How could "The Avengers" live up to all the hype, much of it brought on by Marvel Studios with their promotional teasers tacked on to the end of "Thor," "Iron Man 2" and "Captain America: The First Avenger?"
Writer/director Joss Whedon didn't have a tall task before him. He had a near-impossible one. But near-impossible and impossible are two very different matters. Whedon used that wiggle room to create the most organic depiction of costumed heroes in the genre's short but potent film history.
That's a fancy way of saying "The Avengers" will astound the inner child in every ticket holder.
"The Avengers" isn't merely a grand spectacle, the kind made possible with a mastery of modern special effects. It's funnier than most comedies, compelling even during its quiet moments and darn near patriotic.
Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the villain last seen in 2011's "Thor," steals a powerful energy source called the Tesseract in the film's opening moments. The fiery globe can open a portal to other, more dangerous realms, and Loki plans on using it to bring a conquering army down to earth.
That's more than enough reason to kick start the Avengers initiative, a plan forged by S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) should the planet ever face an existential threat. But these superheroes aren't used to working as a team.
Captain America (Chris Evans) is still getting up to speed after spending decades frozen in ice. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) isn't eager to share his talents - and ego - with others. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is a god and feels little in common with mere mortals. And the Hulk hasn't been seen for some time, since his alter ego Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) learned to get his rage under control.
The team's second tier includes the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Their powers aren't nearly so super, but each enjoys a compelling story arc and more than enough sequences to show they belong with the big boys.
These Avengers fight, and bicker, and squabble over the best way to save the planet. But you know they'll iron out their difference for one slam-bang finale that makes the recent "Transformers" films look like amateur hour.
Whedon's "Avengers" succeeds on so many levels it's hard to know what to marvel at first. The film gives each hero time to flesh out their character and interact in a rational, and often humorous, fashion. Captain America is a born leader, one unwilling to challenge S.H.I.E.L.D. even when its clear Fury isn't given the Avengers all the information about the threat at hand. And Ruffalo's Banner knows going green might help tilt the tide of battle in their favor, but he'd rather do almost anything than give in to the gamma radiation lurking within his cells.
The film's first half features more talk than action, but Whedon captures the latter with a clear, focused perspective. These are super beings, and every beam, blast and punch carries far more weight than a standard battle.
Remember the awkward beauty of Superman battling the villains from Krypton in the second "Superman" feature? We gobbled it up despite the clunky effects, ignoring the way the figures revealed how every stunt came to be. Now, when Thor's hammer strikes Captain America's shield the screen shimmers with electricity, and we buy every electron of it.
"The Avengers" packs a few moments that border on the conservative side. When Captain America, a quick study in our ironic age, suggests people have had enough of star spangled heroes, an FBI agent says the earth could use a burst of old-fashioned decency right about now.
And when Loki compels a frightened crowd to kneel before him, it's Captain America who conjures images of past despots before charging into battle, his patriotic shield leading the way.
Audiences may wish Loki's invading army was better defined, or that some of the super-bickering were edited down to tighten the film's two and a half hour running time. But what Whedon has done is transport these Marvel heroes from the pages of our childhood comic books to the big screen with all of their wonder and psychological neuroses intact. He knows precisely how to frame each sequence, each close up, because he clearly spent years absorbing the very best comics he could find.
Compare Whedon's brilliant touch to that of director Ang Lee in the 2003 dud "Hulk." Lee used actual comic book frames to make the connection between the source material and the film. Whedon doesn't need such theatrics.
We've watched two less than super "Hulk" movies prior to "The Avengers," but Whedon nails both the character's fury and comic potential. This Hulk snares the film's biggest laughs, but not because the story mocks him or dares to make him a figure of ridicule. Ruffalo, the third screen actor to bring the tormented Banner to life, gives the character a sense of dark humor to underscore the tragedy of his curse.
Marvel Studios clearly smelled a cash cow like few others in the "Avengers" project, and it's easy to imagine all of the ways the film could have veered so very far off course. Whedon refuses to let that happen, coaxing clear, convincing action sequences between richly detailed humor, running gags and slapstick alike, all stitched together without ever approaching farce or eye-rolling stunts.
"The Avengers" is more than the superhero film to beat this summer. It might be the best superhero movie of all time.