It’s no understatement to say that Marvel’s The Avengers is one of the most intricate and biggest projects any Hollywood studio has ever undertaken. Since the surprising success of Iron Man in 2008, this cinematic monster has been in development, brewing away with little tastes along the way till the flavor was rendered “just right.” Four films later and over $1 billion spent, the ultimate superhero blockbuster has finally been assembled. So is it any good? Does the Hulk not smash?

Written, directed, and crafted ever so geek-like by self-admitted nerd and comic-book fan boy, Joss Whedon, The Avengers is the conglomeration of all things awesome in the Marvel movie universe (excluding X-Men and Spider-Man that is). Set in modern day New York, the screenplay revolves around multiple plot points established in Iron Man, 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, and last year’s Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger.

From those movies, it was established that Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is Iron Man, there is a large, angry green monster in hiding (Bruce Banner/The Hulk, played by role newcomer Mark Ruffalo), the God of Thunder (Thor, played by Chris Hemsworth) is real, and, what’s more, there is a super-strong human in red and blue spandex (Captain America, played by Chris Evans) who helped thwart the ultimate Nazi takeover. But what most don’t know is that humanity’s greatest threat is yet to come. Thankfully, there is a governmental agency called S.H.I.E.L.D. that keeps track of all current and impending mayhem. Led by director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the agency is currently researching a mysterious and extremely powerful energy source called the Tesseract, which originates from Thor’s realm of Asgard, but came to Earth years ago. A rogue group of Nazis called HYDRA attempted to harness its energy to use in weapons during World War II, but Captain America was able to capture the cube before he was frozen in the First Avenger.

After the banishment and butt-whooping that Loki (Tom Hiddleston) took from his adopted brother Thor at the end of last year’s movie, The God of Mischief decides to live up to his name and steal the Tesseract from S.H.I.E.L.D. With the energy cube in his possession, Loki manifests a plan to use its power to open a portal to another universe from which he hopes to gather an army of alien creatures known as the Chitauri to conquer Earth. Seeing no clear way to stop the invasion, Fury is forced to call upon Earth’s most misunderstood group of superheroes to save the day. And, as Stark says himself, “If we can’t protect the Earth, you can be damn sure we’ll avenge it!”

To call The Avengers a definitive summer action-blockbuster wouldn’t be that far of a stretch. But how does one define an absolute smash hit? To start, it has to have enough explosive action to make the human brain combust with giddiness. To that, throw in a few loveable, if only slightly relatable protagonists, and a plot full of escapism. Top it off with some witty dialogue, hot babes, chiseled dudes, a pulse-pounding score and a message of hope, and you have a film nearly anyone can enjoy at some level. The simple fact is that Whedon brings all that to the table plus a battleship that transforms into a flying superhero lair. Awesome will never be the same.

In its attempt to be so grandeur though, the film often struggles to juggle all the different hero storylines. In the comics, Captain America is the leader of the Avengers. In the film, Evan’s good-hearted, strong-willed Captain often takes a backseat to the antics of the larger-than-life personalities. As the most popular Marvel cinematic incarnation, Downey Jr.’s Iron Man often takes center-stage. His smart-ass demeanor and consistent one-liners, with the use of his advanced technology and obvious intelligence, drive character interactions and plot developments. Whether it’s showing Thor the definition of a man-god beat down in the woods or having his newly built Stark Tower be the center of chaos, viewers may get the feeling that its predominantly Stark’s world and the Avengers are merely living in it.

With all the actors having played their characters in previous films — with the exception of Ruffalo — each role is so confidently portrayed, the interactions between one another always lead to seriously palpable chemistry. Having worked together in Thor, Hemsworth and Hiddelston build upon their clashing brotherly relationship with good-willed, but stubborn Thor finally coming to terms with the fact that Loki’s devilishly malicious way is not merely a phase. These family problems seen from the god’s perspective are counteracted in the development of assassin characters Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Only appearing in ephemeral cameos in Iron Man and Thor respectively, Whedon briefly touches upon the dark pasts of these two haunted souls. While Renner plays the super-soldier role much like his character in The Hurt Locker, only more obedient, Johansson shines as the femme-fatale who is trying to prove that she is more than the sum of her blood-stained past and killer looks.

Then, of course, there is the Hulk. As Banner, Ruffalo sheds the whiny “why did this happen to me?” act and creates a quirky and competent character that has no problem standing up to the snarky Stark. As the large, angry green dude, with a tendency to throw random punches and treat gods like a Raggedy Ann doll, viewers are treated to the greatest incarnation of the Hulk ever seen onscreen. And, even if all the characters aren’t developed as properly as hoped for, Whedon spends just enough time with each to bring the understanding of just how hard it is to have this group work together. The beauty of it all is being able to see them quarrel amongst each other early on, only to work together effortlessly later. Such teamwork is brilliantly choreographed in the final fight sequence which features an amazing five-minute, unedited shot showcasing all the heroes in glorious action.

All praise aside, The Avengers is not without its blemishes; even though it was most likely in development before filmmaker Michael Bay’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the final battle sequence is incredibly similar. From the portal in which the aliens are summoned to earth to the enormous worm monsters that destroy half of a major city, the similarities are so striking it becomes more rip-off territory than just coincidental.

On top of that, there is the Christopher Nolan effect. In creating Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Nolan has set the bar so high for comic-book movies that it is hard for anything that is not as grounded in reality or emotionally insightful to be deemed a “great” flick.

Considering how faithful Whedon was to his source material though, it’s hard to fault the film too much for being exactly what it should be: a fantastical fantasy adventure featuring some of fiction’s greatest characters kicking some ass. Assemble indeed.

3 out of 4 stars

Cincopa WordPress plugin