But the film's vibe is never smug or off-putting; these are still comic book heroes full of all the torment and introspection you'd expect. And for a movie that's violent as hell, "The Avengers" ends up being an earnest plea for peace. As in the best of its predecessors, the original "Iron Man" from 2008, it's a reminder that a summer blockbuster can be glossy and entertaining but still have meatier matters on its mind.
And we haven't even gotten to the plot yet: It's your basic bad-guy-wants-to-take-over-the-world kinda thing. But even Whedon seems to recognize what a hackneyed premise that is, so he has a little fun with it.
The preening, effete Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the bitter brother of hunky demigod Thor (Chris Hemsworth), descends to Earth from Asgard, which still has a distinctly '70s cheesiness about its twinkly sci-fi aesthetic. Once here, he steals the Tesseract, the cosmic blue cube that gives its bearer unlimited power, or some such.
The no-nonsense Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. - which had been entrusted with the safety of said cube - springs into action to reacquire it by assembling a dream team of superheroes and other sundry bad-asses with specialized skills. Nick gets help in this endeavor from his right-hand man, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg, once again bringing some welcome deadpan humor to this outlandish scenario).
Besides Iron Man, Thor and Captain America, The Hulk's services are needed because the Tesseract exudes a radiation that will help track it, and The Hulk - despite the threat of his gigantic, green volatility - knows a little something about gamma rays. (Ruffalo, stepping into the Bruce Banner role that Eric Bana and Edward Norton played previously in the past decade, brings a sense of wry bemusement and appealing self-deprecation to this dangerous and misunderstood character.) There's also master assassin Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and super spy Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson).
But because these are superheroes with super powers, they also have super egos. And so a great deal of time is spent having them talk a lot of trash and square off against one another to prove who's toughest. There's Iron Man vs. Thor, Thor vs. The Hulk, Hawkeye vs. Black Widow and so on. While they might seem like filler, these showdowns allow each character to have his or her time in the spotlight, and they do build genuine tension. They also happen to represent the adolescent fantasies of every geek in the audience. So in theory, everyone's happy.
Eventually they will all have to come together for one epic battle against their shared enemy in Midtown Manhattan, home of Iron Man Tony Stark's latest dazzling architectural creation, his eponymous high-rise, and a cool place in general to stage massive movie destruction. Much of the gadgetry is cleverly detailed, as you'd expect - Tony Stark has devised stunningly efficient ways to get his metal suit on and off - but "The Avengers" is at its strongest in its quieter, simpler moments - when people are actually talking to each other.
The dialogue sparkles as brightly as the special effects; these people may be wearing ridiculous costumes but they're well fleshed-out underneath. And so in every regard, this movie truly fulfills its hype.