After five movies in four years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe comes to a head with The Avengers— an All-Star game that mashes together six heroes (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye). And despite all logic (‘too many cooks…’, etc.) it somehow finds a way to rocket to the top of the superhero movie genre, emerging as the biggest, baddest, and most across-the-board entertaining film so far this year.

And it’s going to take a lot to wrestle that title away between now and the end of December.

Just being ‘big’ isn’t enough (witness the Transformers franchise)– The Avengers‘ success is due to finely-tuned characters expertly riffing off each other, director Joss Whedon’s big-bang-boom direction (and passion for the source material), and his script, which is among the funniest and most satisfying in a good long while.

This is not a half-hearted, ‘let’s-throw-a-ton-of-stuff-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks’ bit of gimmickry; it’s a well-thought-out showcase on how to do superhero flicks (and movies in general) the right way.

Beginning not long after the events in last May’s Thor, The Avengers starts with Thor’s grumpy adoptive brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) coming down to Earth to retrieve the tesseract, the magical, glowing, blue cube of power. Of course he succeeds (otherwise we wouldn’t have a movie), and he puts the wheels in motion to bring the super-bad Chitauri army down to wreak havoc.

Knowing humanity is woefully out-gunned, super-secret S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) gets the good-guy crew together for one, last attempt at saving the world.

Mayhem (and brilliant moviemaking) ensues.

Whedon, fresh off last month’s excellent The Cabin in the Woods, is even more on his game here. It’s no easy task to have six superheroes, a handful of supporting players, and one, big, bad mother of a bad guy all retain distinct identities, but dammit if he doesn’t do it in spades.

Robert Downey Jr. heads the cast as Iron Man, and after two solo movies, he’s finally honed his character to a razor-sharp edge. He’s more flippant and snarky that ever as the de facto leader of the gang of six, and his constant sniping back and forth with everyone, particularly Captain America (Chris Evans), makes for several of the movie’s (many) high points.

Special mention also goes to Mark Ruffalo, who steps into Bruce Banner’s intimidating shoes and creates a character that somehow manages to stand out in a very crowded room. Pity Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner, who, despite perfectly fine performances, sometimes get lost in the shuffle.

Hiddleston’s spot-on performance turn as Loki would be a show-stealer in any other movie– here, though, he’ll just have to be satisfied at being quite possibly the best portrayal of villainy since the late Heath Ledger slapped on that clown makeup back in 2008.

Speaking of which, there’s no doubt that this July’s The Dark Knight Rises will be a more dark, dramatic, and gravitas-filled exercise in superhero moviedom, but for an all-out blitz of action, comedy, and pure, honest-to-goodness kick-butt filmmaking, look no further than The Avengers.

And, for heaven’s sake, stay through the credits (the entire credits) for the extra scenes.

5/5 stars