Since The Avengers is trampling box office records all over the place, this is kind of a moot point (or a moo point, as Joey Tribbiani would say), but I just want to add my own “Woo-hoo, yay for Joss!” to the mix. The film lives up to the promise of its rousing trailer.
The movie does feel like it’s going through the paces early on, as it brings all the superheroes together. Once they do all congregate, it never actually feels like there’s much at stake, even though technically the whole world is, but it’s a fun, hilarious ride nonetheless. As expected, Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark delivers most of the memorable quips, but the film’s funniest visual gags are actually courtesy of Hulk. I expected the other characters to be overshadowed by the showy Tony Stark/Iron Man, and, for the most part, they are, especially Steve Rogers/Captain America and “Point Break” Thor. Mark Ruffalo, though, holds his own against Downey, making Bruce Banner’s understated intelligence, caring, and restraint intriguing and even sexy, in a rumpled, low-key kind of way. I think what makes Bruce/Hulk compelling is Joss and Ruffalo’s understanding that Bruce is “always angry.” Ruffalo plays out this character choice with beautiful subtlety: watch how Bruce holds his hands, carries himself, positions his body when talking to people, indicators of a very powerful emotion at work beneath the mellow surface. Bruce is so much more interesting when he’s not simply resisting the anger; by embracing it, he frees up the mental energy that allows him to be somewhat more in control of Hulk. Only somewhat, though: even when Hulk is fighting alongside the other superheroes, he still seems kind of pissed off at them, occasionally bellowing at his allies. He’s angry at everyone, and Bruce has just enough control to make Hulk direct his anger primarily at the bad guys.
The Avengers is sometimes a bit by-the-numbers: the set-up for Iron Man’s moment of sacrifice is too obvious; as usual, there’s a loss that finally brings the superheroes together as a team. Also, I know Sam Jackson is bad-ass and that Nick Fury was re-imagined specifically with him in mind, but he doesn’t bring much to the role. Although this would completely whitewash the Avengers franchise, I think Stephen Lang (Avatar, Terra Nova) would be perfect as Nick Fury.
Now for the game we Whedonites like to play – spot the Joss alums: Alexis Denisof of Buffy and Angel, unrecognizable as one of Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston and his gravity-defying cheekbones) extra-terrestrial allies; Enver Gjokaj, so amazingly versatile and chameleon-like on Dollhouse, appears too briefly as an NYPD cop during the final battle; and Ashley Johnson, also from Dollhouse, as a star-struck waitress. And totally random but hilarious cameo: Harry Dean Stanton!
I know people who don’t buy into the auteur theory of filmmaking may say that I’m giving Joss too much credit for how well The Avengers turned out, but it’s hard not to when his signature humor and character development shine through what could easily have been a forgettable summer blockbuster. I will say that the film’s broad mainstream success is kind of bittersweet; Joss isn’t our little secret anymore, not the cult favorite with the small, rabid following. Can he please direct a Wonder Woman film now?