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Let's Do a Roll Call on Joss Whedon's 'The Avengers'

From this smooth integration of the ensemble, you might not guess that the production felt, as Joss Whedon says on the commentary, "one step ahead of the crumbling Earth" every step of the way.

The Avengers

Director: Joss Whedon
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlet Johansson, Tom Hiddelston, Jeremy Renner, Cobie Smulders, Samuel L. Jackson
Distributor: Disney
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Release date: 2012-09-25

It came as a surprise, at least to me, when Marvel Studios hired Joss Whedon to write and direct its Avengers movie. A welcome one, to be sure, but since taking control of some of their own properties circa Iron Man in 2008, with the stated goal of building an onscreen equivalent to their vast page-bound comics universe, the company has shown more reasonable, tasteful, and cost-effective good sense than visionary filmmaking craft. Whedon employs a stronger, more distinct voice as a writer than anyone Marvel had hired up to that point -- and less experience as a feature film director, with only a single feature (Serenity, based on his TV series Firefly) to his credit.

Now, of course, in the wake of mostly sterling reviews, a record-breaking opening weekend and a total gross reaching into James Cameron territory, hiring Whedon seems not only savvy but perfectly natural. But going through the film's Blu-Ray release, particularly Whedon's high-spirited but still somewhat revealing commentary track, reveals a rougher and less auteur-driven process than some fans of the film may expect.

The movie remains, as ever, loads of fun. Other comics movies have struggled with the sheer volume of single-character backstory; Whedon somehow organizes six heroes that range from slightly superpowered (Hawkeye, the Black Widow) to literally larger than (human, at least) life (the Hulk). As he mentions on the commentary track, he did have some help in the form of other movies filling in those details -- but so many previous movies can just as easily become a hindrance. Drawing on his experience shepherding TV ensembles, Whedon gives all of the major characters some attention.

Let's do, as Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark suggests when mouthing off to adversary Loki, a roll call. Iron Man comes to this team-up already figured out by Downey and director Jon Favreau – their work on Iron Man is a major reason The Avengers exists at all – but Whedon still has fun writing zingers for him, and gives him meaningful relationships with both Captain America (Chris Evans) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to keep the wiseass shtick from growing stale. The film also empathizes with the unfrozen WWII hero Captain America; as on his Astonishing X-Men writing gig, he shows uncommon interest in how the straight-arrow team leader actually operates.

Ruffalo, the third actor in as many movies to play Bruce Banner and his big, green alter ego ("the other guy", as he cagily refers to him here), plays the character with low-key angst, a counterintuitive approach compatible with Whedon's strategy to keep a lid on the Hulk himself until about halfway through the movie -- at which point he unleashes an almost absurd number of crowd-pleasing moments. Even the punier, less superpowered Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner have nice byplay and well-developed backstory, particularly Johannson (not surprising, given the writer-director's well-documented love of girls who kick ass). The one who gets the faintest hint of a short shrift is Thor, possibly because his brother Loki already gets plenty of screen time as the main villain (a minor if appropriately nefarious triumph of undermining).

From this smooth integration of the ensemble, you might not guess that the production felt, as Whedon says on the commentary, "one step ahead of the crumbling Earth" every step of the way. But the final product -- and The Avengers is something of a product, albeit a sleek, well-designed, heartfelt and often hilarious one -- does contain hints of the lumbering megaproduction required to manufacture it. The film's 12-minute pre-title sequence, re-introducing agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) of SHIELD and the MacGuffin-tastic dimensional-portal-opening Tesseract Cube (a poor man's Ark of the Covenant), isn't terrible, but, trundling through unimaginative action and comic booky jargon, it feels closer to the sensibility of lesser Marvel works like The Incredible Hulk or Thor .

The movie rapidly improves as it brings forth each Avenger and forces them into an alliance, but while it holds together, it never becomes as breathless as Christopher Nolan's Batman pictures, nor as focused or down-to-earth as the best of Raimi's Spider-Man work. Whedon talks about the "structural juggling" needed to whip the movie into shape, and even the well-paced final film proceeds more in chunks than an elegantly unfurling narrative: exposition, warm-up action, bickering and banter, more exposition, and a smash-em-up superclimax of the Transformers ilk, betraying some Saturday morning cartoon strains in the movie's DNA.

The difference, though, is that the final stretch of The Avengers, while essentially just the story of superheroes learning that teamwork is good, evil is bad, and well-directed Hulks can be a major asset in interplanetary war, is a smash-em-up superclimax done spectacularly well: exciting fight scenes, clearly shot and choreographed action, and payoff piling upon payoff. Whedon has been dismissed by some as a TV showrunner making a supersized episode and The Avengers, with him, as big-screen TV. Indeed, he commits a variety of meaningless auteur-unfriendly sins like shooting in 1.85 and writing snappy dialogue, but The Avengers has plenty of cinematic compositions -- check out the side-view shot of Captain America running and leaping across a city bus, or the fudged single-take round-up of the Avengers in battle -- and only resembles television to the extent that television has become more cinematic over the past few decades.

Complaints about the lack of epic scope in The Avengers seem to me less rooted in cinematic craft than in the Marvel Studios house style, which may be, at least in part, inescapable. Whedon's commentary, while gracious and enthusiastic, nonetheless points to the production's practical, corporate roots, as he talks about fixed, too-short schedules; writing scenes while shooting; designing shots for a Marvel-mandated 3-D conversion; and working with some studio-mandated scene concepts before he could even finish a script draft. Working for Marvel sounds friendly and fun; it also sounds like a company job, serving the continuity and success of the franchised universe.

Within those parameters, and sometimes sneaking around them, The Avengers is terrific and well-modulated entertainment. There's been talk of an assembly cut of the movie with an extra half-hour or so of footage; the Blu-Ray only includes 15 minutes' worth, though even if Marvel is holding onto footage for the inevitable extra-special edition to be released just before The Avengers 2 hits theaters, the range of material here suggests that the final cut hits more or less the correct amount of Avenging. An extended opening and ending gives SHIELD agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) more of an arc; it also feels more like a teaser trailer than a movie scene. The best bits are a lovely two to three minutes of Captain America adrift in the modern world, zeroing in on the character's loneliness; maybe that will be saved for Cap's next solo film.

In addition to commentary, deleted footage, and making-of material, the disc also includes "Item 47", a short about a couple (Lizzy Kaplan and Jesse Bradford) who stumble upon a stray piece of alien technology from the main film. This ten-minute mini-story offers the kind of neat ground-level look at the Marvel Universe the movies must often marginalize, but it resolves with the pat cuteness of a TV commercial.

Obviously, Marvel makes commercial films -- and good ones, at that, which puts it above any number of bigger studios imposing similar compromises on weaker material. But a writer-director like Whedon ought not to be sneaking his smart, humane sensibility in under the fences. The only thing really missing from The Avengers is potentially inexpensive: a thematic heft greater than the movie's you-can-count-on-us yay-teamwork lessons. Hopefully a billion dollars and change buys the filmmakers a few more inches of depth, next time around.


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