Smart, witty, funny, action-packed and surprisingly cathartic, "Marvel's The Avengers" joins the rarefied company of "Spider-Man 2," "Superman 2," "Iron Man" and even Tim Burton's "Batman" as contenders for the title of Greatest Movie Ever Based on Comic Book Superheroes.
(Sorry, Marvel, but the coveted title goes to Christopher Nolan's unrivaled Chicago-shot "The Dark Knight.")
"Marvel's The Avengers"★ ★ ★ ★
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans
Directed by: Joss Whedon
Other: A Paramount Pictures release. Rated PG-13 for violence. 142 minutes
Six superheroes, their one-eyed boss and a super villain vie for our attentions in "The Avengers," and uber-director/writer Joss Whedon never allows them to pile up in a muddled mess.
Here comes the first movie since Steven Spielberg's "Raiders of the Lost Ark" to begin where many movies end, and to move with such alacrity that there's no time for restroom stops and concession counter visits.
You've been warned.
I caught "Marvel's The Avengers" (the proprietary title is to distinguish it from the 1998 British spy bomb "The Avengers" with Uma Thurman and Ralph Fiennes) Monday in a packed house of franchise-friendly fans burbling with euphoric joy at every comic put-down and triumphant act, and those are legion in this movie.
Remember that blue energy box found in the ocean at the end of last year's "Captain America"? (Of course, you do. It's called the Tesseract.)
Thor's megalomaniac half-brother god Loki (Tom Hiddleston, recalling too much of Alan Rickman's Euro-trash villain from "Die Hard") steals the Tesseract as part of his plan to lead an invasion of Earth to subjugate all humans.
But "The Avengers" isn't only an alien invasion movie.
The story's real conflict involves S.H.I.E.L.D. leader Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) struggling to get six superheroes to work together and save Earth as part of his controversial "Avengers Initiative."
These guys fight each other so often, we almost forget about Loki lurking around. They're a bunch of suspicious, infighting misfits ruled by ego, resentment and good, old-fashioned American individualism.
Iron Man, aka Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), is the sassiest Avenger, quick with an insult (he refers to Thor as "Shakespeare in the park") and proud that he "doesn't play well with others."
Captain America (Chris Evans) squares off with thunder god Thor (Chris Hemsworth) for a muscle-showdown and a macho battle between shield and hammer.
Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, superb as a control freak) is a key member because of his experience with gamma rays -- the same ones that turn him into the raging Hulk when agitated.
Curvy Russian assassin Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, the single fem in the bunch), moves like a leopard, although she appears to be the only superhero here who, like Batman, has no discernible super powers.
The sixth Avenger, the archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), has fallen under the control of Loki and his mystical spear. (This handy weapon works not only as a blade, but as a rocket-launcher, machine gun, truth serum and stylish personal accessory.)
"The Avengers" jets along with a zippy 142-minute running time with Whedon in complete control of this impressive movie, a worthy payoff for Marvel fans who've patiently waited through mediocre films ("Thor," "Captain America," "Iron Man 2," "Hulk") for a truly super superhero experience.
This is an amazing work of seamless CGI effects, soaring tracking shots and frenetic pacing, accompanied by Alan Silvestri's rousing score.
The real appeal of "The Avengers" goes far beyond comic book origins.
It directly taps into our collective 9/11 memories and transforms them into comic book mythology.
Just as a diverse and divided American populace became a unified force following the assault on New York City more than a decade ago, the six Avengers likewise drop their petty differences when faced with a deadly attack against the Big Apple.
That's why the movie's most emotional moment occurs not during the final battle, but just before, when the divided superheroes come together to fight for a cause more important than themselves.