‘Marvel’s The Avengers’ soars, spectacularly, over a low bar

The Avengers. ()
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Simon Abrams

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In The Avengers, a film whose full title is tellingly Marvel's The Avengers, geek-idol Joss Whedon has delivered a fitting climax to Marvel Studios' recent series of superhero adaptations.

Notwithstanding some polished banter and satisfying action scenes, The Avengers is very much like Captain America: The First Avenger, Iron Man and Thor, in the sense that its story is contrived, lacks emotional resonance and is generally underdone. 

Whedon ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Firefly") at least kept the story, or what there is of it, moving at a brisk pace. Here's what happens: Aliens liberate Loki (breakout talent Thomas Hiddleston), the Norse god of mischief. Loki then tries to steal a Cosmic Cube, and a group of superheroes led by super-secret agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) must save the world by stopping him. These heroes include Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and the Hulk (pinch-hitter Mark Ruffalo). They fight among themselves, then they resolve their differences and come together as a team. That's it.

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But the execution of this paint-by-numbers plot in the The Avengers is at once simplistic and confusing. Loki brainwashes Hawkeye (The Hurt Locker star Jeremy Renner) by tapping Hawkeye's chest, while muttering philosophical-sounding nonsense; Thor, who was last seen stranded in Asgard after the rainbow bridge connecting Earth to the Norse God's home was destroyed, magically materializes on Earth; Captain America, a super-soldier who woke up in the modern day after being thought dead for years, barely factors into things at all. Viewers simply have to accept that some plot points are never explained, while others are overexplained. (One character identifies Loki by saying, "Loki, the brother of Thor!")

Still, The Avengers, unlike the other recent Marvel films, shows some ambition. It adds depth to the team of heroes by portrays tension between them, as befits a supergroup of strong individual performers. And some characters are rendered with finesse and consistency, even as others are afterthoughts. 

Whedon nails Tony "Iron Man" Stark's egomania and Bruce "Hulk" Banner's deceptively serene outward appearance ("That's my big secret: I'm angry all the time"). But his version of Natasha "Black Widow" Romanov (Scarlett Johanson), icy master interrogator, falls apart once it's hinted at that she has romantic feelings for Clint "Hawkeye" Barton. And Fury, Barton, Steve "Captain America" Rogers and Thor languish in relative obscurity.

The film doesn't take itself seriously, thankfully. It has its share of bathos, including a pivotal event that causes one of the team's more cynical members to have a great change of heart. But tragedy and drama in The Avengers is usually subordinate to a sense of fun.

Above all, though, it's a commercial vehicle, pulling together some of Marvel's most instantly recognizable heroes and Hollywood's most instantly recognizable stars. This film is going to make serious bank for Marvel Studios. And for whatever it's worth, this one is better than almost all the ones before it.