THE CBR REVIEW: "The Avengers"

After five movies, multiple post-credits scenes, numerous shorts and immeasurable hype, Marvel Studios' "The Avengers" finally hits theaters on May 4. This is the film Marvel has been building towards since the release of "Iron Man," and the result is an ambitious attempt to bring comic book-levels of timeline continuity to the silver screen.

Movie fans and True Believers -- it was well worth the wait.

Denied his father's kingdom in "Thor," Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has settled on ruling Earth as a consolation prize. In order to achieve this goal, the god of mischief needs the Tesseract (the energy-spewing Cosmic Cube from "Captain America: The First Avenger") and an alliance with a massive alien army. His theft of the Tesseract causes Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to initiate the Avengers Initiative, assembling the heroes from Marvel's previous film outings, plus Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and the newly-introduced Agent Mariah Hill (Colby Smulders), in order to take on Thor's (Chris Hemsworth) evil half-brother.

"The Avengers" is a satisfying, rollicking comic book movie that, like the best of director/writer Joss Whedon's work, simultaneously embraces and pokes fun at the conventions of the genre. Heroes fight other heroes, villains wax poetic about their master plans, aliens invade New York and none of this ever feels forced. Whedon's brand of humor fits the Marvel Universe like a glove, successfully humanizing the superhuman bunch. Someone better be talking to Whedon about writing an actual Avengers comic with exactly this line-up of characters -- I'm more excited to see the continued adventures of this group than I have been for any superhero team, in comic books and out, for years.

Whedon gives his stellar cast ample opportunities to shine as everyone, from Captain America (Chris Evans) to the nameless soldiers on the Helicarrier, gets their moment in the sun. While prior to the movie I wondered how Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) could possible contribute to the super-powered team, after "Avengers" it's clear no one could survive without them. A loving amount of attention is lavished on Johansson's Black Widow, who has the best fight scenes in the film -- not really a surprise coming from the director behind the kick-ass women of "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" and "Firefly." What is surprising is that even characters who are arguably short on screen time come across as strongly as the others. You truly feel Thor's heart breaking as he tries to talk sense into his brother, and Hawkeye's friendship with Black Widow helps define who he is as much as his trick arrows ("Justice League" movie planners take note: this is how you do an arrow-shooting vigilante and make him feel like the coolest fighter ever).

"Avengers" also gives viewers the fights that should have been in "Captain America," every punch the earnest super soldier throws ringing across Helicarriers and moonlit forests. Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark is cocky as ever, indulging in verbal battles with everyone including his trademark improv banter with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). As in "Thor," Hiddleston steals every scene he's in as the grandstanding Loki, and even Agent Coulson comes into his own, the S.H.I.E.L.D. everyman becoming an archetypal Whedon sidekick: disarmingly funny, utterly nerdy and wrenchingly vulnerable. This Coulson is still the understated Agent from previous Marvel movies, but with a hero-worship complex for Cap -- and a bigger gun.

But it's Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner that truly stands out. Utterly, unfailingly polite, there is something deeply disturbing about Ruffalo's portrayal of the brilliant scientist. Shaking and grimacing, Ruffalo gives us a man who is always on the edge of a breakdown, and when he finally unleashes the Hulk, the result is terrifying. The scariest moment in the whole movie occurs when the Hulk first appears; when Banner Hulks out, you know someone -- good guy or bad -- is going to get hurt.

For all the care given the individual performances and characters, the action scenes are the real high point of the film. Whedon obviously thought through every single aspect of his team's varied skills, resulting in adrenaline-pumping fight choreography that utilizes everything the heroes have and then some. Each fight does not just raise the stakes, they hit the stakes ceiling and keep on going and, unlike many of Marvel's recent films, "Avengers" does not disappoint in the third act. In this world, people who you care about die, heroes fail and being the strongest doesn't protect you -- it makes you a target.

In fact, this fear drives every second of "The Avengers." The tagline for the movie could have been, "With great power comes a greater power to snatch it away." Whedon and his cast painstakingly build on the interesting idea that being the strongest only paints a bullseye on your chest. While the all-powerful Tesseract makes Earth vulnerable to the armies of the universe; to the eyes of the World Security Council and the public, the mighty Avengers are a threat to be neutralized. In this cinematic Marvel Universe, we've seen worlds beyond our own and we are terrified, fearing our displays of strength will only make us a tasty meal for the cosmic fish in the fathomless Marvel ocean.

At the risk of sounding pretentious, "The Avengers" presents a message about war that runs contrary to the narrative every action film in the past thirty years has thrived on: namely, that winning is about becoming stronger than your enemies.

In "The Avengers," what makes you strong is what makes you weak. Banner is terrified of the Hulk. Rogers is scared of the world he helped build. Tony lives in terror of his suits being stripped away, Thor fears his existence has transformed Earth into a battleground, Hawkeye is made to live out his personal nightmares, and Black Widow fears the very skills that make her a great Avenger. To borrow her phrase, there's "red on the ledger" of all our heroes -- the world may need them now, but come tomorrow a new threat is going to wipe out Earth simply because the Avengers are there.

Though amazingly fun, there are flaws, and those who do not like Whedon's style will undoubtedly have problems with "Avengers" as it showcases Whedon's quirks as a director and screenwriter as much as his strengths. Characters spout overly-cute phrases and have a penchant for making melodramatic statements no human being would actually utter. At times, Whedon tries too hard to place emotional resonance on specific scenes and characters that are otherwise unremarkable. Though the ensemble element is strong, you find yourself wishing the movie would spend just a little bit more time developing the central Avengers and a little less on every Tom, Dick and Harry waltzing through S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ.

Yet even accounting for its flaws, there is no denying "The Avengers" is a joyously, raucously great movie. Whedon and Marvel Studios have created a worthy successor to "Iron Man" and launched a flagship franchise that combines all of the best parts of Marvel's individual movies into a greater whole. Like the best comic book team-ups, "The Avengers" will have you relating every kick and punch to your friends while speculating what tricks the heroes still have up their sleeves; like the best movies, "The Avengers" will have you laughing and crying as the characters you love face a world in peril and an uncertain future.

Marvel Studios' "The Avengers" arrives in U.S. theaters May 4.

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