In The Avengers, writer/director Joss Whedon has inherited a series of Marvel characters who have been established over five preceding films, not to mention a long legacy of comic book appearances. The films that introduced these characters have been pretty good, but nothing remarkable for a casual viewer with no emotional investment in Marvel comics. These characters are simply not all as consistently interesting as each other, and justifying how they would all inhabit the same fictional universe within the confines of a feature film was not going to be easy.
That’s why the best thing that could have happened to The Avengers was for Whedon to take the reins. In the many television shows that Whedon has created – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse – he has demonstrated his talent for bringing together a diverse ensemble of seemingly incongruous characters and creating grand narratives with them that are both loving tributes to the genres and archetypes they represent, and also having a sly wink at the audience. Whedon has achieved this with The Avengers, and some of the best evidence that he has made the Marvel characters his own is how they have all been moulded into variations of the characters from his groundbreaking and acclaimed television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The most developed character in the Marvel cinematic universe is Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), who previously appeared in Iron Man and Iron Man 2. He is intelligent, charming, droll and bursting with sex appeal. He’s also an arrogant, selfish, hedonistic billionaire. Considering his past – manufacturing weapons of mass destruction – we should hate him, but he is just so damn charismatic. He is the equivalent to Spike (James Marsters) from the Buffyverse: the cockney homicidal vampire who becomes a reluctant good guy. In The Avengers, Stark gets all the best lines, often at the expense of other members of the team, and still gets to find redemption and be a hero, which is essentially a condensed version of Spike’s story arc throughout his appearances on Buffy. Whedon loves his sharp-tongued dodgy good guys.
Dr Bruce Banner is played by Mark Ruffalo, and is a troubled and sensitive guy who constantly broods about the primal rage beast within him – known as the Hulk. Buffy fans will be quick to identify this character dynamic as also belonging to the tormented vampire with a soul, Angel (David Boreanaz). Whedon’s affection for this Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde archetype is reflected in Angel getting his own spin-off series Angel, and Banner getting the most sympathetic scenes in The Avengers, where he agonises over his terrible burden and then says lots of useful and impressive-sounding things.
Next are the more traditionally heroic characters, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who both got their own films in 2011. Captain America is similar to Riley Finn (Marc Blucas), the special operative demon hunter from Buffy, as he’s a nice guy and a dutiful soldier, but limited in appeal. Whedon can only do so much with him as he’s just so clean-cut and uncomplicated compared to the rest. With his pompous ye-olde way of speaking and ridiculously perfect physique, Thor is a only slightly less comedic version of the Groosalugg (Mark Lutz) from the Angel spin-off series, and Whedon shows considerable restraint in not reducing Thor to complete parody. Nevertheless, he has fun with both beau-hunk heroes, mostly at their expense.
The final members of the team are the two highly trained agents Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), from the covert military espionage organisation SHIELD. Barton appeared briefly in Thor, but his character isn’t really developed in The Avengers so a Buffyverse comparison is tricky. Romanoff was introduced in Iron Man 2 and thankfully gets a lot more to do in The Avengers, a film where the female characters are otherwise relegated to minor or supporting roles. Whedon displays his love of strong female characters by giving Romanoff plenty of great hand-to-hand combat scenes that evoke his beloved Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) in full flight. Furthermore, Romanoff frequently gets the upper hand by exploiting the perception that she is vulnerable, which was also one of Buffy’s key characteristics. Whedon intended the vampire slayer to look like the type of character who was traditionally a horror film victim when in fact she was, against expectations, the hero.
As for the rest of the cast, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is a slightly more devious variation of Buffy’s mentor-with-a-dark-past Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head). The film’s Viking god villain, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), combines the megalomania and contempt for humans found within Buffy villains The Master (Mark Metcalf) and Glory (Clare Kramer). The final character of note is SHIELD agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), who is not as loveable as Buffy’s sidekick Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon), but is similarly a regular guy with no special powers or skills. He hangs around to be a part of everything and is a big fan of the other characters, in a way that makes him a identification point for the audience. A scene where Coulson asks Captain America for an autograph is sweet, sincere and funny in that way that Whedon did so well with Xander, whose lack of special talents were made up for by his enthusiasm and delight at being involved in something so cool.
Whedon is clearly a fan of the Marvel characters, and that is why he is able to write for them with such assurance and affection. He hasn’t changed the characters, but made them live up to their potential in the same way that he took characters from teen and horror films and made them so much more in Buffy. The similarities exist because Whedon knows his pop-culture archetypes and, more importantly, knows how to give them a twist to make them more identifiable for audiences. Some Marvel characters, such as Thor and Captain America, remain limited. But like their Buffyverse equivalents, Tony Stark and Dr Bruce Banner are more complicated and flawed. So The Avengers is not just a Buffy rehash, but a Whedonesque take on the Marvel characters that is comparable to Buffy. And that’s high praise indeed.
Thomas Caldwell is a Killings columnist, and a writer/broadcaster specialising in film criticism.