Two spheres merge in The Avengers: the Marvel Comics universe and the Whedonverse, fans' name for the nerdy wisecracking existentialist superhero world of writer-director Joss Whedon.
The Whedon cult is smaller but maybe more fervent, inspiring academic conferences on such subjects as free will vs. determinism in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I find a lot of Whedon's banter self-consciously smart-alecky, but I love how he can spoof his subjects without robbing them of stature.
For Whedon, the heart of The Avengers clearly isn't the predictable, whiz-bang computer-generated battles between good and evil, but scenes in which our superheroes hang out, spar with words as well as weapons, and weigh the merits of individualism vs. teamwork. It's not unlike Howard Hawks' iconic gunfighters taking one another's measure in Rio Bravo.
And it's fun to watch Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, say to Bruce Banner, aka the Hulk, something like, "Hey, Banner, come see the nifty stuff in my lab." And Banner says, "Sounds good, Stark, see ya' later, Captain. Bye, Thor," and I'm, like, that's so cool --
OK, I'm geeking out, too. I had a blast at The Avengers. For the uninitiated — I know there are a few of you — the Avengers are a collective of four male Marvel superheroes: Iron Man, played by Robert Downey Jr. with a heavy dose of CGI; Captain America, played by Chris Evans; Thor, who's Chris Hemsworth in Norse get-up; and the gigantic lime-green Hulk, a special effect with Mark Ruffalo as its human alter ego.
We also get a female hero played by Scarlett Johansson: Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, who doesn't get as much fan attention because she's not supernaturally or scientifically enhanced, but whom Whedon gives a ton of screen time.
They've been called together by one-eyed superhero-wrangler Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson, who needs them to save the Earth now that Thor's adopted brother Loki has hurtled through a space portal from the mythical realm of Asgard. Loki thinks that deep down, humans long to follow orders; he boasts he will "free the world from freedom." As played by Tom Hiddleston, Loki is a magnificently theatrical presence and easily out-glowers Downey's snide Stark.
Downey fares least well in The Avengers, being obnoxious beyond the call of duty, but it's not all his fault — the part has taken a weird turn. For some reason, Whedon has Stark haranguing Banner not to suppress the Hulk but let that giant, wildly destructive part of himself out — as if their flying battleship were some kind of est seminar. Fortunately, Ruffalo's Banner shrugs it off. The actor is sly and shambling and attractively mussed, and steals every scene by underplaying.
That's not the only conflict: The Avengers drive one another so loco, it's a wonder they get to Loki. They pick fights — Captain America's shield fending off Thor's hammer, Thor's hammer smashing Iron Man's suit, Iron Man's suit deflecting Hulk's fist. Nobody wins, but trees and man-made structures lose. As I watched, I thought, "Wow, that must have cost a lot of money."
But it's not just money on the screen. The frames have the zing of good comic-book illustrations, and Whedon picks his moments to come at you with 3-D, a spear here and there tickling your nostril hairs.
Multiple protagonists mean that by the time you've had your fill of snotty Iron Man you get the over-earnest Captain America, and when you're bored with Cap you get the Norse hottie. Always something to see!
Along with Ruffalo's Hulk, it's Johansson's Black Widow who's the biggest treat, her deadpan prickling with rage and hurt. Whedon never lets us forget that, in the words of one government bureaucrat, the fate of the human race has been left to "a handful of freaks." Prepare yourself, earthlings: For the next few weeks, we'll all be living in the Whedonverse.
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