Marvel's The Avengers 

Joss Whedon's The Avengers is a smart, thrilling toy box writ large

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Marvel's The Avengers

4 Stars
(PG-13)

Much has been made of the unprecedented, years-in-the-making nature of Marvel's The Avengers, a superhero team-up preceded by six large-scale films that tell the origins of those heroes: “Genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.); he of “breathtaking anger-management issues” Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, this time), super-soldier Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and the demigod Thor.

Because something like The Avengers has never been done before, and despite a ubiquitous marketing campaign, surprises can be expected, good or bad. Would this $1 million-per-minute gamble result in nothing more than a noisy, expensive traffic jam? Would personal arcs take a back seat to a generic buddy mission? Could it possibly be good, even great?

It is good, and sometimes it's great. So the broader question has been answered, but that doesn't mean there are no more surprises. In fact, The Avengers packs a fresh one at every turn, from setup-spike visual gags and stomach-plummeting stakes to invigorating, jack-in-the-box punchlines and even a death in the Marvel family.

The film, written and directed by another demigod, Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon, picks up where Captain America: The First Avenger left off. Cap, newly thawed out after decades spent frozen in time, is called on by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to help lead a “response unit” after Thor's petulant brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) breaks through a space portal and announces to the world that he is Earth's new leader. Captain teams with Iron Man to bring Loki into custody aboard a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier while the Earth's Mightiest Heroes size each other up and we learn a bit about the battles being waged within: Stark, who was originally disinvited from the Avengers Initiative, doesn't trust Fury, S.H.I.E.L.D. or anyone else for that matter, and with Fury, he may have good reason. Rogers worries that his schtick will be seen as old-fashioned in 2012, and the more Stark uncovers about their benefactors, the more Cap questions the concept of blind patriotic loyalty. Loki's actions put Thor on the defensive; he's unsure how to talk his brother out of his plans or how to convince the world that his home country of Asgard hasn't just declared war. Banner simply wants to stay calm, but between this apparent apocalypse and Stark whispering in his ear that it's OK to let his emotions get the best of him - the perennially snarky megalomaniac even pokes at Banner with a stun gun on occasion - it's proving difficult.

That's only the foundation of this action-packed feat of ingenuity, and though the set pieces (the destruction of Manhattan, the destruction of remote woods, things destroyed in the air, things destroyed in space) are eye-poppers, the real treat here, at least for longtime fans, is the way that each Avenger plays his own part in the mission. It feels much the way the comic books do: There's Iron Man tinkering with mechanics, welding underwater, fixing hull breaches in mid-air. Banner's in the lab with a high-tech Petri dish while Rogers hits a heavy bag until it breaks (he has plenty more) and stoic Thor taunts them all with smug superiority. During battles, new(ish) addition Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) stands sentry, crossbow in hand, Hulk smashes, Thor swings, Cap punches and Iron Man flies. This is the Avengers that fanboys have always felt in their bones, and Whedon's camera is constantly in motion and in command. (See it in 2-D, I beg of you. It's already a film of hefty proportions, and Imax and the dread 3-D are lumbering post-production nuisances.)

Scarlett Johansson solidifies her bona fides, as well. Her Natasha Romanoff (aka Black Widow) reveals new depths and genuine ass-kicking talent, and Johansson's performance is one of the film's best. Likewise, Hiddleston relishes his smartly written part, Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson is another shining standout and newest members of the family, Renner and Ruffalo, seem as if they'd always been there. If one performance doesn't quite live up to the spirit of the outing, it's Jackson's Fury, who wears a bizarrely hangdog look throughout that never adds up to much. The actor seems winded and sluggish. If it's a matter of Fury's age - and true fans must be nodding their heads emphatically right now - why not say so? Otherwise, it just seems like Jackson would rather be anywhere else than loitering in the stratosphere with his assembled freaks.

Whedon has spent years developing his theories of group dynamics, from Toy Story's play room to Speed's ill-fated bus to Buffy's Scooby Gang and, of course, Firefly's Browncoats. With the Avengers, he's been handed the world's biggest toy box. Thankfully, he's delivered the world's most entertaining action-figure battle royale.

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