There’s a moment in “The Avengers” — you might have seen it in the trailer — of the group’s six primary members standing in a circle, surrounded by the ruins of New York City as a menacing alien army descends upon them. We have seen most of these heroes before in “Iron Man,” “Thor,” “Captain America” and “The Incredible Hulk,” but gathered in one shot, in one scene, in one momentous film — it shattered box office records almost everywhere — they realize a cherished childhood fantasy. Remember how thrilling it was to play with action figures from different universes, making them interact and staging epic adventures? “The Avengers” reenacts that pleasure from start to finish. It’s based on a comic series where this cross-pollination occurs all the time, but on screen the pleasure seems brand new and, yes, it’s endless fun.
Though based on a decade’s worth of film and backstory, “The Avengers” welcomes the uninitiated along with long-time club members, walking the line between excessive and insufficient exposition. When we begin, Thor’s brother and aspiring human subjugator Loki (Tom Hiddleston) arrives at S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters — think neighborhood watch on a cosmic scale — to obtain the Tesseract, a glowing blue cube that can solve Earth’s energy crisis and allow murderous aliens to invade the world. Guess which goal Loki has in mind.
Loki flees with the Tesseract and several brainwashed good guys in tow, including expert archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner); S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) responds by calling Earth’s greatest heroes, The Avengers, together from around the globe to avert Armageddon. This brings us to the key players, the reason we’re here.
And “The Avengers” takes its time bringing them in. We know who we’re meeting — besides Hawkeye there is the sultry martial artist Black Widow (Scarlett Johansen), the patriotic man-out-of-time Captain America (Chris Evans), vain wisecracker Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), volatile Jekyll-and-Hyde figure Eric Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and the God of Thunder himself (Chris Hemsworth). Of course they’ll be on hand for the bombastic, action finale, but in a master move, the film delays their full reunion, that triumphant circle shot, until deep, deep in. “The Avengers” plays a delicate game, uniting the team in chunks, then dividing them, pitting them against each other before they join forces against the real menace (and really, didn’t our action figure adventures protract themselves in just the same way?).
Joss Whedon, fresh off the horror mind-boggler “Cabin in the Woods,” plays this game from both the director and screenwriter’s chair. His script contains the ensemble pyrotechnics within a sound structure. Each Avenger receives their fair share of the spotlight, from one-liners to cool fighting moves. Even armchair commander Nick Fury gets in on some action. Whedon captures the feel of the graphic novel format and all the story beats you’d expect from an issue of “The Avengers”: the quick turns of fortune, a revolving door of new elements and characters, the riled emotions that lead to squabbles and occasionally a smash-happy Hulk. Many comic book movies attempt to replace the comic reading experience. Whedon, like Zack Snyder, recreates it on screen.
As a director he’s proficient if unexceptional: we remember Whedon for the ensemble dialogue, never the cinematic tableaus. In this case that’s all right. Whedon dutifully puts the camera where it needs to be, and when New York is erupting under the weight of flying space slugs, we are thankful just to know what is happening where.
Whedon’s nerd sensibilities and wit-per-minute delivery buoy “The Avengers” and keep it light, popcorn entertainment, but without the actors there would be nothing to see. Nobody needs reminding that Downey, Jr. nails Tony Stark. He has the potential to steal the stage but stays grounded through pitch-perfect chemistry with the chivalrous Evans and fidgety Ruffalo, a walking time bomb and the perfect replacement for the previous banner, Edward Norton. Johansen and Renner have the easier jobs — two hours of stoic, determined expressions — but they help, along with the droll Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), to root us in some humanity, being, amidst the geniuses and supermen, merely the best in their fields.
Few people can intone gravely like Samuel L. Jackson, and I appreciate Hiddleston’s portrayal of Loki as a jealous child caught mid-tantrum. He’s cocky, arrogant, a sniveling, self-important diva, but behind the callous posturing, “Hot Topic” makeup and Napoleon complex, he only wants to be loved.
“The Avengers” is just spectacle, but it’s a good spectacle, a much needed break from the gravitas of Nolan’s upcoming Batman finale. Sometimes, amidst the gloom and paranoia of post-9/11 America, we need to be reminded of more innocent days, locked in our rooms waving plastic figures and making airplane noises.