What happens when Thor (Chris Hemsworth) goes weapon-to-weapon with a guy who's pissed him off namely Captain America (Chris Evans)? In one of the many rousingly intense confrontations that make up Joss Whedon's heavy-duty Marvel action psychodrama The Avengers, the hammer (literally) meets the shield, and clang! the shield wins. At least Thor can console himself that he's stronger than the other guy who's busting his chops: Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). When it comes to putdowns, however, even Iron Man's snarkmeister alter ego, Tony Stark, has Thor beat. He refers to the billowy Viking megahulk as ''Point Break'' and ''Shakespeare in the Park.''
The best thing about The Avengers, a multi-tentpole blockbuster that gathers half a dozen Marvel superheroes and unfurls them on a baddie from another planet, is that it also unleashes them on each other. Simply put: These freaks of goodness may be a team, but they don't like one another very much. The six have been assembled by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of the peacekeeping alliance S.H.I.E.L.D., to defeat Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor's megalomaniac adoptive brother, who arrives through a wormhole and steals the Tesseract a cosmic cube that throws off ice-blue electromagnetic vapors like the best special effect of 1986. Loki, with stringy long hair, black eyeballs, and a ghostly pallor (he looks like Marilyn Manson playing Richard III), plans to destroy the world through ultimate war.
Earth's defenders are Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), the ninja twirler Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, with not enough to do), and the crossbow ace Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner, saturnine cool). They catch Loki and lock him up in a barely penetrable glass booth, and the film then basically counts down to the alien attack that Loki calls forth. The first half hour is murk, with too much gobbledygook on the Tesseract (a talisman that could save our environment, and yada yada). But once our heroes cram into a flying command station, it's Five Angry Supermen (and one superwoman).
This isn't a case of more being less. The four who've already fronted their own Marvel films look all the sharper as supporting studs jockeying for primacy. The magnetically stolid Captain America emerges as the team leader, Iron Man is the nattering narcissist who could hardly give a damn, and Thor is the alien outsider who's more intent on saving his planet than on rescuing Earth. As for the Hulk, the smartest thing the filmmakers did was to get Mark Ruffalo to play Bruce Banner as a man so sensitive that he's at war, every moment, with himself. (The film finally solves the Hulk problem: He's a lot more fun in small doses.) The second smartest thing they did was to allow Tom Hiddleston to let it rip as Loki. He's close to a generic villain, but Hiddleston invests his ravings and evil smile with a sleek mystery and power that suggests he may be an actor of the stature of Gary Oldman.
In terms of storytelling, The Avengers is for the most part a highly functional, banged-together vehicle that runs on synthetic franchise fuel. Yet the grand finale of CGI action, set in the streets of New York, is in every sense smashing. True, it wouldn't be out of place in a Michael Bay movie, but no Transformer was ever as transfixing as this leaping, flying, pummeling superteam. It makes you eager to see what they'll do next, now that they've defeated a threat even bigger than their egos. B+