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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

In the comic book series "The Avengers," Marvel brought together some of its famous superheroes to fend off intergalactic threats. The characters - Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, and Captain America - has each had his own blockbuster movie or movies and they now unite in what, on the basis of advance ticket sales, promises to be a huge hit. "The Avengers" is written and directed by Joss Whedon and will be shown in some theaters in 3D. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Two spheres merge in "The Avengers": the Marvel Comics universe and the Whedonverse, fans' name for the nerdy wisecracking existentialist superhero world of writer-director Joss Whedon. The Whedon cult is smaller but maybe more fervent, inspiring academic conferences on such subjects as free will vs. determinism in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." I find a lot of Whedon's banter self-consciously smart-alecky, but I love how he can spoof his subjects without robbing them of stature.

For Whedon, the heart of "The Avengers" clearly isn't the predictable, whiz-bang computer-generated battles between good and evil, but scenes in which our superheroes hang out, spar with words as well as weapons, and weigh the merits of individualism versus teamwork. It's not unlike Howard Hawks' iconic gunfighters taking one another's measure in "Rio Bravo".

And it's fun to watch Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, say to Bruce Banner, a.k.a. the Hulk, something like, hey, Banner, come see the nifty stuff in my lab; and Banner say, sounds good, Stark. See ya later, Captain. Bye, Thor. And I'm, like, that's so cool. OK, I'm geeking out too.

I had a blast at "The Avengers." For the uninitiated - I know there are a few of you - the Avengers are a collective of four male Marvel superheroes: Iron Man, played by Robert Downey, Jr., with a heavy dose of CGI; Captain America, played by Chris Evans; Thor, which is Chris Hemsworth in Norse get-up; and the gigantic lime-green Hulk, a special effect with Mark Ruffalo as its human alter ego.

We also get a female hero, played by Scarlett Johansson: Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow, who doesn't get as much fan attention because she's not supernaturally or scientifically enhanced, but whom Whedon gives a ton of screen time. They've been called together by one-eyed superhero-wrangler Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson, to save the Earth after Thor's adopted brother Loki hurtles through a space portal from the mythical realm of Asgard.

Loki thinks that deep down humans long to follow orders and he boasts he will, quote, "free the world from freedom." As played by Tom Hiddleston, Loki is a magnificently theatrical presence and easily out-glowers Downey's snide Stark when dropping by unexpectedly.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE AVENGERS")

TOM HIDDLESTON: (as Loki) What have I to fear?

ROBERT DOWNEY JR.: (as Tony Stark) The Avengers. That's what we call ourselves. Sort of like a team. Earth's mightiest heroes type thing.

HIDDLESTON: (as Loki) Yes. I've met them.

JR.: (as Tony Stark) Yeah. It takes us awhile to get any traction, I'll give you that one. But let's do a head count here. Your brother, the demigod, a super-soldier, a living legend who kind of lives up to the legend, a man with breathtaking anger management issues, a couple of master assassins. And you, big fella, you've managed to piss off every single one of them.

HIDDLESTON: (as Loki) That was the plan.

JR.: (as Tony Stark) Not a great plan. When they come, and they will, they'll come for you.

HIDDLESTON: (as Loki) I have an army.

JR.: (as Tony Stark) We have a Hulk.

HIDDLESTON: (as Loki) Oh, I thought the beast had wandered off.

JR.: (as Tony Stark) You're missing the point. There's no throne. There is no version of this where you come out on top. Maybe your army comes and maybe it's too much for us but it's all on you. Because if we can't protect the Earth, you can be damn well sure we'll avenge it.

EDELSTEIN: Downey fares least well in "The Avengers," being obnoxious beyond the call of duty, but it's not all his fault - the part has taken a weird turn. For some reason, Whedon has Stark haranguing Banner not to suppress the Hulk but let that giant, wildly destructive part of himself out, as if their flying battleship were some kind of EST seminar. Fortunately, Ruffalo's Banner shrugs it off. The actor is sly and shambling and attractively mussed, and steals every scene by underplaying.

That's not the only conflict. The Avengers drive one another so loco, it's a wonder they get to Loki. They pick fights - Captain America's shield fending off Thor's hammer, Thor's hammer smashing Iron Man's suit, Iron Man's suit deflecting Hulk's fist. Nobody wins, but trees and man-made structures lose. As I watched, I thought, wow, that must have cost a lot of money.

But it's not just money on the screen. The frames have the zing of good comic-book illustrations, and Whedon picks his moments to come at you with 3-D, a spear here and there tickling your nostril hairs. Multiple protagonists means by the time you've had your fill of snotty Iron Man, you get the over-earnest Captain America, and when you're bored with the Captain, you get the Norse hottie. Always something to see.

Along with Ruffalo's Hulk, it's Johansson's Black Widow who's the biggest treat, her deadpan prickling with rage and hurt. Whedon never lets us forget that, in the words of one government bureaucrat, the fate of the human race has been left to a handful of freaks. Prepare yourself, earthlings - for the next few weeks, we'll all be living in the Whedonverse.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

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