However questionable an idea it may have seemed initially, and at times along the way, Marvel’s cinematic master plan for its comicbook all-stars pays off in extravagant fashion with “The Avengers.” Like a superior, state-of-the-art model built from reconstituted parts, Joss Whedon’s buoyant, witty and robustly entertaining superhero smash-up is escapism of a sophisticated order, boasting a tonal assurance and rich reserves of humor that offset the potentially lumbering and unavoidably formulaic aspects of this 143-minute team-origin story. With fan-ticipation reaching Hulk pressure-cooker levels, Disney’s domestic and international returns will be nothing short of stratospheric, ancillary streams close to eternal.
In preparation for this long-anticipated convergence, Marvel ambitiously envisioned not one series but an entire family of interlocking, self-perpetuating franchises, kicking off with 2008’s enjoyable “Iron Man” and continuing, in more erratic fashion, with “The Incredible Hulk,” “Iron Man 2” and last year’s “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Under the stewardship of producer and Marvel exec Kevin Feige, it’s been a lucrative enterprise if not a consistently thrilling one, and for all but the most die-hard devotees, attendance has sometimes seemed a matter of obligation as well as pleasure. “Stay tuned,” the post-credits teasers may have urged, but after awhile, they seemed to send a different message: “Bear with us.”
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“The Avengers” fully keeps the promise implicit in that plea, taking one of the dominant movie trends of recent years — the nonstop proliferation of comicbook-based superheroes — and pushing it to orgiastic new levels of CG-inflated, 3D-augmented geek-out mayhem. Expensive and expansive though it may be, however, the film is no bloated behemoth. As written and directed by the ever genre-savvy Whedon, it’s a clean-burning, six-cylinder entertainment that exudes discipline in every particular, from the script’s balance of sincerity and self-effacing humor to the well-integrated visual effects to the keen sense of proportion that governs the ensemble. Whenever the possibility of boredom or excess rears its head, Whedon finds an elegant solution.
Crucially, sequences that might have played as laborious buildup are handled in a brisk, straight-ahead manner that quickly focuses attention while methodically elevating the stakes, scene by scene. A new threat of global annihilation looms from the outset when Thor’s megalomaniacal brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), arrives on Earth in a petulant huff and steals the Tesseract, the all-powerful energy cube found at the bottom of the ocean in “Captain America.”
Overruling his colleagues in the shadowy law-enforcement agency Shield, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) seeks to mobilize an elite squad of save-the-dayers known as the Avengers. A superhero summit is held aboard Fury’s enormous airship, though it’s more like a misfit meet-and-greet. The script deftly blends comedy, tension and on-the-fly character recaps as these life-size action figures, some of whom have superhuman egos to match their abilities, come into contact.
The best lines, naturally, go to dryly sarcastic playboy billionaire Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), who immediately clashes with earnest WWII relic Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans). An amusing early sequence finds these two squaring off with imperious god Thor (Chris Hemsworth) before they realize they share the same objective: Recover the cube before the evil Loki, ironically pronounced “low-key,” harnesses its power to summon a nasty intergalactic army that will enslave humanity.
Providing an extra dash of suspense is the deceptively reserved Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), serving in a strictly scientific capacity, as his transformation into the uncontrollable Hulk would (and eventually does) threaten the safety of everyone onboard the ship. That includes Fury’s whip-smart operative, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who more than holds her own amid all the chrome and testosterone, and gets more of a chance to flesh out her troubled backstory here than she did in “Iron Man 2.” Specifically, she has a vested interest in breaking the spell Loki has placed on her old ally, Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner, briefly glimpsed in “Thor”), a skilled archer with uniquely deadly arrows.
The prior pics tried to position each hero at the center of his own personal psychodrama, but here the balance feels right; these fighters work better, and hold one’s attention more effectively, as a unit. In a prime example of Whedon’s ability to turn problems to his advantage, the Hulk, seemingly the weakest link in terms of character engagement (Ruffalo is the third actor to play the role in a decade), comes satisfyingly into his own as the Avengers’ secret weapon.
While Downey consistently steals the show with his desert-dry delivery, each actor in the freshly re-energized cast gets the chance not only to crack wise, but to touchingly express the self-doubt that lies at the heart of every superhero. The inevitable question of whether the world needs this motley crew is answered most sweetly by Shield’s Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), a series fixture who stands in here for the film’s targeted fanboy audience. On the other side, Hiddleston gamely handles his villain-in-chief duties, which mostly consist of issuing petulant putdowns (“You crave subjugation!”) to the entirety of the human race.
Apart from a punchy setpiece in Stuttgart, Germany, Whedon confines the action to the airship for much of the picture, all the better to maximize the impact of an extended climax that involves, as it must, the catastrophic destruction of a major metropolis. Most memorable for the image of a giant blue sphincter excreting armed-and-dangerous floaties over the city, this endgame is too pro forma to convey real danger, images of civilians fleeing en masse notwithstanding. Even still, the battles are excitingly staged, with a sweep and coherence that actually gain something from the 3D conversion, especially when the camera starts to pinball from building to building in a breathless flurry of digital zooms and tracking shots.
Production is technically immaculate, with Seamus McGarvey’s lensing as sharp and focused as Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek’s editing, though composer Alan Silvestri’s big, surging themes could have been more commandingly deployed.
“The Avengers” is the first Marvel production to be released by Disney since it purchased the comicbook giant in 2009, and it won’t be the last: The coda sets up a sequel that likely won’t materialize until after a round of “Iron Man,” “Thor” and “Captain America” follow-ups that will keep the studio occupied through 2014.