Let me sprint right to the point: The Avengers has it all. And then some. Six superheroes for the price of one ticket: Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hawkeye, Black Widow and the Hulk. It's also the blockbuster I saw in my head when I imagined a movie that brought together the idols of the Marvel world in one shiny, stupendously exciting package. It's Transformers with a brain, a heart and a working sense of humor. Suck on that, Michael Bay.
All hail the warrior king of this dizzying, dazzling 3D action epic. That would be writer-director Joss Whedon, enjoying the afterglow of stellar reviews for deconstructing horror in The Cabin in the Woods. Here, in his second directing feature (after Serenity), Whedon stages the most exultantly good-humored, head-on, rousing series of traps and escapes since Spielberg was a pup. It's Citizen Kane for Citizen Geek.
The plot is merely functional. The world will end if Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the banished demigod, has his way. Loki hates his brother Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and lusts to destroy Earth with help from an alien army. As head of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has one recourse: Bring in the Avengers, a group of paragons with a rep for not playing well with others.
That's the conflict, and the signal to unleash the FX. But Whedon is exploring richer ground. He sees the Avengers as the ultimate dysfunctional family. Their powers have estranged them from the normal world. As a result, they're lonely, cranky, emotional fuck-ups, which the actors have a ball playing. Robert Downey Jr. still seems blissfully right as Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man (there's a disarming tickle in his portrayal). He mocks the costume of Captain America (a canny Chris Evans) and calls the World War II hero an "old man." The captain wonders what's under that iron suit, sparking a priceless Downey deadpan: "Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist."
There's no doubt that the two Iron Man hits overshadowed Thor, Captain America and two Hulk movies at the box office. But Downey doesn't hog the spotlight. Hemsworth's giant-size Thor gets big laughs dismissing his comrades in arms ("You're all so tiny"). And everyone gets to show their skill sets, including Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), the expert archer, and Natasha, a.k.a. the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), a killer in gymnastics and martial arts. Johansson has a terrific bit dispatching some Russian goons with her hands literally tied behind her back. And wait till you see the funny and touching stuff the sly Clark Gregg does as Agent Phil Coulson.
Mark Ruffalo is the newcomer to the team, replacing Edward Norton and Eric Bana as Bruce Banner, the nuclear physicist with anger issues that turn him into a hulking green rage machine. Ruffalo brings a scruffy warmth and humor to the role that's revelatory. His verbal sparring with Downey – two pros at the top of their games – is a pleasure to watch. And, wonder of wonders, the techies finally get the scale of the Hulk right. The computerized unjolly green giant is a jumbo scene-stealer. And it's hard not to cheer when Hulk wipes up the floor with Loki.
Speaking of Loki, and it's hard not to, bring on a shower of praise for Hiddleston. A superhero movie is only as good as its villain, and Hiddleston is dynamite. The role of Loki demands intuition, wit and crazy daring, and Hiddleston brings it. The British actor (War Horse, The Deep Blue Sea) is a force to reckon with.
Loki claims early in the film that his heart "burns with glorious purpose." He's got nothing on Whedon, a filmmaker who knows that even the roaringest action sequences won't resonate without audience investment in the characters. Whedon is not afraid to slow down to let feelings sink in. Fanboy heresy, perhaps, but the key to the film's supersmart, supercool triumph. In the final third, when Whedon lets it rip and turns the battle intensity up to 11, all your senses will be blown. I have one word for The Avengers: Wowza!