“The Avengers” is one of the few movies that actually exceeds its hype (did the marketers purposefully hide how good this film is to build word of mouth later?) and is not only one of the most entertaining films of 2012 thus far, but may be the most enjoyable summer blockbuster I’ve seen in years.

Director and writer Joss Whedon (of whom I admit I was already a fan) capitalizes on the lesson fellow blockbuster director Michael Bay (of “Transformers”) never seems to learn: namely, that spandex, missiles and big explosions aren’t enough to make a great movie (or even a good one, for that matter).

Instead, Whedon brings to the blockbuster a sparkling script filled with wit, humor, humanity, twists and characters of surprising depth.

And when actor Samuel L. Jackson provides the weakest of the ensemble cast’s thespian efforts (OK, the “Thor” character was a bit cardboard, too), you know audiences are in for a treat.

My biggest criticism of the film (outside of some small plot holes that are all too typical in sci-fi flicks) is that I missed several lines of dialogue because the audience and I were laughing too hard to hear.

Seriously, is this a superhero movie I’m talking about?

Yes, and like the classic, 2008 “The Dark Knight,” this is a superhero movie that rises above the genre to deserve praise from audiences outside the comic book club. It’s simply a lot of fun to watch.

The story picks up where previous Marvel superhero films “Thor,” “Iron Man 2″ and “Captain America” leave off – with a new band of superheroes emerging on formerly quiet planet Earth and an alien supervillain named Loki emerging from Asgard.

Loki’s plan is to use an alien mercenary army to conquer Earth, and it’s up to the secret international force S.H.I.E.L.D. to assemble the new breed of superheroes to stop him.

So far, it sounds pretty stale and cliché.

But upon that typical story skeleton, Whedon weaves a tale of clashing personalities, rivalries, hidden agendas and rearranged priorities. This band of superhero misfits don’t merely rally together around saving the world, but spend as much time fighting one another as they do the bad guys.

Gracing these conflicts is a clever script and an impeccable sense of comedic timing that turns a stale storyline into an intriguing and often hilarious action flick that’s also surprisingly family friendly.

The central theme of the film is Loki’s proclamation – that “freedom is life’s greatest lie” and only in being ruled by a tyrant can mankind be rid of its strife and folly – versus Captain America’s unwavering, and even “old fashioned,” belief in liberty.

“Aren’t the Stars and Stripes a little old fashioned?” even Captain America asks, when his old uniform is pulled from mothballs.

“With everything that’s happening, things about to come to light,” S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Coulson responds, “people might need a little ‘old fashioned.’”

Sounds a lot like a prescription for America now, alien invasion or not.

At one point in film, I’ll admit, I was concerned Loki’s message was going to turn on all “gods” and suggest that even the sovereign reign of the one true God is also a form of tyranny, as though Yahweh were synonymous with Hitler, but two moments in the film calmed my concern.

In the first, Loki insists all people kneel before him.

But then a heavily accented elderly man (implying a Holocaust survivor?) defiantly stands alone: “Not to a man like you,” he declares.

“There are no men like me,” Loki sneers.

“There will always be men like you,” the man shoots back, an indication that yes, the film is clearly alluding to Hitlerian tyranny, but from men, not from God.

In another scene, the female assassin Black Widow makes a comment about the battle between Thor and Loki, though depicted as aliens in the Marvel films, revered as “gods” in Norse mythology.

“There’s only one God, ma’am,” Captain America responds, “and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.”

Thankfully, the film doesn’t dress Loki up like God, but like a human tyrant, and the inspiring example and challenge of Captain America is so compelling, it even changes the ways of Tony Stark (the selfish, billionaire playboy inside Iron Man’s armor). But I’ll say no more, lest I risk spoiling the experience for those who go see “The Avengers.”

Content advisory:

  • “The Avengers” contains about a dozen minor obscenities and a pair of profanities.
  • The film contains surprisingly little sexuality for its genre, limiting its spandex and cleavage to barely noticeable (only a pair of shots on Black Widow’s backside, and even then her behind isn’t the focal point). Stark’s assistant Pepper does, however, show off very long legs in very short shorts, and she whispers something clearly sexual but unheard in Stark’s ear. Bruce Banner is seen naked (strategically covered) after he reverts back from the Hulk, and there’s a kiss and some minor innuendo. But that’s it.
  • Violence, however, is another matter. Stylized hand-to-hand combat, gunfire, missiles, explosions, falling buildings, flying, crashing and all sorts of mayhem abound. In several places, the lack of actual carnage depicted stretches believability, perhaps in an effort to keep it kid-friendly and nearly gore-free, but there’s more than enough violence to give caution: This is a blockbuster action flick, and it earns its PG-13 rating.
  • The film has some religious themes – such as the Norse gods Thor and Loki (though they’re depicted as aliens), a character who talks about wiping her crimson ledger of evil deeds clean and a reference to Jonah in the belly of a beast – but they’re not major themes. At one point, Loki’s arrogance leads him to call himself a “god” (a delusion quickly crushed), and another character jokingly refers to Thor and Loki as gods. The only direct reference to a specific god is Captain America’s statement, quoted above.

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