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Family Movie Review: The Avengers (PG-13)

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MPAA Rating: PG-13     Length: 142 minutes

Appropriate for ages 10+. I wish I could say that “The Avengers” is perfect for every single fan of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes; unfortunately, its unrelenting frenzy of light, noise and motion, will likely be too intense for younger eyes, minds and insulin levels to withstand. Beyond that, there are skintight outfits and bared muscle groups (biceps ASSEMBLE!)—nothing you haven’t seen on an action figure. Swearing is a nonissue. A couple of cocktails are poured, and there’s a fleeting reference to marijuana.

There’s no other way to say it: “The Avengers” is awesome. It’s the absolute best kind of bonkers—clever, chaotic, and utterly committed to both honoring and improving upon the already popular comics-movie franchise, and to bringing even skeptical non-nerds along for the ride. (Hey—looks like there was another way to say it.)

By Jared Peterson

The best Marvel superhero movie yet starts with the obligatory secret lab in the desert. The shadowy supragovernmental agency known as S.H.I.E.L.D. has been tinkering with a funky piece of tech called the Tesseract, an ancient energy cube that holds the key to clean, renewable power.

But in bursts Loki (Tom Huddleston), the Norse God of Deceit and Deceptively Soothing British Accents (and the villain from last year’s “Thor”), to hijack the cube for his own purposes—something about an alien army and ruling the world. S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who besides clean energy initiatives dabbles in superhero surveillance, has been keeping tabs on Earth’s mightiest heroes. Now is the time to round them all up for a playdate with evil.

Okay, before we go any further, it’ll help to have a little roll call. There’s Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), aka Tony Stark, the billionaire smartaleck; Captain America (Chris Evans), aka Steve Rogers, recently unthawed WWII supersoldier; The Hulk (played by a bunch of ones and zeroes), aka Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), mild-mannered physicist with anger issues; Thor (Chris Hemsworth), thunderous, dreamy demigod; The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), aka Natasha Romanov, catsuited mercenary and manipulator; and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), aka Clint Barton, crack archer and tortured soul.

This bunch is an HR nightmare. Everyone has issues, often with each other. Stark bonds with Banner over their shared genius and butts heads with Rogers over tactics and whose chest can puff out the most. Banner (in my mind the most fascinating character in the Marvel film pantheon) is still tortured by the green menace inside of him—”The Other Guy”, he calls it, a force so raw that Banner once attempted suicide to escape it, and so powerful that his failing in that attempt almost seems like the real tragedy. Natasha, an expert at mind games, matches wits with Loki, but dredges up her personal demons in the process. Thor frets over his responsibility for Loki, his adopted brother. The trick for Fury, of course, is to get this steamy mess of ego, superego, and id to congeal into a team.

That “The Avengers” came together so well is a credit to hundreds of talented actors, artists, and technicians. But if you only wanted to send one thank-you card, address it to writer-director Joss Whedon. Whedon is responsible for some the best TV you’ve probably never seen: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, its spinoff “Angel”, and the razor-sharp sci-fi series “Firefly”. He specializes in smart, snappy dialogue and strong, complex characters (whom he feels no qualms about killing off at the height of their popularity). He is a virtuoso of smarm and crosstalk, the only person I can think of who could make superheroes arguing in a conference room as engaging as superheroes fighting aliens in the streets of New York.

Beginning with the first “Iron Man” in 2008, each film in this growing franchise has struck a special and incredibly satisfying tone—epic and reverent, but also smart and self-aware. (“Iron Man” set the red-and-gold standard, though last year’s “Thor” was surprisingly successful at it, too.) Whedon (with help from Zak Penn, with whom he co-crafted the story) takes these tones and composes a symphony with movements that range from frenzied visual cacophony to thoughtful adagio and back again. “The Avengers” is action-packed the way “Hamlet” is a little chatty. Actually, to be honest, “The Avengers” is a little chatty, too—delightfully so. In Downey, Whedon has found his verbal Stradivarius, though all of these actors do well with Whedon’s words. (The debatable exception is Renner’s Hawkeye—he’s like that quiet dude on the edges of your college crew; no one’s sure why he’s there, but then it turns out he’s crazy good at quarters.)

When Loki gets the Tesseract portal open, what ensues is a battle of “Saving Private Ryan” length and “Independence Day” proportion. Out pours an army of alien snowmobilers and gigantic, mechanical silverfish that set about a chaotic revision of Manhattan property values. The badassery of each team member is put on spectacular display, and their talents and tropes and catchphrases are combined in unique ways that will make normal people say “Whoa!” or “Ha!” and the nerds say either “I never imagined that” or “I totally thought of that three years ago at Comic-Con.”

It’s difficult to overestimate how much fun “The Avengers” is, combining and magnifying as it does the best qualities of the last few Marvel films. And you don’t have to study up to enjoy it—though I can hardly think of a better set of prerequisite texts. The toughest thing about seeing “The Avengers” will be leaving the littlest fans at home, as it’s probably a bit too much for younger kids to withstand.

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