"The Avengers" is two and a half hours of pure, unadulterated fun -- the cinematic equivalent not just of a roller coaster ride but of the whole damn amusement park. Drop tower, log flume, Tilt-A-Whirl, Gravitron -- you name it, it's in there.
No, it's not a dark, moody critique of our fallen social order in the mold of Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" series, but it's not mindless either. As Mark Ruffalo recently acknowledged, the endlessly bickering Avengers -- Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and the Hulk -- serve as a pretty good metaphor for today's ultra-partisan America, where we're all too busy taking cheap shots across the aisle to even think about tackling any global threats.
But unlike Nolan, director Joss Whedon doesn't want you to walk out of the theater pondering a political message. He wants you flying like Iron Man, propelled by a twin jet pack of smart comedy and face-melting action.
And make no mistake: the action is epic. There's an obvious comparison to the city-smashing mayhem of "Transformers 3," but the difference is that it's actually possible to follow what's happening in "The Avengers." There is a crispness, despite the high-octane velocity. It's not a blur.
My opponent in this debate complains that there are no stakes in this story because the good guys can't lose. And he has a point: we learn early on that Thor and The Hulk are effectively immortal, and Tom Hiddleston's Loki isn't the most threatening villain we've ever seen. But when's the last time you faced death in the course of a week, or a month, or a year? Does that mean you're living a pointless existence with no "stakes"?
If you ask me, their invincibility makes these superheroes more relatable: like you and me, they are preoccupied not with survival but with such all-too-human matters as pride, vanity and comfort (Bruce Banner's main complaint about his Hulk alter ego is that it really hurts). Only after they've made a mess of everything by pursuing their own selfish interests are they finally able to stand together and fight for what's right.
Look, I won't try to convince you to care about the tesseract or Loki's pact with evil aliens or any of the rest of it. I don't think even Whedon thinks that's possible, which is part of why this movie is so much fun. The point is to spend time with the characters, whom we know not just from the previous films in the series but from comic books and assorted childhood memories.
There must have been times when Whedon felt like Nick Fury as he tried to manage all the movie-star egos in this mix, but the results are really extraordinary. Everyone from Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr. to Tom Hiddleston and Gwyneth Paltrow is in fine form, and by now you've heard how Mark Ruffalo quietly steals the show. That said, I probably had the most fun watching Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth -- two guys who weren't really movie stars until Marvel cast them in these roles. For that reason, it was possible to suspend disbelief and pretend that I was flying along not with two increasingly well-paid actors but with Captain America and Thor, defenders of the universe. (And no, I wasn't able to sit through "Thor" either.)
All I ask when I plunk down for a superhero movie is to be delighted, transported, not bored. So maybe the best thing I can say about this 150-minute extravaganza is that I laughed, cheered, gasped and clapped, and never once looked at my watch.