‘The Avengers’ Review: A Satisfying Super-Hero Sandwich

In "The Avengers," director Joss Whedon gets the Marvel Comics super-team the same way that Spielberg and Lucas understood serials in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”

Assembling a team of superheroes is no doubt like putting together an all-star cast — you’ve got to deal with a lot of clashing egos in a small space and make sure that everyone has his or her moment to shine. Writer-director Joss Whedon pulls off both in “The Avengers,” an exhilarating ode to what mainstream comics do best.

In my childhood (and, admittedly, parts of my adulthood), I read the “Avengers” comics because they were equally concerned with character interactions and the old biff-bam-pow. On one page, our heroes would be sitting around a meeting table needling each other about their differing methodologies, and on the next, they would assemble to beat back some threat from dastardly aliens.

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That’s the balance that Whedon has so brilliantly accomplished here, telling a story in which who these heroes are and how they deal with each other remains at the forefront, even when Manhattan is under assault from an interplanetary Big Bad. He gets the vibe and the delights of Marvel comic books in the same way that Spielberg and Lucas intuitively understood the appeal of serials in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” You don’t have to be a comics fan to have a great time (although it sure couldn’t hurt) but you may need a reminder of everything that’s gone down in the previous Marvel movies.

Remember that powerful tesseract (Marvel readers know it as the Cosmic Cube) that played such a big part in “Captain America: The First Avenger”? Now it resides in a SHIELD laboratory where astrophysicist Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård, reprising his role from “Thor”) is trying to unlock its secrets, under the watchful eye of the arrow-wielding Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), also known as Hawkeye. During a site visit from SHIELD chief Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Asgardian trickster Loki (Tom Hiddleston) shows up to steal the tesseract, enslaving Selvig and Barton in the process.

After the entire installation sinks into the earth (a moment reminiscent of the finale of Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” TV series), Fury assembles the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, last seen kicking ass in black leather in “Iron Man 2”), Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) — who’s constantly worried that the Hulk (whom he refers to as “the other guy”) will manifest, Captain America (Chris Evans) and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.).

It’s an unwritten rule in the comics that heroes have to fight each other, usually over some misunderstanding, when they first meet, so when Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to Earth to stop Loki, he and Iron Man get into an impressive brawl. (The thunder god will later mix it up with Hulk in a more equitable match.) Despite their distrust of each other, and of the secrets that SHIELD is keeping from them, this group must somehow form a family, and these heroes are eventually compelled to join forces to stop Loki from using the tesseract as a portal for some very nasty would-be alien conquerors.

“The Avengers” doesn’t immediately inspire confidence — the editing of the opening raid’s eventual chase and shoot-out feels choppy and confusing, and the alien with whom Loki argues early in the film looks straight out of a low-budget kiddy show. But Whedon knows how to write an ensemble (just look at “Buffy” and “Firefly”), and when these larger-than-life characters start bouncing off one another, the witty repartee flies fast and furious, even in the midst of battle.

Whedon gets the big stuff right, too, from the conversion of an aircraft carrier to the enormous SHIELD flying fortress to the final battle, which originally feels like it’s just going to be a coherent Michael Bay moment but winds up delivering the adrenaline while also driving the story and the characters. And while I wasn’t crazy about the solo movies featuring the Hulk, Captain America, or Thor, all three characters felt revitalized in this group context.

In many ways, “The Avengers” feels like the truest adaptation of the original comics to the motion picture screen. It doesn’t mythologize or minimize or condescend or get lost in fanboy minutiae. Instead, it plays up the clash of personalities — and the simple act of acknowledging that superheroes can actually have personalities may be its boldest move — while never skimping on the popcorn thrills. It gives superhero movies, and even summer movies in general, a good name.