Dir: Joss Whedon. US. 2012. 142mins


Robustly entertaining and appropriately super-sized for a film containing this many comic-book heroes, Marvel’s The Avengers is mostly a successful amalgam of skilful actors, witty banter, top-of-the-line effects, bigger-is-better action sequences and giddy good cheer. Though overlong and inevitably burdened by the need to juggle so many protagonists – not to mention their different emotional arcs and back stories – this much-anticipated kick-off to summer movie season manages to maintain a playful, crowd-pleasing spirit, despite the enormous expectations surrounding it and the somewhat convoluted storyline that brings together all these costumed characters.

The excitement about an Avengers movie is the opportunity to see all your favourite characters together in the same action film.

Debuting April 25 in different parts of the globe before its May 4 US release, The Avengers seemingly faces no obstacle to major worldwide business. Preceded by the success of Thor and the Iron Man films, this bringing together of different Marvel heroes has built-in audience awareness and very little significant competition in the marketplace. The only fear now is if the film somehow failed to live up to the massive commercial potential placed upon it. That gloomy scenario would seem unlikely, though, paving the way for a lucrative post-theatrical life on DVD and cable.

The film will require a decent memory of the events that happened in each superhero’s own movies, particularly Thor, whose villain Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has come to our world thanks to the Tesseract, a cube of limitless power that he will use to unleash an invincible alien army to enslave Earth. In response, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) recruits Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to defeat Loki before he can activate this cube.

Written and directed by Joss Whedon, best known for his cult TV shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly (which he turned into the feature film Serenity), The Avengers very much mimics the tone of previous Marvel movies, blending a wiseass sense of humour with typical comic-book derring-do. Whedon has made his name working in this mix of tones, so it’s no surprise how confident he is with what is only his second feature as a director. Indeed, it’s The Avengers’ tart comic timing and plethora of funny quips that help keep this nearly two-and-a-half-hour movie as breezy as it is.

Naturally, the excitement about an Avengers movie is the opportunity to see all your favourite characters together in the same action film, and without question there’s a substantial pleasure in these heroes’ interactions with one another. Unfortunately, what that also means is Whedon must do a complicated balancing act, making sure each hero – as well as a few supporting players – gets enough screen time so that no character (or his or her fan base) will feel short-changed. Whedon does a commendable job in this regard, but still the weight of such logistics can lay heavy on the film, stalling the momentum and giving the proceedings a bit of a disjointed feel.

At the same time, though, this ensemble approach can effectively minimise characters who aren’t interesting enough for a full-length feature on their own. Evans provides the right amount of square-jawed stoicism to Captain America, but as Captain America: The First Avenger demonstrated, he’s not a particularly dynamic character, and so he’s much better suited to playing off more compelling heroes like Iron Man and Hulk. Likewise, Johansson was one of the highlights of Iron Man 2 with her nimble, acrobatic action sequences, but because her Black Widow character hasn’t been given much definition, she can easily work in a supporting role in this new film.

Of the large cast, Downey Jr. is, not surprisingly, the most commanding. Picking up where he left off from the Iron Man movies, he has just the right combination of sarcasm and smarts as the playboy billionaire Tony Stark who can always be counted on when the situation demands it as Iron Man. Ruffalo, unlike his castmates, is brand new to the Marvel universe, but his portrayal of Bruce Banner – the brilliant, tormented scientist who turns into The Incredible Hulk when he loses control of his temper – feels effortless. Both actors have displayed ample dramatic chops in the past, but they both easily plug into the pop tone of The Avengers without it feeling like slumming.

Because there’s so much time spent on assembling these Avengers and giving them conflicts with one another that will ultimately be resolved once they band together to fight evil, the movie’s villain isn’t quite as exciting as one might hope. Hiddleston has done fine work in everything from Midnight In Paris to War Horse to The Deep Blue Sea, but Loki isn’t much more than a snide twit with long hair and an oversized ego. Additionally, The Avengers doesn’t have a particularly terrific plot as our heroes try to figure out Loki’s plan while determining if Fury has his own secret agenda. At its weakest, the film can feel like a series of great action pieces loosely held together by limp narrative and patched-together character conflicts.

But with that said, those action pieces are pretty great, and Whedon finds plenty for his large cast to do in them. Along the same lines, the effects are dazzling from beginning to end, boosted by Alan Silvestri’s cheerfully sincere score that underlines every heroic action with a rousing surge. A beloved figure in the Comic-Con world, Whedon inherently seems to grasp just how much unbridled enjoyment there is in the prospect of uniting all these super heroes, and that enthusiasm pulsates throughout the film. Despite the occasional attempt at pathos, The Avengers isn’t trying to replicate the moody drama of The Dark Knight. Rather, this film wants to put on a big, happy show, essentially asserting that while comic-book movies are serious business commercially, they also should be pretty fun. And this one certainly is.

Production companies: Marvel Studios, Paramount Pictures

Domestic distribution: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, www.disney.go.com/movies/

Producer: Kevin Feige

Executive producers: Alan Fine, Jon Favreau, Stan Lee, Louis D’Esposito, Patricia Whitcher, Victoria Alonso, Jeremy Latcham

Screenplay: Joss Whedon, story by Zak Penn and Joss Whedon

Cinematography: Seamus McGarvey           

Production designer: James Chinlund

Editors: Jeffrey Ford, Lisa Lassek

Music: Alan Silvestri

Website: www.marvel.com/avengers_movie/

Main cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgard, Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders