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Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)

Action/Adventure Rated PG-13

Joss Whedon is a small-screen storyteller. And I mean that as a compliment.

Marvel’s The Avengers, Whedon’s massive ensemble summation of the Marvel Studios superhero films of the past few years, works well enough on the big screen: the action breathes, the frame is cleverly filled, the 3-D is negligible – well, unless you want to see anything that happens in the darkness of space, but let’s not get too picky. Still, The Avengers never owns the big screen the way it’s owned by, say, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films.

What The Avengers does best – capture the nuances of relationships among a rich set of characters – could be done even better as part of an episodic series (Whedon’s own “Firefly” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” are often cited as prime examples). Sure, the action in an “Avengers” series would look smaller on TV, but they could always save the bangs and booms for a theatrically released series finale.

Which, in a weird way, is where we are at with The Avengers. With separate lead-in films centered on Iron Man, the Hulk, Captain America and Thor, The Avengers is meant to be something of a culmination. The result – an extravaganza that’s a cross between Whedon’s Serenity and an onscreen Comic-Con – isn’t less than the sum of its parts as much as it is better than some parts (The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, Iron Man 2) and less than others (Iron Man, Thor).

Pulling from both the mythology of the original Marvel comic books and the preceding films, writer-director Whedon centers his tale on the megalomaniacal Loki, amusingly played by Tom Hiddleston as a petulant alien with a god complex. With the help of an all-powerful energy source, Loki plans to lead an army against earth until all citizens bow beneath his rule. (“It’s the unspoken need of humanity,” he sneers to a crowd of cowering Earthlings. “You were made to be ruled.”)

S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) disagrees, so he assembles his motley crew of superheroes. Once we get past the requisite tough-guy posturing (the Thor vs. Iron Man, Hulk vs. Thor and Captain America vs. Iron Man beat-downs grow a bit tiresome), this group turns into an entertaining collection of grumbling, hubristic, competitive and disordered personalities. With Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) spitballing insults, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) booming pronouncements, Captain America (Chris Evans) trying to keep the peace and Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) grimacing in the corner, the best scenes play like a prickly family reunion. Only instead of your crabby aunt sniping at you, she turns into a giant green beast.

The most engaging of this group is, interestingly, the newest. Ruffalo, stepping into the role of Bruce Banner/the Hulk, brings something vital to the part: fearful resignation. It’s not only that Banner has a gamma-powered temper; he’s both afraid and mournful over it. Disheveled and downcast, Ruffalo gives Banner a fatalism that makes him the most human of the bunch. (As for whether or not the animators have finally given us a believable CGI Hulk, I’d say we’re closer now – maybe only 10 years away.)

The Hulk’s appearances coincide with the film’s two major action set pieces: an attack on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s gargantuan airship and the climactic battle in New York City. The first felt a bit obligatory – as if Whedon was working from a checklist so that he made sure each Avenger had something crucial to do – but that finale is effortlessly thrilling. Especially impressive is an uninterrupted “shot” – I’m sure computer stitching came into play – that swoops from one feat of derring-do to another so we get a sense of the teamwork at play.

Ultimately The Avengers is light stuff, though I did appreciate how it picks up a thematic thread found in both Iron Man and Thor (and many of the Stan Lee-Jack Kirby comics that inspired them). With their geniuses and superheroes and aliens, these Marvel narratives center on figures with godlike powers, yet their emphasis is always on the human. What makes a hero in this Marvelous universe isn’t the awesomeness of their unearthly abilities, but their restraint in putting those abilities to use. If the Avengers of the 1960s were something of an in-house word of caution to a United States flexing its Cold-War muscles, then this Avengers is no less instructive to a U.S. that stands as the lone superpower of today.

As for Whedon, here’s hoping he turns down that inevitable Avengers sequel offer and manages to sell Marvel – and these stars – on a TV spinoff instead.