March 18 2013 12:00 AM

It's been a long time coming, but 'The Avengers' is a terrific ride


Midway through “The Avengers,” there’s an argument between feuding brothers Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who have met up on the cliffs above a forest. Power-mad Loki, who is tired of living in Thor’s towering shadow, wants to conquer Earth, while the congenial Thor wants to save the planet.

“So you take the world I love as recompense for your imagined slights?” Thor bellows.

That’s when Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) intrudes, eager to put Loki out of commission. “You have no idea what you’re dealing with!” Thor warns. Stark looks at the duo, both dressed in their traditional Nordic costumes, and fights off the urge to roll his eyes. “Shakespeare in the Park?” he cracks.

It's moments like that one that make “The Avengers” irresistible. Charged with making the ultimate geek-cinema epic, writer-director Joss Whedon has slyly gone a few steps further: He’s assembled a snazzy, sassy and supremely satisfying extravaganza that almost seamlessly combines the thrills and spectacle you anticipate with generous doses of off-the-wall humor and surprising details you don’t. As in Whedon’s wonderfully warped “The Cabin in the Woods,” expectations are both fulfilled, turned upside down and twisted like corkscrews.

Moviegoers who haven’t seen all the Marvel Comics films that have led up to “The Avengers” — that would be “Iron Man,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “Iron Man 2,” “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger” — will not feel completely out of the loop, but those who have can rest assured that the long lead-up pays off remarkably well. Whedon’s screenplay picks up more or less where “Thor” and “Captain America” left off, cleverly tying the two storylines together with Loki, the villain of “Thor,” in hot pursuit of the Tesseract, the terrifyingly powerful cube of “unlimited sustainable energy” that everyone was trying to procure in “Captain America.” We already knew the Tesseract had enormous value as a weapon, but in “The Avengers” it’s revealed that it has the potential to open portals between universes: great news for Loki, who wants to transport ferocious warriors from his home planet of Asgard, not-so-great news for those of us who don’t feel like being subjugated by space invaders.

On the positive side, Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.) agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who has been hanging around the edges of the Marvel movies up until now, is putting together a plan to turn Iron Man, Thor, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Dr. Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, taking over from Edward Norton in “The Incredible Hulk” and Eric Bana in “The Hulk”) and Natasha Romanoff/The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) into a powerhouse fighting force. Although Fury would like to add Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) to the mix as well, that proves to be a little complicated, for reasons that shouldn’t be revealed.

As “The Avengers” unfolds, it becomes obvious that the Tesseract isn’t the only thing around with unlimited sustainable energy. The movie doesn’t simply set up a series of explosion-heavy, earth-shaking, effects-driven sequences, it pulls them together into a compelling narrative that’s full of tension (the would-be teammates initially spend more time challenging and confronting each other than they do cooperating), suspense and good-natured goofiness. While Downey, slipping effortlessly once more into Stark’s jaded-playboy-turned-world-weary-hero persona, gets a sizable share of the punchlines, no one should overlook the comic contributions of Clark Gregg as the indefatigable, unrufflable agent Phil Coulson, who has a much more substantial stake in the game here than he had in “Thor” or the “Iron Man” films.

As for the rest of the super-squad, Johansson is first-class as the cryptic, quick-thinking Black Widow, while Ruffalo puts an unsettling, intriguing edge on the hard-to-read Banner. Hemsworth and Evans continue to bring a bit of depth and dimension to characters that might have easily come across as foolish in the wrong hands. Renner is given less of a chance to make a strong impression, although he certainly seems at home in the action world.

As the loathsome Loki, Hiddleston is wonderfully maniacal without flying off into the stratosphere of campiness. As his henchman unleash the kind of destructive mayhem in Manhattan that makes King Kong’s visit seem like a minor irritation, Loki serenely stands by, savoring the show. He won’t be the only one: You do not have to be a dyed-in-the-wool fanboy to have a smashingly good time with “The Avengers.