The words “Written and directed by Joss Whedon” appear before 35 episodes of Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and Dollhouse, and they suggest the promise—almost always kept—that the episode will be better than the rest—truly written and really directed. In them, there was a level of confident control in terms of image and rhythm that made the surrounding episodes pale in comparison.
It would be cause for celebration if The Avengers, which similarly credits Whedon as writer-director (with story credit split between Whedon and Zak Penn), turned out to be the most exemplary demonstration of the Buffy auteur’s powers, a final destination for him, just as the movie is a point of convergence for the four Marvel blockbusters that preceded it. The stamp of his personality is practically unquestionable: There’s a certain indirectness in many special-effects shots, a respect for capturing motion in an unbroken take, or—rarity among rarities—gluing together shots in a way that makes sense in terms of good, old-fashioned montage. He also demonstrates a strong understanding of depth of field. In an industry that systematically alienates everything that doesn’t contribute to “impressive effects” and “an easy-to-understand, primitive story,” what Whedon brings to the table is practically a miracle in and of itself.
Whedon trademarks also abound in visuals and dialogue. There’s the “everyone arguing” scene, the “friends and confederates sitting around a table” scene, the “one in a cage, one out” interrogation/intimidation scene, and the scene where a hero and a foe have a palaver in the dark woods. There’s the semi-likable supporting character who’s killed in a supremely unfair manner, and the Hail Mary pass for redemption and self-sacrifice on the edge of an inter-dimensional breach. Some of the more peculiar, Whedon-esque dialogue trademarks are missing, but the characters’ voices still seem to have been channeled through his control board. He also exerts a softening effect on many actors who’ve otherwise tended toward self-caricature; for example, it’s been years since Samuel L. Jackson actually showed up for work, and it’s a pleasure to see it here.
But while The Avengers exhibits exemplary craftsmanship, Whedon hasn’t made a great film. The story seems unwieldy in scale, broken as it is into two parts: an entertaining Rio Bravo variation aboard an airborne aircraft carrier (!), and an epic “good few versus evil horde” showdown set in and above midtown Manhattan. Longish dialogue scenes, a Whedon specialty, are hobbled by an overall air of impatience (Loki and Thor’s nighttime stroll and the Loki-Natasha face-off, in particular), as if the sequences of large-scale mayhem somehow mattered more. The second half, as some critics have already pointed out, is a more coherent do-over of Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Michael Bay’s bizarro train wreck uses an astonishingly similar inter-dimensional battle as its primary crisis, but while Whedon is a better director, in a strange way he doesn’t seem to have the hubris to lie to our faces that the big CGI circus is supposed to amount to anything, or to sociopathic bad taste—arguably Bay’s redeeming quality.
Whedon—to some, the standard-bearer for fanboy culture—is a strong, classical stylist in the tradition of Joe Dante, John Landis, and Steven Spielberg, and while it’s well-documented that his heart belongs to Marvel, and he’s certainly a better director than Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh, and Joe Johnston, it seems debatable whether a good film can be made of Marvel’s billion-dollar properties. Whedon has impeccable crowd-pleasing instincts (he can score a laugh like nobody’s business), but in his best work, pleasure and pain are never far apart. Part of what makes him unique is the fact that he’s never been one for uncomplicated emotion of any kind. You can see some of this bilateral emotional intelligence, the urge to de-amplify things, peeking through in The Avengers when Tony tries to reach Pepper Potts on the phone toward the end of the film, or when Thor tries to hide a painful injury as he lands in the street, steadying himself for half a second against an overturned car. Whedon’s instincts to complicate, to mix it up, to vary the texture with half-seen moments, are fundamentally at odds with the blockbuster enterprise, the guiding—and dominant, even here—principle of which is to make sure the audience is safe in the knowledge of what they’re supposed to think, at all times. For all of Whedon’s creative and/or logistical empowerment, the boring blockbuster—sick with pixels and building-shuddering bass—gets the better of him.