A 2-hour-and-20-minute-long hunk of fanboy giddy, “The Avengers” is everything a superhero movie strives to be and more.
Not since “The Dark Knight” (and before that, never) has a movie gotten so much of the genre right. In fact, “The Avengers” is the carefree, in-the-light yin to “The Dark Knight’s” dead-serious, pitch-black yang; it’s hard to even to choose which of the two films is better because each does its job so well in different ways.
The characters? Pitch perfect. The major actors — from Robert Downey Jr. down to Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson — all reprise their roles well and manage to not come off as gimmicky or a sideshow.
And Mark Ruffalo, taking up the role of the Hulk’s alter ego Bruce Banner? Best Banner Ever. Well, at least since Bill Bixby. He brings to Banner an uneasy control over his condition; he is calm even under pressure (a notion with which Downey’s Stark has a little fun), but he clearly fears “the other guy” who can emerge at any moment. He’s still surprisingly funny, and he and Downey have a great chemistry together. It’s the first time I ever remember seeing the Banner character and not instantly longing for him to change.
Narratively,Whedon achieves as close to a perfect balance as a film of this type can reach. There is no main character; it’s a true ensemble piece, and each of the characters feels as important as another, even Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), aka The Heroes Who Didn’t Have Their Own Movies. Their contributions are hardly secondary, and they each have a few key moments.
Of course, today’s heroes must have egos, and they feel threatened by each other. Captain America tires of Stark’s arrogance and snark (recall a similar relationship with Stark’s dad); Stark quickly grows to dislike Cap’s naivete and blind earnestness; Thor is angered at the insolence of these humans refusing to hand over his brother; Banner distrusts them all.
The plot revolves around the Tesseract, the blue cosmic cube from “Captain America: The First Avenger.” The secret spy group S.H.I.E.L.D. is in possession of the cube until the villainous Loki (Tom Hiddleston, who, after something of an underwhelming presence in “Thor,” is the spine of the film) comes after it at the behest of an alien race called the Chitauri, which aims to use the Tesseract’s power to take over the galaxy. In exchange for the Tesseract, they will give Loki control over Earth, which he covets because Thor is so fond of it.
The film slow-burns into a bombastic frenzy, with interhero battles aplenty: Hulk faces off with Black Widow and Thor; Widow tangles with Hawkeye; Cap, Thor, and Iron Man have a three-way smackdown. And that’s just the warmup.
The centerpiece of “The Avengers” comprises the majority of the third act, a jaw-droppingly stellar all-out throwdown between the Avengers and the Chitauri. Director Joss Whedon matches the technical quality and intensity of the last hour of last year’s “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” but adds, you know, some logic and narrative structure to the mix. It is an all-out assault on the senses, played similarly to the “Star Wars” films on multiple fronts and executed as well as anything George Lucas has done.
“The Avengers” is the best summer picture I have seen for some time. It brings to the table all of the best parts of the superhero genre without getting bogged down by origin stories and silly romances, it has action that feels fluid and is fun to watch, and, for fluffy popcorn fare, feels very personal and made with a great deal of care.
Summer just got here, and “The Avengers” already own it.