I’m rapidly becoming a Joss Whedon fan. For the longest time I simply dismissed him as “that Buffy guy,” not going as far as to buy into the whole tear-him-down bandwagon that so many “serious” genre fans have jumped on, but not giving him a fair shot either. But within the past month, three things happened:
1. I saw The Cabin in the Woods.
2. I heard a recent replay of an episode of This American Life that featured Whedon performing a song he wrote for the DVD commentary track for Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.
3. I saw The Avengers.
I’m not totally convinced of his genius—I’ve yet to see anything deep and meaningful in his work—but the man sure can entertain. He seems to be able to create the perfect mix of energy, humor, and thrills. Plus he’s got a knack for clever plotting and strong character relationships. All of which makes him the perfect writer-director for a movie as ambitious as The Avengers.
I won’t go into a lot of details about the movie because this is the kind of movie that by it’s nature will turn people on or off. With all of the other Marvel superhero movies building to this one, by this point you’ve either drank the Kool-Aid or not.
Ambition really is the right word for The Avengers. There are a lot of characters to serve, a lot of permutations of character interactions the fans want to see, a lot of action set-pieces required, and hopefully all of that is done in a way that doesn’t feel mathematical, as if the filmmakers are just running down a checklist. Whedon succeeds on almost every count.
It’s a lot of fun to see Hulk fight Thor, Thor fight Iron Man, etc. And I enjoyed the personal relationships, like when Tony Stark and Bruce Banner bond over how smart they are. The real surprise here character-wise, though, was Whedon’s handling of Black Widow. Without being heavy-handed about it, he gives her a backstory that both intrigues and engages emotionally.
Going in to this movie, I had a secret little test that I was going to use to determine how good this movie was. My theory was that a good storyteller wouldn’t just use such a provocative name as “The Avengers” without explaining it. What or who exactly are they avenging? This is a challenge because the name “Avengers” was introduced in Iron Man without any explanation. So to explain it literally would mean having to go back and create exposition for why it was used in the first place.
Whedon doesn’t do that. But he doesn’t ignore it either. He sidesteps the issue and references it twice, once fairly explicitly and once quite subtly, but both very satisfyingly.
If you don’t want to risk spoilers, stop reading now. Otherwise…
First, the explicit reference. Stark tells Loki on the verge of his army’s invasion:
“Maybe your army will come, maybe it’s too much for us, but it’s all on you. Because if we can’t protect the Earth, you can be damn sure we’ll avenge it!”
Delivered by Robert Downey, Jr. with understated hubris, this line almost inspired me to cheer out loud in the crowded theater.
The more subtle reference was not even literally spoken. As Agent Coulson takes his final breaths, he reassures Nick Fury with these dying words:
“This was never gonna work if they didn’t have something to…”
He dies before he can say the word “avenge.” Sure, it’s completely unrealistic that these would be a dying person’s last words. But for a comic book character whose whole purpose in the story is to help assemble these individual heroes into a team, these are the PERFECT last words.
And I think what I love most about this line is how Whedon holds back the final word. It’s a little treat to those of us paying attention. He knew the Tony Stark line was coming later, so he didn’t have to spell it out for John Q. Public. It was a gift from a comic book fan to other comic book fans. And that’s what ultimately makes The Avengers as good as it is—it was made by a real fan.