Audiences assemble!

Marvel’s The Avengers is an extra large tub of glistening summer popcorn.

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Hats off to Joss Whedon, the Buffy/Firefly/Serenity uber-geek who wrote and directed Marvel’s The Avengers. Tasked with uniting four established franchises (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, The Hulk) into a coherent whole, Whedon has produced a popcorn flick that hums with verbal wit and sharp characterization. Yes, things blow up real good, too — including a climactic war in the Big Apple — but the real fun of The Avengers comes from the clash of personality that results when flawed superheroes are forced to sacrifice selfish goals and work together.

These heroes include: Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and The Hulk (a CGI creation that looks just like Mark Ruffalo). This team of misfits is brought together by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the one-eyed head of S.H.I.E.L.D., a sort of global NSA that keeps the planet secure from threats native and galactic, to battle Thor’s evil brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who has stolen a blue energy cube-thingy and plans to use it to bring an army to earth and enslave us all.

Stay with me, readers older than 16, because I have to tell you that I had a blast during The Avengers, a movie that is more fun and alive than any of last year’s would-be blockbusters. Writer Whedon has given all his characters interesting things to say and do, while director Whedon stages the many fights, chases and explosions with visual panache. These characters all have two main skills, talking and fighting, with one usually leading to the other, and The Avengers delivers it all.

My inner 12-year-old screamed with delight as the movie settled old comic geek debates (Who would win in a fight: Thor or The Hulk?) or made an aircraft carrier fly convincingly. Meanwhile, the conversations (including everything Downey says) kept my brain’s higher functions entertained. It’s these conversations that allow the audience to plug into what each character wants, making the eventual payoff in Manhattan more than just a soulless exercise in special effects. Oh, and when the movie finally lets The Hulk loose, The Avengers is a riot.

If you hate comic books or the past Marvel movies, there’s probably nothing here that will change your mind. And at 2 hours and 20 minutes, the agony will be prolonged. If I were to nitpick, I’d tell you that the plot is recycled sci-fi, the flick drags a bit in the middle, and the grand finale is awfully reminiscent of Transformers: Dark of the Moon — though The Avengers is far superior to that debacle in every way. But these would be nitpicks, and are far outweighed by just how entertaining The Avengers ultimately is.

The actors all seem to be having fun here, with Downey’s rapid-fire quipping leading the way. I appreciated Evans’ pouty Captain America and Ruffalo’s zen-yet-tense Bruce Banner. Hiddleston makes for a good villain, despite being saddled with the movie’s most-ridiculous costume (the horns, eek!), and I continue to really dig Hemsworth as Thor, against my better judgment. On the other hand, poor Jeremy Renner plays a zombie through half the movie, and I’m not sure he’s any more lifelike after snapping out of it. Johansson’s Black Widow gets some meaty scenes, but her assassin-with-a-crappy-childhood character feels small next to a demigod, green rage monster and billionaire-playboy-philanthropist.

I caught The Avengers in IMAX 3D, and as with all movies, the image ends up darker than it should be. That said, the movie looks terrific and it’s worth the more expensive ticket to see The Hulk smash in three dimensions. (Plus you’ll be seeing the flick in 2D on TV forever starting in about a year.) Two other notes on the 3D: Johansson, yes! Samuel L. Jackson’s expanding waistline, no!

Geeknote: With the opening of each superhero flick this summer, Emerald City will be giving away related comic-book titles at area theaters, including Seminole 8, Largo Mall 8 and Muvico theaters.

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