even touching—easily among the best big-budget entertainments of the last few years.

For those only now becoming acquainted with Mr. Whedon, he is the pop-nerd god responsible for the TV shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse; the feature film Serenity (a Firefly spinoff that is among the most criminally neglected movies of the past decade); and the wondrous web-short Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. Back in the day, he co-wrote the original Toy Story, and more recently he co-wrote and produced the deliriously inventive The Cabin in the Woods. Perhaps more to the point, he was the author of a by-all-accounts exceptional stretch of the comic The Astonishing X-Men.

Silly as it may sound, The Avengers is, to a surprising degree, an experiment in social chemistry

Yet despite this exhausting C.V., The Avengers is Whedon's first true bite at the apple of mass appeal. It is my humble prediction that the masses are going to stay bitten.

Now it is true that if you don't like superhero movies, you probably will not like The Avengers, which features all the tropes that inevitably accrue to the genre: the flying and punching and force-beams and silly costumes. But if you are even modestly open to persuasion, Whedon's effort is right up at the top of the Marvel heap, with the first Spider- and Iron Man and the first two X-Men. Given the degree of difficulty inherent in the undertaking, it's an accomplishment only modestly short of a miracle.

The Avengers were first assembled by Marvel Comics in Avengers #1, back in September 1963, with the gang deciding to unite following some spirited scrapping between Iron Man and the Hulk. In Whedon's re-telling, the geometry of discord is considerably more complex: Captain America bickers with Iron Man, who bickers with Thor, who bickers with the Hulk, who bickers with Black Widow. It's like an episode of Desperate Housewives with repulsor rays. The only one not to join in the squabbling is Hawkeye (who goes by his street name of Clint Barton), and that's because he's genuinely trying to kill them all, having been psychically enthralled by the villainous Loki.

Loki, as you may recall from the movie Thor, is the scheming adoptive brother of that hero and, like him, an extraterrestrial who inspired Norse mythology and retains a decidedly retro—I'm talking helmet-with-curved-horns retro—sense of fashion. As the movie begins, Loki is stealing the Tesseract (a cube of infinite power that you may recall from Captain America: The First Avenger) from S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (whom you may recall from the aforementioned movies as well as two Iron Mans and a The Incredible Hulk). Loki's plan is essentially to go all Grand Inquisitor on the human race, freeing them of the burden of freedom and offering his own rule in its place.

It is to Whedon's great credit that he manages to corral this herd of competing plotlines into something resembling coherence. The movies leading up to the Avengers were widely divergent in tone and even genre, in particular the intergalactic antics of Thor and the pulpy, throwback heroics of Captain America. But Whedon turns these inherent tensions to his advantage, making a film that itself spans genres: a superhero flick, yes, but one that also dabbles in alien invasion and Mission Impossible-style superspydom.

Indeed, the fact that the characters hail from such radically different universes ultimately helps imbue them with, well, character: the old-fashioned grit of Captain America, the aloof nobility of Thor, the self-loving charm of billionaire Tony Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man), and the twitchy discomfort of Bruce Banner, ever at risk of inflating into the world's least jolly green giant. Nor does Whedon skimp on his array of non-super-powered S.H.I.E.L.D. agents: the wounded guile of Natasha Romanoff (sometimes known as Black Widow), the solitary sniperhood of Clint Barton, the cigar- and scene-chewing gruffness of Nick Fury, the quiet decency of Phil Coulson.

The film unfolds largely as a series of collisions between these characters, as a group or in pairs, prodding, testing, taking one another's measure. Yes, it all ends, as it must, with a massive alien assault upon New York City, and there are the requisite battles and blow-ups along the way. But silly as it may sound, The Avengers is, to a surprising degree, an experiment in social chemistry.

The cast is excellent down the line, and plays well together, even—perhaps especially—when their characters don't: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson (whose Black Widow is far more interesting than she was in Iron Man 2), Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg. It would seem unfair to single out any of the heroes—okay, fine, Downey is customarily terrific—but I have no such qualms about Tom Hiddleston's Loki, who elevates lithe, Eurotrash sneeriness to an art form. (His eventual comeuppance is one of the most crowd-pleasing onscreen moments in years.)

But ultimately it all comes back to Whedon: his clear vision for each character and how they might be profitably intermingled; his unexpected knack for action choreography; his funny, tender, immaculately constructed script (from a story he co-wrote with Zak Penn). I don't think I'm giving anything away by revealing that the picture ends with Loki locked up for years. If Marvel has a lick of sense, they'll do the same with Whedon.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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