Film Review: The Avengers

Expectations delivered, promises fulfilled: 'The Avengers is everything you could want in a superhero movie, with larger-than-life feats believably and meaningfully executed, and beating human hearts filled with emotion, humor and pain.

One could discuss our primal human need for heroic adventure, whether in cave-painting tales of hunts, the epic of Gilgamesh, Saint George slaying the dragon or Superman saving the world. Or one could just say, "The Avengers! Whooooo! Kick ass!"

Both thoughts apply in this climactic culmination of what fans and Marvel Comics call the Marvel Cinematic Universe—which through some algorithm perhaps only the Fantastic Four's big-brained Reed Richards understands does not include the Fantastic Four, X-Men or Spider-Man movies but does include the Thor, Hulk, Iron Man and Captain America movies. And so, with those four characters' origin stories now safely tucked away in our collective movie consciousness, what could be cooler than to put them all together? Well, putting them all together under filmmaker Joss Whedon, who has a superpower for forging pop-culture collectives that stay with you—from the found-family "Scooby Gang" of Whedon's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" TV series to, more apropos here, the fractured crew of "Firefly" banding together to survive and find something that's not friendship but will do for now.

The Avengers cleaves to the loneliness of being different, of being outsiders from the rest of the world—impresario Stan Lee's "superheroes in the real world" approach that revolutionized the comics medium in the 1960s. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a genius so far ahead of the world that everything must be seem to be, maddeningly, going in slow motion. Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) carries the singular burden of a Jekyll-Hyde engine of destruction inside him aching to burst out. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is of an alien race that looks human, could pass for human, but is not human, making him, in his relations with humans, what? And Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is doubly cursed: the only successful scientific "super-soldier" and a man who lost six decades in cryonic suspension, finding himself in a future where those who knew and loved him are dead.

The taciturn, non-superpowered archer Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner)—referred to once colloquially as "the hawk" and only given his comic-book name Hawkeye in the end credits—has unspecified reasons for being a loner. And non-superpowered superspy Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson)—whom a Russian captor sneeringly calls "the famous Black Widow"—keeps the world away by switching personas as needed, obscuring whoever she is. Those two, at least, keep grounded as agents of the espionage outfit SHIELD, headed by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his lieutenant, Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders)—who with suit-and-tie agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) are ambassadors of the human world to this strange and frightening new undiscovered country of "superheroes."

All this angst and anger, all this loneliness and longing, mark the real story of damaged individuals who need belonging and purpose. They get it, despite themselves, when Thor's adoptive brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) steals from SHIELD the Tesseract, a cube of enormous unknown energy Loki uses to create a portal to space. Through it pours the savage alien Chitauri race, who have agreed to conquer Earth for Loki in exchange for the Tesseract.

In fast grandmaster chess moves of two-steps-ahead plotting by Loki, a hidden agenda by Fury, individuals pushing past their comfort zones and wary camaraderie born of necessity, the heroes come together to save battleground Manhattan from an invading swarm with biomechanical sky whales, for lack of a better term. And ordinary humans Coulson and Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) get their moments, reminding us, as in those old-fashioned Silver Surfer soliloquies, of that spark of divinity that elevates us and makes us worth fighting for. That Whedon leavens the proceedings with his trademark witty dialogue, second only to Quentin Tarantino, keeps everything in balance—entertainment with your angst.

The performers—including RADA-trained breakout Hiddleston—deliver all this with a satisfying precision. There's a Casablanca-like intensity of lines filled with portent, and just as "Here's lookin' at you, kid" could have been corny in lesser hands than Humphrey Bogart's, the same dynamic holds here: When the evil, complicated Loki talks of his "terrible privilege" or when Rogers, echoing Tommy Lee Jones in Captain America: The First Avenger, speaks of war being "won by soldiers," they make it work on a visceral, emotional level.

To criticize the conventions of superpowers or costumes, or to pigeonhole this into a "popcorn movie" ghetto misses the point: This isn't Transformers. This is a war movie, albeit an old-fashioned one, and deserves the respect of a Guadalcanal Diary or Sands of Iwo Jima.

Stan Lee, in his traditional cameo, is credited as "Himself." And character-actor great Harry Dean Stanton appears briefly as a security guard.