At the start of the Marvel superhero supergroup flick, the Tesseract—a powerful glowing cube that fell to the ocean floor after Captain America (Chris Evans) liberated it from the Nazis in his movie last summer—is captured by Loki (Tom Hiddleston), brother of demigod Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and villain of 2011's Thor. Ass-kicking Girl Friday Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and eye-patched S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) gather a motley crew to get it back, including Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Captain A., and Thor. Writer/director Joss Whedon first showed his talent for long-form storytelling in TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer. On The Avengers' comparatively minute canvas, Whedon effectively creates a sketch of a working universe, but the most Whedon-esque parts of the script are the flippant wisecracks that the fucked-up superheroes toss off as knee-jerk self-defense in life-or-death situations. What worked as the cool diffusion of stakes in Buffy here underlines the lack of suspense to the mission: We never get the sense that any of the heroes might not survive to snark again. The four main male Avengers at least combine to form a varied gallery of masculine neurosis. The women fare less well: Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts has just one dialogue scene. Johansson is the only actress given any sort of inner life to work with. The Avengers hints that this former Russian spy has a backstory rife with transformative drama, suggesting an arc that's much more interesting that anything the characters travel here.