Judging by the way his films dominated my best of the year list, you could certainly say that 2012 was the year of Joss Whedon. The Avengers was my 3rd favorite film of last year (behind only Margaret and The Master) and The Cabin in the Woods was my 5th favorite film. Whedon gets alot of credit for Cabin in the Woods, despite the fact that it was directed and co-written by Drew Goddard, but Goddard was a writer on Buffy and Angel, so he shares much of Whedon's sensibility. If I were to pick Joss Whedon's two greatest strengths, it would definitely be his knack for exploring group dynamics through propulsive action-adventure and his genre experimentation, and The Avengers allowed him to show off the former while Cabin in the Woods displayed the latter. Netflix just recently added the two films on Watch Instantly, so I figured it'd be fun to revisit both of them and see how they hold up a year later.
When I watched The Avengers in theaters, I remember the first act being a bit lackluster and boring. I'd already seen all of the individual films that led up to it, so all of the brick-laying was very repetitive and frustrating. But upon rewatching, I found that the film starts out with two really sharp scenes. The opening scene where Loki steals the Tesseract has that great Nick Fury line where he says "You say 'freedom' but I kinda think you mean the other thing" and the scene with Black Widow in Russia is packed with the kind of witty repartee that Whedon is known for. There's definitely a little bit of table-setting after that, but otherwise the film is clear skies from here on out.
More than any of the other directors of Marvel films, Joss Whedon truly has a handle on the comic book tone. The film is full of all the dynamic angles, splashy spectacle, and forward momentum that you'd find in a monthly Avengers comic. Another leg up that it has over the individual Marvel films is that the action setpieces are amazing. The action in Thor and Captain America was serviceable at best, and even the Iron Man films, which were the best of the lead-ups, really punted their final action setpieces. Not only are the sequences in The Avengers big, fun, and fluid, but everybody gets something to do in them. The film definitely makes use of popular action movie tropes -- the villain getting captured but it was his plan all along!, large-scale city destruction -- but pulls them off with an aplomb that sets it apart from the rest of the pack.
Once the group is set up, the dynamics get to play out, and the writing feels much more authentic for each character than it does in their solo films. Whedon has a particular feel for Captain America, really honing in on his boy scout attitude and friction with Tony Stark. It isn't just the in-group conflicts that are handled well, the scenes of the team slowly gelling are great as well, and the bond between Tony Stark and Bruce Banner in particular is one of my favorite parts of the film. Cabin in the Woods may be more Whedon-y overall, but The Avengers still has his touch. He can do big physical gags (like the Hulk punching Thor), but he also fits in more subtle, language-based jokes. For all of the slapstick fun, the film does slow down and get a bit meditative for a few brief moments. When Agent Coulson dies -- in true Whedon fashion, at that -- it's not particularly moving, but it's effective in the way that it serves as a jumping off point for rumination on the nature of heroism. In fact, there are a number of satisfying arcs for the characters, as well as a thematic throughline about the effects of secrets and lies.
While The Avengers completely delivered on its promise of nonstop superhero action, the marketing for Cabin in the Woods was a bit more deceptive, giving alot of people the impression of a much more straightforward horror flick. But for all ballyhooing about the film's bait-and-switch, and people being urged to go into the film without knowing much about it, I was surprised in my rewatch to see how early the film tips its hand. The twist is that the whole thing is simultaneously a love letter to and a hate rant against horror movies. It treats the horror plot as something that's engineered, and there's all these subtle nods to the "rules" of the game, the tropes that it requires to keep functioning. It's such a great deconstruction of the genre that I don't know why some people were upset that they didn't get an actual horror film. The film itself seems to be saying to those people, "Really? You're not tired of this?" Yet even though they're nothing more than pieces to be commented upon, the film still does a good job of making the 5 college kids funny and interesting.
But the real brilliance comes from the behind-the-scenes portions of the film. Those scenes play like a workplace comedy, made all the more funny because of its juxtaposition with the scenes of the leads in the cabin. The workplace stuff elevates the film from useless genre exercise to biting satire. And the film doesn't just stop there, presenting a slasher construction and just poking at it the whole time. It spends most of its run decrying the fact that there's nothing new, but then at the end, it reveals that it contains some freshness of its own, sharply veering into complete insanity in the last 20 minutes. Every idea is thrown into the mix -- literally and figuratively -- and carnage gleefully ensues.
In short: both films hold up remarkably well. The only difference is that now I would probably swap The Avengers and Cabin in the Woods in my order of preference. The Avengers loses a bit when viewed outside of the theater, where the scale and the spectacle really hits you. On the other hand, all of the little touches in Cabin become more noticeable on a second viewing, and I was really impressed by the level of commentary they were able to pack into such a blast of a film. Although Whedon already had experience in film with Serenity, these two introduced him to the wider world, and he didn't lose any of his magic in the process.