'The Avengers' is an irresistible, action-packed machine, chock-a-block with Marvel superheroes. Smart, too.
"You people are so tiny," says big, broad-shouldered Thor (Chris Hemsworth) as he surveys his teammates in "The Avengers."
Well, it's not the first time the God of Thunder has comically misunderstood Earthly matters. From the viewer's perspective, his allies are gorgeously bigger-than-life in a film that is exultant summer entertainment. For superhero fans, this is heaven without having to die and go there.
It's crackling good entertainment, ideal for its target audience, but it's more. "The Avengers" is a challenge to Hollywood's other Boys of Summer to aim their aspirations higher. This film is stylish, intelligent and, one hopes, influential on the next generation of superhero movies; it should leave a lasting legacy.
Writer/director Joss Whedon, a filmmaker previously noted for narrative ingenuity, not visual thrills, reveals amazing new superpowers. He has created a film with impeccable design sense, spectacular stunt technology and massive fast-cut action sequences that actually hang together and make sense. Amid all the city-leveling explosions, we never lose track of the action or lose sight of the characters. (Watch and learn, Michael Bay!) It's not just a string of detonations, it's a blast.
In an opening setup that would be the cataclysmic climax for a lesser film, Thor's nemesis half-brother, Loki, pulverizes the research lab of the security agency S.H.I.E.L.D. to steal the Tesseract, a glowing blue power source that will fuel his assault on our puny world. Spy boss Nick Fury issues orders to reel in a mostly unwilling team of "remarkable people" to repel the attack and recapture the cube. But this is a world where a character's agenda -- even saving mankind -- is never as straightforward as it seems.
The assembled heroes are a vivid group of flawed but endearing rogues who strike comic-hostile sparks when they come into contact. There is a spirited hour of jockeying for position and infighting before the dysfunctional daredevils face the external threat. The old fanboy conjecture "Could the Hulk beat Thor?" isn't definitively answered, but the knockdown fights through which the characters get to know each other are good, bruising fun.
Building on the groundwork laid by six previous Marvel adventures, Whedon weaves four disparate franchises into a slick, unified whole. He elevates problematic characters, making the non-superpowered spy Black Widow the driving force of many sequences, and turning the Hulk from a morose monster into a scene-stealing whirlwind cousin of Looney Tunes' Tasmanian Devil.
Whedon writes with a perfect ear for each character's personality. What could have been a Babel of competing voices becomes almost musical counterpoint. There's Captain America's old-school idealism, Thor's flowery Elizabethan diction, and secret agent Black Widow's Bourne-like remorse for her ruthless past. Tony Stark's arch sarcasm, which wore thin in the previous Iron Man movie, is used here in effective small doses. When the robo-warrior grabs super-archer Hawkeye by the collar and warns "Clench up, Legolas" before jetting them both sky-high, the gag cracks like a bullwhip.
But things are never unmixed in Whedon's universe; even the brightest sunlight casts dark shadows somewhere. Whedon pushes deeper than most comic-book stories, giving each player his own trajectory, triumphs and trials. There are moments of true pathos here. One character's riveting reminiscence of a botched suicide attempt is tragedy tossed off like a grim joke. Those who know Whedon's fatalistic brand of pop mythology from his TV series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel" and "Firefly" will not be surprised when he suddenly cuts one story line dead.
The cast is a sturdy ensemble. Robert Downey Jr. remains ineffably cool as the amphetamine-fueled egotist Tony Stark. Here he's humanized in slap-fight dialogue duels with Gwyneth Paltrow as his equally sharp-tongued assistant, Pepper Potts. He also kindles an unexpected bromance with Mark Ruffalo, who brings wry warmth to the part of Dr. Bruce Banner, the Hulk's human proxy. When Ruffalo spouts a mouthful of scientific gibberish, Downey cheers, "Finally, somebody who speaks English!"
Chris Evans refines the two-fisted, tough, but apple-pie wholesome character he created in "Captain America," adding shades of disillusionment over how much sense of purpose America has lost since winning World War II. Chris Hemsworth, who could fit right in at King Arthur's round table, delivers Thor's lofty speeches with such vocal resonance you suspect he has a built-in subwoofer. And Tom Hiddleston, returning as Loki, is equally entertaining as a hissing villain and a hapless punching bag. The action of the finale grows ever more cartoonish until Hiddleston resembles a crushed and crumpled Wile E. Coyote.
Certainly, the film has its flaws. The best parts of Scarlett Johansson's performance as Black Widow belong to her kung fu stunt double. Beautiful and stiff as a board, she is the Keanu Reeves of actresses. As Hawkeye, the gifted Jeremy Renner is criminally underused, and Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury moves through his scenes in brow-clenching, order-barking monotony. The alien battleships that arrive to decimate New York City look like the sort of moray eel-meets-spinal column mishmash that H.R. Giger would doodle on his day off. But things click along with such breathless velocity that you let the quibbles pass. After the credits roll and we get the obligatory cliffhanger scene revealing the real big bad boss, you can't wait for Round Two.