Marvel’s The Avengers: A Superhero Roundup That’s Almost Super

Joss Whedon convenes a half-dozen comic-book all-stars to gang up on poor evil Loki. It's a fun party too bustling to worry about greatness.

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A man turns to watch the climactic chaos that has Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Hawkeye, Black Widow and Captain America battling an alien invasion near Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal. “Superheroes in New York?” he sneers. “Gimme a break.” The man is Stan Lee, chief dreamer-upper of those muscular dudes a half-century ago in the pages of Marvel comics, making a cameo appearance in Marvel’s The Avengers. The movie — which opens this week in most of the world, and May 4 in North America — marks a slam-bang convention of superheroes, a ComicCon nerd’s multiple orgasm and the first, maybe the biggest, blockbuster of summer 2012. Gimme a break? A hundred million fans will shout: Gimme more!

Marvel has been planning this soirée for ages. It salted the ground and whetted audiences’ appetites with the Iron Man movies (Robert Downey, Jr., as arms-merchant-turned-flying-guy Tony Stark) in 2008 and 2010, the Incredible Hulk reboot (Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, the physicist with anger-management issues) in 2008, and last year’s Thor (Chris Hemsworth as the hammer-happy Nordic god) and Captain America: The First Avenger (Chris Evans as the 97-pound-weakling given heroic bulk by World War II scientists).

(SEE: TIME’s Top 10 Superhero Movies)

Joining this quartet are two prime Avengers who somehow never got their own movies: femme fatale Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), the Black Widow who abetted Stark in Iron Man 2, and, from Thor, the brooding Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), whose archery skills earned him the name Hawkeye. Those not familiar with the comic-book company’s pantheon may need to be told that Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Blade and dozens of other studs occupy different corners of the Marvel universe. The Greeks didn’t have this many deities.

For the ultimate union-reunion, the Lee team called on writer-director Joss Whedon, whose inspired toying with genre tropes gave birth or at least new life to TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Dollhouse, plus the recent smarty-pants horror comedy The Cabin in the Woods and the Internet miniseries Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, a musical comedy whose self-reflexive ingenuity was topped only by its all-sung DVD commentary.

(MORE: TIME’s review of The Cabin in the Woods)

Reworking Zak Penn’s original Avengers script, Whedon sat on his usual impulse to go meta; instead he served as expert mixologist for this all-star cocktail party. The movie guarantees fast-paced fun without forcing anyone to think about what it all means, which is nothing. “A poem should not mean / but be,” Archibald MacLeish wrote. A pop-culture smash should not mean but do: break stuff, agitate the senses, keep the customer satisfied. The Avengers doesn’t aim for transcendence, only for the juggler’s skill of keeping the balls smoothly airborne, and in 3-D too (converted after production). At that it succeeds.

In essence a sequel to Thor, the movie posits that the blond muscleman’s dark, anemic adoptive brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), after plunging into a wormhole at the end of last year’s film, has gained possession of the Tesseract, a cosmic cube that contains not only the secret of infinitely replenishable energy but a two-way door to the cosmos. Recognizing this imminent threat to the world, nay, the solar system, S.H.I.E.L.D. lord Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) assembles the far-flung Avengers to face down Loki and his robot army. A floating aircraft carrier — the film’s coolest visual effect — serves as the temporary barracks for this all-star crew until the big climactic battle.

(MORE: TIME’s review of Thor)

Whedon has said that what drew him to the movie is the disparity of the various Avengers: “These people shouldn’t be in the same room, let alone on the same team — and that is the definition of family.” For a while, The Avengers becomes a $200-million mass-market version of one of those indie films about a dysfunctional family whose members come home for the holidays and rip off all the old scabs. And with six superheroes fighting for screen time, the combat sure is as strenuous among them as between them and Loki. Each has a powerful personality, and four of them have starred in their own movies; so a good chunk of The Avengers involves the collision of star egos, as if the aircraft carrier were a benefit-concert green room stuffed with celebrities bickering over billing.

Thor, for example, spits darts at Loki in iambic heptameter (“You take the world as recompense for your imagined slight”), an antique flossiness that immediately exasperates Stark’s Iron Man. “Now there’s this guy,” he sneers. “Shakespeare in the Park.” They have a fight, strength against strength, ending in Thor’s WWE head butt; when Captain America arrives to call a truce, he gets rocked as well. This clash of the titans is also a mashup of acting styles — Hemsworth’s grandiloquence vs. Evans’s naïveté vs. the Method questing of Mark Ruffalo, who replaced Norton as Bruce Banner — while Downey’s snarky Stark provides the movie’s internal joking DVD commentary, but spoken, not sung.

(MORE: TIME’s review of Captain America: The First Avenger)

Ruffalo, who’s done many a Sundance drama, has called Banner/The Hulk “my generation’s Hamlet” — though anger, not indecision, is his character’s tragic flaw. The actor performs as if taking direction in improv theater from the late John Cassavetes. And the funny thing is, it works here, since Banner is supposed to be a creature apart, reining in his Hulk impulses until they’re useful in the group effort. He gets the best line when he asks, “What are we, a team? No, a time bomb.” Indeed, the Avengers are so busy arguing that they miss Loki’s first major onslaught. Defense of the planet: delayed, on account of infighting.

OK, so it’s tough being a superhero. Stark refers to his Iron Man powers as “a terrible privilege,” and Banner says the Hulkamania roiling inside him is not a gift, “it’s a nightmare.” The supervillain also claims to have problems. “I am burdened with a glorious purpose,” Loki says, as if wreaking holocaustal havoc were a solemn duty, not a giddy treat. But he has fun nonetheless, more than any of his good-guy adversaries; after all, there are six of them and just one of him. And just as World War II hero Captain America was thawed out a couple of generations later to help fight some intergalactic Axis powers, so Loki has the vibe of an ’80’s heavy-metal star of Druidic bent, pried from his crypt and ready to give the universe a final Spinal Tap. As Stark aptly opines about medieval demon-god, “He’s a full-tilt diva.”

(MORE: TIME’s review of the 2008 Incredible Hulk)

When Loki isn’t pulverizing midtown Manhattan, he’s preening like a Ziegfeld showgirl and disgorging contemptuous aphorisms in the manner of an Oscar Wilde dandy with Tourette’s. He uncoils a string of lurid threats Natasha’s way, capping the torrent by calling her, “You mewling quim!” (That may be the first joking yoking of those two words in a century or so of pop culture.) Loki needs a good Asgard-kicking, and will get one from the Avengers, but his definitive putdown comes when, just to flex his nastiness, he materializes in front of the Stuttgart Opera House to send a thousand Germans quivering in fear. “In the end,” Loki says, “you will always kneel.” An old man (Kenneth Tigar), possibly a survivor of Hitler’s ovens, pipes up, “Not to men like you.” His grandeur enraged, Loki spumes, “There are no men like me!” And the old German whispers, perhaps from memory, “There are always men like you.”

In Marvel-land, there are always, and almost only, men. A cosmos created and illustrated by comic-book guys for comic-book boys, and brought to the screen by later platoons of males, is by definition homoheroic if not homoerotic. The movie’s tenderest relationship is between Captain America and his No. 1 fan, S.H.I.E.L.D Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), who asks nothing more than that the good Captain autograph the Agent’s superhero card set. There’s little room for women, except of the cartoon variety: the nasty spy Natasha, first seen in Madonna bustier and high heels, manacled to a chair in a sadistic interrogation. That she uses all these elements to secure her freedom is a nice Whedon touch, but also a tribute to the seductive gravity Johansson lends to her character.

(MORE: TIME’s review of the first, and best, Iron Man)

At the end Natasha shows she’s a good soldier, vanquishing a regiment of cyborg grunts and fighting off Loki’s biggest weapon: a monstrosaurus that flies through Manhattan like the Japanese turtle-lizard Gamera and crashes becomingly into the Main Concourse of Grand Central Terminal. The movie’s climactic inspiration is to use the gleaming Deco spire of the Chrysler Building, just a block away, to conduct electricity back to the Tesseract.

By then Whedon has given all the stars their closeups, on the way to restoring order to the universe — the Marvel universe, that is. Sequels to Iron Man and Thor are due next year, with the whole gang coming a bit after that, in an endless separating and recombination of the central team. The new enterprise is just one lavish element in the grand design. With plenty of incident, but limited glimpses into each superhero’s soul, the picture falls short of the finest Marvel film, the original Iron Man. For all the entertainment value of Whedon’s film, the question lingers: Is The Avengers too much for one movie, or not enough?

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