‘The Avengers’ delivers on four decades of fanboy dreaming

There’s little to be said regarding “The Avengers” that hundreds of reviews and a million online message board postings haven’t said already.

So I’ll say it anyway. “The Avengers” rocks.

Writer/director Joss Whedon’s big-screen version of the Marvel comic — you’ve probably heard of it by now — seems to have broken our collective “Holy Jebus I’m so relieved” meter. Since Marvel published “Avengers” issue number 4 in March 1964, some of us have been waiting for this day with a mixture of anticipation and dread.

Right up until not long before 2008’s “Iron Man” introduced the concept of Marvel’s superhero team — created way back when as an answer to DC’s “Justice League” — to the movies with Nick Fury’s post-credits reference to “The Avengers Initiative,” most of us believed this would never happen. The odds just seemed too great that someone could get this all so right.

Over the decades, superhero movies had gotten bits and pieces of the comic book experience right: The first night Christopher Reeve’s “Superman” patrolled Metropolis; the slightly off-kilter emotional balance of Bruce Wayne and his alter ego in Tim Burton’s “Batman”; the concept of a tempestuous but effective super-powered fighting force in “X-Men.”

But more often than not, filmmakers proved they didn’t have what it takes.

Whedon ably demonstrated he could do heroic, tragic, funny and deprecatingly self-referential in his TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel” and “Firefly.” But to cap — pun only slightly intended — four years of Marvel movie foundation-building with one honkin’ big superhero slugfest seemed like more than anyone could manage.

And yet Whedon did it.

If you’re not familiar with the basic premise by now … I can’t imagine why you’re reading this. Suffice it to say that the heroes and supporting players of “Iron Man,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “Thor” and “Captain America” come together when Loki, Thor’s brother, makes a deal with the devil (spoilers later) to take over the Earth in exchange for the Tesseract — known as the Cosmic Cube in the comics — the source of infinite power introduced in “Captain America”  last year.

The first half of the movie finds the Avengers introducing themselves in Mighty Marvel style: Through a series of misunderstandings and moments of self-interest, they fight, bicker and fight some more, much to the exasperation of Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the SHIELD spymaster who, we discover in this movie, has to answer to a (literally) shadowy group of superiors. And isn’t beyond manipulation.

The threat posed by Loki (Tom Hiddleton, in straight-on villain mode here) is great enough — an alien invasion force poised to devastate New York and, presumably, the planet — to convince the heroes to stop squabbling and work together. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) turns his cool sarcasm down a few notches, Captain America (Chris Evans) learns how to be a leader even in the modern world, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) balances his love for his brother and his sense of guilt, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, in both human and Hulk guises) almost seems to revel in letting the beast off the chain and SHIELD agents Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) more than prove their worth as the non-superpowered members of the team.

(I have to say I haven’t understood those people, many of them ostensibly fans of comic books, who said they didn’t understand why Black Widow and Hawkeye would be members of the team considering their lack of superpowers and invulnerability. The Avengers comic has always included human beings — although highly skilled ones — as members. While the movie has great fight scenes involving Thor and Hulk and Thor and Iron Man and Cap, one of the most dramatic scenes involves Black Widow dealing with the onslaught of the Hulk and its aftermath.)

The second half of the movie finds the Avengers, spurred on by dire circumstances, facing off against not only Loki but his invasion force, made up of the Chitauri, Skrull surrogates from the comics.

If there’s a weakness about the movie it is that the Chitauri are nothing but cannon fodder, not unlike the legion of orcs in “Lord of the Rings” or stormtroopers/fighting droids in the “Star Wars” prequels. While the climactic battle that pits the Avengers against the Chitauri — and devastates half of New York, it seems — is beyond exciting, and scenes with the Avengers in battle against the alien invaders and their giant flying snake things — ask for them by name — are great, it all feels like an extended warm-up for something bigger.

Although it’s hard to imagine what could be bigger than this.

Other thoughts:

Hulk catch: Even if you’ve seen the many, many commercials and clips from “The Avengers,” there are entire sequences you haven’t even glimpsed yet. But I did regret that one of the trailers used the shot of Hulk flinging himself through the air and catching Iron Man as he fell, braking their descent by sliding down the side of a building. When the shot comes, late in the movie, I could anticipate it because I knew I hadn’t seen it yet.

Natasha and Boris — er, Clint: I really want to know more about Black Widow and Hawkeye. The movie doesn’t give them an outright romance, but there’s a lot of shared history there, so much so that they can even joke about it. I want to know all about the movie’s ostensibly “puny humans.”

Tony Stark and Bruce Banner: I loved how Whedon matched up the story’s resident eggheads. They share a lab and a skepticism of SHIELD’s motivations and even ride off into the sunset together at the end. How about making Iron Man/Hulk team-up movies?

Cap’s leadership: Since the fourth issue of  “The Avengers” comic, Captain America has been the team’s leader. There have been many moments of self-doubt for this man out of time. But Steve Rogers is a natural born leader of men. The movie establishes that in a scene in which he barks out orders to some NYC cops who wonder why they should obey his directives. Cap then smoothly demolishes some Chitauri, causing the cops to quickly turn and begin following his orders.

More Pepper: I didn’t realize Gwyneth Paltrow had as prominent a supporting role in “The Avengers” as she does. She and Downey are perfect together. I want a scene or two with her in every “Avengers” sequel.

That’s not creepy at all: SHIELD agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) has had nice supporting parts in several of the Marvel movies. Whedon gives him great stuff here, including a funny scene in which he professes his fanboy love for Cap. “I watched you when you were sleeping,” Coulson says before realizing how stalkerish that sounded. “I was present when you were unconscious .. from the ice,” he quickly adds.

Whedon brings the funny: The whole movie is full of funny quips and scenes like that one.  The guy knows when to ratchet up the action and when to leaven it with humor.

Whedon undercuts expectations. Some people fault Whedon with being too self-referential and jocular, but his sense of humor is perfect for a movie that could be ridiculous. That’s what the final credits scene is about. Finally, after four years of Marvel movies, Whedon came along and played with the audience’s expectations about Marvel’s patented “surprise” extra scenes following the end credits. And he did so in a style familiar to any Whedon watchers.

Spoilers ahead:

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What you’ve heard about the two “Avengers” credits scenes is true. Partway through the end credits, the mysterious figure backing Loki’s invasion is revealed, although non-fans might not recognize Thanos, the Marvel Comics god of death. It sets things up nicely for a sequel.

And the scene at the very end — showing the exhausted heroes having a bite to eat in a battle-scarred New York restaurant, while an employee tries to sweep up in the background — is quintessential Whedon.

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