GENRE: Superhero nerdgasm
THE PITCH: When the villainous Loki (Tom Hiddleston) plots to use a cosmic artifact to bring space invaders to Earth, spymaster Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of S.H.I.E.L.D., gathers a dysfunctional team of spies, geniuses, gods, and monsters to protect the planet. Five years of Marvel movie buildup pays off and then some.
MONEY SHOTS: What's not a money shot? In a time-honored Marvel Comics tradition, the heroes fight each other before uniting to take on the enemy, leading to such neat-o brawls as Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) vs. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Thor vs. the Hulk, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) vs. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), etc. S.H.I.E.L.D.'s flying aircraft carrier is both an astounding mobile headquarters and, it turns out, hilariously vulnerable. When the full team finally takes on the alien army in Midtown Manhattan, The Avengers turns into a destructive spectacle a la Independence Day and the Transformers films, but more coherent and emotionally engaging than any of them.
BEST LINE: Thor: "You have no idea what you're dealing with." Iron Man: "Shakespeare in the Park?" Downey gets most of the best lines, but Joss Whedon's script gives everyone good jokes and earnest declarations. For instance, when Captain America (Chris Evans) learns that Thor and Loki are gods, he replies, "There's only one God, and he doesn't dress like that."
MOST OMINOUS LINE: Responding to Black Widow's attempt to recruit him, Hulk's alter ego Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) asks, "What if I say no?" Black Widow: "Then I'll have to persuade you." Banner: "Then what if the other guy says no?"
FASHION STATEMENTS: Johansson's skintight bodysuit (not to mention the Daisy Dukes worn by another famous female) turn up the heat. Downey wears a Black Sabbath T-shirt in honor of the song "Iron Man." Jackson's leather duster looks longer than Thor's cape. In battle-mode, Loki's helmet has comically huge horns, but Hiddleston still makes a formidable villain.
SO, WHO'S THE TOP DOG? Downey gets top billing, a love interest, and some major rescues. Jackson finally gets to kick ass and take charge after lurking at the margins of earlier movies, even though Fury may not be trustworthy. The Avengers is really an ensemble film that gives everyone their own minidramas and funny bits, almost as if Robert Altman directed a zillion-dollar action franchise.
HULKING OUT: Apparently a side effect of gamma rays is to change Bruce Banner from Eric Bana (from the 2003 film) to Edward Norton (from 2008) to Mark Ruffalo in this one. Ruffalo wonderfully uses his laid-back acting style to convey that Banner has his anger-management issues almost under control. Ruffalo's also the first of the three to provide the CGI Hulk's movements through motion capture and fittingly gives him the raging body language of an alpha male gorilla. The Hulk even looks a little like Ruffalo.
CAMEOS: I won't spoil the most entertaining ones, but Avengers writer Stan Lee gets his requisite walk-on. Lou Ferrigno of "The Incredible Hulk" TV show voices the big green guy, Paul Bettany once again speaks for Iron Man's computer, and Alexis Denisof of Whedon's "Angel" plays Loki's alien advance-man. Terrific character actors Powers Boothe and Harry Dean Stanton each get a couple of neat moments. (P.S. Don't leave once the credits start.)
BETTER THAN THE OTHER MARVEL MOVIES? Apart from Iron Man, they're not even close. Most of the best comic book movies follow one character's "hero's journey," like Tony Stark taking personal and professional responsibility in the first Iron Man. The Avengers plays up group dynamics instead of that kind of story, but no superhero movie is more exciting or humorous.
HOW'S THE 3-D? While pedestrian 3-D projection diminished last year's superhero movies, The Avengers presents the gimmick surprisingly well, so you'll be ducking such objects as Thor's hammer, Loki's spear, Hawkeye's arrows, and alien space crafts. Is there nothing this film can't do?
THE BOTTOM LINE: Sure, The Avengers has imperfections, including some narrative awkwardness as Whedon moves his many game pieces around the sprawling board. At nearly two-and-a-half hours it's a little exhausting, but overall, Whedon unifies wildly diverse plot threads, acting styles, and action scenes better than anyone could have expected. A thrilling sci-fi adventure worthy of the heyday of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, The Avengers raises the bar for comic book movies so high, the follow-ups will need superpowers to leap it.
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