The Avengers, it's obvious why Whedon was chosen. The film's vibe is similar to Whedon's television shows, its banter-and-camaraderie among superpowered beings especially reminiscent of Angel's final season. The Avengers may not be the man's best film - it can't hold a candle to the conceptually similar insurgent sci-fi adventure Serenity, for example - but he does the difficult job he was handed so well that the effort never shows.
At a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility Thor's adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) steals the Tesseract, a potentially infinite energy source, and brainwashes Agent Clint 'Hawkeye' Barton (Jeremy Renner) and Dr Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) into becoming his minions. In response, Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) decides to reopen the Avengers Initiative and gradually recruits Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Dr Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to his cause with the help of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg). It soon transpires that Loki has made a pact with the alien race of the Chitauri, who will help him conquer Earth.
The Iron Man films, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger established their respective characters well enough for Whedon to not have to worry about them, which must have been a relief in an ensemble piece. Three challenges remained, I think: the Incredible Hulk, left on shaky ground by two underwhelming previous films; Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, little more than window-dressing in Iron Man 2; and Hawkeye, likewise little known among the general public. That it works so well isn't just to Whedon's credit. Mark Ruffalo is a terrific Bruce Banner, finally giving us, at least in embryo, the Hulk film we were waiting for; Renner's natural charisma carries off a somewhat bland hero; and Black Widow is so much better written than the femme fatale routine Justin Theroux put her through that she hardly seems like the same character.
Compared to the intense character work on these three the other Avengers cruise along, and why shouldn't they? Obvious pitfalls are avoided: the film is remarkably light on jokes regarding Captain America's disconnect with the modern world, for example, and treats Cap as an emblem of old-fashioned virtue above all. If we can fault the way The Avengers handles character, it's only in its distressingly keen sense of their respective popularity. At times, the film turns into Iron Man & Friends, but favouritism never overwhelms balance entirely, and the thoroughly pleasant surprise of the love lavished upon minor characters makes up for whatever focus on Robert Downey Jr.'s increasingly tired shtick there might be.
'Balance', in fact, describes The Avengers rather well. It is an extraordinarily polished, carefully weighed film, almost entirely free of rough edges; but where it never plummets, it hardly soars either. Whedon is a better director of narrative than director per se, and in consequence there are a number of extraordinarily effective shots going from character to character, with nary a memorable image to be seen. In truth, I entered terminal superhero fatigue roughly two years ago, and The Avengers did not lift me out of that. But I spent two and a half entirely agreeable hours at the cinema, and for an ensemble film of this size to even work on that level is an unlikely success in itself.