Whedon’s Bickering ’Avengers’ Soars; ’Marigold’: Movies

Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans in "The Avengers." Joss Whedon's sure-thing blockbuster also happens to be a terrific movie. Photographer: Zade Rosenthal/Marvel via Bloomberg

Pow, zap and any other comic book exclamation fits the bill for “The Avengers,” Joss Whedon’s sure-thing blockbuster that also happens to be a terrific movie.

Masterpiece is too weighty a word for a genre that boasts hammering demigods and Spandexed superheroes, but “The Avengers” certainly lays claim to a best-in-category title.

Whedon, revered by sci-fi fanboys for TV’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” directed and co-wrote (with Zak Penn) this blaze of a tale.

Featuring the Marvel Comics all-star team that debuted in ink a half-century ago, “The Avengers” feels like a culmination -- a perfect cocktail of irony and sentiment, acting and FX, nostalgia and topicality.

And it’s a blast.

The crimefighters -- and their portrayers, largely assembled from a string of recent movies now relegated to prequel status -- are the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, easily crushing the series’ previous rage monsters Ed Norton and Eric Bana).

The bickering gang is called into action by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the head of an organization that protects the globe from aliens, gods and assorted evil-doers.

Beat Loki!

This time around (and newcomers can enjoy the party), the Avengers are forced to put aside petty differences and big egos to defeat Loki (Tom Hiddleston, career-making), a banished demigod hell-bent on conquering Earth.

“I am Loki of Asgard,” the corpse-pale villain hisses, “and I am burdened with glorious purpose.” Even the bad guys can turn a phrase.

Whedon lets his actors carry the film’s character-driven first half, and they shine. Downey and Ruffalo quip like the pros they are.

The battle-crazed final sequence puts Manhattan under alien attack, and the 9/11 imagery is both blatant and breathless. Little wonder that the Tribeca Film Festival chose “The Avengers” for its closing night honors, screened for an invited audience of Ground Zero’s first responders.

“The Avengers,” from Walt Disney Studios, is playing across the U.S. Rating: ***1/2 (Evans)

‘Marigold Hotel’

“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” follows a group of British retirees who fall for an ad on the Web that showcases an alluring retirement home in Jaipur, India. The place turns out to be a run-down wreck operated by a delusional young optimist (Dev Patel, of “Slumdog Millionaire”) with girlfriend problems.

Most of the geezers get over the dust and poverty and challenges to their intestinal tracts and open up to the vibrancy of the tumult around them.

Romance blossoms. The movie is as preoccupied with sex as it would be if the actors were 50 years younger, though then it wouldn’t offer the titillation of guessing which ones aren’t going to make it to the end.

And what actors. In her late 70s, Judi Dench can do coyness with the freshness of a girl playing her first Juliet. Tom Wilkinson is touching as a gay judge returning to India to look for a lost love.

And Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup bring enough dignity to their unappealing roles as sex-starved old goats to walk away without being mortified.

Maggie Smith

As a racist housekeeper forced to swallow her pride and come to India for a cheap hip replacement, Maggie Smith has fallen from the social heights of “Downton Abbey,” but she can still move mountains with the elevation of an eyebrow. And of course the more appalling her reactions (“If I can’t pronounce it, I don’t want to eat it”), the funnier she is.

The director, John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”), works swiftly and easily, even with nostrums thudding like drumbeats every minute or so. The picture is designed to reassure aging Baby Boomers that adventure and sex will remain options well past the threshold of dotage, and who could mind hearing that?

It’s almost impossible to resist such a puppy-dog eagerness to please -- until the last half hour, when the script pours on so much sugar that your bile may rise in revolt. At least mine did. To paraphrase Trotsky: Every crowd pleaser is allowed to be stupid on occasion, but “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” abuses the privilege.

“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” from Fox Searchlight Pictures, opens today across the U.S. Rating: **1/2 (Seligman)

What the Stars Mean:

**** Excellent
*** Good
** Average
* Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(Greg Evans and Craig Seligman are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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