I gotta hand it to The Avengers, it sure isn’t afraid to be “comic-booky.” And on one hand that’s pretty obvious – it is the fucking Avengers, after all. But man, this one is extra comic-booky, and damn proud of it. More so than any of the films that preceded it, this one asks, nay, demands that you accept all this silliness at total face value. Put all these guys (and gal) together in one room sitting around a conference table, and suddenly their costumes and super-powered status seem even sillier than ever before. And the movie doesn’t care! And, because it doesn’t care, you don’t care! That’s the real magic of The Avengers. There’s something to be said for the more realistic modernism of Nolan’s Batman series, sure. But this ain’t the place for that. This is The Avengers, damn it. Let’s get crazy.

Enough has already been written about the long anticipation for this film, ever since that now infamous post-credits coda in 2008’s Iron Man (or even before that, if you were a comic book fan with a hope and a dream). I’m not here to re-hash any of that. But I’ll certainly agree with the general sentiment floating around that this movie is one heck of an impressive accomplishment – a culmination of a years-long plan that could have gone very, very wrong, but instead is more-or-less exactly what it needed to be. Maybe even a little more. Really, they could have coasted a little more – an average, pretty good Avengers movie probably would have satisfied most, who would have just been happy to finally see the damn thing. But, you know, Joss Whedon doesn’t ever shoot for “average” or “pretty good.” And all of us that said hiring him to write and direct was the smartest decision Marvel Studios ever made are now being proven right. Or, I don’t know, maybe hiring Robert Downey Jr. for Iron Man back in the day was a little smarter, but it’s close. Either way, all I’m saying is good call on Whedon, guys. Good on ya. (By the way, I know Zak Penn is co-credited with the story, but c’mon, how hard is it to come up with the story for The Avengers?)

It’s not all great. Don’t let the orgasmic fanboys fool you in that regard. The first half hour or so is a little disappointing, particularly the whole opening sequence where Loki shows up at SHIELD headquarters and tears shit up before making off with the tesseract from Captain America. Don’t get me wrong, Loki is the best villain the Marvel Studios films have offered, and I’m happy he’s here. But this sequence just plays a little flat, in my opinion. Then we get into the character introductions for our heroes and, you know, some of these are sort of underwhelming, as well. Really, only Black Widow gets to have a truly kick-ass intro, which shouldn’t be surprising when you consider Whedon’s love of ass-kicking heroines. Now, on one hand, you can say this actually makes it feel more like a comic book, where the characters you know and love will just sort of walk in whenever and it’s fine because you already know who they are. And that’s true here, too. I guess you’re not surprising me by springing Iron Man or Thor on me all of a sudden (“what the…I didn’t know Captain America was in this!!”) But still, it felt a little odd that, for instance, our introduction to Tony Stark is just a casual shot of him in full armor, doing some manual labor underwater. This is The Avengers, man, let’s spruce it up a little.

As the characters all start to meet, I also thought it was a bit of a convenient cheat that both Steve Rogers and Tony Stark are first briefed on the other superheroes, so you sorta lose the cool factor of them meeting for the first time and not really knowing what each other’s deal is. At least that’s still the case when they first encounter Thor, but even then they kind of leave out the scene where Thor learns their stories. Am I the only person who thinks it would be interesting to see if someone like Thor – who, remember, is basically a god and thinks of most humans as puny mortals (not in a bad way, though) – finds it at all surprising or interesting to learn of things like genetically altered super soldiers and gamma-radiated monsters? I’d like to think he does. I’d hate to think Thor is jaded.

So, anyway, Loki is here on earth to retrieve the tesseract for his new alien buddies, the Chitauri, who are so boring and nondescript that they might as well have just been called the “Bad-Guyies” or “The Cannon-Fodders.” In return, he will be allowed to rule over earth, which I guess is his consolation prize for that whole misunderstanding he had with Odin in Thor. As cool as Loki is, I guess he might be a somewhat crappy leader, given his insanity and homicidal tendencies and all, so Nick Fury and SHIELD decide to finally dust off the abandoned “Avengers Initiative” and give it another whirl. He does this against the wishes of a mysterious “council”, and this is another one of those things that I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at, because they could have just accomplished the same thing with, say, having the President as a character, but instead it’s one of those councils that only appear in movies, where you’re not sure who any of them are or what power they have but they all seem to be video-conferencing in from limbo, so I guess they’re pretty important. So anyways, Fury ignores these mofos and starts assembling his team. And although I might take issue with some of the individual character introductions, it’s when they all start getting together that the movie, not surprisingly, starts to finally pick up and kick ass. All kinds of ass.

You already know the roster, and you already know there’s a fantastic cast playing them. Most of them have already played these characters at least once before, if not more, and they’re all clearly comfortable in their spandex skins. But the added bonus of playing off each other brings even more power to their performances. You can tell everyone is having a ball bouncing off each other (sometimes literally). They’re all great. In a way, this is perfect showcase for what Downey Jr. brings to the Iron Man character, as here he gets to just go into overdrive with the sarcasm and cocky attitude without any sort of personal hero journey stuff to slow it down. Needless to say, he excels. Hemsworth still manages to play Thor, who if you think about it is certainly the goofiest member of the team in many ways, with absolutely the right amount of dignity and gravitas, which in turn means he’s not goofy at all. I don’t many other more established actors that could pull that off. Scarlett Johansson is so much better in this than she was in Iron Man 2 that I’m tempted to wonder if this is actually a different Scarlett Johansson (more likely it just has more to do with Whedon’s aforementioned affinity for and excellent working relationship with actresses). Jeremy Renner is suitably bad-ass as Hawkeye, enough so that you never ever stop and go, “really, a guy with a bow and arrow on a team with all these superheroes?” You don’t question it – he clearly belongs. That’s all Renner. And Chris Evans is also pretty damn fantastic here. I was always in favor of the Evans casting for this role, but I remember conceding when he was cast that his biggest challenge would be not only holding his own with someone of Downey’s caliber, but actually seeming like his better. Well, the moment where Evans takes charge of the team in the heat of battle? Yeah, I peed a little. OK, not really…but it is pretty sweet, and Evans nails it.

And yes, I will give props to newcomer Mark Ruffalo, stepping in as Bruce Banner. I’m not gonna lie – I still would have preferred Edward Norton, if only for continuity reasons alone. But Ruffalo brings a nice wearied quality of his own to the role. And he also motion-captures The Hulk, who steals most every scene he appears in. Alright, Marvel, time to get your shit together and make another Hulk movie. Ruffalo deserves it.

So that’s your team. We get the expected epic misunderstanding, hero vs hero fights. We get the expected personality clashes. We get the expected snarky comments and “can we work together oh hey it turns out we can” pontificating. Of course we do. But the good news is we get it filtered through Joss Whedon world. Whedon is kind of like the ultimate fanboy, except nowhere near as annoying as that title sounds. He is a super fan of these characters and this world, and knows exactly how these characters should behave and talk and interact. And, like I said, he’s not afraid to shy away from the actual feeling of this being a big, balls-to-the-wall comic book movie, and nothing else. There’s nothing deep here, because there doesn’t really need to be. He just gives every character their moments (and yes, even in a film that at first glance might seem bloated, every character does get several strong moments), and then also delivers terrific action every so often because, let’s face it, you need that, too. In fact, the action scenes are especially impressive, given that that was the one area I was sort of worried about Whedon’s direction. But he definitely pulls it off. There’s one great single shot that floats around the city and shows you what each member of the team is up to during the big climactic battle – if that shot doesn’t get you going, I don’t know what the fuck you’re doing watching The Avengers in the first place.

Is this the greatest comic book movie ever? I don’t know about that. It’s certainly one of the most fun, and it’s certainly worthy of whatever level of excitement you built up for it in your head over the last few years. In all honesty, I don’t really feel like it’s leaps and bounds above movies like Iron Man or Thor, but at the same time it’s a totally different kind of movie than those, with different goals. Yeah, I can find little nit-picky complaints like the ones I mustered up above (oh, I just remembered one more! They really underutilized SHIELD agent Maria Hill, who is way more awesome in the comics than you might think based on this movie). I’m a nerd, that’s what I do. But in this case, each of those little complaints is pretty much crushed under the weight of dozens or even hundreds of great things the movie gets right. I can’t say for sure this is the Avengers movie I always had in my head, but it sure is an awesome one. It’s the sort of comic book movie that makes me proud to be one of those nerds that get excited about comic book movies. Because, hey, it turns out that when you have the right people in front of and behind the camera, you can end up with something pretty damn great, like this. Make mine Marvel, and all that.

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