The Avengers (2012)

The Avengers — or, as the onscreen title has it, Marvel’s The Avengers — is perhaps the most purely fun and frisky superhero movie since Christopher Reeve put on the red cape in 1978. (The Dark Knight was dazzlingly accomplished, but “fun” isn’t the first word I’d use to describe that brooding crime thriller.) Marvel Studios has been building towards this film for four years, starting with Iron Man in 2008 and continuing with The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), commander of the spy mega-agency S.H.I.E.L.D., has showed up portentously in all those movies, and here he assembles the aforementioned heroes, plus S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), to do battle with an alien army commanded by Thor’s evil brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Got all that?

Once the set-up is out of the way — and I’ve no idea how much of it will fly over the heads of viewers who missed the previous five films — The Avengers settles into a pleasantly lighthearted combat mode. The stakes are high, but writer-director Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) never met a quip he didn’t like, and his familiarity with decades of Marvel comics shakes out as a kidding, don’t-take-this-too-seriously approach to the characters, all of whom get to be tersely witty in the Whedon tradition. This is the best writing any of these heroes have enjoyed onscreen; there’s not much of what’s pejoratively called “comic-book dialogue,” and most of that is dispensed with at the start. After that, it’s regular people with superpowers or super-tech putting on their game faces and working as a team.

For comics fans, it’s an undeniable thrill to see Captain America and Iron Man in the same frame. Additionally entertaining is seeing Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. in the same frame, rubbing each other’s nerves raw and ultimately arriving at a grudging mutual respect. Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, who under duress turns into the rampaging green Hulk, is deceptively laid-back; it seems Banner has developed a bit more control over his transformations, but we still get plenty of crowd-pleasing footage of the Hulk leaping around and bashing the enemy. At its best, The Avengers is like one of those giant-sized Marvel Treasury Editions they used to issue in the ’70s, with the massive conflicts playing out in clean broad daylight. At some points the swooping camera shows you two or three epic fights going on at once; everyone gets his or her turn in the spotlight.

Whedon, whose only previous film as director was Serenity, keeps the fun coming as if nothing at all were riding on it — not millions of dollars, not the hot expectations of fanboys. Whedon understands that this stuff is outlandish and ought not to be taken with monkish sobriety. Most of these heroes — including Captain America, Thor, and the Hulk — were co-created by legendary comics artist Jack Kirby (who also had a hand in Iron Man’s design). The Avengers does full honor to Kirby’s work, even if Marvel hasn’t; last year Kirby’s heirs were denied any of the billions that Kirby’s creations have generated for the company. Some people (rightly) incensed by the raw deal Kirby got have called for a boycott of The Avengers, and I do sympathize, though denying yourself the chance to see a Kirby-esque adventure writ large (and in 3D, though, as with the other 3D Marvel films, 2D is just as good) would be self-punitive and a drop in the bucket besides.

Overall, this is as smooth and sprightly a franchise machine as we’re likely to get this summer; even at two hours and twenty-three minutes it goes like lightning. It’s brawny but punches fast, yet not so fast that we can’t see anything. Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye shoots arrows into his targets without even looking at them; Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow comes out the best under Whedon’s jurisdiction, gaining a sense of humor and a similar suave disregard of her own combat skills. The Avengers never overplays its hand (though the marketing machine sure has); everyone in it is smart, using strategy rather than brute force, though the force is certainly brutal when called for. If every superhero movie we’re about to get for the next decade were as loose-limbed yet tightly-wrought as this one, I’d have no cause for complaint; they won’t be, of course, but at least this one is.

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