EDITOR'S NOTE: This version corrects the spelling of Joss Whedon's name.
Given all the buzz surrounding Joss Whedon's The Avengers and the years-long wait for this movie, there's no realistic way the all-star superhero fest could possibly live up to the lofty expectations.
And The Avengers doesn't match its hype. It exceeds it.
This is the new paradigm for a $250 million popcorn film.
Whedon has concocted a wildly entertaining story loaded with clever one-liners that should satisfy everyone, from die-hard comic geeks to casual moviegoers looking for a few hours of escapism.
Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor's half-brother, has escaped banishment and is determined to subjugate the human race. The evil Norse demigod has allied himself with a race of alien warriors known as Chitauri. Humans are no match for these beings, so Earth turns to its mightiest heroes for help: Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, Hawkeye, and Black Widow -- collectively known as The Avengers.
The heroes are recruited by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson doing his best Samuel L. Jackson) head of S.H.I.E.L.D., a secret U.S. military force that's like the CIA on gamma rays. It won't be easy. The team has issues of its own to work out before it's ready to battle others.
Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a narcissist who "doesn't play well with others." No one is sure if Thor (Chris Hemsworth) can be trusted. Captain America (Chris Evans) is still making sense of the modern world after being frozen in ice for decades. S.H.I.E.L.D. super agent Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) -- a master of the bow and arrow -- has been compromised by Loki and turned traitor, while super spy Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is trying to save him. And we all know the rage issues of Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) as The Hulk.
Whedon is a lifelong comic-book fan who has an affinity for these characters, and more importantly understands them. He also knows that if you put this many larger-than-life super humans in one room there are going to be problems: ego clashes, disputes about how to mete out justice, and who's in charge. Before The Avengers smash the enemy, they must first battle each other.
Their verbal-turned-physical smackdowns create an underlying thread of dramatic tension throughout much of the movie, but Whedon mines these moments for a surprising amount of humor and humanity. Fun courses through these scenes as Earth's biggest and baddest are busy lobbing insults at each other.
The whip-smart banter plays to the strength of Downey, but everyone has their grand moments, with The Hulk topping them all. (His crowd-pleasing scene had me laughing and smiling even after the film.)
One of the bigger issues with the Hulk solo movies is the inherent limitation of a CGI Green Goliath. Whedon wisely opts for the less-is-more approach to The Hulk, with the muscled creature serving as an exclamation point to the battle action in New York City; as in, just when you think things on screen can't get bigger or more chaotic, The Hulk appears.
Since we've already been introduced to these super-powered, super-skilled warriors, there isn't a lot of alter-ego backstory to get in the way of the fun. The Avengers is mostly about letting the superheroes be just that on screen, and doing whatever our imaginations, Whedon, and CGI can conjure.
Even Loki benefits significantly from a change of directors. The evil god was villain-lite in last year's Thor, which also opened the summer film season and promptly deflated expectations for almost every event movie in its wake. Thor was directed by Kenneth Branagh, who mistakenly brought Shakespeare to Marvel, including hammy dialogue and family conflicts. Loki wasn't so much a super villain as he was an insufferable super bore with daddy issues.
Whedon changes that. Loki is skillfully resurrected as a conniving egomaniac -- not unlike some of our political and industry leaders -- with god-like powers, and Hiddleston is given free rein with the role to let loose and be the over-the-top smarmy antagonist the film requires.
There really isn't much to quibble with over The Avengers, Marvel's flagship and new gold standard comic-book movie. Whedon has delivered that rare action-packed, special-effects spectacle that is relentless in its eagerness to please and successful beyond its goal.
Believe the hype ... and more.
Directed by Joss Whedon. Screenplay by Whedon and Zak Penn, based on the Marvel comic books. A Walt Disney/Marvel release, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, and a mild drug reference. Running time: 142 minutes.
Critic’s Rating * * * * *
Iron Man . . . . . . . Robert Downey, Jr.
Captain America . . . . . . Chris Evans
Black Widow . . .Scarlett Johansson
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.