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'The Avengers' Kicks Summer Off Right

'The Avengers' Kicks Summer Off Right
5/4/2012 4:37 PM ET

Like most good action movies, "The Avengers" is at its best in the quiet moments in between the chaos. Filled with self-mocking humor that will speak to both fan boys and casual moviegoers alike, director Joss Whedon's much-hyped smash-up is everything you could hope from a movie about a group of superheroes fighting extraterrestrials. Even with an ending that doesn't quite live up to the ride, "The Avengers" is popcorn cinema just about at its finest.

With the world seemingly on the verge of discovering a clean, renewable source of energy, unsympathetic eyes look down and see ants ready for the boot. In a run-of-the-mill opening, our supervillain Loki (Tom Hiddleston) doesn't exactly hint around the fact that he's trying to take over the world. After invading government secret headquarters and stealing the Tesseract, which is basically a cube of limitless energy, Loki starts having delusions of great conquests and making the humans kneel before him. As a Norse god, Loki also has this really neat trick that allows him to convert people to his side through brainwashing, making recruitment pretty easy. He also has a nasty alien army backing him up, which doesn't hurt.

Opposing him is S.H.I.E.L.D., a world-class espionage agency led by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). With a Norse god on the loose and the Tesseract gone, he has no choice but to turn to The Avengers, a group of freakish loners really only in their element when they're in charge of saving the world. The rest of the time they're off trying to live normal lives, though not with a great deal of success.

And it's in re-discovering our superheroes that "The Avengers" really gets going. "The Avengers" could have gone awry quickly if it played it straight, but instead it pokes fun at the characters' attributes and never feels like the stale hero conglomeration it could have been. In a funny early scene, Black Widow pretends to be getting interrogated by bad guys, but only long enough to let them spill the beans about all their sinister plans. It's an age-old tradition that bad guys just can't help themselves from gloating about their plans, and writer/director Joss Whedon has good fun taking the usual action tropes and flipping them on their head.

While Black Widow jumps on board, the rest of the team isn't as cooperative. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is busy flirting and getting pushed around by Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is on sabbatical, which could be anywhere because he's a Norse god with a flying hammer. Captain America (Chris Evans) is having war flashbacks and going through punching bags five at a time. And Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) has retired to a poor village, where he can hopefully control himself from spontaneously turning into the Hulk. He may be calmer these days, but you can't blame Black Widow for bringing backup when she tries to bring him on board.

What's amazing, though, is how well the characters all play off one another, even if they don't necessarily get along. Whedon does an excellent job at blending the heroes into one mostly coherent battle plan, something I thought impossible when first hearing about "The Avengers" heading into production. If you were expecting just an excess of superheroes and some special effects eye candy, you might be amazed at the sharp dialog and big laughs that come from unexpected places. Even the hopelessly old-fashioned Captain America can be funny from the right angle, once you realize how outdated and clueless he is about the current world.

But "The Avengers" also wisely knows that Tony Stark/Iron Man is the focal point, and Downey Jr. once again is a natural fit as the smooth-talking "genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist." Every time the situation seems to be getting too absurd, Stark is there for a line to reel the audience back in and remind us not to take it all too seriously. Even in a little scuffle with Thor, Stark takes the time to mock Thor's ridiculous cape and do a little "Shakespeare in the Park" in his honor. Stark gives the perfect sly, self-mocking angle that makes all the difference in the world.

Even with all the pieces in place, though, "The Avengers" doesn't quite reach the next level to make it one of the great summer action movies, but you can't have everything. While most of "The Avengers" balances the superheroes screen time, by the end of the game they completely take over and our villain isn't left enough time to do anything but stand there. Hiddleston is effective at being a sniveling bad guy, but he's really just like every other twisted villain who underestimates the hero. A memorable villain could have made "The Avengers" a popcorn classic.

Blemishes aside, what Whedon manages to do with "The Avengers" is nothing short of impressive. Making a smart, dialog-driven superhero movie that still hits all the explosive notes audiences expect is a complicated task, and Whedon makes it look easy. Along with his script for the hilarious "The Cabin in the Woods," Whedon proves that he has a rare talent for digging deep into a genre and finding equal measures of thrills and laughs. "The Avengers" doesn't give us the satisfying emotional climax of the best action movies, but it also doesn't have the luxury of being able to fully develop the main characters; it's probably better to leave the dark psychology to the "Batman" series anyway. The theater lines are going to be long for "The Avengers," and when it's done this well it's easy to see why.

by RTT Staff Writer

For comments and feedback: editorial@rttnews.com

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