By LISA KENNEDY
The Denver Post
As titles go, “Marvel’s The Avengers” is as unwieldy as Thor’s hammer would be for mere mortals. Even so, director Joss Whedon’s take on the superhero hookup — which brings together franchises “Iron Man,” “Hulk,” “Thor” and “Captain America” as well as “Black Widow” and “Hawkeye” — brilliantly exceeds the sum of its parts.
It’s two-plus hours of visual brawn, unexpected heartbeats and welcome humor. After all, it features Robert Downey Jr. Though the verbally agile actor who plays billionaire Tony Stark/Iron Man is hardly alone in delivering wet-towel-snapping asides.
Does “The Avengers” reinvent the genre? Not exactly. But it offers fans — comic-book readers and moviegoers alike — an epically enjoyable time that weaves character with action in ways that take serious and playful pleasure in pop-culture ideas.
There’s sibling rivalry and fealty. There are massive egos and lessons in humility. With its competing deities and heroes, there’s also a likely thesis topic for grad students. “Superheroes and Monotheism,” anyone?
The plot itself swirls around a dream of clean, sustainable energy, which at times feels as fantastical a reach in reality as any of these champions’ unusual talents are on screen.
A perfect chemistry was always going to be tricky. Just ask Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. Samuel L. Jackson portrays the head of the global peacekeeping organization. He’s the one who wrangles the crew.
The story begins with an act of intergalactic thievery. Thor’s brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), arrives through a portal and steals an energy cube dubbed the Tesseract. Loki can subjugate others with the touch of a scepter. He starts with ace agent and archer Hawkeye and professor Erik Selvig (introduced in “Thor” and played by Stellan Skarsgard).
Note to the sequel-leery: While it’s helpful, you needn’t have seen the solo flicks in order to follow, or appreciate, the action unfolding here.
Still, there’s a load of wattage to finesse: Downey, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo and Jeremy Renner portray the sextet.
Perhaps that’s why Whedon weaves the challenge of chemistry into the fabric of the story. Can six superheroes accustomed to going it alone unite to save the world from a very embittered bro? A great deal of the early fun comes from watching the bumpy, brawling meet-and-greets, especially between Thor, Iron Man and Captain America.
Among the best surprises here is Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow. Leave it to Whedon, creator of Buffy, slayer of vampires, to give us a heroine who could be the rightful descendent of a different Avenger, Emma Peel.
For a spell, the glut of superhero movies seemed to treat the folk being saved as an afterthought, because they were so busy psychoanalyzing the heroes. Even here Whedon and his FX whizzes succeed, melding spectacle and at-times-flawed superheroes with the all-too-human.
One of the most heroic acts in the film belongs to a regular, albeit dedicated, guy. It’s a sacrifice there to remind us as we head out the multiplex doors, “That’s us, people, that’s us.”
Three-and-a-half out of four stars.
What different mind-sets these guys have: Stark is the charismatic corporate egotist; Thor (Hemsworth) is a god increasingly fond of his human wards; Captain America (Chris Evans) is arguably the most human among them.
Contrary to the sports adage, it turns out there are six I’s in this team. Add Clark Gregg’s starched agent Coulson and Fury’s second, the efficient, whip-smart Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), and you’ve got a personality for nearly every taste. Need more seasoning still? Gwyneth Paltrow does tart work as Pepper Potts.
Ruffalo take his place as the third recent incarnation of Dr. Bruce Banner/Hulk. The dreamy-eyed, curly-haired actor so good in indies (“The Kids Are All Right”) has often appeared uncomfortable in bigger studio endeavors. Whedon makes good use of that hangdog ambivalence. Banner reads as quietly racked, ever wary of situations that may set him off and transform him into the volatile green giant.
That said, Whedon and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey owe a debt to Jean-Luc Godard’s “Contempt,” because they exhibit anything but disregard toward Black Widow’s posterior, which gets the Brigitte Bardot treatment.
What, however, would a superhero flick be with other special effects and a wave-after-wave action finale? In addition to Stark’s mad costume changes, there are amazingly concocted vessels that move from sea to air: An enemy one undulates like a metal koi in a pond of air above Manhattan.