At long last, and with trumpets blaring, the Marvel Comics universe comes together in a big-screen fighting force replete with WWII- and Cold War–era icons, all of them united in the common purpose of defeating evil alien snake monsters. In humanspeak, that means you’ve got a bunch of superheroes in a single movie. (Why not call it what it really is—the economy value pack?) The Avengers has burned, like the sweatiest geek’s fantasy, for years now. If you have to ask why it was so crucially important to get all of this spandex on camera at the same time, you probably don’t belong here and should immediately find a safe location in a bunker somewhere. Clearly, you haven’t been waiting breathlessly through the credits of Iron Man or Thor, desperate for a glimpse of an eye-patched Samuel L. Jackson, the almost-mystical Nick Fury, and his team to come.
Honestly, I haven’t been one of the anticipators either. Still, a certain cape-wearing savior—director Joss Whedon—should be thanked for making a summer tentpole that remembers to be fun, flip and broadly entertaining. Whedon, the pop savant responsible for TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, straddles the line between sarcastic gab and pulp solemnity like Eli Manning on a fourth-down, go-it-alone jag. Entrusted with his most expensive project to date, he’s made irreverent room for jokes about collectible playing cards, flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz, the embarrassing behavior of Asgardian siblings and belated requests for stiff drinks, blissfully ignorant that millions of why-so-serious fans are depending on him. It’s a ballsy move you can’t help but love.
Did Hollywood have to spend several fortunes “reintroducing” these characters in recent films of varying quality? Not really. Robert Downey Jr. plays millionaire tech-jerk Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, a man who likes to wear iron. There’s golden-locked Thor (Chris Hemsworth, enjoyably pompous) and a defrozen Captain America (Chris Evans, milking the squareness), neither of whom required feature-length preambles. It’s telling that the Avenger who steals this movie is one we haven’t met yet: Mark Ruffalo’s brainy Bruce Banner, a radiation scientist with rage issues that turn him into the “other guy.”
They assemble, along with Scarlett Johansson as Distracting Catsuit (I might be getting some of the names wrong) and That Badass from The Hurt Locker (Jeremy Renner as the vestigial Hawkeye) to do battle with British-Accented Villain Who’s Remarkably Close in Temperament to General Zod. This last role, Loki, played by the normally subtle Tom Hiddleston, asks the actor to scowl and frequently demand kneeling before him—what’s with the constant need for supplication? You wish the guy had darker ambitions than being a yoga instructor.
With the stage set and one of those glowing power cubes—the kind that are always so prevalent in sci-fi films—absconded with, The Avengers eases, for a pleasurable while, into the type of movie it really wants to be: a cutup comedy. Bickering is a part of membership, apparently, and, like J.J. Abrams’s fleet-tongued reboot of Star Trek, there’s a thrill in seeing two-dimensional cartoons take on an additional layer of mouthy self-awareness. (If the script lacks for lustiness, as Bryan Singer’s X-Men had in spades, it wins on dialogue.)
The action scenes—blissfully easy to follow—are where Whedon makes the giant leap into the big leagues. A naval battleship takes to the air on massive propellers (a beautiful sequence of pure wonderment), only to get firebombed by Loki’s infiltrators. Later, Manhattan fares awfully as downtown suffers the rage of floating metal serpents, sort of like Chinese dragons but less happy.
It could be contended that The Avengers is subtly bookending itself with the two most traumatic attacks in American history and countering them with the fictional response we secretly yearned for. (Maybe the film’s title is apt.) If that’s the case, then these displays of superheroic teamwork are as valid an expression of wish-fulfillment as the movies have offered in a while. “People just might need a little…old-fashioned,” a nostalgic voice says—a moment of sentiment in a blockbuster beating with a proud, undefeated heart. Yes, Hulk will smash, but he’ll also feel. Don’t struggle if you do too.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf