- - Thursday, May 3, 2012

There’s a lot riding on “The Avengers,” a megabudget follow-up to four years’ worth of summer superhero films. The continuation of stories that started in the Thor, Hulk, Captain America and Iron Man movies is comic book publisher Marvel’s attempt at a superhero supergroup.

As the culmination of those cinematic legacies, “The Avengers” has a mission to be fair to each of those characters by building on their respective franchises while combining their successes into something even more super. The box office expectations are — as the villain Loki (Tom Hiddleston) declares himself when he first appears — “burdened with glorious purpose.”

It’s a lot to ask of a bunch of burly dudes in brightly colored spandex and shiny armor who first made their names as cheap newsprint sketches. But “The Avengers” rises to the occasion by embodying the best aspects of its big-name characters. This is a movie with the planet-shattering strength of the Hulk, the genius and wit of Iron Man, the epic nobility of Thor, and the earnestness and dedication of Captain America.

Add to that the crazy ambition of a major comic book publisher. For decades, Marvel’s comics have featured a whole universe of heroes and villains who would team up and throw down on a regular basis. For many comic fans, the appeal was in the world [-] the community of heroes and intersecting stories — as much as in any individual character.

With “The Avengers,” Marvel gives moviegoers a world. The plot is built around a powerful cosmic cube that serves as an energy source and a portal to another dimension. But the movie is best understood as a portal to the Marvel Comics mindset.

With breathtaking purity, the movie accesses the fantasy life of an imaginative 12-year-old boy who is perhaps overly concerned with the fictional lives of various tights-wearing superpeople. As a former childhood comic book fan, I found myself suppressing squeals of adolescent glee throughout. Without descending into impenetrable nerd service, the movie triggers a sense of exuberant youthful escape to which many summer blockbusters aspire but few achieve.

Much of the credit goes to writer and director Joss Whedon. The TV mastermind behind “Firefly” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Mr. Whedon nails the individual personalities of the gathered heroes and the complex team dynamic. “The Avengers” is a genuinely funny movie, with humor built on well-drawn characters. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans) are all sharper but recognizable versions of their former selves. Mr. Whedon’s real innovations are depicted in the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), whose characters are transformed from the one-note afterthoughts as they’ve appeared previously.

If anything, Mr. Whedon is too successful. His vision of each of these characters is so much stronger, more appealing and well-executed than anything that has come before that Marvel will have a tough time replicating the success. Mr. Whedon has simply set the bar too high.

Like a lot of supergroup projects, “The Avengers” concept is unwieldy, with at least four characters big enough to carry their own individual blockbusters, and only the space of a single film. But rather than attempt to downplay the rivalry, Mr. Whedon uses it to his advantage by building a fully integrated story out of the conflicting egos and superhero personalities.

From these former four-color fictions, Mr. Whedon has assembled an unexpectedly great piece of pop entertainment — an amazing, astounding, uncanny blockbuster success. Most supergroups turn out to be overhyped duds, but “The Avengers” is nothing but hits.

★★★★

TITLE: “The Avengers”

CREDITS: Written and directed by Joss Whedon, based on a story by Mr. Whedon and Zak Penn

RATING: PG-13 for sci-fi violence

RUNNING TIME: 142 minutes

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