‘The Avengers’: Pre-assembled

May 4, 2012

Here’s the best thing I can say about “The Avengers” (and no, I will NOT refer to it as “Marvel’s The Avengers,” because the branding is implicit):

It offers a couple of the biggest laughs in recent memory, including a slapstick gag worthy of Chuck Jones in his “Looney Tunes” heyday.

Thankfully, there are other nice things to say about “The Avengers,” a Marvel mash-up featuring a group of super-heroes who (almost) all have had their own movies. Don’t think of this as a sequel to the others; it’s its own thing unto itself.

And, thanks to writer-director Joss Whedon, that thing is veined with wit, even as it offers exactly the kind of action that fanboys and normal movie-goers alike want out of something like this. The wisecracks and bulls-eye one-liners aside, “The Avengers” offers big mouthfuls of action, at a scale that tickles the imagination.

Yet Whedon also realizes what the real attraction is here: It’s not the moment when these various troubled super-heroes put their own issues aside and band together to fight off a horde of invading aliens (although that’s a moment that’s worth the wait). Rather, it’s about the sturm und drang – the personal demons that goad these differently abled creatures into battling each other.

Those, after all, are the comic books that were always the best – the ones that pitted super-hero against super-hero. You always know that the super-hero will defeat the villain. But when it’s hero vs. hero, well, anything goes.

Or so it seems in this movie. You’ve got Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) vs. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor vs. Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Hulk against Black Widow (Scarlett Johannssn), Black Widow taking on Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). And that’s not to mention the trash talk, the best of which is offered by Downey as the ever-flippant Tony Stark.

The plot is as comic-booky as it comes, drawing on clues and hints that popped up at the end of “Thor,” “Captain America” and the “Iron Man” movies. It all has to do with something called the Tesseract, a glowing cube of energy that figured in at least a couple of the previous films. SHIELD, the secretive agency headed by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), has been guarding this thing inside a mountain-top fortress – but Fury and his cohort discover just how little they understand the thing when it activates itself.

It opens a portal to, well, apparently Asgard – though it could be any evil corner of the universe where Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been cooling his heels since he had his ass kicked last year in “Thor.” Loki, now in cahoots with a race of space aliens that look like Skeletor, pops up in this cave fortress, then casually takes over the minds of both Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), though, if I recall, he brain-blipped Selvig at the end of “Thor.”

Then Loki takes off with the Tesseract. His goal is to open the portal and let all the aliens through; together, they’ll conquer Earth and install Loki as ruler. So Nick Fury calls together all the super-heroes at his command for a pow-wow on how to lock down Loki.

But, what with egos and cross-purposes, none of these heroes plays particularly well with others. So it takes them a while to stop squabbling among themselves and team up to battle the real bad guys.

The friction between them, however, creates all the sparks that ignite the moments of pleasure in this film. The slugfest between Thor and Iron Man is imaginative and full-bodied, with the two guys nearly flattening a forest as they punish each other. And the Hulk-Thor throwdown is similarly impressive, pitting two indestructible forces against each other within an enclosed space.

The final showdown with the invading aliens – set around Grand Central Terminal in midtown Manhattan – starts slowly, but quickly gets over what is apparently the irresistible urge by directors to blow up cars and buildings to focus on the heroes and their struggles. Whedon quickly finds his groove, blending close-up hand-to-hand shots with sweepingly dynamic scenes of dogfights within New York’s concrete canyons.

He also comes up with perhaps the coolest effect in recent memory: a massive alien fighter-craft that looks and moves like a giant metal snake – or perhaps a cross between a snake and a whale. It flies, it undulates, it wreaks havoc with New York buildings – and, when it crashes, well, that’s cool, too.

Ultimately that’s what “The Avengers” is all about. With the spate of Marvel movies we’ve endured in the past three or four years, the level of computer-generated and green-screened action has risen considerably. It takes more skill – more intelligence and wit, as well as visual imagination – to create a “wow” factor. “The Avengers” definitely has it.

Yes, at 145 minutes, “The Avengers” is too long. On the other hand, it has more than a half-dozen major characters, each of which is used to having a whole movie to himself. Whedon finds ways to give each of them enough screen time to satisfy fans without losing the focus on the team. Indeed, the Iron Man material is head and shoulders above the stuff that filled out the bloated, slow-moving “Iron Man 2.”

If you’re not a comic-book fan, well, this probably won’t make you one. But if you’re looking for the kind of big-screen action that summer movies invariably entail, “The Avengers” is one of the rare ones that actually delivers on that promise.
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