Dream team

Joss Whedon is right choice to helm The Avengers blockbuster

Thor and Captain America, team up with The Avengers.

Thor and Captain America, team up with The Avengers.

Starring Robert Downey Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner and Gwyneth Paltrow. Directed by Joss Whedon. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas and Paradise Cinema 7. Rated PG-13.
Rated 4.0

If there’s one filmmaker who could make a superhero battle royale interesting for people who don’t like superhero movies, it’d be Joss (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Cabin in the Woods) Whedon. (Well, a Stanley Kubrick superhero movie would have been interesting, but in a really gawdawful sort of way. But we don’t have to worry about that.) These days, Whedon is on top of his game, and there’s only 10 minutes of gawdawful here and that’s the first 10.

Samuel MF Jackson opens the movie with a performance that creeps into self-parody, coming across more as Samuel MF Jackson standing in as Nick Fury than delivering an actual performance. He gets the ball rolling as his HQ is invaded by some intergalactic joker called Loki (think Marilyn Manson fresh out of the shower, sans contacts). It’s kind of blink-worthy camp. Not sure if that was Whedon’s intent to deliberately make the camp so over the top that it creeps into caricature, but it plays like the ’70s template of superhero voguing.

But 11 minutes in, Black Widow (Scarlett Johanssen) starts kicking some ass, and all reservations are canceled as the flick shifts gears and begins to get more awesome as it howls along.

What we get next are a few origin stories, about Fury’s recruitment of the Avengers—Black Widow, Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk and eventually Thor and Hawkeye—as a team. As a stand-alone, it could be confusing. You really need to have seen the other recent Marvel packages to follow all the drama being dragged in. But if you kick back and go with the flow, that’s over soon enough and they band together to fight the common threat that has followed Loki to Earth, one that unfortunately echoes the cosmic baddies of Transformers 3. But The Avengers’ climax is more organic and way better than Michael Bay’s miasmic bowl of pixel soup.

While Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is pretty much the center of the movie (with the banter between him and Gwyneth Paltrow evoking Nick and Nora Charles of The Thin Man films, and Iron Man flights used as an excuse to swoon over art deco designs among the skyscrapers), Whedon has also made the Hulk interesting (something directors Ang Lee and Louis Leterrier failed to do). While there’s not much of the Hulk until late in the game, what we do get is a blast. Welcome is a giddy enthusiasm the Hulk brings to his rage, a wide-toothed grin of enthusiasm as he smashes. And the Hulk delivers the best punch line in the movie. Also the second. Both without a word (there’s also an icing verbal retort that’s drowned out by audience laughter).

Helping to sell the package is Mark Ruffalo as Hulk’s alter-ego, turning in a performance that echoes Bill Bixby (the original live-action Bruce Banner) while making the character comfortably his own. The aftermath of the Hulk’s first rampage is also graced by a late-in-the-game cameo that serves no real purpose other than to make me very, very happy.