There's a really good chance that this summer's most anticipated movie will also be remembered as its best. The Avengers is easily one of the greatest superhero movies ever made. Part of that has to do with the all-star team assembled in this 142-minute blowout: Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), all imported from their own hit (well, mostly hit — sorry, big green guy) movies.
But part of it also has to do with director and co-writer Joss Whedon, former Buffy the Vampire Slayer overseer and current geek god. Armed with a game cast (including some new faces, like Jeremy Renner as the bow-and-arrow-wielding Hawkeye), total reverence for the source material (many nods to the comic's early '60s origins), and a story that falls somewhere between comic-book conventional and how-much-can-we-possibly-cram-into-this-movie?, Whedon stages nearly every scene like it's a Big Moment.
He also makes sure that every single piece falls into place. That means making room for even the supporting players in the Marvel universe: Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow hints at a dark backstory that will most likely surface in a sequel; stoic superhero wrangler Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) turns into a drooling fanboy when face to face with his idol, Captain America; and Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury finally turns on the badass he's been holding out on in the other movies.
The story itself picks up where Iron Man 2, Captain America, and especially Thor left off, as the bickering, vain, and occasionally confused heroes take on Thor's evil brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who plans to wipe out the planet with a glowing energy cube he's stolen. (His public debut happens outside of a concert hall in Germany, with our very own Terminal Tower standing in for the European venue.)
Like a dysfunctional family, the Avengers can't be in the same room without turning on each other. Iron Man and Captain America are constantly at each other's throats. Thor thinks he knows what they're up against better than anyone else does. Hawkeye has been turned into an extraterrestrial zombie by Loki. And Bruce Banner is dealing with rage issues that turn him into the Hulk and against his colleagues.
It's all designed to get to the bottom of what makes this team click. If the movie seems to rush through these explanations at times, that's only because it wants to get to the good stuff, which it delivers in a stellar 3D presentation that brings, literally, extra depth to the movie (oddly enough, considering the 3D was added post-production).
Like the movies leading up to it, The Avengers never takes itself too seriously — a problem with the previous Hulk outings. (Ruffalo, in his first turn with the role, brings heart to the conflicted, soft-spoken scientist who can't find peace with his other, greener side.) Whedon's insider, geek humor isn't as alienating or as pointed as it was in his other recent screenwriting credit, The Cabin in the Woods, but The Avengers isn't that kind of movie. This is a mass-appeal extravaganza that also happens to be across-the-board terrific.
Whedon saves his finest moment for last, with a breathless showdown between the Avengers and Loki's army on a crowded downtown street (Cleveland again, this time standing in for New York City). A mix of whiplash CGI, tricky camera work, and some old-fashioned stunts, the sequence takes the most awe-inspiring action shots from the Transformers series, cranks up the volume, and delivers a knockout punch. It's a nerdgasm of epic proportions.