Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man
Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America
Chris Hemsworth as Thor
Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk
Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow
Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton/Hawkeye
Tom Hiddleston as Loki
Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury
Colbie Smulders as Maria Hill
Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson
Stellan Skarsgard as Eric Selvig
Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts
Paul Bettany as the voice of JARVIS
"Marvel's The Avengers" isn't the Second Coming, though it feels like it's been in the works almost as long as, but as far as big summer entertainment goes you'll rarely get much better.
For those who may not have been following along, the Powers That Be of the Marvel films have been tracking the comings and goings of the newly immerged super powered people like Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, replacing Edward Norton), approaching them in the form of shadowy superspy Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to tell them about The Avengers Initiative.' An initiative to bring the most powerful individuals on the planet together to face the problems the world can't. And they're about to get that opportunity when Loki (Tom Hiddleston) arrives on Earth looking for the mysterious artifact Captain America (Chris Evans) nearly died trying to destroy during World War II.
With this many characters and this much plot going on, everything about "The Avengers" is a balancing act, where any given toe out of line could send the entire thing collapsing like a house of cards. Fortunately, co-writer/director Joss Whedon ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer") has long shown his understanding of the need for developed character to the get most out of even the most superficial of stories. Combined with a sharp ear for dialogue, the result is the sort of light thrills we deserve but don't often get. There's not much underneath that all that skill it's one of the few weaknesses keeping "The Avengers" out of the Great column but it's eminently forgivable with this much fun going on.
Like the best of these kinds of films, "Avengers" gallops along at break neck pace beginning with Loki breaking out of a secret S.H.I.E.L.D. base right up until an invading army of aliens descends on New York, only stopping occasionally to catch its breath. Which is when it tends to get really interesting, letting Whedon's gift at humanism and insight into these characters come out and play. Rather than fall back on clich้d adventure mechanisms and hackneyed dialogue, Whedon takes the time to understand what makes these characters tick, bringing the viewer in and making them care what happens to these people rather than to just wait to see what happens next.
He hits his apotheosis, and "The Avengers" best moments, in the second act as the team is gathered for the first time to try and find out what Loki's plan really is, and immediately begin to mistrust one another in a way which is perfectly organic and believable. It doesn't have quite the level of adrenaline madness as the rest of the film, even once the Hulk and Thor start tearing the place apart in a frenetic melee (just one of a variety comic book X vs. X' moments "Avengers" is full of), but you can't turn away from it for a moment.
It helps greatly that Tom Hiddleston's Loki continues to be among the best of modern Marvel's villains and Whedon has an excellent idea how to use him. He doesn't have quite the presence he did in "Thor" as most of his mental breakdown is in the past, but his ability to show Loki's conflict particularly when Thor is around brings more out than most super villains ever get.
And visually it is resplendent, particularly in IMAX 3D, which is the best way to experience the climactic New York battle as the Avengers come together to fight off Loki and his horde. All of the four color brilliance of 60s Marvel comics are on display and several extended single shots which swoop through the city showing each of the Avengers in battle really are a sight to behold.
All of this fun does come at a cost, however. Adventure films do not, as a rule, handle large casts of central characters particularly well. Not unless they are several parts long with a collective viewing time of over 10 hours, anyway. "The Avengers" has some of that going for it; with so many of its major figures starring in their own films, they don't have to be introduced and most of us already have a feel for who they are. However this is the first time they are interacting together and for all of Whedon's skill there's only so much even he can do in two hours plus.
Whedon himself clearly has favorites particularly Iron Man, Black Widow and the Hulk with non-favorites gradually fading into the background. With some characters, like Black Widow who haven't had a chance to be developed on their own, this makes sense. But as a whole it is a noticeable lapse, especially in the case of Captain America who comes on strong in the beginning and gradually fades despite being one of the franchise players. Being the most straightforward and least ironic of all the Avengers, Whedon, for all his strengths, seems to have no idea how to use him. And the lack of screen time for Thor, the other straight man with not much of a dark side, is almost as noticeable as he has the deepest emotional connection with Loki of any of the players, as is obvious in all of their scenes together and how few and far apart those scenes are.
Loki himself also suffers from degeneration as the film wears on. Many of Whedon's classic ticks are on display in "The Avengers," particularly his need to take the mickey out of well-worn tropes. This often works in the short term, adding humor and surprise and enjoyment, but it can weaken the overall structure by removing pieces that need to be there (which is why they always are). For all his strength as a villain, as time wears on he tends to mainly exist to get punched in the face for a joke. Which is great at the moment, in fact it's "The Avengers'" most memorable moment, but it also robs the film a true climax between the heroes and the villain.
If that small part of the film, however important, doesn't work it's still only a small criticism of a generally good film. It might not have been actually possible to turn it into a great film it has too much it has to do and actually accomplishes most of it but it's a damn good one and worth the time to check it out on the big screen.
The only real problem it's going to be a long wait till "Avengers 2."