That crashing sound you'll hear emanating from cineplexes this weekend will be the sound of comic-book superheroes smashing box-office records.
Actually, the smashing started last weekend, when Marvel's The Avengers opened in 39 territories around the world, scooping up a cool $178 million in three days. And with legions of fans having already bought advance tickets in the U.S., it's a pretty sure bet the box-office bonanza will continue as the film opens in more than 4,000 North American theaters.
Fans certainly won't be disappointed, but neither are they likely to be terribly surprised by Joss Whedon's enjoyably zingy genre flick. The banter has zip, the effects are fun, the climactic battle is decently spectacular, and if the 3-D is mostly expendable, there are a few scenes where it adds a nice kick.
That said, the plot is strictly standard-issue superhero stuff: the Earth's in peril when Norse demi-god Loki (Tom Hilddleston, reprising his role as Thor's ne'er-do-well quasi-sibling) steals a glowing blue cube (the Tesseract!) that offers the planet unlimited power — but has the unfortunate side effect of opening a wormhole through which alien invaders can pop.
This being the sort of thing S.H.I.E.L.D. was set up to foil, the secret agency's superhero-wrangler, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), gathers his brood of caped-or-otherwise-flamboyantly-attired heroes. There's Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), plus a couple of superpower-challenged assassins who've not had their own movies (yet): ace archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and martial-arts tyro Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Once they're all in place, Fury announces: "War has started, and we're hopelessly outgunned."
To which the only possible reaction has to be: "Oh spare me ... our guys have a hammer, exploding arrows, a shield, broad shoulders — how're they gonna be underdogs in this fight?"
There is a problem, though. These folks don't really play well with others. So turning them into an actual team will take time — time that director Joss Whedon fills with the kind of one-on-one matchups fanboys usually only dream about. Irresistible hammer meets immovable shield. Snarky billionaire taunts guy who's trying to stay calm. Who do you think'd win a fair fight? Thor? Iron Man? Hulk? Let's go find a mountaintop and break some trees.
After that, it's mostly a matter of getting everyone assembled on what I guess you'd have to call a stealth heli-carrier, and marking time till a doozy of a final showdown. Whedon orders up a lot of quips — some explosive laughs actually — and so that you can still enjoy the picture if you're over 15, he makes sure that all his stars get to shine in moments without digital effects.
Considering what a 3-D traffic jam The Avengers could've been with six heroes in spandex — plus big-name hangers-on from Stan Lee to Gwyneth Paltrow — it's impressive that the filmmaker still found time to, say, let Ruffalo be quirkily understated as the latest in a line of Hulks.
All of this, of course, is leading to a bone-crunching, building-shattering, giant-eel-spaceship-eviscerating showdown that lays waste to much of Manhattan, looks reeeeeeeally cool, and sets up what will doubtless be Marvel superhero sequels too numerous to count.
Can't say The Avengers makes me look forward to seeing any of its heroes flying solo again, but it does establish that in smaller doses, even the most annoying Type A personalities can be amusing.
As a just-released trailer for the last third of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy reminds us, a caped-crusader movie can aspire to greater things. But nobody says it has to, and Joss Whedon just wants The Avengers to be fun. Which it is. Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.