After five stand-alone adventures (of somewhat uneven quality and levels of enjoyment) spread out over the past four years, The Avengers have finally assembled to ring in the 2012 summer movie season with a bit of biff, bam, pow! While most of the film's large-scale action scenes make for cathartic fantasy fulfillments (really, many childhood daydreams come to life in this movie), the fact that these superheroes seem so much like real people grounds the chaos with a strong sense of humanity -- and makes it all the more thrilling and satisfying.
You know the lineup: Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Their emcee is Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who finally takes center stage after five movies' worth of cameos, and their enemy is Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the scheming Asgardian trickster (and Thor's brother) who's gotten his evil hands on the Tesseract (that glowing blue thing that shot the Red Skull into the stratosphere at the end of Captain America), the key element in his quest for world domination. Hey, nothing a little shield-throwing, hammer-crunching, arrow-shooting, laser-firing and Hulk-smashing won't fix.
Oh, and there's also Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), the hardest-working S.H.I.E.L.D. agent ever (and the one who, at this point, has racked up the most frequent flyer miles). Who doesn't love Agent Coulson? My fellow screening attendees shouted out "COULSON!" whenever he showed up, so apparently no one.
The Avengers is, more often than not, a glorious thing to behold. It's like the runaway imagination of every kid who ever read a Marvel comic over the past fifty years suddenly exploded and splatted onto a movie screen. There are sights here that will make you squirm in your seat with excitement; even the relatively simpler set pieces like Hulk punching a jet (why wouldn't he?) and Thor throwing his hammer into a swarm of things that kind of look like the sentinels in The Matrix (why wouldn't he?) feel like Marvel Films waved its magic wand and made your dreams come true. And you don't have to be a fan of these characters or the comic book pages they came from to get in on (or at least appreciate) the fun -- the action, while inevitably eventually exhausting, is choreographed and executed with maestro skill by director Joss Whedon and his team of technical wizards; indeed, it took a filmmaking super-team behind the camera to bring this splashy extravaganza to life.
However, it won't be the ka-pow and ka-boom that will stick with you after the movie's over. Okay, yeah, some of it will, but what makes a stronger impression is the hat trick that Joss Whedon pulled off in showcasing every Avenger as both an individual and an essential part of a team. These guys (and gal) all have their share of faults and all have something to learn about themselves by the time the (ton of) dust settles; it's like a character-driven chamber drama told in the context of a giant action spectacle, a kind of 12 Angry Men (and one woman) with superheroes and things blowing up. Whedon's bad habits as a writer -- his favoring of sarcasm over true emotional intimacy, his penchant for creating world views that don't quite speak to anyone over the age of 20 -- are none too apparent here; in fact, in this film, witty quips are used as a crucial way to get to emotional truth rather than to avoid it. The Avengers is, essentially, a story about a group of people called on to step up to the plate and do something extraordinary, with their greatest triumph being actually coming to terms with themselves - and the awesome collective of which they're each an indispensable part. They were all incomplete until they came together.
So what are you waiting for? Get to a theater and join 'em. It's going to be a good summer.