I've been hearing lately from a lot of naysayers that the comic book/superhero movie is stumbling towards irrelevancy, that all the good characters and adventures have been strip-mined. And when cookie-cutter origin stories are the norm, when outer-space-ian threats to humankind's very existence are so completely unthreatening that your response is, "I wonder what those pizza-pretzels at concession taste like?" and when what should be character-specific wit is just a punched-up-but-still-indistinguishable soup of sarcastic quips, it's easy to agree. Comics aren't junk. But studios sometimes treat them like they are. The grumps have a point.
Except when they don't. Like right now.
Welcome to the next great superhero story, one that will restore any good will you've allowed to fade away in the past couple years, one that earns all its excited pre-release buzz. And in the film's opening, when Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the villainous, adopted brother of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), announces, hilariously, "I am burdened with glorious purpose!" he's talking about himself and his plan to make everybody die, but he might as well be speaking of the movie he's in. Everything in the goofy universe of extraordinary beings performing extraordinarily brave acts feels like it matters again, at least for now.
The threat is presented in the form of the "Tesseract," a cosmic energy cube that can destroy all life. Loki's got it and he's going to use it. We're all in trouble. If you need a real-world analogy, just think about those unstable Japanese nuclear reactors that won't withstand another earthquake before -- no joke -- poisoning every single thing in the world to death.
The band is assembled. And sure, it might help if you've already seen Thor and Captain America and both Iron Man movies, for no other reason than that this film allows them to grow as characters out of their respective origin tales. But it's not absolutely essential. Bring a nerd friend to fill in the gaps where necessary. Meanwhile, you don't need to see either of the Hulk movies. Nobody's really gotten him right until right now, anyway.
And while the action here is exciting, as wham-bam as you want it to be, the biggest pleasure involves watching director Joss Whedon flex his strongest muscle, which is managing the group. It takes a master plate-spinner to handle larger-than-life personalities, keep the action going, remember to give everyone a shot at greatness and never lose sight of the fact that an ensemble needs to be populated by strong personalities who crash into each other even while they work together for a common goal. So when Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, the best Hulk we've been given), Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) spend a good chunk of the movie standing around bitching at each other, it's character development of the coolest kind and a respectful nod to the way the characters really interact in the original comic. Whedon is building a family of fighters and everybody knows you fight with your family the most.
So if the save-the-world-a-lot beats are the ones you've felt before, if the first chunk moves awkwardly as Loki sets his diabolically crazypants plan in motion, if the Transformers-ization of How Movies Destroy Big Cities is a little too familiar and if the 140 minute running time is a bit butt-numbing, the whole dwarfs the finer points and any irritation you experience won't stick around for long. The job here is to make the Big Bad go away and to save the genre from boredom. The good news is that these heroes won't rest until they've accomplished both. They happily work overtime for you.