Bear with me for the teensiest of spoilers.
There's a wonderfully quiet moment in the generally loud blockbuster “The Avengers” that sticks in my memory. Preparing to fight with the Hulk, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) extends his arm to call for his mighty Uru hammer. He waits for it to spring into his hand as it has ever done over the centuries. And waits. And waits some more. Even mighty Uru hammers take a while to negotiate complex turns through long hallways on strange and massive ships. Thor waits one more beat, and then finally the hammer is his, and he allows himself a smile as he leaps into battle with the rare opponent capable of kicking his divine butt. Which is surely any God of Thunder's idea of a good time.
It's a darn good time for audiences too, and it's the dozens of little flourishes like this that make this fairly rote story about heroes thwarting a super-villain's plan for world domination something special, even something worthy of the Brobdingnagian hype surrounding Marvel Studios' grand five-year multi-movie marketing experiment. I will assume you are familiar enough with the preceding super-chapters that I can jump right into the fray. Fresh off his humiliation at the hands of his step-brother Thor, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) makes his way to Earth via a powerful device known as the Tesseract (last seen in “Captain America: The First Avenger.”) Loki, like his step-brother and pretty much all of his friends (if he had any) back in Asgard, is used to being worshiped as a God, and he believes the citizens of Earth are willing to indulge him, or at least that they can be convinced to do so. If necessary, he'll unleash an alien army on the planet to persuade them. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), equipped with only one eye and only one way of delivering a line reading, is the first of Earth's defenders to encounter Loki (“Sir, please put down the spear!”) but he realizes that even with the vast powers of the spy organization S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland, Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division) at his behest, he has no choice but to revive the now-dormant Avengers initiative to cope with this extinction level threat. Or, put more simply, he needs help to save the world.
This help comes in the form of a gathering of heroes from Marvel's most recent volley of films: Thor, Iron Man AKA Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Dr. Bruce Banner AKA The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Agent Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), known to comic book fans as Hawkeye though not actually identified as such in the film. Director/writer Joss Whedon (sharing a story credit with Zak Penn) may have settled for a four-color-by-numbers plot, but he has invested considerable creative energy in imagining just how these heroes, each a bundle of machismo and ego in his or her own right, would interact with the rest when forced together in a tight space under great pressure. Granted, he had fifty years of comic mythology to draw on for material, but then again, that's one of the abiding strengths of this serial project.
Once the heroes convene on the S.H.I.E.L.D Helicarrier (a massive hovercraft/submarine/anything-you-want-it-to-be), the sparks start to fly. Straight-shooting Captain America, a man literally out of his time, doesn't care for Tony Stark's flippant attitude, nor can he embrace the easy cynicism that Stark, a veteran of corporate intrigue, takes for granted. Stark, meanwhile, takes an instant shine to Dr. Banner; he is an admirer both of his pioneering scientific research and the way he can “lose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster." Thor remains a bit aloof from everyone, and quite annoyed that he has to spend his time defending Loki: “He's my brother!” “He killed 80 people in two days!” “He's adopted.” And in one of the most heartfelt touches in the film, just about everyone (except Tony Stark) gets tongue-tied when they meet the once-again-living legend Captain America, nobody more so than Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg, in a standout performance) who can't resist the urge to ask Cap to sign his vintage card collection which is in great shape except for “some slight foxing around the edges.”
The most pertinent question about this Marvel team-up is “Did they get the characters right?” The answer is “Yes, all of them.” Downey still delivers his smug one-liners like cherry bombs, and Chris Evans is once again completely winning as the square-jawed, perfectly sincere and attitude-free Cap. But nobody is more vividly realized than this newest incarnation of the oft-portrayed Hulk with Mark Ruffalo taking over for Ed Norton who took over for Eric Bana who took over for Bill Bixby. Hulk presents enormous allegorical temptations for any writer or director (he is a stand-in for man's scientific hubris; he is a modern-day Jekyll and Hyde; he is a Greek tragic figure), but Whedon has opted for a more grounded, pragmatic approach. Since we last met Dr. Banner, he has spent some time hiding out in Calcutta where it seems he has learned to stop worrying and love The Hulk. Or at least to stop being so afraid of “The Other Guy,” as he prefers to call him. As embodied with humor and modesty by Ruffalo, Banner (who actually smiles from time to time) has canceled his pity party and achieved a graceful state of Zen-rage which, wouldn't ya know, is a rather inspiring way for a man to cope with an unusual disability. Dr. Bruce Banner truly has a beautiful mind.
And, also, when he finally turns into the Hulk, yeah, he's pretty Incredible.
Whedon holds that emerald treat back for an achingly long period of time, but when he's finally unleashed, Hulk smashes like he has never smashed before, a CGI bundle of elemental fury (no relation to Nick) who lashes out against everyone from the Black Widow to Thor to nearby planes and eventually to the Earth itself when he abandons ship. As fans know, the angrier Hulk gets, the stronger he gets, and man does he get pissed off.
It's no coincidence that it's been a while since I mentioned the villain. Loki was the highlight of the mostly dreary “Thor” movie, but here he plays a strictly functional role. Loki comes off as a whiner (or, as Iron Man says, “a full-tilt diva”) and he spends about half of his screen time in a prison cell snarling empty threats at the heroes while doing nothing in particular. And for a trickster god who is supposed to be the Master of Deception, too many of his plans involve smacking people upside the head with a stick. When he eventually turns loose his (almost forgotten) alien army, the Bug Eyed Monster invasion that comprises the hectic final act proves to be a minor letdown.
That's OK though, because it's no surprise that the juiciest parts of “The Avengers” involve heroes locking horns with other heroes, either in costume or in their human identities. From the first time Johnny Storm gave Ben Grimm a hotfoot, Marvel's Silver Age heroes differentiated themselves from their Distinguished Competition by constantly bickering with each other, with the baddies sometimes serving as a mere sideshow. Some of the highlights of Marvel history (and the most valuable collectibles) involve hero vs. hero matchups, something Whedon is obviously aware since the best fights in the film pit Iron Man vs. Thor (with a late appearance by Cap) and Thor vs. Hulk. These are two of the finest scenes in any super-hero movie, and deliver thrills both universal and fanboy-specific (Hulk getting really, really mad when he can't pick up Thor's hammer... yeah, I smiled.)
Whedon has a deft way of pacing his battle sequences, always finding one sideways beat that deflects the action (usually through humor, including at least one literal punchline) before plowing forward fist-first once again. Every now and then, especially in the final invasion sequences, the heavy CGI and ultra-loud sound mix become a bit overbearing, but since so much time has been invested with the character's little foibles, “The Avengers” never degenerates into white noise the way so many hyper-edited action movies do today. At the very least, we always have one of Tony's smart-ass quips to bring us down from cosmic heights. As any Marvel writer from the past fifty years can tell you, it's darned difficult to keep so many major characters “alive” while still telling an action-packed story in a compact time frame, but Whedon pulls off the delicate balancing act with aplomb.
“The Avengers” arrives with a deafening sound and fury that can be understandably off-putting to more skeptical viewers; it's not a movie, it's an event! I will never understand the unbridled joy that fans take in hearing about a film's record-breaking box office numbers. Do they get a cut? Where's mine? I'm relieved that Walt Disney's demon spawn will be well taken care-of in their dotage, but there's always something galling about seeing such a conspicuous display of capital consumption greeted with universal hosannas. However, we can make good on this opportunity.
If you have fallen head over heels for “The Avengers” or any of the recent spate of super-hero movies, please remember these heroes were not created on green screens or even on video games. They started their lives on the printed page, and these wonderful characters have only been kept alive through the decades thanks to the efforts of thousands of comic shop owners who have introduced generations of readers to these fantasy realms. So if you dig Thor or Cap or Hulk, please check out the original sources. Support your local comic book shop. You wouldn't have any of these movies without them.
And, yes, there is a post-credit stinger. In fact, there are two, so don't file out after the first big reveal; stay all the way until the end of the credits. It's worth the wait.