Dir. Joss Whedon
(2012, PG-13, 143 min)

The challenge of any superhero movie is suspending disbelief. That’s usually a fair bargain, but The Avengers requires multiple suspensions of multiple disbeliefs, and the collision of a handful of superhero worlds – each with its own system of techno-mystical logic – can draw undue attention to their absurdity. A man (Mark Ruffalo) who turns into a giant green monster because of exposure to gamma radiation is all well and good, but when he sits around chatting with the Norse god of thunder and a World War II-era super-soldier freeze-dried since the 1940s, well, don’t they all start to look a little silly?

Good, then, that the film is directed by Joss Whedon, who with TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly demonstrated a skill for creating full and lived-in worlds that often recognized and referenced their own ironies and absurdities. Perhaps owing to that earlier TV experience, his film is at its best at a smaller-scale: when the supers consider each other with humor, curiosity, bemusement, and even some incredulity of their own. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), for instance, has no difficulty accepting himself as a billionaire playboy with a warp core installed in his chest who built himself a rocket suit to occasionally save the world, but an ornately costumed demigod from outer space? That’s ridiculous. (Though, to be fair, Thor’s back story is slightly more ridiculous than Stark’s.)

But there’s not enough of that in the movie. Even with nearly two-and-a-half hours, Whedon’s personality is often crowded out by CGI spectacle and excess “phlebotinum” – that’s the word Whedon himself coined for all the exposition, gadgetry, and magical doohickeys and whatsits that drive the story. Alfred Hitchcock had a another word for it: “MacGuffin.” It’s a thing that does not matter other than to facilitate the plot. In The Avengers, there’s a magical staff, a handful of iridium, and a glowing cube called the Tesseract that could bring about the end of the world or perhaps provide self-sustaining energy to the planet. Everyone in the film is after the Tesseract, which as a story device is slightly less vague and ridiculous than Avatar‘s unobtanium.

Hello, my name is Loki. I’ll be your omnipotent overlord for the day.

The Avengers’ chief adversary is Loki (Tom Hiddleston), a fairly lightweight villain to challenge the superhero all-star team; god or not, Heath Ledger‘s Joker would laugh him off the screen. Loki wants to take over the Earth for petty, underwritten reasons – his more popular big brother Thor (Chris Hemsworth) favors the puny humans – but the film never develops him into an interesting character. He himself is a bit of a MacGuffin; he exists mainly to give the Avengers something to avenge at.

In-between flashy set pieces – an attack on an airship, an epic battle in New York City – Downey’s Iron Man gets the best material. The irreverent Tony Stark seems to be a kindred spirit for Whedon, deftly poking holes in other characters’ self-importance and providing opportunities for wit that are unavailable to the more earnest heroes like Thor and Captain America (Chris Evans). His dialogue enlivens the film, even when just pausing mid-battle to tease master archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) by calling him “Legolas.”

The Avengers team also includes Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), an assassin looking to atone for past sins. She and Hawkeye are gifted combatants, but have no superpowers of their own, and their contributions to the battle are limited; while Thor commands thunder and Iron Man single-handedly blasts squadrons out of the sky, the mere mortals on the ground look awfully quaint killing aliens one at a time. It’s a surprise in a Joss Whedon film that no one ever brings that up. Perhaps:

“Give me a boost!” says Black Widow.

“You mean you can’t fly?” says Iron Man. “No magic hammer? High-jumping alter ego? Afterburners? Teleportation? An advanced trampoline of some kind? Nothing?”

Neither is it addressed that Thor and Hawkeye wear intensely body-conscious costumes that show off well-oiled biceps, or that Captain America, in civilian dress, favors shirts and sweaters tight enough for muscles to visibly ripple underneath. Ironic that Stark, the vainest of them all, has the most modest costume, covered head-to-toe in machinery. Whedon should be having a field day with these little details, because the avowed comic book geek would most certainly have noticed them, and the avowed comic book geeks in the audience might especially appreciate them.

Instead, the writer-director plays it mostly straight when the film could use more of his signature skew. But there is one shot that is just perfect – and trademark Whedon. It comes at the very end, after the closing credits, a grace note that perfectly marries the extraordinary with the mundane. I won’t reveal it, but I enjoyed it so much that if The Avengers 2 were entirely like that shot – though I don’t think anyone else would go see it – I think it might be awesome.