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June 8, 2012
Shark Bite Theatre
The Avengers: Rub-A-Dub-Dub, Five Heroes In A Club
by Andrew E. Lindsay

So what do you get if you take a genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist with a shiny metal suit, a 90-year-old super-soldier with an indestructible shield and star-spangled spandex, a Norse god of thunder with a really, really heavy hammer, a sexy former Russian agent with ridiculous martial arts skills and a wandering accent, a guy with raptor-like eyesight and a quill full of high-tech arrows, a brilliant scientist with a tendency for greenish pigmentation and serious anger management issues, and a bald guy with an eye patch and no compulsion to follow protocol, and you dump them all in the middle of New York City while a gaping hole in the time/space continuum pours an army of creepy-looking aliens on flying ATVs into the middle of rush hour?

Well, you get a pretty dang exciting superhero movie full of explosive battles, super-sized egos, and plenty of witty banter.

If you like going to the movies for the sheer fun of it, to wile away a few hours filled with action and adventure and escapism, well, The Avengers just might be your ticket. Reading the Avengers comic books is not a prerequisite for watching the film. And although prior viewing of the lead-up movies is not required either, I would certainly recommend watching Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America, just to get familiar with the characters and their backstories.

The movies are all pretty fun and well made (although the second Iron Man installment failed to deliver anything that resembled a plot, thinking that for some reason more fighting and less character development was the secret to their success), and they do an admirable job of laying the foundation for the ultimate ensemble movie.

The Avengers was penned by Joss Whedon and Zak Penn, and Whedon directed as well. Joss Whedon's rather quirky and eclectic writing and directing résumé made him an interesting gamble for the helm of this much-anticipated big budget super-movie, having cut his chops on a number of TV shows like "Roseanne," "Parenthood," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Firefly," and "Dollhouse."

He also shares partial credit for the screenplay of Pixar's Toy Story, and he wrote, directed, and produced the delightfully weird "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog," one of my personal favorites. The gamble paid off in spades, and Whedon's ability to deliver the goods is now a matter of fact as The Avengers shattered every previous record for box office take on opening weekend.

Robert Downey Jr. returns in the role he was born to play as Tony Stark and his not-so-secret alter-ego Iron Man, and he enjoys a few, brief on-screen moments with his assistant and love-interest Pepper Potts, played again by Gwyneth Paltrow. Their playful romance is enjoyable but brief as Stark is called away from his newly-built high-rise to consult with Nick Fury, the director of SHIELD, an international intelligence agency with some nebulous connection to the United States government.

Nick Fury is played by Samuel L. Jackson, a role he has played in all of the aforementioned pre-Avengers movies. Fury has been working on something called "The Avenger Initiative" for quite some time, trying to recruit potential heroes to defend the earth, should the need arise some day. Well, the day has come, thanks to Loki, Thor's half-brother, who blew a hole in the fabric of the universe and invited a bunch of nasty bad guys from some other galaxy over for a let's-take-over-the-world-and-make-me-king party.

We first met Loki, played by Tom Hiddleston, in Thor. Chris Hemsworth, whose younger brother, Liam, plays Gale Hawthorne in The Hunger Games, reprises his role as the Norse god of thunder and engages in a testosterone-fueled, chest-thumping rivalry with Iron Man early on in the movie.

Chris Evans as Captain America plays peacemaker with the two super-egos, jumping into the fray like a super-buff dog whisperer stepping in between two feuding Rottweilers.

Mark Ruffalo has replaced Edward Norton as the Jekyll-and-Hyde-like reluctant hero, Dr. Bruce Banner, whose experiments with gamma radiation created his raging counterpart, the Hulk. Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow apparently has some sort of romantic past with Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye, and although neither of them has got his own movie yet, they are just as important to the team as the heroes with prior merchandising agreements.

The first part of the movie is spent coming up with the motivation for gathering this motley crew of heroes, followed by Fury trying to convince them all to come together, play nice, and save the world.

In the DC Comics universe, it seems like superheroes often banded together of their own free will into teams or leagues or societies or whatever because it just seemed like the thing to do. In the Marvel Comics world, getting heroes to work together was often as challenging and unpleasant as amalgamating tin and toilet paper. But somehow Joss Whedon figures out how to capture all the anger and angst and egos and toss them into a super-blender with a generous portion of humor to give us an entertaining and engaging cinematic smoothie of heroic proportions.

He also manages to give a multitude of main characters something like equal screen time; nobody comes across as the one the story is built around and everybody else is there in a supporting role. They all play interesting and equally important parts at different stages of the story and they all come together in a way that is believable and coherent, without ever taking the idea of crime-fighting grownups in outlandish costumes too terribly serious.

After their initial gathering ends in disaster, Fury gives them his "win one for the Gipper" speech, a performance apparently moving enough to melt even an electromagnetic heart, and the gang finally comes together when it really counts, which happens to be about 20 minutes before the end of the world. The ensuing battle is not gory or graphic, but it is intense and a lot of alien bad guys are sent to sleep with the alien fishes.

Whedon manages to give all his heroes opportunities to shine as their unique talents and skill sets are brought into play in this explosive showdown. Throughout the film and certainly into the fighting finale, the real fun of the movie is the wise-cracking commentary of our heroes, whose collective metamorphosis from self-centered loners to altruistic loners working as a team is peppered with really funny dialogue.

And without giving anything away, I will also add that when it comes to really satisfyingly funny moments, Hulk almost steals the movie out from under the rest of the Avengers.

This is a movie that just about everybody can enjoy, even if they aren't comic book geeks steeped in the Marvel mythos. Very young children might find some of the stuff with the aliens a little scary, and the first time the Hulk shows up is also pretty intense. But it's all comic book violence, mostly machines and buildings getting destroyed and not so much blood and guts, andeven then most of the dying is done by aliens.

If you've watched the previous movies, you probably know that it was essential to stay all the way to the end of the credits. Every one of the five lead-up movies had a bonus scene at the very end that teased the eventual Avengers gathering. The Avengers also requires that you sit patiently through the 4.7 billion people who worked on this film to see not one, but two different vignettes.

The first one happens about halfway through the end credits and the second one is all the way at the very end. Beyond that, no hints. Just stay and enjoy.

The language is pretty safe throughout, and the only real nudity happens after the Hulk turns back into Bruce Banner and he suddenly finds himself naked after losing his size 200 waist pants. But you don't really see anything, of course, and its actually a pretty funny scene. Heck, there are a lot of pretty funny scenes, from start to finish, and I'm anxious to see it again to pick up some of the funny lines I missed the first time because everyone in the theater (including me) was laughing so hard we didn't hear some of the funny lines that followed the ones we were already laughing at.

I'm an admitted comic book guy from way back, and my personal preferences always leaned toward the DC bullpen, and Batman in particular. So while I occasionally read the Avengers, it was never on my favorites list. Now the movie version of that list naturally includes the last two Batman movies (and, I anticipate, will also include the final installment from Chris Nolan and Christian Bale, due out this summer), and I'm reserving judgement on the Spider-Man reboot until that comes out also.

Over the past few years as I watched them lay the groundwork for The Avengers with the five lead-up movies, I was skeptical that they could make successful franchises out of all of them, and even more skeptical that they could pull off the ultimate hat trick and dump them all into one movie that would be worth watching.

With the first Iron Man movie I became a hopeful believer, and last year's Captain America movie quickly made the list, as well, solidifying my faith. I am a skeptic no more; The Avengers is now on my short list, and I'm leaving room for sequels.

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