The gang’s all here

The Avengers

Don’t mess with the Iron Man. His backup is big and green.

Don’t mess with the Iron Man. His backup is big and green.

Rated 5.0

Joss Whedon is hereby released from the probation imposed upon him after The Cabin in the Woods. I said he would have to be extra good from now on. Mission accomplished—with The Avengers, “extra good” hardly covers it. The Avengers is tremendous fun, taking the comic-book movie as far as it’s possible to get from the brooding solemnity that weighs down Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, and makes them such a murky, joyless trudge. The Avengers is almost as long as The Dark Knight, but it feels an hour-and-a-half shorter.

The Avengers of Marvel Comics have had several changes of personnel since they first appeared in print in 1963. For the current movie’s purposes, they consist of (in no particular order): Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), the self-described “billionaire genius playboy philanthropist” who also owns a flying suit of armor with self-contained weapons systems; Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Norse god and prince of the realm of Asgard; Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans), the beneficiary of a World War II experiment in prowess enhancement, recently freed from more than 70 years of suspended animation in Arctic ice; and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), a brilliant scientist whose accidental exposure to gamma rays resulted in his transformation at angry moments into the Incredible Hulk.

In addition to these, the team includes two members with no superpowers but with mortal skills developed to the highest degree: Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), a superspy and martial-arts expert; and Clint Barton a.k.a. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), the world’s greatest archer.

Rounding out the group are their handler, one-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and his assistants Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg).

The Avengers revolves around what Alfred Hitchcock once called the “MacGuffin”—the thing everybody wants that moves the story along. Here the MacGuffin is the Tesseract, a source of infinite energy and unknown potential stolen from Thor’s father, Odin, king of Asgard. As the movie opens, it’s in the hands of Fury’s agency, SHIELD (Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division), for study. But it’s immediately stolen by Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s exiled adoptive brother, who intends to turn the Tesseract over to a warmongering alien race called the Chitauri. In return for this, they promise to make him supreme ruler of Earth. In the process, Loki subjects Hawkeye and scientist Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) to mind control, making them accomplices in his nefarious plans.

The plot of The Avengers is almost more trouble to recount than it’s worth. It’s enough to know that it’s all about regaining the Tesseract, thwarting Loki’s plans for world conquest and repelling the invasion of the Chitauri. And it gives Whedon—directing his own rewrite of Zak Penn’s script—all the hooks he needs to hang a slam-bang CGI-action-packed adventure on. If there’s a flaw in Whedon’s execution—and I almost hesitate to mention it—it’s the post-production addition of 3-D; the process adds little to the fun and forces us to watch the movie’s dimmed image through those uncomfortable glasses.

But never mind that. Let’s concentrate on what The Avengers does right, like the unexpected, inspired casting of Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner and (through the miracle of motion-capture technology) the Hulk. Talk about a third-time charm: After a disastrous start with poor Eric Bana and a moderate improvement with Edward Norton, Marvel and Whedon have finally found the actor perfectly suited to portray Bruce Banner’s tortured tightrope walk of introverted genius and desperate anger management. (Another nice touch: Lou Ferrigno supplies the Hulk’s voice.) The Hulk also provides the movie’s greatest and most hilarious moment, a surprise confrontation between Hulk and Loki that has to be seen to be (sort of) believed.

At the inevitable triumphant conclusion, as the Avengers disband and go their separate ways. Nick Fury promises that they’ll be back someday, when they are most needed.

My guess is, that’ll be sometime around summer 2015.