Film review: Joss Whedon brings together 'The Avengers'

If you've seen the predecessors to “The Avengers” — “Iron Man” (2008), the Edward Norton version of “The Incredible Hulk” (2008), “Iron Man 2” (2010), “Thor” (2011) and “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011) — part of the new entry's fun is seeing how each of those films' central characters reacts when demoted from sole hero to just another ingredient in a superhero stew. If you haven't seen them, that particular thrill may be lost, but you can still follow the plot well enough to take a good guess at our heroes' back stories.

Disney is releasing the new film; and, even though each of the others came from Universal or Paramount, partner Marvel Studios has managed to maintain an amazing degree of continuity. Mark Ruffalo has inherited the dual role of Hulk/Bruce Banner, but Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, and Chris Evans have returned as Tony Stark/Iron Man, Thor and Steve Rogers/Captain America, along with Scarlett Johansson, Clark Gregg, Stellan Skarsgard, Gwyneth Paltrow and Tom Hiddleston in supporting roles. Samuel L. Jackson had cameos as Nick Fury in a few of the earlier movies; now that Fury emerges as a full-fledged player, his presence pulls the whole series together.

The plot, such as it is, once again involves the tesseract, an apparently infinite power source that looks like a glowing Rubik's cube. While Fury's S.H.I.E.L.D. is running experiments, Loki (Hiddleston) snatches it away, somehow making Dr. Selvig (Skarsgard) and Cliff Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) his slaves. Fury and his cohorts — Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Johansson) and Agent Coulson (Gregg) — recruit the others. Not always easy: Captain America must be defrosted from 70 years in a block of ice, and Bruce Banner has to be cajoled into giving up the solitary life he's constructed to keep his Hulk self at bay.

But, you know, like the whole world is at stake, so who can refuse?

The rest of the plot boils down to: Loki and his forces invade the Earth; the Avengers battle him; and everybody scrambles to possess the tesseract. Outside of that, the purpose and setup for each individual action scene had evaporated from my brain before I reached the parking lot.

The best way to describe all the things director/co-writer Joss Whedon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Serenity”) does right is to compare the film to Michael Bay's “Transformers” franchise. First of all, you can actually distinguish the characters here, whereas, having missed the original “Transformers” craze, I could never tell Optimus Prime from Minimus Secundus or Pessimus Tertius or whoever those walking scrap heaps were supposed to be. In addition, we know what each Avenger's powers and limitations are; what the goals of each side are in any given clash. The final New York battle scene is almost as excessive as Bay's endless blow-'em-ups, but, both visually and story-wise, it's relatively clear what the stakes are, and who's doing what for which reason.

While Whedon displays admirable restraint and intelligence, there are few moments of inspiration. Outside of a string of excellent wisecracks — Downey gets almost all the good lines — and one bit with the Hulk, there is never the sense of giddy excitement that, say, “Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol” creates numerous times. While no one is likely to be hugely disappointed, no one is likely to be totally juiced either.

ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).

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