The Avengers (**)

There are two kinds of superhero film fans. The first are those who have outgrown the familiarities of the genre and eager to see something new, be it a wonder and awe not seen or felt before, or an idea/theme that is ripe for the taking. The second are those who are content with supremely safe entertainment, with imagery reinforcing what they already know, wishing to see their special comic book lore acknowledged.

Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” falls squarely for those in the second category, pleased with itself and proud of it. Marvel fans who have wanted to see these heroes in the flesh will get their fill, but for those of us hoping for something more, such spirit is definitely weak.

We all saw it coming, beginning with “Iron Man,” which gamely reinvigorated Marvel’s line of heroes. With its post-credits teasing, it began a multi-threaded plot involving “The Incredible Hulk,” “Thor,” “Captain America” and their sidekicks. Comic strip founding fathers resurrected for a whole new generation of kids to sell toys to.

But in the process of their assembly, there were only so many working parts they could reuse. They had Robert Downey Jr’s invaluable charm as Tony Stark, really the most valuable human presence of the film, whose intense eyes and irresistible snark draws us in every time we get a look inside his armor. But gone is the youthful energy infused by John Favreau’s direction. And the chemistry sparked by Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is in much too short supply.

Gone too is the serious aura of Edward Norton, which wasn’t needed for this Jekyll-esque incarnation of Dr. Banner. Now played by the great Mark Ruffalo, he exists mainly to provide science-speak with Stark. His CGI alter-id in the Hulk, upstages him with the movie’s best moments, punctuating its third act with immensely satisfying comic geek-out sequences and the biggest LOLs. Too bad it all comes way too late.

The Chris-es, Evans (Captain America) and Hemsworth (Thor), are two gifted young actors in a film that does them no favors. The former is a noble bore, while the latter is pretty much a big dumb blonde with a drinking problem (thankfully on hold here). They both deserve better roles and opportunities as none of their gifts, aside from their physical ones, are worth a damn here.

Two extras brought along for the ride do what they can. Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow is smart, fearsome, and insidious. But I wish she could have been cast as another character. You know, one that actually has super powers other than her skin-tight costume. She’s more than what I expected, but undeniably mostly a tease. And Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye shows once more that he’s the American version of Daniel Craig, capable of holding a masculine gravitas regardless of silly second billing. He’s another talent much too valuable for the part.

Even Samuel L. Jackson is under-utilized as he gets out of everyone’s way. His out-of-sight machinations only emphasizes his absence. And Tom Hiddleston, the Super-baddie Loki, is about as intimidating as Thor is interesting. What is it about Marvel’s film-adapted demigods that make them so… boring (save for Idris Elba’s Heimdall).

What the film does do very well is its climax, with Manhattan laid under siege by otherworldly invaders and beasts. It’s here where we finally see this titanic team fulfill visions of hero-loving boys and girls around the world. It isn’t as creative as that of Hellboy’s inter-dimensional account of hell, or the monumentally epic finale of “Dark City” (the gold standard of what a superhuman conflict would look like), but it does the job competently and skillfully.

But really, what took it so long? Its first act is one long predictable slog of trope after trope. Its second is a mixed bag of visual goodies waiting to burst forth (like the rise of the Hellcarrier) and confusing motives clashing against each other. “X-Men: First Class” handled multiple themes and characters with grace and heft that it feels like King Lear compared to this mishmash.

And the third act, though entertaining, is entirely on autopilot. Not once do we feel anything at stake. Not once do we feel the overwhelming odds. The one-liners and sight-gags are fantastic, but I don’t want to remember my superhero movies solely for the jokes. The many colossal monsters which they face fail to raise the kind of awesome thrill of a single gigantic serpent in “How To Train Your Dragon.”

Gone are the times when superhero films dared to take a risk, especially with directors of great imagination. It gives production companies mixed results. With the financial successes of Guillermo Del Toro (the “Hellboy” movies), we have the box office letdown of Ang Lee (“Hulk”), despite both being remarkably creative narratively and visually. Disney is in charge now. And unless Pixar is at the helm (Hey! There’s an idea!), they’ll be pitching safe profit over craftsmanship more often than not.

So there you have it. If you’re a longtime comic book fan who is happy to be reassured with the familiar, or a child who has never heard or seen of these heroes, you’re in for a treat. But if your imagination is waiting to stirred, “The Avengers” is an all too familiar disappointment.

Do I really need to tell you to stay after the credits?

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