THE AVENGERS (***1/2)
Marvel has been building to this movie ever since the comics company started bringing their heroes to the big screen on their own. Nothing like this has ever really been attempted before. The build up to this mash up includes IRON MAN, IRON MAN 2, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, THOR and CAPTAIN AMERICA. Besides the great original IRON MAN, this accumulation is the best of the lot and the best multiple superhero film ever made. For those kinds of films, it has set the new bar much higher.
Loki (Tom Hiddleston, WAR HORSE), following his banishment from the mythical realm of Asgard, plots vengeance again his brother Thor (Chris Hemsworth, SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN). He makes a devilish deal with a mysterious alien race to command their army against Earth, which Thor has dedicated himself to protect. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, PULP FICTION) fears a giant interstellar attack and believes, as do the other members of his elite government agency S.H.I.E.L.D., that humanity will need a team of superheroes to win.
With his top agent Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner, THE HURT LOCKER) now a brainwashed agent of Loki, Fury enlists his top spy, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, LOST IN TRANSLATION), to hunt down the members of his Avengers superhero team. She finds Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, YOU CAN COUNT ON ME) hiding in India, trying to control his rage that turns him into the Hulk. The government already has Captain America on ice (or thawed from it, depending on how you want to look at it) and Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, has been upgraded from a consultant to full fledge member, despite not playing with others well.
Loki controls the minds of humans in order to make everyone his slaves. One of his enslaved is Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN), a top scientist who is friends with Thor, who risks a lot to come back to Earth in order to stop his sibling. But along with controlling minds, Loki likes to play with minds as well. He finds ways to exploit conflict between the potential members of the Avengers in order to destroy them. A team is useless if they can't work together.
Director Joss Whedon, who is best known for creating the cult TV series BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and FIREFLY, brings his skills at balancing sci-fi action and humor to this epic film. TV gives creators more time to deal with large casts. Whedon, who co-wrote the film with Zak Penn, does a remarkable job of balancing a huge cast, giving each member their own moments and purpose. The most impressive part is how he gives the non-superpowered Avengers a reason for being there. Even the laconic Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg, (500) DAYS OF SUMMER) gets key moments, both comedic and emotional.
What Whedon has created is a war movie, like the DIRTY DOZEN, but only with superheroes. He takes his time to set up the characters and their dynamics with each other, while setting up the threat. Even better than Kenneth Branagh in THOR, he sets Loki up as a real menace. With the combination of great strength and superior smarts, he is a worth foe for a team of superheroes to face. Give him an army and could he be unstoppable? Whedon adds increasing tension through well thought out crisises that never seem tacked on, because they organically come from the various colliding plotlines. What is the agenda of the U.S. government? How are they going to react to an alien invasion? Can they put their trust in a band of misfits with superpowers?
Once the invasion of New York City begins, the film gives the Avengers a chance to act like a team. Each serves a unique role. Captain America is the born hero and leader. Hulk is the brute force, while Thor is elite power welding lighting and bringing a personal agenda to the battle. Iron Man is aerial protection and diversion and on a personal level has a chance to prove himself a hero not just an arrogant playboy. Hawkeye is like the team's sharp shooter, while Black Widow finds a reason to transform from a spy to a soldier. Nick Fury even plays a key role in working the politics behind the scene in order to give his team a chance.
In no way is THE AVENGERS perfect. Thor's introduction ruins the power of the end of THOR and Banner's struggle with letting the Hulk out on purpose is dealt with too quickly. These are small complaints in the bigger scope of all the hundreds of moments the film gets right. THE AVENGERS actually gives more weight to most of the previous films that led up to it. These heroes are pretty super when on their own, but they're awesome when together.