Men In Black 3 may have finally knocked The Avengers from the top spot at the box office, and what with Ridley Scott's deeply unnecessary Alien prequel Prometheus opening next weekend, the summer movie season is finally here. But however all the upcoming releases may fare financially, I doubt any of them will do what Joss Whedon does so astonishingly well with The Avengers: Make it look easy.
Make no mistake, this is just a popcorn movie, and on some level, a fairly cynical one, the latest attempt by Marvel (and its new Disney overlords) to implant its brand on the consciousness of every moviegoer everywhere. As such, it's the culmination of a series of movies now clearly revealed to be mere prequels. These ran the gamut from good (Captain America) to bad (Iron Man 2), with most falling somewhere in between, but they all carried the unmistakeable air of Product, branded entertainment meant to provide a momentary diversion, then be forgotten.
And yeah, The Avengers is itself just a disposeable piece of entertainment. But what entertainment!
For TV auteur Whedon, the architect of such beloved series as Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly, this is strictly a job for hire. He's a well-known fanboy himself--hell, he's written for Marvel Comics--but this isn't one of his own creations, and he can't do anything with the characters beyond what Marvel will allow.
But he can scribble in the margins to his heart's content, and it's in these small character moments that the movie finds its heart, rising above its purely mercenary origins. Whedon realizes that this is primarily a story of broken souls who come together to find a common purpose--the type of thing he specializes in. And, by showing how they fall apart and reassemble, he somehow finds a way to make the whole thing--dammit--moving.
Which is great and all, but where the success of The Avengers may actually bode well for future Big Summer Movies is in its expertly unfussy storytelling. Even its massively cliched opening sequence--Good Guys battle Bad Guys over a Macguffin, complete with a hokey "outrunning collapsing ground" bit--is thrillingly put together, its action cleanly staged and instantly readable, with none of the whip pans or frantic overediting so common to modern action cinema.
In fact, the greatest delight of The Avengers is how essentially old-fashioned it is. Despite a huge budget and all the technology in the world, Whedon never feels the need to show off. He's like Howard Hawks or Raoul Walsh, here to tell a story, not make a spectacle of himself. Or, to phrase it another way, he's the Captain America of filmmakers: A solid tactician, always to the point and eminently professional.