The world always seems to be ending. Always a go-to plot device for countless works of fiction, it is relied on to help create an epic scale, a do-or-die intensity, but it usually seems so tired, unconvincing—too often unaccompanied by smart storytelling. The world always seems to be ending in the work of Joss Whedon, but it always feels like it actually will, the stakes always feel high. It’s because he creates worlds worth saving—ones that reflect our own, no matter how cartoonish they appear. It’s because his characters, his heroes, always have to make a decision. One has to choose to save the world. It is in grand, pop-operatic gestures that Whedon imbues all his work with something real, something serious, even existential. You wouldn’t know it at first, not from seeing the pulpy, CGI-laden mise en scène of The Avengers, but it’s something you feel, that you recognize in the big moments—and Joss has always been a master of moments. Moreover, it’s something you rarely, if ever, feel when watching movies of the mega blockbuster variety (certainly not other superhero films). I’m not going to argue that The Avengers is a high work of cinema, or without its flaws—which from both the perspective of a Whedon disciple and a cinephile, it does—but that doesn’t mean it’s not a little-giant miracle of a movie.
Logic would not dictate that The Avengers would be this good, it has no right to be. The preceding Marvel movies of the franchise have ranged from bad to average, with the possible exception of Thor, thanks mostly to Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston. But The Avengers is not the sum of those parts, but its own whole—one guided by a filmmaker who understands the art of the ensemble. All of Whedon’s great works are founded on character interaction. Whether in Buffy, Angel, Firefly or The Avengers, everything comes from the characters. They create meaning with each other, which is what creates meaning in the film. The arc of the film is a simple one. At first, these disparate heroes clash egos, until the game gets real, and they set aside their pride for something bigger than themselves. Simple but effective, the film is at its best when all of the personalities are mingling together with either corrosive or productive results. Whedon’s token banter permeates the dialogue, but only in such a way so as to carve out the uniqueness of each character, and to create a battle of wits to punctuate the bigger battles. Hawkeye is the character mostly left on the sidelines, but the screen time amongst the rest of the team is remarkably well balanced. Even Nick Fury and Agent Coulson have their moments, and actually feel like characters, unlike in the previous films where they felt more like expositional statues. There is a hierarchy of character arcs, perhaps, with Iron Man coming along the furthest in this regard, shedding his individualism in a powerful climax. The most fascinating is probably Loki, who almost acts as a composite of The Avenger’s shortcomings, representing a psychopathic reflection of their pride—he is also graced with the most memorable dialogue, a twisted monologue in particular. In the other Marvel films, the characters, with few exceptions, were never all that interesting or well-rounded, but here their motivations and behaviour are all part of an organic mold. It is because of this strong sense of character that we actually care about the action. At all times something emotional and moral is guiding the action.
The film’s impressive villain, Loki (Hiddleston), unleashes an alien race unto to New York. The government and S.H.I.E.L.D., led by Nick Fury, have a couple strategies prepared. Aside from their team of superheroes, they have nuclear weapons, something that becomes a topic of debate within the film. When the heroes discover S.H.I.E.L.D. have been building weapons, the team really starts to come apart. Later in the film, authority figures that Fury must answer to—talking heads on giant screens, ominous military men—opt to use weapons. Fury’s refusal to abide, and the actions of The Avengers, represent a resistance to the imperialist impulse that often drives alien invasion films, which typically serve to affirm America’s arrogant nationalism. Any thematic ideas Whedon plays with, are dealt with more subtly than we’ve recently seen in other Hollywood heavyweights, like Avatar, and The Dark Knight. The Avengers acts as an antidote to the heavy-handed and unsustainable serio-comic universe of Christopher Nolan. Whedon eagerly embraces the silliness of comic book style, creating what is probably the most authentically comic-booky adaptation so far. In not taking the universe too seriously, Whedon turns The Avengers into exactly what it should be, a seriously fun, but funnily serious work of escapist pop art.
I referred earlier to the big moments of the film, of which there is no shortage, and most should go unmentioned, but I must divulge one, at least. The Hulk has a generous amount of show-stealing moments, one of the most memorable being one wherein Whedon’s devout atheism makes a proud appearance. Loki mocks The Hulk and asks him to recognize his status as a God, to which Hulk responds in the way he knows best: smashing. It’s a startling moment, as the film’s intimidating antagonist is turned into to a rag-doll and slammed repeatedly into the ground. A God is nothing next to a very angry man. It’s moments like these that only Whedon concoct, like the wonderfully hilarious last shot that subverts the trend of post-credits plot development (if you can avoid having this spoiled, do so).
Though the competition isn’t exactly chock-full of great films, The Avengers probably stands as the best superhero film Hollywood has produced. Not only that, it is one of the most supremely entertaining blockbusters in recent memory. I can’t remember having this much fun at a movie since seeing Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Edgar Wright, 2010). Joss Whedon is primarily praised as a writer, and rightly so, but between this and Serenity (2005), he has proven adept at creating momentous, thrilling action sequences that retain their coherency while generating spectacle awe. The epic third act showdown is pure escapist exhilaration, and there is something oddly moving about Whedon’s long, single takes that track each Avenger, first in that circular shot of them standing united, and again in a sprawling, digitally assisted take of each hero involved in their own individual battle—individual, but they’re fighting for each other—and for a world worth saving.