By Eric Henderson

“Tentpole” is hardly the word for The Avengers. The movie has a reported $100 million marketing budget beyond the movie’s estimated $220 million production budget. It has been preceded by what could now technically be referred to as four prequels — two Iron Mans, a Thor and a Captain America — with a collective budget of $630 million. In other words, depending on how you slice it up, more than $1 billion went into the making of this particular fanboy event. So, no, it’s no “tentpole.” It’s the Big Frickin’ Top.

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Happily, it’s on the whole a more fully enjoyable affair than any of the movies that preceded it, save maybe the first Iron Man. Writer-director Joss Whedon doesn’t saddle the movie with a complicated plot set-up or multiple twists. In short, Thor’s nefarious (and, in my Norse opinion, misrepresented) brother Loki comes to earth from Asgard to snatch from the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization a blue, glowing energy cube called a Tesseract.

What it does, what it’s capable of and, frankly, why Loki even wants it aren’t important. All Whedon cares about is setting up the apparatus that will unite Marvel Comics’ almost all-star team to unite and conquer. The bumps in the road getting their iron wills to mesh are what Whedon seems to savor the most. The bulk of the movie’s running time is devoted to various scenes in which, say, Tony Stark trades barbs with Nick Fury, and Black Widow nervously navigates a conversation with loose cannon Bruce Banner. It’s like the superhero version of Duets.

That said, I came away from the movie greatly preferring some team members’ performance over others. If The Avengers is to be followed with sequels (which, oh yes, it is — three or four of which have already been given the green light), then here’s the batting order I’d most look forward to. (NOTE: Had I decided to rank Tom Hiddelston’s miscreant villain Loki among the rest, he would’ve been second or third. He’s a feisty minx.)

01. Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo)

(credit: Marvel)

PRO: After two solo appearances in the aughts that most fans regard as misfires, what a joy it is to report that the Hulk has finally earned the distinction “Incredible.” It’s not even so much that Hulk, um, SMASHes with such abandon. It’s that Mark Ruffalo finally taps into Bruce Banner’s core tragedy. “I’m always angry” is both an intense call to action and a bitter adult truth amid so much child’s play.

CON: Practically none, though his powerhouse contributions to the final battle will have audiences so roused, you probably won’t catch some of the dialogue.

02. Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.)

(credit: Marvel)

PRO: As the only member of the Avengers to have already headlined two successful solo movies of his own, Tony Stark — or, rather, Robert Downey Jr. — has enough swagger for the entire militia. While that ‘tude grated during Iron Man 2, it provides nice ballast against some of the more rigid personalities among his teammates here.

CON: The pervasive sense that he’s about ready to go all Diana Ross on the rest of them.

03. Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg)

(credit: Marvel)

PRO: OK, this is a little bit of a cheat. He’s not technically a member of the Avengers. But Coulson’s half-suit, half-geek agent has been on the margins of this franchise for a while now, and his role moving The Avengers into its third act is absolutely crucial. If the movie has an emotional anchor, he’s it.

CON: Can not bench press a small town.

04. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)

(credit: Marvel)

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PRO: Whether Hawkeye is regarded on the same level as Hulk or Thor or any other superhuman figure is in the eye of the beholder. What can’t be argued is that any of his fellow cast members do as much heavy lifting to elevate their respective characters as much as Jeremy Renner does here. No one else could’ve made a guy crouching with a bow and arrow seem so impossibly cool.

CON: Well, there is the small matter of what he does to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Helicarrier.

05. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson)

(credit: Marvel)

PRO: Black Widow wins the movie’s “most improved” prize, following a pretty inconsequential stint in Iron Man 2. Scarlett Johansson still fails to really sell the character’s apparently quite painful backstory, but that probably won’t matter to anyone when she’s doing that thing people say they do before they “take names.”

CON: She’s always one step behind Loki, in the end.

06. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson)

(credit: Marvel)

PRO: Much like Phil Coulson, he gets in on a technicality, but he’s still a crucial inclusion. Without him, there would be no unified Avengers.

CON: Still, you’ve got to admit, given what happens in the middle of the film, you can’t exactly call him a faultless team leader. And there is that whole matter of what he knows about why S.H.I.E.L.D. wants the Tesseract. Moral relativism, anyone?

07. Thor (Chris Hemsworth)

(credit: Marvel)

PRO: You know, I actually kind of liked last summer’s Thor, in a kitschy Xanadu sort of way. Chris Hemsworth emphasizes the Norse god’s stoicism just short of camp. C’mon, dude summons bolts of lightning!

CON: What we have here is sort of the opposite of Tony Stark’s “pro” column above. What registered as a humorous riff on square-jawed heroism in Thor’s solo movie seems a lot duller in an ensemble. For a god, he’s kind of a drag.

08. Captain America (Chris Evans)

(credit: Marvel)

PRO: Well, Chris Evans has the best physique in the entire cast, excepting maybe Hemsworth. (But I always thought Thor looked a little too juiced to be true.)

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CON: Unfortunately, his personality pretty much begins and ends with his pectoral muscles. Yes, Captain America has always sort of been Marvel’s prom king. His dogmatic defense of old fashioned values (which worked in his solo movie’s WWII setting) always threatens to stop the movie cold, unfurl a stadium sized Old Glory in the background and give Evans a stage to recreate George C. Scott as Gen. Patton.

Eric Henderson