The Avengers

Joss Whedon pulls off a stunning feat in bringing balance to this superhuman circus, engineered to charm the geek core and nonfans alike.

The all-star game of modern superhero extravaganzas, The Avengers is the film Marvel and its legions of fans have been waiting for. It's hard to imagine that anyone with an appetite for this trademark brand of fantasy, effects, mayhem and strangely dressed he-men will be disappointed; not only does this eye-popping 3D display of visual effects fireworks feature an enormously high proportion of action scenes, but director Joss Whedon has adroitly balanced the celebrity circus to give each of the superstar characters his or her due.

As creatively variable and predictably formulaic as the Marvel films have been, this one will truly make the core geek audience feel like it has died and gone to Asgard. But it has so much going for it that many nonfans will be charmed as well. This is effects-driven, mass-appeal summer fare par excellence. As enormous as the production is, though, the appeal of the ensemble cast makes a crucial difference.

Sinister villain Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has gained possession of the tesseract, an all-powerful substance contained in an opaque cube that provides unlimited sustainable energy and a portal to outer space. The good guys begin assembling on one of the cooler modes of transport seen in a while, a giant (and beautifully rendered) aircraft carrier that can rise out of the water to become an invisible space ship. Among those aboard are Bruce Banner, otherwise known as The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo); Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), a sultry assassin; Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Loki's long-locked brother and bearer of the universe's mightiest hammer; and Steve Rogers, aka Captain America (Chris Evans), a World War II hero who's not quite up to speed on all the latest super-technology but carries an impenetrable shield. For his part, Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark, better known as Iron Man, joins incipient girlfriend Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) for a brief tete-a-tete before deigning to lend his special expertise to the cause.

Although they really should be saving their energy for the battle, the Avengers team can't resist getting into it with each other. It could be argued that watching The Hulk duke it out with Thor for bragging rights as to who's tougher is what such a film is all about; at least there's nothing perfunctory about it, as there is when super­heroes dispatch aliens and enemies who exist just to get blown away.

With only one feature directorial credit to his name, the middling 2005 sci-fier Serenity, Whedon of Buffy fame would not have been the first name on most people's lists to tame such a potentially unwieldy project. But from a logistical point of view alone, he imposes a grip on the material that feels like that of a benevolent general, marshaling myriad technical resources while juggling eight major characters.

Eventually, uncountable numbers of alien warriors reach Manhattan, and in this titanic battle, all the heroes' talents are put to the test: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is so good with a high-tech bow and arrow that you imagine they'll have to dragoon Katniss Everdeen into the sequel just to see who's better. The save-the-world story is one everyone's seen before, and the characters have been around for more than half a century. But Whedon and his cohorts have managed to stir all the ingredients together so that the resulting dish, however familiar, is irresistibly tasty. A quick coda reveals who the adversary in the next installment will be, underlining a reality as absolute as the turning of Earth: Especially after this, Marvel movies will go on and on and on.

Opens Friday, May 4 (Disney)
Cast Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson
Director-screenwriter Joss Whedon
Rated PG-13, 142 minutes

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