Published May 10, 2012

After spending four years setting us up with Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America – with savvy post- credit teasers in each, reminnding us The Avengers Initiative was underway – Marvel Pictures have finally assembled their Avengers and released them on a voracious public already a’drool with anticipation. This team of big muscles and even bigger egos, have been thrown together in a film that could have been (and should have been) a train wreck of superheroic proportions.  That it works on so many different levels is a testament to Marvel’s visionary creative team, a cast that compliments each other (even when they’re at each other’s throats), and a writer/director who obviously knows his iconic characters, as well as how to bounce them (quite literally) off of each other.  Simply put: Marvel’s The Avengers is spectacularly entertaining, MORE than the sum of its parts, and hands down the best “ensemble” comic book movie ever made.

The plot does assume that you’ve seen all of the previous films but, even if you haven’t, shouldn’t be that hard to decipher.  Loki, Thor’s adopted brother, comes to Earth via the Tesseract – that glowing cube used by Johann Schmidt/ Red Skull in Captain America – and immediately starts either killing those he meets, or enslaving them with his glowing staff.  Loki (Tom Hiddleston – who for some reason is MUCH better, and more threatening here than he was in Thor) wants to subjugate Earth and rule over its inhabitants as King.  An alien being known as The Other, has charged Loki with bringing him the Tesseract, and in return, promises him an army of Chitauri (basically reptilian badasses) to assist him in conquering Earth.

What is one to do? Especially if one is Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson)?  Answer: assemble the Avengers.

That this team does come together to fight this global threat is a given.  That they spend the first two thirds of this film fighting each other is unexpected, a pleasure, and seriously ups the ante of the original threat.  Can these notorious loners ever put aside their egos long enough to form an alliance?  Well, Iron Man and Thor have egos …

Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is still a corn-fed boy scout, a man very much out of time (he doesn’t get a lot of the modern-day references thrown at him, but it’s funny when he DOES), and someone who still very much acts like the patriotic, nerdy-but-buff World War II badass that he is.  That he eventually takes charge of this team (and that the others LET him do this) is a pleasure to watch.  (Also, if you ever wondered what would happen if Thor’s Hammer met Captain America’s shield … wonder no more.)

Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is still as narcissistic as you want him to be, and his quips about the others are some of the funniest in this film.  I don’t want to spoil any of them, but I can’t resist quoting at least a couple.  For instance, he refers to Thor as both “Point Break” and “Shakespeare in the Park,” and at one point asks him, “Dost thou mother know you weareth her drapes? ”  Now THAT’s funny!  RDJ knows this role quite well by now (he is much better here than he was in IM2, thanks to Whedon’s script), and seems to have been anticipating this film as much as the rest of us.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) doesn’t show up for the first 40 minutes or so, but when he does, when this film finally starts letting these disparate characters bounce off each other (and BOUNCE they do), this film kicks into gears you didn’t even know it had.  When this hammer-swinging, lightning-charged, Asgardian God of Thunder (who does look like he should rideth a surf board) first shows up, ready to kicketh his brother’s ass, his struggle is made that much more powerful by the fact that we know he still loves his brother.  And speaking of Loki …

Tom Hiddleston (if I didn’t say this before) is a much bigger threat than he was in last year’s first Thor film.  He seemed kind of wimpy in that movie to me, but here, with a new glint in his eye, an evil smile (to rival Jack Torrance, the Joker, Hannibal Lecter, and Alex from A Clockwork Orange), and a longish flip-style haircut, he literally oozes charismatic menace.  Especially when he is holding hundreds of people hostage, and threating to kill them if they do not “kneel before him.”  Whether or not Whedon meant to remind us of General Zod in Superman II (it reminded me of this), the line fits Loki, and he seethes it with perhaps even better venom than Terence Stamp did over 30 years ago.

Jeremy Renner is fine as master archer Hawkeye (though he is under Loki’s control for a good chuck of this film), and Scarlett Johansson is equally good as Black Widow (in fact she is MUCH better here than she was in IM2).  Originally I wondered why these two were included in this incarnation of The Avengers (weren’t four enough), but after viewing the film, I actually couldn’t imagine this story without them.

As for Bruce Banner and the Hulk (and yes, I saved this for last on purpose), after middling returns and critical apathy for 2003’s Hulk with Eric Bana, and 2008’s The Incredible Hulk starring Edward Norton, Marvel decided to reboot this character one more time for The Avengers.  The choice of indie- actor Mark Ruffalo may have been a head-scratcher to most, but this is casting know-how at its most savvy.  Ruffalo makes for the most satisfying Doctor Banner since Bill Bixby portrayed the character on TV in the 1970s and 80s.  In fact, Bruce Banner in this movie, with his humble mannerisms, genius IQ, and knowing sense of humor, is just as compelling as his green- skinned counterpart.  He takes a joke well (love it when Tony Stark pokes Banner in the side, and immediately peers into his eyes to see if they change), and has finally learned how to (somewhat) control the Hulk.  When he does make the change, he is also capable of more than just thoughtless rage.  I wouldn’t call this a thinking man’s Hulk, but he is definitely smarter, funnier, and knows how to both smile for the camera and knock someone out of a snapshot.  Also, thanks to brilliant CGI, this Hulk actually looks like Ruffalo, which helps immensely in identifying this creature as the dark id of someone we care about.  The audience with which I saw The Avengers cheered more than once when the Hulk worked his magic.  Especially when dealing with Loki.  This movie was already a huge pleasure, but watching the Hulk steal it made it even more so.

As a fan of the films leading up to this, I had pretty high expectations.  That those expectations were not only met, but exceeded, is pretty amazing.  Writer/director Joss Whedon (already having a pretty good year with the critically-lauded the Cabin in the Woods) proves he was not only the man for the job, but possibly the only man for the job.  He has crafted a film that is intelligent, funny, emotional, action-packed, and chock full of all the summer tentpole movie goodness that audiences could want.  And then some.

After a record-shattering opening, this film is already a smash hit.  Where we go from here is anyone’s guess.  (The folks over at DC have got to be crapping bricks at this point, trying to figure out how to get a Justice League movie going.)   All I know for sure is that this film is supremely entertaining, and I plan on seeing it again soon.

If I haven’t made my point yet, The Avengers is a relief, a wonder, and (yes) a marvel.