The Avengers

I suspect that the Avengers exists as a comic book series because, despite their dominant position in that arena and broad portfolio of characters, only one, Spider-Man, really counts as an A-List superhero to the world beyond the fringes of comic book fandom. The rest of the major league franchises, Batman and Superman, belong to DC Comics.

Recent movies have changed that pecking order, but let’s face it: No one really gave a rat’s ass about Iron Man until Robert Downey, Jr. strapped on the suit and when most people hear “Incredible Hulk,” they think Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno before they think of Eric Bana, Edward Norton, or Mark Ruffalo.

Good thing no one told writer/director Joss Whedon. He marshals Marvel’s B Team like they were the New England Patriots at their height. He is, of course, aided by a multi-year campaign of cameos by Samuel L. Jackson, hoping to establish Marvel’s disparate comic book properties as part of one giant franchise.

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Counting on the resulting pent-up anticipation, Whedon doesn’t waste much time putting the story in motion at full gallop. The bad guys from Thor want something called the “Tesseract,” which powered HYDRA’s weapons in Captain America. It’s in the possession of an organization called S.H.I.E.L.D., commanded by bad-ass super-spy named Nick Fury (Jackson), and studied by a scientist named Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), another survivor of Thor. The Tesseract is starting to act funny, which leads to the sudden appearance of the Norse demigod Loki (Tom Hiddleston), adopted brother of Thor. He mentally enslaves Selvig and a Marvel C-lister named Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), steals the Tesseract, and destroys S.H.I.E.L.D.’s headquarters, all in the first ten minutes of the movie.

Thor: Have care how you speak. Loki is beyond reason but he is of Asgard. And he is my brother.

Natasha: He killed 80 people in two days.

Thor: He's adopted.

Retreating to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s back-up headquarters, a giant flying aircraft carrier, Fury reactivates something called the “Avengers initiative,” which summons the heroes of the last several Marvel films to recover the Tesseract.

To track the object’s gamma emissions, the bring in Dr. Bruce Banner (Ruffalo), whose been hiding in India, doing he best to stay out of sight and not turn green. Tony Stark (Downey) is pulled away from building massive structures with his name on them and hitting on Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), otherwise known as Captain America, is still sulking about being frozen for 70 years. Even if his girl is still alive, she’s in her 90s.

They capture Loki, only to have him snatched away by Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who would prefer to to handle his family squabbles without human intervention. Thor reveals that Loki plans to use the Tesseract to open a portal and bring down an alien army to conquer the Earth.

With a limited cinematic resume, Whedon might seem like a curious choice to direct a $200 million summer blockbuster, but the creator of the Buffy, Angel, and Firefly franchises knows a little something about balancing multiple story lines with large casts of characters. He keeps the movie’s many balls in the air with seeming ease, never letting Downey and Jackson dominate the story or pushing anyone into the background as he seamlessly blends the characters from different stories previously lensed by the like of Jon Favreau and Kenneth Branagh.

Despite the vast scale of the film’s CGI-enhanced carnage, Whedon is able to keep the story moving and uses the many characters and their competing agendas to tell a surprisingly coherent tale. No one is going to pretend that this is an Oscar-winning art film that will challenge its audience to look deep into their collective souls. It is, however, comic book film making at exactly the right level. Another filmmaker might be satisfied to provide an empty light show for an undemanding audience, but there have been enough Transformer movies. Whedon doesn’t not apologize for his story’s origins nor does he condescend to it. The Avengers respects and satisfies our desire to be entertained on a summer’s afternoon.

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