Truly, the geeks have inherited the Earth. And with apologies to The Lord of the Rings saga, cinematic geek-outs don't get any more monumental than The Avengers, the long-awaited culmination of the new age of Marvel movies. Under the leadership of eyepatch-sporting Nick Fury Samuel L. Jackson), the Avengers assemble, most of them the erstwhile stars of their own self-titled movies: Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans) and the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, taking the baton from Edward Norton). Superheroics, sure, but more importantly, synergy, as Marvel primes the next wave of sequels and spin-offs.
"Am I the only one who did the reading?" asks Downey's Tony Stark. Clearly not, and screenwriter-director Joss Whedon counts on it. The Avengers is some serious comic-book "inside baseball." While it's more than possible to come to The Avengers cold and grasp the basic idea (good vs. evil: not exactly rocket science—though there's that too when Iron Man's around), intimate knowledge of the sequels and the comic books will keep you from feeling left out as the fanboys to your right and left laugh and squeal in recognition of the "easter eggs" Whedon's hidden in the margins (including the patented Marvel "bonus scene"). SPOILER ALERT: the research work being done by Fury's secret agency S.H.I.E.L.D. on a glowing cube called "the Tesseract" goes south when Thor's nasty Norse-god brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, cutting his menace with comic brio) reappears, precipitating the threatening arrival of "an army, from outer space" (the Tesseract, dear readers, was last seen as the Macguffin of Captain America).
It's quite possible that The Avengers has more action than any movie ever made. Outstanding special effects and stuntwork contribute to an exhilaration so constant it risks the kind of exhaustion, if not monotony, inspired by the Transformers pictures. As these sorts of films go, The Avengers comes off as relatively smart (at least until the next Christopher Nolan film opens). Genre wit Whedon—running with a plot first developed by Zak Penn—orchestrates for this uber-comic-book-movie a merry clash of attitudes and styles complementing the many heroes and villains. Whedon writes particularly well for Bruce Banner/The Hulk and Tony "the Snark" Stark, and his actors oblige. Ruffalo conveys smarts, soul, and self-knowledge ("That's my secret...I'm always angry"); Downey happily bogarts the best wisecracks (nailing Thor as "Shakespeare in the Park"), while also giving good gravitas in a pinch.
The site of the film's climax, Grand Central Station, serves as Whedon's knowing metaphor for his movie. Proving it's from the "more is more" school of superhero follow-ups, The Avengers piles on Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow (introduced in Iron Man 2) and Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye (who made a cameo appearance in Thor), Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson, Stellan Skarsgard's researcher Erik Selvig (also from Thor), a raspy alien identified as "The Other" (Alexis Denisof), and a shadowy World Security Council peopled by Powers Boothe and Jenny Agutter, among others. Like a winking street juggler with confident patter, Whedon keeps his color-coded balls in the air while taking advantage of the production value afforded by his urban backdrop (seeing Manhattan destroyed just never gets old—and now in 3D!).
Undercutting gags notwithstanding, The Avengers comes full up with posturing and amusingly self-serious clunkers (like Jackson, shot to appear ten feet tall, introducing his badass character to the tune of "How bad is it?"). Ultimately, for all its thrill-ride clutter, The Avengers is just about as simplistic as them fightin'-robot pictures, and even more jingoistically blinkered: though Captain America himself asks, "Aren't the stars and stripes a little old-fashioned?" the thought quickly perishes. If the picture is about anything, it's about the need to come together in a crisis, regardless of competing viewpoints—seemingly genteel common sense on the face of it. But the post-Patriot Act message of sacrificing personal freedom and giving carte blanche to the "War on Terror," more text than subtext here, will give pause to some (while the weight the movie implicitly throws behind God and Uncle Sam no doubt has the Tea Party booking group-rate tickets).
Don't get me wrong: kids' brains will explode at the superhero theatrics, and if they deserve a break today, treat them to a movie expressly constructed for them and those with Peter Pan Syndrome (the school-age me would've loved it, I'm sure). But some adults may find they agree less with the secret-trafficking heroes and more with the god of mischief, who avers, "Freedom is life's great lie" and later asks, pointedly, a crowd of German citizens, "Is this not your natural state?...Don't you crave subjugation?" Loki gets a superhero spanking for that subversive suggestion, but last I checked, money talks and people listen, at the voting booth and the ticket counter. It doesn't take a crystal ball to guess which movie will be number-one at the box office this weekend, whether we adults deserve a break or not.