The Avengers is many things: the dream of Marvel comic book fans come to life; the culmination of Marvel's movies Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America; and, thanks in large part to the writing and direction of Joss Whedom, an ensemble movie that manages to give equal time to all characters instead of focusing on one to the detriment of the rest.
The setup of The Avengers is pretty straightforward. Secret government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. is experimenting on the Tesseract (the ancient, powerful artifact seen in Thor and Captain America) when Loki (Tom Hiddleston) suddenly appears and steals it. He also takes mental control over several people there, including master archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). S.H.I.E.L.D. leader Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) fears the worst, so it's time for the Avengers Initiative. Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and martial artist Natasha Romanov/the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) set out to assemble a team of heroes, albeit full of flaws. Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is their super-soldier, but he's still adjusting to the present day. Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is brilliant and has a powerful suit of armor -- but he's pretty self-centered. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is a demigod whose pursuit of Loki puts him at odds with the other team members. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) is brought in to help track the Tesseract -- but there's the fear that he'll lose control and turn into the Hulk. And the Black Widow is worried about Hawkeye's switching sides.

But there's more going on than just personality differences and in-fighting (and physical fighting). S.H.I.E.L.D. has its own secret agenda. Loki's plan for the tesseract are complicated -- and include letting himself get captured. And of course, there's an alien invasion on the horizon...

The Avengers works amazingly well, both as an action movie and a superhero movie. Joss Whedon has plenty of experience writing and directing ensembles (from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Firefly/Serenity), and he lets all the characters shine. The actors are all terrific in their roles, from the previous antics of the heroes to Johansson's alternating from vulnerable to manipulative, and Ruffalo (taking over for Edward Norton) oddly and appropriately self-contained as the scientist trying not to lose control. The movie has a wicked and frequent sense of humor, as well as some moving moments and scenes as well; and that's in addition to the exciting action sequences. Squeezing all of this into one film does make The Avengers run a little long at times, but it ultimately pays off.

The best summer blockbusters give more than just special effects, and The Avengers certainly delivers. This is one giant movie (with some of Marvel's biggest names) that delivers thrills, laughs, excitement, and (often missing from action movies) itelligence.

Overall grade: A-

Reviewed by James Lynch

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