"Avengers" a smashing, super-fun jamboree

Marvel's The Avengers (2012)
142 min., rated PG-13.

If Joss Whedon's co-scripted "The Cabin in the Woods" was one of the most anticipated film releases of the year, writer-director Whedon's superhero mash-up "Marvel's The Avengers" is another. Since 2008's "Iron Man" and 2010's "Iron Man 2," 2008's "The Incredible Hulk," 2011's "Thor," and 2011's "Captain America: The First Avenger" all set up connective tissue in post-credit teasers, a half-dozen pre-existing characters were bound to join forces in the entree. Focusing on so many superheroes might have made the film too much of a good thing, like how "Iron Man 2" practically burst at the seams, and add up to less than the sum of its parts. But while there may have been an alternate amount of trepidation and excitement for such a long-awaited project, Whedon was just the man for the job. Rather than hiring a committee of writers, Whedon penned the screenplay (from his story with "The Incredible Hulk's" Zak Penn) as more of a passion project. And as satisfying summer-ready entertainment, "The Avengers" really delivers and earns most of its pre-release buzz. Comic-Con geeks, start your backflips. 

In the laboratories of the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization, researchers experimenting on the Tesseract, a powerful energy source with the potential to wipe out the world, are interrupted when it activates and opens a portal. Enter evil Asgardian demigod Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor's (Chris Hemsworth) adoptive brother, who uses his powers to brainwash astrophysicist Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård, reprising his role from "Thor") and arrow-wielding Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) into acting as his "flying monkeys" and steal the Tesseract. After the S.H.I.E.L.D. base is demolished and the whole planet put at stake, one-eyed director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) reactivates the Avengers Initiative, gathering an army of disparate superheroes. Expert martial artist and assassin Natalia Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is sent to India to recruit Dr. Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) for his knowledge on gamma radiation. Egotistical billionaire playboy Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is brought in by Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) to review Dr. Selvig's research. Fury also approaches patriotic war hero Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), now thawed out and lost in the future, to retrieve the Tesseract. Finally, Thor shows up to bring his brother down. Let the war begin.
Call it slight disappointment or too high of expectations, but "The Avengers" is not the unparalleled game-changer of the superhero genre nor the superhero movie to end all superhero movies. Instead, it's more of a consistently enjoyable jamboree with an all-star guest list. The plot is pretty basic stuff (i.e. good guys defeating bad guy before world suffers) in the grand scheme of things, but it's the tension and battle of wits between the Avengers that make the proceedings snap, crackle, and pop. Fortunately, the filmmakers don't give us any refresher course when it comes to the individual superheroes' origin stories. One either knows where these iconic characters come from and what they're about, or not. Either way, the film doesn't make time for more character depth than what's necessary and presses on with character-based humor and personality clashes. Each Avenger has his and her own business: Romanoff has a debt to play, Banner has to keep his big, green alter ego (and almighty fist) in check, Stark has trouble putting that large ego of his aside, Rogers is too old-fashioned to comprehend much of anything in the new world, and Thor's Shakespearean language invites flippant mockery. Getting along as a family will be as much of a difficulty as their fight against Loki.
With the task of sewing together all the comic-booky tones and respective backstories into an adroitly constructed quilt, Whedon has created an all-out crowd-pleaser made with skill, wit, and genuine excitement. All the narrative strands could've felt scattered, but with a lifelong comic book fan pulling the strings, two hours and twenty-two minutes whizz by like a speeding bullet (no DC Comics pun intended). Whedon knowing how to write cheeky, snappy repartee for an ensemble is nothing to sneeze at either. What's more, the guy shows talent in handling the big, slam-bang stuff with clarity and brio and impressive effects when some tentpole blockbusters can't even get that right. During the third act's awesome action set-piece in midtown Manhattan, there are obvious 9/11 callbacks and the destruction is not far off from the Chicago-set destruction in 2011's "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," particularly with metallic alien creatures slithering around a skyscraper. However, the editing is much more clean and fluid, the action itself less noisy, and the jokey dialogue doesn't even take a breather when the city gets blown up real good. Michael Bay, eat your heart out.

For a "movie event" that fits six superheroes into one story, the ensemble hasn't a weak link and they all get their moment to shine, bar none. Downey Jr., bless him, is terrific and charismatic as ever playing Stark, a character he was born to play. When he's not peppering every quip with crackling gusto and trading barbs with another Avenger, his scenes with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) are flirty and intimate. Ruffalo is the third actor on screen to portray Dr. Banner and Hulk (following Eric Bana and Edward Norton), and in effect, he plays it the best with equal time-bomb rage, torment, and amusement. The Hulk happens to be Whedon's secret weapon for a lot of smashing laughs (with Lou Ferrigno providing the giant's growl). Evans, showing off his "guns" again, loosens the earnestness and has fun reacting to his culture barrier as Captain America. Since he adeptly handled the God of Thunder role with charisma and comic timing in "Thor," Hemsworth has less to show here, but still feels lived-in as Thor and gets a well-timed joke involving Loki being adopted. Having the least to do of the group, Renner still proves his agility as Hawkeye and Johansson, strutting her stuff in the black catsuit, is more than just a pretty face with balletic kick-ass moves since "Iron Man 2." No superhero movie is as good as its villain, so praise Whedon and his casting directors that Hiddleston is perfectly sniveling and deliciously evil as Loki. As connective tissue to "Iron Man" and "Thor," Gregg gets more to do as Agent Coulson and owns the role with his wry delivery. There's even an amusing running gag for Coulson and his Captain America playing cards. Also, Jackson gets in some wisecracks and figures more into the proceedings as Nick Fury than as a pop-up appearance in four out of the five individual superhero movies. Additional backup goes to Cobie Smulders (TV's How I Met Your Mother) as Agent Maria Hill, Fury's chief lieutenant, but aside from running around in tight pants and reciting commands with authority, she has so little to do. Did I miss anybody?

Easter might've already passed, but Whedon unleashes a lot of fun Easter Eggs for Marvel Comics aficionados. There are pop-culture shout-outs (one even Captain America remembers from 1939) and nods to the Avengers's previous vehicles that only the sharpest viewers might catch. As always, Marvel creator Stan Lee pops up for a requisite cameo and this one's another hoot. And if you thought the post-credit stingers were over, stay through to the end of all that credit-rolling and you should be delighted. The final one hilariously involves Tony Stark's favorite shawarma restaurant. Post-converted 3-D has yet to see major improvements, but for what it's worth, the use of the third dimension in "The Avengers" nears the most efficient. Less "Piranha" gimmicky than "Avatar" immersive, the visual platform never looks blurry or murky. And while it's never distracting either, 3-D still doesn't add much to a movie that doesn't need window dressing. "Marvel's The Avengers" might not find all the time to expose every character's humanity, but then again, a 190-minute version would've been too hulking for its own good. Why carp when a movie is this hugely entertaining and will likely eat this summer's upcoming "The Expendables 2" for breakfast? It's a geeky fanboy's wet dream.

Grade: B +