Ever since an eye-patch-wearing Samuel L. Jackson first uttered the words “Avengers Initiative” in 2008's Iron Man, comic book fans have been feverishly dreaming of experiencing an honest-to-god, mega-budget superhero team-up movie. That anticipation grew ever higher as iconic characters, history and plot devices began crossing over into each subsequent Marvel Studios release. And with every new casting rumor, Comicon appearance and million dollars thrown into a dizzying ad campaign, the bar for the final product is being set almost unreasonably high.
With The Avengers, writer/director Joss Whedon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Serenity) has managed to create an exciting thrill ride of a film without sacrificing any of the character development, conflict or humor he's best known for. Whedon has had years of practice overseeing sprawling ensemble casts, and he uses that experience to ensure that no hero, villain, government agent or civilian gets shortchanged in the grand scheme of things. It's a dangerous, electrifying high-wire act, and he executes it with skill and grace.
The film spends most of its first half gathering the titular heroes from locations around the world (and beyond) to defend it against the villainous Loki (Tom Hiddleston, War Horse), brother of Thor (Chris Hemsworth, The Cabin in the Woods). Presumed dead after his failed attempt to claim the throne of Asgard, Loki has passed the time plotting his revenge, making a pact with an army of insectoid aliens to steal a powerful energy cube called the Tesseract, which will be the inter-dimensional doorway they need to launch their assault on Earth.
While many comic book movies (and the books they're based on) attempt to undercut their inherent ridiculousness by swinging too far into grim and gritty territory, Whedon embraces the opportunity to cut loose with an upbeat, action-packed adventure that manages to be fun without resorting to camp and serious without any hint of pretension. This is a movie chock-full of iconic, well-defined personalities, and there is a fabulous sense of play to their interactions.
That's to be expected from millionaire industrialist playboy philanthropist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows), whose self-aggrandizement and quick wit were always the highlight of Jon Favreau's Iron Man franchise. But the greatest strength of The Avengers is being able to explore how Stark's narcissism grates on the modest sensibilities of time-displaced soldier Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, What's Your Number?). It's in witnessing Rogers' delight at the realization that Asgardian warrior Thor has less pop-culture knowledge than he does. It's in Bruce Banner's (Mark Ruffalo, Date Night) welcome aloofness, and cautious bromance with fellow genius Stark. It's in Thor's embarrassed defense of his murderous brother, and in seeing how The Hulk fares in battle against demigods.
The Avengers alternates these insightful character gems with large-scale action set-pieces that are inventive and still coherent. A three-way fight between Iron Man, Thor and Captain America set in the woods at night is appropriately legendary while maintaining a sense of intimacy. An extended sequence aboard the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier offers a rescue mission with plenty of obstacles, knock-down, drag-out brawls, high-speed hand-to-hand combat, tense cat-and-mouse chases and The Hulk taking on a military-grade fighter jet. And the final, brightly lit battle in the streets and skies of Manhattan is epic enough to span three distinct movements, each with its own unique flavor, goals and pacing.
Even with expectations set astronomically high, The Avengers is an impeccable, satisfying experience that should please comic book experts and casual fans alike by reveling in the possibilities of its premise. It delivers on its enormous potential, and was well worth the wait – and the hype.
4.5 Stars (out of 5)
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston & Samuel L. Jackson
Written & Directed By: Joss Whedon
Story By: Zak Penn &Joss Whedon
Produced by: Kevin Feige, Louis D'Esposito, Avi Arad
Distributor: Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios
Running Time: 142 minutes
Budget: $220 million (estimated)
Genre: Action / Adventure / Sci-Fi
Release Date: May 4, 201