**1/2 (out of four)
From my left shoulder, a tiny, excited voice makes its case: “This movie’s great! There’s Robert Downey Jr. being snarky and Scarlett Johansson kicking the ass of someone who’s eyeing hers and special effects that totally make it look like the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) jumps through the sky. What more do you want?”
Then, from the other shoulder: “Yes, but did you notice all that down time in the middle? When one conversation follows another conversation follows another conversation, in a 143-minute movie that actually doesn’t have that much developing story? ‘Superhero all-star game’ sounds good on paper, but …”
Perhaps your willful affection and nagging sense of truth also will debate “The Avengers,” the Marvel roster’s big-screen reunion that feels both massive and somehow underwhelming. Writer-director Joss Whedon (“Serenity”) offers more fun than the boring origin story of “Thor” and the disappointing “Iron Man 2,” but less than “Captain America” or the first “Iron Man.”
When the “Avengers” action scenes dazzle, they’re like your first fireworks. A few jokes kill. And the stars, of course, make any cast outside of “Ocean’s Eleven” look like a bunch of amateurs. Yet it’s Tom Hiddleston, as Thor’s evil brother Loki, who delivers the sole memorably juicy performance. Taking over for Edward Norton (who took over for Eric Bana), Ruffalo makes a sleepy Bruce Banner, balanced out by crucial badassness from Samuel L. Jackson in a beefier role as team leader Nick Fury.
As Iron Man (Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Johansson) and others battle Loki for a bright, blue energy cube called the Tesseract that could destroy a planet, “The Avengers” hovers without exploding. It’s a little funny and moderately cool. And weirdly forgettable. When the Marvel superheroes unite for some next-level crime stoppage, shouldn’t the gigantic finale be something fresher than yet another destructive fight in Manhattan? It’s a slow build to eye-popping déjà vu.
Comic book fans will drool. But for someone who enjoys these characters based on their movies’ execution, the accumulation of so many personalities and skills of varying sizzle—with all due respect, Hawkeye’s (Jeremy Renner) command of a bow and arrow looks kinda puny next to Thor’s hammer and Hulk’s everything—suggests a popcorn movie dream team as often as it suggests a crowded party of folks vying to contribute in thinner roles.
A balanced attack makes coaches happy, but most fans would rather see a star-studded squad fill up a highlight reel than put up 10 points each.
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