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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Marvel's The Avengers' starts superhero summer with a bang

Marvel's The Avengers

(PG-13)

2 1/2 out of 4 stars

As the first tentpole release of the summer 2012 season, "The Avengers" goes full-tilt boogie for the duration. Co-starring four Marvel Comics superhero characters that have already had six solo feature films and two others that will likely get their own in the near future, "The Avengers" is super-sized cinema at its most unabashed and pandering. Movies aren't much bigger, grandiose or eager to please than this one.

For comic-book/sci-fi geeks and/or parents of preteen children, the movie is either cosmic manna from heaven or the perfect audio/visual baby sitter. It's huge, it's loud, it is very funny in all the right places and it is also far too long for its own good.

When it was first announced that Joss Whedon was going to helm the production nearly two years ago, fanboys the world over cried foul. Known principally as the mastermind behind a handful of cult TV series ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer" being the most notable), Whedon wasn't the most unlikely choice but he was close. In retrospect, he was perfect for the gig.

Utilizing his seven-minute per-scene TV blueprint training to maximum effect, Whedon makes the impossible look simple and often brilliant. He and co-writer Zak Penn establish the six title characters and a single villain as quickly as possible without rushing it. In less than 30 minutes, we know everybody and what makes them tick.

With six protagonists (seven if you count Samuel L. Jackson's passively blase leader Nick Fury), the decision to offer up a sole antagonist was wise. He would be Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the brother of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) who is satisfactorily threatening and evil, but in a sort of dandy-ish way. Pasty white and slightly fey, Loki looks more like a Victorian-era "Twilight" character than truly menacing villain. A scene where Loki is presented as a modern-day Aryan with strong Nazi overtones doesn't work and comes off as desperate and mildly distasteful.

Viewing "The Avengers" is similar to watching MLB's All-Star game. Instead of nine innings where everything is on the line, you get three innings each where they can either hit a home run or get a single and then strike out.

Falling into the single/strike out category are Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Initially Mark Ruffalo as David Banner/The Hulk is lackluster and drab but as the film progresses, he is fleshed-out and given considerable depth. The Hulk's 30-second fight scene with Loki marks the movie's comedic and action high point. It is gut-busting hilarious and will be an instant classic.

It shouldn't come as a big surprise that Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man hits not one but two home runs. The movie also propels the developing relationship between Stark and his secretary Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and sets up "Iron Man 3" brilliantly.

At about the two-hour mark, "The Avengers" essentially ceases to be all things good and becomes a slightly less-grating "Transformers." The CGI-heavy battle scenes are edited to death with whiplash speed and it's often hard to tell what's taking place and to whom.

As a popcorn movie and the opening salvo to the summer 2012 lineup, "The Avengers" delivers everything action-hungry audiences could possibly want and, unfortunately, some more. If trimmed down to a lean fighting weight of 120 minutes with more attention on character development and less clang and clutter, it could have been a universally appealing quasi-classic. Instead it's just a bright and shiny, frequently inspired money maker. (Marvel/Paramount)