‘The Avengers’: Superheroes with team spirit

Scarlett Johansson stars as Black Widow in &quotThe Avengers."
Marvel | MCT
Scarlett Johansson stars as Black Widow in "The Avengers."
Posted May 03, 2012, at 2:51 p.m.
Chris Hemsworth stars as Thor and Chris Evans as Captain America in &quotThe Avengers."
Marvel | MCT
Chris Hemsworth stars as Thor and Chris Evans as Captain America in "The Avengers."

There were ripples of anticipation — and some anxiety — when Marvel Enterprises announced that Joss Whedon would direct “Marvel’s The Avengers,” the comic-book-movie to end all comic-book-movies, featuring Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye and (did I miss anyone?), oh yes, Thor.

Whedon is known for his cerebral humor, on display in his TV series “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” and most recently in the Web series “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” and the slasher send-up “Cabin in the Woods.” He also has an unrepentant sentimental streak, evidenced by his work on the first “Toy Story” movie. When it came to Whedon having his way with the rabidly beloved Marvel franchise, fan-boys wondered (to borrow a phrase from the movie itself): What’s his play?

Those faithful acolytes can breathe easy: “The Avengers” has been executed with all the reverence the superfans demand, as well as the winking, self-referential humor that has made it palatable for filmgoers disinclined to take a bunch of grown men dressed in spangles and spandex so very seriously.

Whedon has adapted Stan Lee’s masterwork with skill and economy (if you can believe that given the film’s nearly 2½-hour running time), if not with a surfeit of style. Most crucially, he’s enlisted terrific actors — some of them reprising already beloved roles, a few earning their bones with scene-stealing performances — who function both as individual stars and a cohesive team. That balancing act is precisely what’s called for in “The Avengers,” which pivots largely on the tensions between superheroes accustomed to being singular, now forced to work in harness with one another’s often ungovernable strengths — and egos.

When Robert Downey Jr. first played Tony Stark in “Iron Man,” he brought a bracing dose of sophistication and flippant humor to what could have been a turgid exercise in overseriousness. In “Iron Man 2,” he took the cockiness and entitlement of his character to a new, not altogether welcome, level of glib self-regard. In “The Avengers,” he dials the swagger back to where viewers first fell for Stark, the smart-but-silly playboy whose superpower may reside in a distinctive metal sheath but also lies in his ability to puncture even the most cherished pieties.

That impudence doesn’t sit well with Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, whom Chris Evans introduced last year as a refreshingly clean-cut avatar of retro wholesomeness and rock-ribbed values. Befuddled by Stark’s snark — not to mention references to Stephen Hawking and assorted 21st century ephemera — he now looks more like a moralizing prig.

The competitive psycho-dynamics between Stark and Rogers play out after they are assembled by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and the peacekeeping agency S.H.I.E.L.D., when an interplanetary interloper named Loki (Tom Hiddleston) arrives on Earth and wreaks chaotic havoc in keeping with his name. If Stark doesn’t immediately bond with the straight-laced Captain America, he finds a more easy alliance with the brainy Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), the mellow, modest genius scientist who, to avoid getting angry and turning into what Stark calls an “enormous green rage monster,” has been living in Calcutta and tending to the sick.

From Eric Bana to Edward Norton, the role of the Hulk has proved problematic over the years — often nicely played, but not always in good movies. In “The Avengers,” Ruffalo makes not just Banner’s nerdy glasses but the dirigible-size green suit his own, effectively defining not just the film’s heart but the hyperbolic action that dominates its concussive climax.

Another newcomer, Jeremy Renner, doesn’t get as much screen time as Ruffalo. But as Hawkeye — whose complicated back story with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow forms another fractious subplot — he proves that, along with “Mission: Impossible” and the “Bourne” films, he’s thoroughly capable of holding his own within a franchise juggernaut.

The performances are so well-pitched in “The Avengers,” meshing with such vividness and ease, that it’s tempting to overpraise the good but not great movie that surrounds them.

Probably wisely, Whedon seems to have tamped down his instincts to play up irony and camp. Instead, he focuses on simply making the characters legible and the story easy to follow from the Imax theater cheap seats — all the while interjecting witty lines and bits of business, from Stark’s quippy asides to the literal punch lines Hulk delivers with a wordless grunt.

By tacking so close to audience expectations, Whedon has made a movie that’s more efficient than inspired, one that propels the series along and hits the necessary beats, without breaking any substantive or stylistic ground. (“The Avengers” was converted to 3-D in post-production which, as in the case of “Titanic,” does nothing to add or subtract from the experience.)

Then again, breaking ground is precisely the last thing fans want from movies that at their best play like elaborate pop-up versions of their source material, with enough psychological complexity to keep things interesting. In this case, that extra interior layer has to do with reconciling with one’s own shadow material, even at its most frightening and destructive.

Laying waste to midtown Manhattan while tickling the dark side of his dualistic protagonists, Whedon has positioned “The Avengers” exactly where it needs to be in order to keep spinning out in perpetuity. Bidding goodbye to at least one beloved character and saying hello to another in a tantalizing closing-credits hint, he leaves us wanting more — which, for now at least, is undoubtedly the right play.

“The Avengers” (PG-13, 143 minutes) contains intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout and a mild drug reference.

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