When news broke that geek god Joss Whedon was handed the keys to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, some comic-book fans reacted with surprise, others with consternation, some with doubt, others with incredulity, and some, those with more foresight than the others, with cautious optimism…

On the strength of Whedon’s first foray into big-budget superhero action films, The Avengers it’s clear the naysayers and doubters were wrong and the cautious (and not-so-cautious) optimists were, indeed, right. The sixth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the first featuring a superhero team-up, The Avengers more than delivers on the promise first crystallized when Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury appeared in Iron Man’s post-credits scene . Fury’s mention of the “Avengers Initiative” opened an entire comic-book world of possibilities, of interlocked stories and a shared superhero universe that comic-book fans have enjoyed for more than fifty years.

Over more than a decade as a creator, writer and producer (e.g., Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly/Serenity, and Dollhouse), Whedon mastered serial storytelling, season-long character and story arcs, ensemble acting, inter-group dynamics, and clever, pop-inflected dialogue, but not, unsurprisingly, big-budget, CG-heavy spectacle. Not, on the evidence of The Avengers, that you’d notice. Whedon handles the spectacle The Avengers demands surprisingly well, beginning with the first, pre-credits sequence, an energetic action scene that drops The Avengers‘ Big Bad, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s adopted brother last scene floating away into outer space, in the middle of a super-secret S.H.I.E.L.D. facility to steal the Tesseract, a.k.a. the Cosmic Cube. Loki easily dispatches Fury’s men, kidnapping and (temporarily) lobotomizing Clint Barton / Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Dr. Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård).

In response, Fury activates the dormant “Avengers Initiative” over the objections of his superiors. He sends super-spy Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow to coax Dr. Bruce Banner / The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) from self-imposed exile in India. Banner’s turned his medical skills to good use, helping Mumbai’s poorest and sickest. Fury sends Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) to recruit the previously recalcitrant Tony Stark / Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), to S.H.I.E.L.D’s latest cause. Fury saves Steve Rogers / Captain America (Chris Evans) for himself. He finds Rogers where he last left him, inside an empty gym where Rogers takes out his disappointments and frustrations on a series of literal punching bags. No one actually recruits Thor (Chris Hemsworth). He joins the Avengers reluctantly after interceding in Fury’s mission to capture Loki (in Germany, no less, where Loki decides to forcefully announce his presence). Thor, it seems, prefers to handle his wayward brother himself. Thor doesn’t realize, of course, that Loki’s not alone. He’s recruited an alien army to help him conquer the world (ours) that Thor vowed to protect.

Whedon packs The Avengers with the obligatory set pieces and “wonder/awe” moments; the former setting the nascent members of the Avengers against each other (a comic-book staple) via one or two (or more) misunderstandings; the latter through the use of key elements from the ongoing comic-book series, up to and including a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier, a massive aircraft carrier that can fly, hover, and disappear via stealth technology. It’s as impressive a sight as comic-book fans and general moviegoers will see this summer, Battleship included. The Avengers isn’t all spectacle, however. The helicarrier serves as the de facto HQ for the Avengers. It also functions as the site for the second act’s climactic set piece, but the less said about that scene, the better. The same can be said (or rather not said) about the extended third-act climax that brings the entire Avengers team together to take on a global threat, the kind of threat the Avengers were explicitly created to combat and defeat.

With so many top-tier characters and subplots to juggle, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that The Avengers takes a seemingly inordinate amount of time to gather the superheroes together and bring them onboard the helicarrier. Whedon slips into fan service mode on more than one lengthy occasion, but it’s a small price to pay (if it’s a price at all) to see and hear the Avengers talking and interacting in the carefully developed voices created for them in their stand-alone films. Whedon isn’t Whedon without a steady supply of zingers, each again true to their individual characters. Once and always a smart-ass, Starks gets most of Whedon’s funniest dialogue, but Whedon makes sure no one gets left out. If anything, Whedon’s witticisms occasionally threaten to derail The Avengers slightly more serious moments. That’s a minor problem in comparison to the literally gray, colorless aliens sent to defeat the Avengers. Not surprisingly, they prove no match for the Avengers. Next time (and there will be a next time), Whedon (and it should be Whedon) should bring in villains or rather super-villains worthy of the Avengers.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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