“In the end you’ll always kneel”
It’s hard to believe the new Marvel cinematic canon began just four years ago—if anything just for the simple fact these actors have been contractually obligated to continuously work in the world for its duration. The new The Incredible Hulk released with much less poetic atmosphere and more action-based aesthetic akin to the universe the studio now wished to portray than Ang Lee‘s foray from 2003 and a comic tone was cemented in arguably the series’ best entry, Iron Man. Subsequently followed by Thor, Iron Man 2, and Captain America: The First Avenger, the series set itself onto a collision course audiences everywhere clamored to see. The Avengers was to be the ultimate comic book extravaganza of clashing ego, heroism, and science fiction I couldn’t fathom being as successful as they hoped.
Then came Joss Whedon to the rescue. A writer/director so synonymous with the worlds he creates—“Buffy”, “Angel”, “Firefly”, “Dollhouse”—seeing him attach himself to The Avengers was kind of a surprise. The Marvel universe wasn’t foreign to him with a couple X-Men comic arcs under his belt, but I couldn’t help think it weird that he’d spend time here rather than with something he’d imagined. That said, the previous films—Thor and Iron Man 2 especially—had missed a central voice to bridge the divide in timelines despite accomplished men helming them to box office success. So gung-ho in a desire to put every superhero in one film, the series neglected standalone storytelling in lieu of two-hour expository works introducing characters we hadn’t yet seen. In this respect, Whedon may have been the perfect choice to make sense of the chaos and silence the hype machine by living up to the dream.
Not only does he and co-story scribe Zak Penn—a cinematic Marvel staple—cull together each conflicted beast of checkered heroism, they also find a way to breathe in a bit of fresh air. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), relegated to eye-candy without purpose in Iron Man 2, is given the freedom to let her spy skills and acrobatics shine; Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) is rebooted a third time with a humor nonexistent in his previous two incarnations; and even Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) plays within the plot instead of outside it for his subliminal reminders of this forthcoming cornucopia. Not everyone fares as well as this trio—poor Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is wasted after drawing the short straw with almost zero previous visibility—but the comedic rapport cultivated only enhances each character’s strengths for a surprisingly effective ensemble that rarely falters.
One could say Thor is requisite material for viewing—the others are too, but an introduction to Asgard and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is crucial to understanding what occurs—but I do believe the plot can be understood without previous insight for those three people in America who haven’t yet watched the aforementioned quintet. Being a member of the Gods, it isn’t a stretch to believe Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) evil brother could wreak the type of havoc that calls for an assembly of like-minded vigilantes. Powerful, cunning, and vile, Loki’s ability to shift between worlds has allowed him to hatch the plans he’ll utilize to takeover Earth and sit at the throne his sibling stole back home. Forming an alliance with a hive-like contingent of aliens called the Chitauri, a portal is opened for the annihilation of humanity and the dawn of a new era of tyranny.
Just the type of all-inclusive threat necessary to engage each disparate hero’s mind spanning from obedient soldier to narcissistic loner, Fury, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), and Agent Hill (Cobie Smulders) may finally achieve the impossible. Widow and Hawkeye are already on the S.H.I.E.L.D. payroll, but the others must be cajoled to willingly lend a hand. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) arrives to assuage his ego and prove he can solve the science to finding the Tesseract—an Asgardian energy source Loki has stolen to open the portal; Banner is persuaded on a freelance scientific and moral basis with a promise to not become imprisoned by Fury; Captain America (Chris Evans) has been waiting for new marching orders since thawing from his deep, frozen sleep; and Thor finds his way back to Earth to stop the brother he’s already loosed upon our world once before.
Our exposition is the in-fighting amongst the team—Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America tangling and Thor battling Hulk both rival the climactic New York City romp to come—so the boring plot points of its predecessors are transformed by Whedon into snarkily sarcastic quips and destructive mayhem. The Avengers becomes what every detractor of the superhero genre wished was possible: a balls-to-the-wall escapade of explosive war and unbridled comedy that touches upon every aspect of what so many children have fallen in love with at their local comic shop. The dramatic gravitas of The Dark Knight, schmaltzy humanity of Spider-Man and X-Men, and unchecked camp of Fantastic Four are all distilled into a singular concerto of apocalypse-inducing action. With five previous films setting everything up, The Avengers is allowed to be all meat and potatoes.
Looking back, the plot itself isn’t too elaborate—stop Loki and the Chitauri or become enslaved—but when you’ve got the excitement of characters so interwoven into our culture having fun, nothing else really matters. Downey Jr. is at his best without any need to delve into Stark’s personal life besides a quick glimpse at his new life with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow); Evans retains the stand-up heroism he instilled in Cap last year; and Hemsworth’s old-timey English never ceases to crack a smile, especially when Stark is calling him pop culture names like ‘Point Break‘. Johansson is great with the fisticuffs and emotional manipulation while her dead eyes still distract from any acting greatness; Ruffalo shines as a jaded Banner, no longer quite as afraid of his alter-ego as before; and Hiddleston is a creepy delight with his pretty-boy smile forming at his most mischievous.
Weak points aside—Renner’s full body thrust to activate his flimsy-looking bow and Smulders’ rather useless Agent at Fury’s side—when one thinks about a superhero film, I do believe The Avengers is what should come to mind. By allowing even small characters like Stellan Skarsgård‘s Selvig to possess great oneliners at the start, Whedon shows the tone he’s set early. The nonstop final hour may stick in your head the most after leaving the theater, but you shouldn’t disregard what came before it. Loki’s villainy is given room to grow, the clashing personas of Stark, Thor, and Cap prove perfect fodder for laughs and suspense, and the willingness to let Hulk smash freely is a welcome sight as no character is allowed to become more important than the whole. Truly a collaborative effort and the best parts of each, Whedon will be leaving big shoes to fill for all subsequent entries.
And if you aren’t aware, don’t be like me and assume the first end credits extra scene is all there will be. Diehard fans will be treated with even more right before the lights come back on.
 Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans) in Walt Disney Pictures’ The Avengers.
 L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Ph: Zade Rosenthal. © 2011 MVLFFLLC. TM & © 2011 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.
 The Incredible Hulk (voiced by Lou Ferrigno) stars in Walt Disney Pictures’ The Avengers.