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(2012) (Robert Downey, Jr. Chris Evans) (PG-13)

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Action: A group of superheroes are brought together to battle a powerful villain who wants to use a futuristic energy device to unleash his army on Earth.
As run by Nick Fury (SAMUEL L. JACKSON), S.H.I.E.L.D., a secret military law-enforcement agency, has been overseeing astrophysicist Selvig (STELLAN SKARSGARD) and his team develop the Tesseract, a device that could channel endless energy from outer space back to Earth. Unfortunately for them, it allows for the arrival of Norse god Loki (TOM HIDDLESTON) who, using an energized spear weapon, turns both Selvig and agent Clint Barton (JEREMY RENNER), a.k.a. Hawkeye, over to his side.

Fury and agents Phil Coulson (CLARK GREGG) and Maria Hill (COBIE SMULDERS) try to stop him, but his arrival results in the destruction of the lab and worry that he's going to use the device to allow his army to travel through an open portal to Earth. Accordingly, Fury sets out to assemble a group of superheroes who might be able to stop him.

They include Tony Stark (ROBERT DOWNEY JR.), a.k.a. Iron Man, a billionaire playboy inventor who wears a high-tech and armored flying suit, and former WWII super soldier Steve Rogers (CHRIS EVANS), a.k.a. Captain America, who's been brought out of suspended animation 70 years after his last action.

They're joined by former Soviet spy Natasha Romanoff (SCARLETT JOHANSSON), a.k.a. Black Widow, and physicist Bruce Banner (MARK RUFFALO), whose previous exposure to gamma radiation means he turns into the monstrous Hulk if angered. Loki's brother, the hammer-wielding Thor (CHRIS HEMSWORTH) also shows up, and despite their differences and quarrels, the superheroes assemble as a group known as The Avengers and try to thwart Loki's plans.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
I've never been a huge fan of assembling superstars and then watching them try to do their thing as a team or group. Yes, many of them -- whether their industry is sports, music or what have you -- already perform in a collaborative setting. But they're used to doing so with their regular cast of characters, if you will, and know how to work together.

Thus, while there can be entertaining moments in the various all-star sporting events or with musical groups temporarily assembled from members of other bands, for the most part it's not as easy for them to score time and again. In short, while they might be superstars on their own or in their original setting, such combo acts rarely equal let alone exceed the sum of their parts.

Such was my concern before seeing "Marvel's The Avengers" (an awkward elongation of the original and simpler title), especially since that was one of my favorite comic book series back in the 1970s (so much so that I wrote and illustrated my own series, "The Revengers" -- I know, but I was 9 or 10 at the time -- that was based on a similar notion).

And that's because a comic book series has the ability for its various stories to play out over multiple issues, while any given movie usually has one shot (at least until it proves its box office mettle). With such a grouping, we not only need to worry how the various characters will "play" together, but we also need to be concerned if there are going to be too many roles and not enough screen time for them individually and/or collectively.

As written and directed by Joss Whedon (best known for TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"), the film certainly gives them some extra moments with which to work (it clocks in around 143 minutes), and it's apparent by watching the spectacle up on the screen that there wasn't any short of production cash either.

So, after establishing many of the characters in previous films including 2003's "Hulk" (which was remade five years later as "The Incredible Hulk"), 2008's "Iron Man" (and its sequel two years later), and both "Captain America" and "Thor" in 2011, we now have the long-anticipated all-star flick as the first big offering of the "summer" of 2012. Will it play to just fan-boys and fan-girls, or can anyone get into the offering? Read on to find out.

It certainly helps to have seen some if not all of the preceding films (or at least be familiar with their comic book predecessors) to really follow what's going on, but I think even the naive won't have too much difficulty grasping the basic premise. And that's that a being from another planet (Tom Hiddleston) has arrived to conquer Earth, and a government agent (Samuel L. Jackson) has to assemble a team of superheroes to save the present and future.

Among them is a rich playboy inventor (Robert Downey, Jr.); a physicist (Mark Ruffalo) with an unwelcome penchant for turning into a nasty, big green monster; a super soldier from the past (Chris Evans); a former Soviet spy (Scarlett Johansson), and even the villain's very own brother (Chris Hemsworth) who isn't pleased with his sibling's actions. Others from the past standalone films (including Clark Gregg, Gwyneth Paltrow, Stellan Skarsgard) also show up in smaller parts, and there's a good guy turned bad guy turned good guy (Jeremy Renner), but this is really all about the big players and how they do and don't get along.

That results in various bits of comedy, both verbal and physical, with the latter also coming in the form of the usual super-bashing of characters that we've come to expect from such superhero flicks. While that's certainly not novel, the underlying plot isn't anything to write home about, the characters don't get enough time or attention to truly develop, and nothing here approaches the thematic brilliance of "The Dark Knight," I must say I was fairly entertained for much of the flick's over-long running time.

And that's especially true of the film's way over-the-top finale that goes on for what seemed to be at least 10 minutes, with more than enough action, special effects and visceral mayhem to fill a number of summer blockbusters. Granted, there's never really that much at stake from an emotional or cognitive standpoint as we know the studio isn't going to kill off any of its cash cows (for future sequels, be they solo or numbered "Avengers" follow-ups) and thus we realize the central characters will make it out alive.

But beyond the action, there are pleasing moments -- big and small -- scattered throughout the plot, be they a nod to resisting another Holocaust to an agent having trading cards of one of the heroes to the bickering between the characters. While everyone is decently cast, Ruffalo makes a nice substitution for the Bruce Banner part (Edward Norton and Eric Bana preceded him in the earlier films) and Downey. Jr. is as enjoyable as ever playing the snarky Stark (and should make many forget the dud that was "Iron Man 2").

In the end, we pretty much have a flick we've routinely seen before, but done in a way that turns out to be fairly and sometimes infectiously entertaining. If you're a fan of these sorts of flicks or the original comic book series, you'll likely be in superhero heaven. If you're not, this probably won't have the gravitas of "The Dark Knight" to play above and beyond its demographic. I'd be remiss, though, to say I didn't have an enjoyable experience watching this all-star flick unfold, blow by hard blow. It's not great, but it's entertaining and good enough to warrant a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed May 1, 2012 / Posted May 4, 2012

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