The long-gestating Marvel superhero showcase The Avengers comes saddled with hulking expectations, an iron-fisted fan base and hawkish backers hoping the latest entry in this banner franchise can captain the American movie scene back from recently stark box office tallies.
The looming quandary—beyond the fact that it's impossible to fashion a pun using Thor—is how to cobble together a satisfying and sensible ensemble film spawned from a quintet of cinematic table setters ranging from good (Iron Man) to middling (Thor, Captain America and The Incredible Hulk) to woeful (Iron Man 2).
Helmed by screenwriter, director and part-time comic book author Joss Whedon, The Avengers manages, against formidable odds, to hit all the right notes. Based on the premise of the very first Avengers comic in 1963, Earth's mightiest heroes, chaperoned by the cyclopean Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), must join forces to thwart the aims of revenge and world domination by Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the estranged brother of Asgardian demigod Thor (Chris Hemsworth).
Long before a Transformers-style finale in which the Avengers must repel an invasion by the Orc-like Chitauri, the true tension is between the superheroes themselves. As a roiling brew of ids and alpha males, these crusaders bicker and bloviate. Whether it's the madcap narcissism of Tony Stark/ Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), the dogged devotion to duty of Captain America (Chris Evans), the tumultuous duality of Bruce Banner/ Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) or Thor's god complex, each Avenger exudes their own persona and agenda. Whether the group could defeat Loki isn't really in doubt; the question is whether they can ever co-exist, much less collaborate in the first place.
Whedon manages to successfully juggle screen time to afford each character a spotlight, including increased screen time for sultry spy Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). There's even a nod to the villainous comic book origins of Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) when Loki hijacks the ace archer's mind for nefarious purposes. Shrewder still is that the script doesn't take itself so seriously, often allowing humor to drive the narrative even more than action. Spearheading that effort, of course, is the indomitable Downey, who is wisely given space to wisecrack—e.g., he calls the full-maned Thor "Point Break" at one point and later refers to Hawkeye as "Legolas"—and recapture the loose abandon of his character in the first Iron Man. Even Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) pops up to rekindle her Nick and Nora-esque repartee with Stark.
Action lovers needn't fret, however, as the film has more than enough computer-generated F/X to spackle its plot holes and utter lack of depth (passing allusions to forcible interrogation and clean energy feel like they belong in another movie). Titanic tussles between Iron Man and Thor and, later, Thor and The Hulk are the stuff of fanboy dreams. The Dark Knight this isn't—instead, The Avengers is a superhuman three-ring circus filled acrobatics, wild beasts, clowns and all the popcorn you can munch. Oh, and a Hulk.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Marvelous worlds."