The Avengers - (4½ Stars)
Starting with 2008's Iron Man, Marvel has been slowly and steadily building up their movie universe bit by bit, quite the bold undertaking when it comes to cinema. There hasn't really been anything similar to the approach (apart from simple sequels). The pay-off (literally and figuratively) arrived this summer in the form of the super team-up The Avengers. Bringing together the likes of Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Hawkeye, and Black Widow as Earth's mightiest heroes called upon to defend (and Avenge) against whatever threat we may face.
Out of the gate Avengers can get straight to the story since they don't have to really introduce the characters. With the movie clocking in at around 2 and a half hours, this is definitely a plus. It's always tricky making a team movie work, but Joss Whedon delivers. He's had plenty of experience with ensembles in both the comics medium (writing Astonishing X-Men) and TV/Movies (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly/Serenity). Delivering action and drama, along with the trademark Whedon humor. With the Avengers, we have a team of larger than life beings who really don't work well together, but yet in order to "save earth," they have to. It's these character dynamics that really make the movie.
The Avengers balances each character quite well without focusing, for the most part, on 1 or 2 characters. Captain America and Iron Man do receive more screen time than the others, but it in no way feels like it's just their movie. One of the best aspects of the movie comes from the newest addition to the cast, Mark Ruffalo as Dr. Bruce Banner (aka the Hulk). Each other Avenger also has their share of the spotlight along with head of S.H.I.E.L.D. Nick Fury and his right-hand man, Agent Coulson (who have both been popping up in some of the previous movies).
The scope of the movie is huge, which both helps and hurts the movie. There's a lot going on, and Whedon does his best to keep things grounded despite the other-worldly aspects, but it does sometimes feel a little effects heavy (which I suppose is to be expected with a super hero movie of this magnitude). The film does lag at points, but it also has three very distinct acts that really help the overall pacing of the movie. Overall, The Avengers stands as the jewel in Marvel's "Phase One" crown, capping a great run of standalone movies. Hopefully the momentum can continue with its "Phase Two" movies coming out over the next couple years (Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Guardians of the Galaxy) as they lead up to the eventual Avengers sequel.
(143 minutes - Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, and a mild drug reference - 2012)