The Avengers (2012)

My favorite part is probably when one of the superheroes punches another one at the end of the extended shot that tracks each of the heroes as they fight the mindless drone army unleashed by their shared villain. The Avengers is big, brash, infectious entertainment that is the culmination of the five movies that proceeded it in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Writer/director Joss Whedon's accomplishment is a considerable one: He must juggle the varying tones that accompany each of the characters while providing a unifying element that allows the congregation of those heroes to make sense.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), aka Iron Man, is still as obsessed with his own accomplishments as he ever was, and here, he has become the big name in solving clean energy, which he uses to power the skyscraper bearing his name. His banter with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his former assistant whom he made CEO of Stark Industries, is as loose and filled with the innuendo of a budding romance as ever. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, replacing Edward Norton), aka the Hulk, has gone into hiding in Kolkata. He has solved the mystery of containing his rage-fueled alter ego, but he fears another incident.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the demi-god heir to Asgard, doesn't have much to do this time, except to follow his presumed-dead brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to Earth, where Loki has traced the Tesseract, the glowing cube once coveted by a supernatural offshoot of Hilter's Reich that acts as a doorway to the other side of the universe. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), aka Captain America, has awoken from a seven-decade slumber in the ice to find the world in danger. When he wonders if his old-fashioned ways might be too square for the new world, one character reassures him: "We might need a little bit of the old-fashioned."

This is certainly Whedon's mindset, as he offers a stripped-down blockbuster that gives us the bare essentials and still, somehow, manages to fit a lot of humorous, character-centric moments within this basic structure. Iron Man and Captain America, the latter of whom dealt with the former's father in his standalone adventure, are at loggerheads almost immediately. In Thor's introductory movie, his "grudge match" (as S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson, puts it) leveled a small town and caused some of the department's security measures to change in the process. The trio enjoys a scuffle in some woods while Loki looks on with a smirk.

In other words, following the prologue that sets up the plot (which, being about the glowing MacGuffin, isn't of much interest or focus, except when the movie needs it to be), we get an extended session of member-measuring and ego-stretching from our heroes. There is barely a wasted character here (only Clint Barton, an archer known as Hawkeye and played by Jeremy Renner, who suffices as a plot device), and the movie's decision to position the character's powers and specialties as secondary concerns is smart: It means that Tony's intelligence plays off of Bruce's as about equal, Thor and Steve's loyalty to those they consider family is similarly idealistic, and we are introduced to the clever ability on the part of Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), aka Black Widow, to lull those who might try to take advantage of her into a place of assumed dominance and then pull the rug out from underneath him.

After an hour of seeing them play off each other, the extended climax gives our heroes two major action sequences. In the first one, Loki manipulates the complacence of our heroes' seeming respite by blowing out an engine turbine on their fortress in the sky. In the second, he unleashes his army of Chitauri, admittedly the least interesting conflict present (The character designs favor a generic anthropomorphism, which, coupled with the shrieks they emit, means it's hard to appreciate them as a threat). Whedon lets loose in these set pieces, in which each of the heroes' strengths, while proving to be weaknesses of ego, is put into the spotlight in various ways. The Avengers is surprisingly sharp about knocking these superheroes down a few pegs. Let's face it - that is exactly the approach this material needs.

Film Information

Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark/Iron Man), Chris Evans (Steve Rogers/Captain America), Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner/The Hulk), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow), Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton/Hawkeye), Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury), Clark Gregg (Agent Coulson), Cobie Smulders (Agent Hill), Stellan Skarsgard (Erik Selvig), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts).

Directed and written by Joss Whedon.

Rated PG-13 (intense sci-fi violence/action throughout, a mild drug reference).

142 minutes.

Released on May 4, 2012.

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