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Unknown-1“The Avengers,” the new all-superhero-all-the-time Marvel movie, was going to go one of two ways. Either it would be a Frankenstein of the movie; a stitched together monstrosity that cannibalized the remains of the successful movies that came before.

Or it could have been a state-of-the-art geek fest that wove together the separate backstories of its lead characters—Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)—into one seamless super-cool spectacle.

Luckily it’s the former. Director and co-writer Joss Whedon was up to the unenviable task of mixing and matching mythologies, combining them into one epic film that sets a new benchmark for superhero movies (at least until “The Dark knight Rises” comes out).

At stake is nothing less than the freedom of every man, woman and child on earth. The trouble starts when Thor’s brother, exiled god Loki (Tom Hiddleston), steps through a portal into the super secret S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters. Confronted by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) Loki explains his intention steal S.H.I.E.L.D.’s most coveted possession, the Tesseract, a glowing cube that holds the key to unlimited sustainable energy. Of course Loki isn’t interested in creating green energy, he wants to rule the world. Fury knows that he is “hopelessly and hilariously out-gunned,” but if there is a chance to save the planet it lies in the skills of a disparate group of superheroes– Iron Man, Captain America, The Hulk, Thor–and their helpers–Black Widow and Hawkeye.

“The Avengers” has everything you expect from a superhero—or should that be superheri?—movie and more. All the usual clichés are in place—the earth is in peril, there’s giant action set pieces, a super villain with super powers and special effects galore, including the now-standard-for-every-superhero-movie lightening beam from earth to sky—but the best special effect is Joss Whedon’s expert juggling of the major characters.

Each if the lead heroes are stars in their own right, and each has already had their own movie. Whedon’s job was to bring them together, allow each time to shine, but also work together as an ensemble. He succeeds. As the nominal lead Downey Jr. smarms his way through his now trademarked “Iron Man” one liners, Evans emerges as a thoughtful symbol of patriotism, and Hemsworth flexes his muscles in a most impressive way. This olio of heroism gives us what we want from the characters but also freshens the formula.

It’s Ruffalo, however, who really impresses.

The Hulk has had a tough time on the big screen. Ang Lee’s version flopped. The Ed Norton adaptation didn’t really work, but Ruffalo and Whedon have finally figured out how to balance the Hulk’s humanity with his fury. You’ll like him when he gets angry.

“The Avengers” embraces the high-octane tradition of superhero movie—although this movie is by no means wall-to-wall action—but tempers it with sparkling dialogue, geek wit and the silly pleasure of seeing grown men in costumes spouting one-liners as they try and save the planet.

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