So you’ve waited all year and let me be the first to say it’s been worth it. The Avengers, which opens nationwide today, is the most unexpectedly smart and satisfying superhero caper I have ever seen.

Although burdened by a plot that is completely absurd on the face of it, Director Joss Whedon has managed to craft a funny and far-reaching action adventure that still crackles with drama and real consequence, thanks to his relentless focus on superheroes as people rather than muscle bound icons.

Taking that smart route allows some of Hollywood’s biggest stars to really shine in their respective roles and it gives Whedon a big-budget set on which to display the impressive stagecraft that made him famous on the late, lamented Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

Fan boys will love how closely the film stays to the original source material and the uninitiated will simply be thrilled by the strength of the storytelling. Even the visual impact of the Avengers team, which includes Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Hawkeye, and Black Widow is both ridiculous and sublime at the same time and when they finally assemble to battle evil in New York City the promise of this film is fulfilled.

When Loki, a banished god from another dimension, arrives on earth he is intent on conquering and enslaving its people. Only the ragtag Avengers team stand any chance of beating him and his minions, if they can quit their own internal bickering first, that is.

One by one Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) the leader of the top-secret government agency known as S.H.I.E.L.D. sets about assembling the dysfunctional team of superheroes known as The Avengers (Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner) as humanity’s last hope against an insurmountable foe.

But getting these guys to stand in the same continent never mind the same city is a risky proposition and Whedon gives each character equal time, making sure we know what each of them is seeing and feeling when they finally assemble.

The Avengers isn’t a comedy or a spoof, yet it includes comic and even campy elements that work exceptionally well. It’s also an equal opportunities universe; if ample screen time is given to Scarlet Johansson’s impressive physique, it’s also given to the equally supernaturally gorgeous Chris Evans, in a universe where both men and women are given their due for brains and brawn.

Let’s face it, Whedon (and even Captain America himself) knows some of these gung-ho costumes of his team are looking a little out of date these days. To offset that awareness the canny director takes his heroes back to basics, focusing on the skill sets that make them unique, and the lessons that it has taught them. By making them human he makes them work.

It must be said what a sharp contrast in outlooks has emerged between Christopher Nolan’s Batman and Whedon’s Avengers. Nolan’s universe takes itself so seriously it almost begs you to forget you’re watching something bluntly fictitious. But Whedon knows his superheroes are looking a bit threadbare around the edges and instead he makes a virtue of the fact. Avengers are the heroes for our own hard-bitten age, and you’ll cheer all the louder for them because they know it themselves.

Here’s the trailer: