Perhaps there was a time in history when this wouldn’t have felt all that special. People forget the Wolfman met Frankenstein’s Monster, so have Abbott & Costello. I remember cheering on King Kong as he shoved a tree down Godzilla’s throat. Characters have been sharing universes, or variations of respective universes, for a long time. But I already lived in a world where those films existed.

After seeing it, I’m still having a hard time believing The Avengers exists. An odd thing considering so much of 2010′s Iron Man 2 was a billboard exclaiming “Hey, Avengers! Wink!” Marvel Studios learned from that approach, and thankfully scaled back such allusions in Thor and Captain America – though by no means abandoning them. Point being: Marvel has been telling us for five years that this was coming. The element of surprise, the thrill of seeing these characters throw down, should have eroded by now.

Why is it then, the moment I saw Iron Man and Captain America meet for the first time, framing the history of it all; I had a hard time keeping the smile from my face? For a movie I approached with a sliver of apathy, it was a delight to feel that melt away. Not only does Avengers work, it will go down as Marvel Studio’s great victory lap: a film where, considering the varying degrees of success of their previous efforts, the foundation that’s been laid pays off. Director Joss Whedon and company have delivered an experience that is thrilling and pulpy. Dumb in parts, but always a party.

So much of The Avengers is informed by what’s come before. You wouldn’t be lost if this is your first Marvel film, it’s a cut and dry affair (Thor and Loki’s history being one of a few muddied exceptions). But the most rewarding parts are when they throw back to the previous films. It’s the little things. Like when Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) wonders what his father Howard saw in Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), that give the film depth and complexity that newcomers will miss out on. But writer / director Whedon weaves it effortlessly into his tapestry, and it’s a richer experience for it.

The film doesn’t waste time getting its components into place. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has forged a deal with the Chitauri, an alien race at the ass end of the universe. In exchange for the Chitauri’s help invading Earth, Loki will provide them the Tesseract (the same Cosmic Cube in Captain). A prism of infinite energy, the Tesseract is under the watch of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his S.H.I.E.L.D. organization at film’s start. When it comes into Loki’s possession, the moment arrives for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes to assemble and confront the oncoming threat both Loki and the Chitauri pose.

And watching these Avengers “assemble” really is the most rewarding part. It’s messy. Captain America is a boy scout of a different time, Iron Man is a brilliant egotist, Thor wants his brother to leave this vindictive game behind and come home, Hulk is… well, we’ll get to Hulk in a moment. But their character progressions in previous films inform them here. When Loki watches Thor wallop on Iron Man, he’s pleased because he sees division in his foes. But he’s also proud of his brother – which to me is one of those relationship-complications that gives the film weight.

That’s Joss Whedon’s wheelhouse. I’ve never been a devout worshipper at the altar of Whedon, but there’s a lot I’ve enjoyed about his work. I wasn’t convinced he was ready for a film of this magnitude. Whedon’s talent as a writer has always been his ability to zero in to the roots of his characters’ relationships and exploit them in ways that are organic to the narrative. At its core, this is an ensemble film. And it’s one that’s dialed in to the clashing dynamics of its characters.

And it’s a good thing Whedon nails the interpersonal aspect, because the plot is dumb. The dialogue is brilliant in parts, the performances range from serviceable to great, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey shoots a beautiful action movie, and all of these aspects work to distract you from Avengers‘ dumb narrative. Loki’s motivations are foggy and scattered (same as they were in Thor). When apprehended early in the film, he reveals his master plan was to escape said imprisonment. This is after he already has the Tesserect. It fills the second act, but it’s wholly unnecessary to Loki’s endgame. Avengers is consistent with these logistical fumbles, but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Marvel has chosen their performers well. Robert Downey Jr. works magic when his director keeps him dialed in – Whedon does exactly that. Iron Man is the go-between for the crew. He’s got beef with almost everyone – excluding Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who he sees as an intellectual counterpart. Everyone in the film gets at least one great Downey scene.

Whedon wisely chooses Captain America as his audience’s surrogate. It’s Steve Rogers, a human popsicle since WWII, that moviegoers will most identify with. I’ve never enjoyed Rogers in the comics, so it’s odd that the same things I dislike about Rogers in one medium are what work for me in this one. Chris Evans plays his virtuous boy scout persona as an everyman unsure of this new world around him, determined to save it because that’s all he is. Everything is “Yes sir,” or “No, ma’am.” His Rogers is the same breed of solider he’s been, but Whedon saw fit to use this displacement for great juxtaposition. He’s an asskicker, but he’s a damn polite one.

Chris Hemsworth has turned into a very competent Thor, able to offer presence and stature indicative of the God of Thunder. The physicality he brings to his fight scenes is great. His is a tortured Thor, still hoping to redeem his brother’s sins. Speaking of redemption, Avengers saves Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. Her opening scene in Moscow is classic Whedon asskickery, and it sets the character’s tone for the remainder of the film. Johansson’s still flat in her delivery (if only her delivery), but Whedon smartly presents that shortcoming as a defense mechanism.

I never clicked with Tom Hiddleston’s Loki in Thor. There was a component to Loki that was too joyless to ever truly be a God of Mischief. Hiddleston is more effective here – his Loki takes pleasure in the menace he causes, revels in it. The character still feels underwritten in his motivation, but he’s given a few scenes to finally smile and do some real damage. Still, he’d be better served as a secondary villain.

The rest of the performances register to varying degrees of success. Samuel L. Jackson is still doing his Samuel L. Jackson thing as Nick Fury. Cobie Smulders delivers the only terrible performance in the film as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill, but she’s a non-entity throughout. Jeremy Renner doesn’t have much to do as Hawkeye, but Hawkeye never had much to do as Hawkeye. He’s fine, but offers little. He could have been saved for a sequel and the film wouldn’t have missed a beat. Clark Gregg on the other hand, is ever the unsung hero of these Marvel films. Here, Agent Coulson gets to be the heart as well.

Which brings us to the one-two punch of Mark Ruffalo and The Hulk. Ruffalo isn’t just filling in for the displaced Ed Norton. His Bruce Banner is a different, but definitive Banner performance. There’s something refreshingly un-superheroic about Banner and his monster for most of Avengers. Banner knows he’s the green elephant in the room, resenting that people have to treat him with kid gloves. For most of the film, Whedon uses his Hulk sparingly. And then, with one word, he unleashes the Jade Giant. I haven’t mentioned the action yet, but it’s epic. And The Hulk is absolutely the best part of it. The color, the tone, the CGI – Marvel nails it all. There’s a beat where the Hulk looks at a character in distress and isn’t sure whether to help them or punch them, that manic confusion and unrelenting anger is the essence of the character, and it’s finally conveyed brilliantly in this film. The Hulk is Avengers‘s ace in the hole, both visually and conceptually. It feels as if we’re being introduced to this character for the first time, no small feat.

The film is bathed in computer-generated imagery, but it’s one of the few times where the images onscreen don’t feel obnoxiously CG, the money shots have girth. The Hellicarier looks and moves like it should. Same with the destruction in New York and all the other visual treats that await you. You don’t need to see this in 3D, it adds nothing (the Marvel logo was the best 3D image in the entire film). It’s a great looking film regardless of the price point you pay to see it.

The Avengers arrives first in a summer that will have been saturated in comic book movies come August. Marvel Studios is going to buy a lot of goodwill with this film, it’s deserved. I didn’t think the studio had it in them to deliver an Avengers film as satisfying as this, but I’m glad to have been wrong. For fans that have been looking to this moment with great anticipation, enjoy it. I know I am.

★★★★★

Out of a Possible 5 Stars