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Movie Review: “The Avengers”

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The Avengers assemble at last

“The Avengers” is a movie with an especially high degree of difficulty. It’s got a huge roster of characters to serve without giving anyone short shrift, and even more importantly, it’s got a whole lot of obsessed fans to service as well. And it’s all in the hands of a director who’s never approached any project of anything close to this size.

But none of that matters, because “The Avengers” is a nearly complete success. It’s the best action superhero movie since the first “Iron Man,” and the best Marvel Comics adaptation since “Spider-man 2.”

The film, featuring a teaming-up of established Marvel superheroes, is the result of years of setup in previous standalone films, which was often done in a clumsy manner- “Iron Man 2,” in particular, just stopped dead in its tracks whenever it had to service the S.H.I.E.L.D. plotline. But there’s nothing clumsy at all about “The Avengers,” a work far greater than the sum of its parts.

The plot pivots off of last year’s lackluster “Thor,” as villain Loki (Tom Hiddleston) arrives from space to steal a cubic MacGuffin called the Tesseract.

Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) retaliates by assembling an all-star team of superheroes: Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and The Incredible Hulk (played once again by a new actor, Mark Ruffalo.)

The director is Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator and fanboy hero Joss Whedon, who had never previously been near a movie of this scale. But he pulls it off- the pacing is just fine, the action sequences are superlative and the script (written by Whedon and Zak Penn) is just full of humor and wit.

A film lasting 143 minutes, with that many characters and that much plot, could have very easily been a disaster. But “The Avengers” makes the time go quickly, mostly thanks to the witty script and first-rate action sequences.

The movie’s centerpiece is an incredible third act, which consists of a long, sustained action sequence lasting over 30 minutes. It’s the same thing that ended all three “Transformers” movies- a huge, explosion-filled, multi-character brawl in a major city. But unlike Michael Bay’s movies, this time it’s not photographed in an ugly, incoherent way, and it continually delivers payoff after payoff.

The casting of Ruffalo, following Eric Bana and Edward Norton in previous movie attempts, proves a masterstroke, and The Hulk is unquestionably the movie’s MVP. Ruffalo’s better for a role than either of the first two actors, and he’s given a more complete character arc, despite being only one of a large group. Downey, as usual, is another highlight, delivering a performance full of snarky commentary.

There’s no reason to think the film won’t appeal to both fanboys and neophytes. I’m the latter; I’ve never cracked open any of the comics and aside from the Hulk everything I know about these characters come from the previous movies. But the longtime enthusiasts at the screening I attended were just about unanimously enraptured.

Can they keep it up for all of the forthcoming individual sequels, including the inevitable “Avengers 2″? Maybe not. But I can say “The Avengers” meets and greatly exceeds expectations.

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