Look Back With Anger: DRUNK HULK SAT THROUGH THOR FOR THIS!!??

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Fanboys and -girls, the moment has arrived. After sitting through The Hulk, Iron Mans 1 and 2, Captain America, and Thor—especially if you stayed for all those post-credits morsels—you finally get to see your superheroes battle as one in Marvel’s The Avengers, the awkwardly titled Comic Book Movie to End All Comic Book Movies. At least, that is, until its sequel comes out. Which, of course, is teased in another post-credits morsel.

In other words, we’ve invested a lot to get to this point. The years-in-the-making buildup—not to mention the millions the film has already made overseas—means The Avengers is much more than a mere popcorn movie. It’s the apotheosis of years of comic-dweeb object worship.

So, be it Stan Lee or writer/director/Geek-in-Chief Joss Whedon, thank your deity for Iron Man. Tony Stark and his metalheaded alter-ego provide the measure of self-deprecating bite The Avengers needs. Otherwise, you can practically feel the Comic-Con drool holding this hype monstrosity together.

As perfectly played by Robert Downey Jr., Stark is the wiseass of the group. He’s slightly embarrassed by the name. (“Avengers…it’s what we call ourselves,” he explains at one point. “Kind of like a team.”) He tempers the film’s market-calibrated PG-13 rating with a hint of R. (When asking Bruce Banner, aka the Hulk, his secret for staying calm, he supplies his own possibilities: “Mellow jazz? Huge bag of weed?”) And he recognizes the ultimate silliness of their team-up—not to mention the movie itself. (“Dr. Banner, your work is unparalleled. And I’m a huge fan of the way you lose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster.”)

It’s that humor, alas, that’s The Avengers’ strength—not its story nor its action, as really it should be. This is the plot: Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the evil adopted brother of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and the Norse god of mischief, has traveled from Asgard, basically a realm of cosmic Vikings, to Earth, where his plans are indeed mischievious. (He’s pissed at Thor, god of thunder, for being the strong and mighty chosen son and all.) Loki immediately steals the Tesseract—a box of “unlimited sustainable energy” that was seen last summer in Captain America—from S.H.I.E.L.D., a law-enforcement agency headed by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Weapons of mass destruction are mentioned, too, one supposes a possible product of all that energy. (There’s lots of science talk—“prototypes,” etc.—that whizzes by quicker than Banner can lose his shirt.)

So Fury sets in motion what those post-credits teasers called the “Avengers Initiative”—i.e., a bunch of superheroes ready to kick ass and set things right in the world. But Loki gets to one of them first—using some nifty blue-lit spear, he reverses the allegiance of Hawkeye, adding one compromised do-gooder to his alien army.

And so Fury gathers Iron Man, Thor, Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America (Chris Evans), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). You’d think their shared superprowess would make them fast friends, but no: Whedon apparently had to pad this 142-minute movie somehow (really?), so way too much of The Avengers consists of good-guy in-fighting. Thor bickers with Iron Man. Iron Man bickers with Captain America. Black Widow seems to bicker with everybody. Hulk bashes Thor. (Anyone who says words like “recompense” in so haughty an accent has it coming.)

The result of all this internal unrest? Battle fatigue—early. Once the film gets to its big showdown—which feels like a good third of the movie—it goes all Transformers on us, with fighting followed by explosions followed by more fighting and more explosions until you’re dizzy and just want someone to win already. (And since we know who’s going to—er, spoiler alert?—could we just fast-forward to that sequel setup?) All the more head-spinning is its negligible but still annoying 3-D, which, it hardly needs to be said by now, dims the view while adding nothing to anything. Don’t waste the extra $5.

And don’t waste your expectations on the large cast. Renner, unfortunately, hardly appears at all. Ruffalo, an odd choice in a line of odd Hulks, is subdued enough to not make an impact either way. Johansson has some sweet action scenes, particularly in one escape sequence involving a nifty bit of tied-to-her-chair combat. Evans and Hemsworth, meanwhile, are mostly there to set up other people’s one-liners and do battle. (Thor does get one good quip: “You people are so petty…and tiny.”) The most actorly of the lot is Downey—who seems to spend more time in a Black Sabbath T-shirt as Stark than a metal suit as Iron Man—though he can do this kind of quipping-arrogantly thing in his sleep.

When the marathon is done, what you’re left with is a decent summer tentpole—not a great or particularly memorable one, and probably not one you’ll want to sit through again. There’s sturm und drang but nothing you’d call a comprehensible narrative; there’s action-figure characterization but barely a real character. Who knew Whedon—the arch, thinky creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer—had so much Michael Bay in him? It’s best summed up by one exchange between Banner and Black Widow: “So this all seems…horrible,” he says. To which she replies: “We’ve seen worse.”