Reviewer's rating: 8/10

'Avengers' cast get into character

Mark Ruffalo and fellow cast in 'Marvel Avengers Assemble' talk about their roles and how they got into character.

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Reviewer rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Reader rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars (224 votes)

Seven years after the idea that the remaining heroes of the Marvel universe should finally have their time to shine on the big screen, in steps one of the world's biggest comic-book nerds to maintain order, in an otherwise unruly and overly competitive arena.

Joss Whedon, a seasoned scribe (of TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel fame) with only one previous directorial outing to his name, marshals matters effectively throughout, without losing sight of that other key demographic: those who dispensed with their comic books long ago. For what he lacks in flair - particularly compared with Kenneth Branagh (who directed Thor) - he makes up for in due diligence. In Whedon's world, every superhero gets a fair go: none is allowed to outshine the other.

The Marvel universe has never felt busier, nor more lucrative. 

The story does, however, derive from the type of geek gathering one expects to find in a comic store. Indeed, as evil deity Loki (Hiddleston) arrives on planet Earth via a mysterious portal called the Tesseract, with global domination uppermost in his mind (and some fairly standard space monsters behind), you might be hard-pressed to fathom what they're actually wittering on about, and longing for Iron Man, Thor or even Captain America to resume control.

Pretty fly ... Iron Man (Robert Downey jnr) takes off.

Pretty fly ... Iron Man (Robert Downey jnr) takes off.

But fear not, Earthlings: for once S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Nick Fury (Jackson) begins his governmental Avenger Initiative, the familiar return swiftly for a gag-soaked ride of near-epic proportions. Tony Stark, aka Iron Man (Downey jnr), is soon firing wisecracks at WWII hero Captain America (Evans) for his overly serious patriotism, while Thor (Australia's Hemsworth, back speaking like a Shakespearean druid) and the Hulk (Ruffalo) rile one another throughout. Only sharpshooter Hawkeye (Renner) and super-spy Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Johansson), are relatively unknown. Screen time is divided up in suitably democratic fashion.

What's most gratifying about this super-size superhero-fest, though, is its ability to pull back, to infuse a degree of subtlety in an exercise that at any moment could appear bloated. The return of the Hulk - Ruffalo being the third actor in modern times to try his hand at the troubled green giant - is indicative of this. When the beast within does emerge, he's pure, unadulterated Hulk: handy when fighting an alien army. When inside S.H.I.E.L.D.'s rather nifty underwater cum invisible flying machine, the Hulk - or, rather, his tortured human version, Bruce Banner - is awkward, withdrawn and largely silent, donning ill-fitting clothes with a quiet sense of foreboding. Ruffalo's take on this is one of the film's unexpected delights: after Eric Bana's and Ed Norton's ill-fated outings on screen, we finally have a new Hulk that's just the right shade of green. Even creator Stan Lee, in his customary cameo, seems to be nodding his approval.

Indeed, the only real gripe to be had with this latest Marvel offering is its running time. At almost 2½ hours, it - like many big-budget affairs - doesn't appear to know when to wrap. Why is it so hard for studios to keep matters feeling both urgent and concise? A tightly wound 110 minutes would have sufficed.

Scarlett Johansson perfects her not-bothered face as Black Widow.

Scarlett Johansson perfects her not-bothered face as Black Widow.

Similarly, Jackson still appears surplus to requirements in these films: a scenario once unthinkable. Although given more to do here, his take on Nick Fury feels too, well, cartoony, given the urgency of what's about to unfold.

That aside, Whedon's dream ticket as a writer-director looks set to clean up, ahead of other mammoth comic-book blockbusters (The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises) due in the coming months. A third Iron Man outing is also under way, with return visits for Thor and Captain America both due to kick off later this year. The Marvel universe has never felt busier, nor more lucrative. And, Iron Man 2 aside, the tone remains all but pitch-perfect. Certainly, to get geeks and non-geeks sitting side by side in a theatre takes some doing. The challenge now is to retain - or even better - that, with the various, colossal outings that lie ahead. As Thor himself might say, "Marvel, will you make them so?"

The Avengers
Rated M, 143 minutes, now showing
Stars: Robert Downey jnr, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson