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In its first three days in release "The Avengers" sold $100 million, then $150 million, then $200 million at the box office, the fastest return ever. That's a gobsmacking feat considering the average mope on the street, and even some blue-belt nerds, could not have accurately told you what the Avengers are, or which heroes, exactly, are among them. But the tsunami success of this all-star mashup of comic-book characters owes to patience from the Disney-owned Marvel Studios, the inspired choice of Joss Whedon as director and the fact that, despite an ensemble cast that ought to sag under its own bloat, "The Avengers" is light enough to defy gravity for most of its 142 minutes. IMDB.com users already rank it among the top 30 or so movies ever. How did this happen?
So about that cast. The incomparable Robert Downey Jr. makes his third turn as Iron Man, Chris Evans is the unfrozen throwback Captain America, Chris Hemsworth is a bland but hammer-swingin' Thor. Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow and Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye didn't enjoy their own eponymous flicks to prime us for their Avengers turn, but like Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury, the one-eyed spy who assembles this band of rogues, they've popped up in other films. The newcomer is Mark Ruffalo, who stepped in for Edward Norton after that star of "The Incredible Hulk" and Marvel couldn't arrive at an agreement for "The Avengers." The 2008 Hulk flick, the two "Iron Man" installments, last year's "Thor" and "Captain America" make a ridiculous five movies all funneling plots and characters into "The Avengers" over the past few years, and it all pays off. The dialogue doesn't suffer from the leaden, exposition-heavy tone that makes so many action movies feel like 90-minute subsonic insults to your intelligence. By that measure, two-and-a-half hours of self-deprecating jokes and the occasional — what's this? — witty patter are a salve. Somehow a sprawling, unruly committee convened and hammered out a movie with a bona fide personality.
As for the weak points, and there are several, we look first to the villain, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), whose arrival via some intergalactic energy portal triggers Fury's rush to assemble the far-flung Avengers. The demi-god half-brother of Thor has designs on conquering Earth with the help of an army of space monsters. In the meantime his wardrobe looks like a cross between a Michael Jackson's lost lamé bender and rejected Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes headgear. He's nasty enough, as villains go, but seems pinched politically back on the other end of space and in need of iron supplements while strutting around Earth, zapping humans (Hawkeye, for one) into brainwashed minions. Evans doesn't bring enough gravitas to Captain America to convince us that the likes of Tony Stark and Bruce Banner would trust his orders. The middle drags a bit.
More to the point, though, is the high degree of awesomeness achieved in areas that absolutely must be awesome for this movie to work. The heroes all have distinct personalities (compared to the fungible characters of the "Star Wars" prequels). The Hulk's effects have never been more satisfyingly realistic. New York gets trashed in right-proper fashion. Even without being able to use 13-letter epithets as modifiers, Jackson gets zingers. The climax involves, for once, highly credible mortal peril for one of the team's members. The credits include not one but two extras to sate the geek flock until "Iron Man 3" or the next "Avengers" flick. With the way this one landed, Marvel sequels have joined death and taxes among the lead-pipe certainties in life, and possibly the only one among them worth looking forward to.