"Marvel's The Avengers" is good, and that's not quite good enough.
As an assemblage of the Marvel superheroes, a few of whom already had entire movies devoted to them, "The Avengers" should be the comic-book movie to end all comic-book movies. (At least until "The Dark Knight Rises" comes out in July).
Instead, it's a crisp-looking (even in 3-D), visually sophisticated, often funny, well-acted movie that never produces truly transportive moments.
Blame cinematic technical wizardry, or rather, its saturation. This is otherwise known as the "Transformers" effect.
When "Transformers" came out five years ago, its computer-generated effects were so accomplished they compensated for a silly story. That hot-rod alien movie set the bar, and it has been met often since.
With lifelike effects now the base level, effects-heavy films require a visual-genius director (James Cameron, "Avatar"), an exceptional personality in the lead role (Robert Downey Jr., lead in "Iron Man" but just one of the stars here) or gravitas ("The Dark Knight") to stand out.
Directed by Joss Whedon ("Buffy, the Vampire Slayer"), "The Avengers" hits its effects marks and then some, offering the most realistic-looking Incredible Hulk thus far.
Yet there's nothing really new to its flying sequences or building-smashing set pieces.
The sociopolitical resonance that can add heft to a comic-book film goes missing from "Avengers."
Instead, there's a villain named Loki (Tom Hiddleston) seeking world domination while looking almost exactly like ice skater Johnny Weir.
That doesn't discount Loki Weir was a fierce competitor, and Hiddleston maintains a chilly, calculating manner throughout "Avengers." But Loki's motivation anger that his brother, Thor (Chris Hems- worth), is the favored son on their home planet, or something like that is too typically comic book.
Loki steals a powerful, Earth-threatening device called a Tesseract from S.H.I.E.L.D., the peacekeeping agency run by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). For a treat, watch closely every time Jackson says "Tesseract," an awkward word. He's on the edge of a grin every time.
Fury's gathering of heroes into an Earth-saving team presents nice moments in character contrast. Straight shooter Captain America (Chris Evans, showing his character's clear sense of honor), for example, naturally clashes with smart aleck Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey).
Face-offs between Stark and Captain America and Stark and Thor (good-humored Hems- worth, star of last year's "Thor," still looks like an inflated Brad Pitt) produce an abundance of witticisms from Downey and co-screenwriter Whedon. Both are old hands at inserting comedy into an action framework.
Downey and Mark Ruffalo, who plays a rumpled, pre-Hulk Dr. Bruce Banner, cut through stilted genius-character dialogue to show a bond between brilliant men. Stark even gives Banner a pep talk about embracing the green monster within.
Scarlett Johansson gives one of her most believable performances as spy Natasha Romanova/The Black Widow in a badonkadonk cat suit no less. Perhaps it's Whedon's direction or that Johansson is now 27, but she seems savvier than she has before, and physically strong.
MARVEL'S THE AVENGERS
two ½ stars
CAST: Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Evans, Jeremy Renner
DIRECTOR: Joss Whedon
Rated PG-13 (intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout)