Worthy of the Hype

'The Avengers' may be the best superhero flick ever

Geek boys and girls, you can start rejoicing. The Avengers delivers the goods in a big, unforgettable way. It's exhilarating action moviemaking at its best.

Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, The Hulk, Hawkeye and Black Widow come together in director Joss Whedon's damn near miraculous The Avengers to kick off the summer movie season on a high note that is going to be tough to beat. When people speak in the future of the ultimate blockbuster movies, The Avengers will be atop many a list, as will—unfortunately—The Smurfs (I have little faith in the future of humanity).

There's a major balancing act going on here, and Whedon somehow manages to pull it off. None of the superheroes get shortchanged. Heck, even Nick Fury gets a significant story arc. Everybody gets screen time worthy of their cinematic greatness and, ultimately, their teaming together against the powerfully bad forces of the universe has true substance and soul. The last thing I was expecting in this Marvel hero summit meeting was soul, but there is plenty of it.

The baddie who winds up bringing these forces together would be Loki (Tom Hiddleston), last seen making his brother's life a living hell in last year's Thor. Loki has gotten his hands on a crazy energy orb that can also provide a gateway from another universe. All means of bad guys plan to use the gateway to come down and conquer Earth, with Loki, still furious over what Thor and his daddy did to him, as the ringmaster.

This pisses off Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to no end, so he decides to bring the planet's super-entities together for a cage match to end all cage matches.

Captain America (Chris Evans), having just awakened from a mega-sleep, is hanging out at S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters doing severe damage to punching bags. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is working on his Stark headquarters building in Manhattan, concentrating on stuff that makes his life better rather than saving the world.

Bruce Banner, aka The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, replacing Edward Norton, who replaced Eric Bana), is roaming the Earth trying to keep his bad boy in check, while Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns from Asgard because he has unfinished business with that troublemaking sibling, Loki.

The individual films that have been released in the last few years wind up providing a nice backdrop for what happens in this one, although viewing all of them is probably not necessary to enjoy The Avengers. The movie stands on its own.

I will say, having enjoyed both previous Hulk efforts (Ang Lee's misunderstood and underappreciated first try, Hulk, and the more streamlined second effort, The Incredible Hulk), I think the Hulk in this film will certainly emerge as the favorite. Ruffalo takes a great approach to the role, and the CGI creation does a nice job incorporating his image. Hulk action is among the film's best offerings, especially when he squares off against space eels that look like squirmy cousins of H.R. Giger's aliens.

While the film's ultimate cage match finale (the cage being Manhattan) is certainly its high point, the intergroup squabbling between the Avengers is top-notch entertainment. Before they join forces, they all have bones to pick with each other, most notably when Thor and Hulk have a smackdown. Apparently, Hulk holds a grudge after their little dust-up.

Whedon, whose sole cinematic directorial effort had been the enjoyable sci-fi Serenity, certainly knows how to mix together great action effects with solid humor. There are major laugh-out-loud moments in this movie. Let it also be said that he, his screenwriters and his editor have pulled off a major feat in making all of these characters register with strong senses of purpose and depth.

Downey Jr. has great fun expanding upon Stark's wiseass image, taunting and lampooning all of his cohorts (I especially liked his attempts to get all up in Banner's business). Evans provides a nice, old school moralistic anchor, and Hemsworth's Thor brings that otherworldly, godlike element. And Hulk ... well, you're just going to love him (Hey, fans of the Green One ... Lou Ferrigno, TV's original Hulk, does, once again, provide the screen incarnation's voice).

In the midst of all this, the story affords quality time to Scarlett Johansson's leather-clad badass Black Widow and Jeremy Renner's arrow-slinging Hawkeye. I came into the viewing with little interest in their characters, but emerged from the screening liking them a lot.

As for the 3-D, it's surprisingly good, considering that it is retrofitted. The decision to make this 3-D apparently came during postproduction, but it comes off as something always intended for 3-D. There are a couple of blurry moments but, overall, the 3-D enhances rather than distracts.

As usual with these Marvel films, stay for the credits because a big hint is dropped regarding further adventures. All of the major heroes, with the exception of Hulk, are currently slated for individual films before the next Avengers.

Actually, that could wind up being a problem, because The Avengers is better than any of the individual Marvel hero films. (It's even better than the Spider-Man films.) They need to turn out the solo movies fast, because I'm ready for the next Avengers chapter right now. I'm spoiled!