REVIEW: The All-Star Game of modern superhero extravaganzas, "The Avengers" is humongous -- the film Marvel and its legions of fans have been waiting for. It's hard to imagine that anyone with an appetite for the trademark's patented brand of fantasy, effects, mayhem and strangely dressed he-men will be disappointed; not only does this eye-popping 3-D display of visual effects fireworks feature an enormously high proportion of action scenes, but director Joss Whedon has adroitly balanced the celebrity circus to give every single one of the superstar characters his or her due. Worldwide box-office returns will be, in a word, Marvelous.
During the past several years, Marvel has, with accelerated speed, expanded its cinematic repertoire of over-muscled, generally double-identitied heroes not otherwise encumbered by exclusive contracts with other studios -- most notably The Hulk, Iron Man, Thor and Captain America -- to arrive at the point where this summit meeting of superhuman good guys could be assembled. (A prominent relative, Spider-Man, has his own reboot coming up this summer.)
After this, the characters will go their separate ways -- "Iron Man 3" starts shooting next month, with second chapters of "Thor" and "Captain America" set to roll within the year -- before gathering again before too many movie summers pass. With the bundle this one will make, the pressure will be on make it happen sooner rather than later.
As creatively variable and predictably formulaic as the Marvel films have been, this one will not only make the core geek audience feel like it's died and gone to Asgard but has so much going for it that many nonfans will be disarmed and charmed. This is effects-driven, mass-appeal summer fare par excellence, that sought-after rare bird that hits all the quadrants, as marketing mavens like to say. As enormous as the production is, though, the appeal of the ensemble cast makes a crucial difference; you get enough but not too much of each of them, and they all get multiple scenes to themselves to shine.
To boil down the particulars of this latest attempt to bring ruin to all we hold dear, sinister Thor villain Loki (Tom Hiddleston, looking like Richard E. Grant's effete younger brother) has gained possession of the tesseract, an all-powerful substance contained in an opaque cube that not only provides unlimited sustainable energy but a portal to outer space. "I am burdened with glorious purpose," Loki purrs while taunting eye-patched S.H.I.E.L.D. master Samuel L. Jackson (finally with something to do in a Marvel film) with the promised arrival of his army of outer-space warriors.
Down but not out, the good guys begin assembling on board one of the cooler modes of transport seen anywhere in a while, a giant (and beautifully rendered) aircraft carrier that can rise out of the water to become an invisible space ship -- hence, a helicarrier -- and serve as a first-rate staging area for operations against Loki. Among those arriving on board are Bruce Banner, otherwise known as The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, the third actor, after Eric Bana and Edward Norton, to give the green giant a big-screen go); Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson), a sultry, scarlet-haired assassin first seen turning the tables on nasty interrogators despite being strapped to a chair; Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Loki's long-locked brother and bearer of the universe's mightiest hammer; and Mr. Old School himself, Steve Rogers, aka Captain America (Chris Evans), a World War II hero who's not quite up to speed on all the latest super-technology but carries an impenetrable shield. For his part, Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark, better known as Iron Man, joins incipient girlfriend Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) for a brief tete-a-tete before deigning to lend his special expertise to the cause.
Although they really should be saving their energy for the battle against Loki and his minions, the Avengers team can't resist getting into it with each other from time to time. One could say that this is just gratuitous time-killing, but it could as persuasively be argued that watching The Hulk duke it out with Thor for bragging rights as to who's tougher is what such a film is all about; at least there's nothing perfunctory about it, as there is when superheroes routinely dispatch aliens and enemies who exist just to get blown away. The friction between Iron Man and Captain America, for example, is all about style and attitude; the former is far too irreverent and glib for the latter, for whom patriotism and coming to the rescue are not laughing matters.
With only one feature directorial credit to his name, the middling 2005 sci-fier "Serenity," Whedon of Buffy fame would not have been the first name on most people's lists to tame a potentially unwieldy project. But from a logistical point of view alone, he imposes a grip on the material that feels like that of a benevolent general, marshaling myriad technical resources (including an excellent use of 3-D) while, even more impressively, juggling eight major characters, giving them all cool and important things to do.
Never, though, does the film stall to dwell on individual characters just to give them screen time; the heroes are almost always doing something that relates to the challenge at hand. Even when the impudent Loki is held prisoner in seemingly inescapable circumstances, there is still forward movement, which crests and then crashes with tsunami force near Grand Central Station in Manhattan; uncountable numbers of alien warriors arrive from the skies, accompanied by strikingly designed metal leviathans that undulate like skeletal monsters of the deep as they cruise over New York seeking targets.
In this titanic battle, which occupies most of the film's final half-hour, all the Marvel heroes' talents are put to the test. In addition to Iron Man making a quick trip to outer space to deal with an incoming missile, special agent Clint Barton, or Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), is so good with a high-tech bow and arrow that you imagine they'll have to dragoon Katniss Everdeen into the sequel as a guest star just to see who's better. For his part, Jackson's Nick Fury has his hands full restraining army generals from nuking the Big Apple in order to off the aliens.
It's clamorous, the save-the-world story is one everyone's seen time and again, and the characters have been around for more than half a century in 500 comic book issues. But Whedon and his cohorts have managed to stir all the personalities and ingredients together so that the resulting dish, however familiar, is irresistibly tasty again. A quick coda reveals, to well-versed fans at least, who the new adversary in the next installment will be, underlining a reality as absolute as the turning of Earth: Especially after this, Marvel movies will go on and on and on.
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