Not content with co-writing and producing the best film of the year so far, the berserk horror romp The Cabin in the Woods, Joss Whedon’s now scripted and directed its biggest. And if Marvel's The Avengers doesn’t feel quite as irreducibly Whedon-esque as Cabin, it retains enough of his trademark off-kilter wit and attention to character to set it high above your average multiplex crowd-pleaser.
For those unfamiliar with the Marvel canon, the Avengers comics unite superheroes from across the company’s roster, in this case – deep breath – Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and lesser-known caped crusaders Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Brought together by Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and his SHIELD organisation, these six ass-kicking egomaniacs are tasked with taking on Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who plans to flood the world with evil skeleton monsters from outer space.
It’s not rare to see a blockbuster skimp on plot, but that tendency is taken to new extremes here: the story is just a bare frame on which Whedon hangs his characters and action sequences. This can lead to problems when we realise that, Loki aside, we don’t know who the bad guys are, where they come from or what they want.
But that – and a handful of dodgy CGI effects – is the only major fault with Marvel's The Avengers. This is as close as cinema gets to a fairground ride: it’s shiny, noisy and exhilarating. Whedon directs with a sledgehammer, bashing the audience, Hulk-like, with action piled upon action, explosion after explosion. And if it can, at times, seem a little busy, the cumulative effect is thrilling.
But it’s no surprise that Whedon’s true strength is as a writer. Marshalling six heroes – and at least as many other key speaking roles – he delineates characters beautifully, keeping the macho-bullshit quotient high (Downey Jr and Hemsworth are good value in this department) while also allowing for a few quieter, sweeter touches, most of them courtesy of Ruffalo’s battered and defensive Hulk.
And in another break from the blockbuster norm, he manages to get the villain spot on, handing Hiddleston a gift of a role as Loki, and one of the most memorably nasty insults in recent screen history.
Marvel's The Avengers may not be the Joss Whedon movie everyone remembers in 2012, but it does offer this hugely talented writer-director – too long confined to TV and the web – the opportunity (and the budget) to show what he’s capable of. Tom Huddleston