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'Marvel's The Avengers' is marvelous

Scarlett Johansson stars as Black Widow in "The

Scarlett Johansson stars as Black Widow in "The Avengers." Credit: Handout

A Norse god, a World War II veteran, a modern defense contractor and the green-skinned star of a 1970s television series -- that's a lot of superheroes to pack into one movie. More important, that's a lot of fanboys to please.

Luckily, writer-director Joss Whedon is one -- a fanboy, that is, though he also does a superheroic job of compressing several summer blockbusters into "Marvel's The Avengers," a splashy, flashy, pass-the-popcorn extravaganza. This is a movie that knows and deeply loves its audience, but it's funny, smart and good-natured enough to please the rest of us, too.

With its classically hokey plot involving an alien army and a power cube called the Tesseract (Zak Penn, of Syfy's "Alphas," co-wrote), "The Avengers" isn't trying to break new ground. The payoff is watching four appealing actors don their costumes and have fun with each other, and Whedon gives you nearly 2 1/2 hours' worth. Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man rules the roost with his one-liners; Chris Evans shines as his polar opposite, the earnest Captain America; Chris Hemsworth, as Thor, roars his Beowulfian lines with good humor; and Mark Ruffalo makes a nerve-racking Bruce Banner, though his crude Claymation transformation into the Hulk is a disappointment compared to the film's other kabillion-dollar effects.

Scarlett Johansson's slippery Black Widow is a more engaging newcomer than Jeremy Renner's humorless Hawkeye, while Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg return in dependably fine form as team leader Nick Fury and his lovable mascot, Phil Coulson. The secret scene-stealer, though, is Tom Hiddleston as the power-mad Loki, deftly switching between Shakespearean intensity and the flippant pop humor that gives "The Avengers" the light sparkle of an ensemble comedy.

That easy, breezy attitude, and Whedon's snappy direction (which livens up overly familiar sequences like the Manhattan-wrecking finale), are what make "The Avengers" such a crowd-pleaser. A hermetically sealed comics collection might be helpful, but not required.

PLOT Four superheroes band together to save Earth from an alien army. RATING PG-13 (intense action and violence)

CAST Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo


PLAYING AT Area theaters, some in 3-D and IMAX. (Opens at many theaters at 12:01 a.m. Friday.)

BOTTOM LINE Snappy humor and all-in performances make this a guaranteed crowd-pleaser even for noncomics fans.

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