The Avengers‘ most important hero doesn’t appear on-screen during the film’s surprisingly spry 140-minute runtime; more important to the feature than Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man or Samuel L. Jackson’s glowering Nick Fury is writer/director Joss Whedon, who turns a popcorn action-adventure into one of the genre’s essentials.  Whedon learned a thing or two about group dynamics from his work on the cult television shows “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” and “Firefly,” and his skills at (successfully) corralling different performing energies into one cohesive unit proves indispensable for The Avengers.  So much here could have gone so wrong – the Marvel Studios ventures preceding this have taken vastly different approaches to character that could have turned The Avengers into an atonal jumble.  But Whedon has his protagonists’ forced integration become the spine of the film: they must unite, or die.  As a result, Whedon makes the group more important than their mission, an equation that most mass-market entertainments reverse.

That The Avengers is good doesn’t faze me (Whedon’s earned my trust over the years); that it retroactively brightens the five prior Marvel entries does shock.  Other than the first Iron Man and last year’s criminally underrated Captain America: The First Avenger, the Avengers-lead-ins have been mixed: moments of genuine inspiration (Chris Hemsworth’s wonderful work as Thor; Robert Downey Jr.’s big “Eureka” scene in Iron Man 2) co-exist with undercooked drama (the whole of The Incredible Hulk) and borderline-bargain-basement spectacle (Thor‘s CGI effects work would have looked dated in 1995).

But The Avengers makes them vital.  We hear Mark Ruffalo’s wry, appealing Bruce Banner reference the Hulk’s Harlem rampage, and he sells the psychic and physical devastation.  We feel Thor’s impotence at not being able to reconnect with the psychotic Loki because we know the long, strange trip that separated the two brothers.  We instinctively grasp how dangerous the film’s MacGuffin is – an unstable energy force called the Tesseract – because we remember how it almost destroyed the near-invincible Captain America.  I’d liken the cumulative experience to taking a college course and struggling to find meaning in it, only to have your studies snap together with sudden clarity during the final exam.

That’s the one disadvantage to The Avengers: you need to see Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, and Captain America to get the full benefit from the new picture.  Homework, sure, but man, is it worth it.  The Avengers doesn’t waste time; with the getting-to-know-you-bulls—t out of the way, we jump right into the thick of it, as deposed Asgardian king Loki (Tom Hiddleston) destroys a fair chunk of New Mexico to steal the Tesseract, an act that lights a fire under the ass of S.H.I.E.L.D. leader Nick Fury (Jackson finally gets a chance to strut after his cameo appearances in the two Iron Mans and Captain America).  Fury turns the movie into – of all things! – a superhero take on The Blues Brothers as we watch him and his top operatives Natasha Romanov (or Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson) and Agent Coulson (the ever-indispensable Clark Gregg) dart around the globe to put the band back together.

Said band consists initially of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Bruce Banner, Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor, and Romanov, and true to Whedon Form, they spend much of the first hour gabbing away rather than trading blows.  The Avengers certainly doesn’t skimp on action, but other than some scattered beats here and there (a forest melee between Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America; a brief Loki battle in Germany), Whedon relegates most of the combat to two major setpieces: one at the midpoint aboard the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier, and one in New York City at the climax.


Whedon is content to have his characters talk.  In today’s ADD-movie atmosphere, non-functional exposition tends to fall by the wayside, and the stuff that remains isn’t a fourth as idiosyncratic as Whedon’s words.  The man is to genre adventures (like Serenity or last month’s brilliant Cabin in the Woods) what Aaron Sorkin is to the political polemic; he keeps the back-and-forth moving at a Howard Hawksian pace, blithely tossing off plot points while letting his leads savor their respective quirks.  He makes room for Pepper Potts (the returning Gwyneth Paltrow, whose one scene with Downey feels like vintage Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell and might be my favorite part in The Avengers) grilling Agent Coulson about his cellist girlfriend, or Banner bonding with Stark over gamma radiation minutia, or Stark’s endless supply of pop culture insults/references (he takes particular delight in tormenting Thor), or Captain America’s unaffected joy when he realizes he actually understands one of those references.  You just don’t see human beings getting this kind of attention when matters more alien and explosion-y are at hand.

In fact, the cast is too good together.  I don’t want to see Iron Man 3, or Thor 2, or Captain America 2: Electric Boogaloo because then I’d have to settle for these actors one at a time.  I want a new Avengers movie every year, with Joss Whedon at the helm.  Better still: I want a TV show, so I can get my fix every week.  Hyperbolic?  Sure.  But I haven’t felt this way about an ensemble in a blockbuster movie since 2009’s Star Trek.

Downey is the least surprising, but not in a bad way.  He was wonderful in both Iron Mans, and he’s predictably wonderful here; he, in particular, makes a meal out of Whedon’s wise-ass zingers.  You expect a lot from him, and he delivers.  Same goes for Hemsworth and Evans, who give the two most one-dimensional Avengers depth and soul.

I’m more interested in Scarlett Johansson, and not for the obvious reasons.  Her Natasha Romanov was beautiful and little more in Iron Man 2, but Whedon, who knows a thing or two about strong female heroines from his years on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” gets the most from his leading lady.  Her introduction – a cheerfully sinister interrogation with three Russian mobsters – should seem pleasantly familiar (and exciting) to “Buffy” fans; better still is an encounter with the Hulk that leaves the ice-cold Romanov deeply shaken, or the weary bemusement in her voice when – during the end battle scene – she suggests a plan of attack that she knows is more-than-a-little suicidal.  This is the most engaging Johansson has been since 2003’s Lost in Translation.

Mark Ruffalo’s 2003 – 2012 track record is more consistent (the man received an Oscar nomination two years ago, plus anyone who can count Collateral, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Zodiac, and Shutter Island among their oeuvre is doing all right), but that doesn’t make his Bruce Banner any less of a treat.  Ruffalo underplays the character away from the tortured gravitas of previous Banners Eric Bana and Edward Norton; his interpretation offers intimidating genius alongside a sly wit, like he’s perpetually enjoying a private joke.  Banner seems like the most functional Avenger, right up until he turns into the Hulk and starts smashing everything in sight, and you realize the coolcat vibe is a front, the only way Banner can keep his big, green demon at bay.  Like an alcoholic in recovery, he fears relapse above all else, and Ruffalo has a key line at the start of the climax that provides terrifying insight into the character’s psychology.  I confess to watching the first two Hulks with some measure of impatience – I kept waiting for Banner to disappear and for the Hulk to emerge – but Ruffalo’s makes you crave Banner’s apprehension over the Hulk’s (many) smashes.

In fact, of the leads, only Jeremy Renner’s deadeye archer Hawkeye doesn’t register as strongly as the rest; for reasons I can’t get into, Whedon denies Renner the use of his magnetic intensity, but eventually, order is restored, he joins the team, and we get to watch this most talented of actors create a whole character from subtle, precise physical details.

These people make the illogical logical.  I suppose I could complain about Loki’s nonsensical back-galaxy dealings that motivate the main action or how the last forty minutes just turns into another summer blockbuster with its lovingly detailed destruction of midtown Manhattan, but why bother?  The summer movie trappings require a fair spot of ludicrosity, and The Avengers certainly has its fair share.  What distinguishes The Avengers from the rest of the herd – what makes it matter – is that it provides interesting, flawed characters who express themselves in hyper-verbal and flinty manners on top of the sound and fury.

That’s the Joss Whedon touch.  He never lets you forget the human stakes, that our heroes can possess multitudes (jealousy, rage, arrogance, humility, humor, courage) and seem no less heroic.  Every other summer action movie: take a good look.  This is how it’s done.

Culture Movie Review: Thrilling, Funny AVENGERS Emphasizes Character over Action