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Success of smartly written 'Avengers' is a good thing

$207.4 million is a lot of money.

We can all agree on that.

Elementary arithmetic tells us that $447.4 million is more than twice as much. (Thank you to my second-grade teacher, Miss Gable.)

The first figure is how much money Joss Whedon's "The Avengers" made from American box offices last weekend. The second is how much money the film has made outside America since its international debut two weeks ago. Europe, especially, was telling the world how sick to death of "austerity" government it was by selling all those tickets to a summer movie that was clearly not on the austerity plan.

By the time next weekend is finished, "The Avengers" is a virtual lock for a worldwide total of more than $1 billion.

You could certainly buy a very nice car for that kind of money. And a nice house for everyone in your family, along with a round-the-world vacation, too. If you wanted to buy a Harvard education for every kid in Buffalo, you could probably throw that in.

Actually, few of us alive right now can quite conceive of exactly all the things such money can do because, even though we read about such sums every day, they are so foreign to our everyday arithmetic that we have no idea what such money can buy (or how one might actually go about spending it).

That $207.4 million makes "The Avengers" the biggest domestic moneymaker of all time on its opening weekend, surpassing the previous title-holder, the final "Harry Potter" film. And, yes, I know, that's in part a function of higher 3-D and Imax prices, but no matter how you slice it, dice it, puree it and spread it on a Triscuit, the movie sold a whole lot of tickets.

Money, as we all know, is money. An absolute of a sort. A thousand dollars buys more than a hundred dollars. $207.4 million buys a whole lot more than that -- so much more that, as I said, it's an abstraction for most of us. We can only try to conjecture in our own little game of "The Price Is Right" what its equivalents might be in property, goods and services (but since last week, we now know you can shoot half that wad on one painting -- if it's one of the iconic images of Western art, Edvard Munch's "The Scream." What we don't know, of course, is whether you get fries with that.)

Popularity, though, is one of our sillier current obsessions. Sometimes, it's more meaningful than at other times. A lot more.

It just so happens that the popularity of "The Avengers" is very good news in the higher scheme of things. That's because the film is very good in an extremely smart way for its comic book genre. That a well-written film could be so popular is almost as good news as the opening weekend box office for Christopher Nolan's original "The Dark Knight," which was a $185 million art film distinguished by a great film performance (Heath Ledger as The Joker).

What makes "The Avengers'" domestic box office so heartening is that, in the modern world where the duncier film executives prefer to make their blockbusters for international consumption (translation: visuals matter, words not so much), the current champ is rich with jokes, cleverness and identifiable American entertainment. It is an industrial vote of confidence in American moviegoers, who have so often been treated lately as adolescent hillbillies by the American movie audience.

It was, similarly, good news when the box office champ was the final "Harry Potter" movie. It was the icing on the cake of youthful international literacy that whole Potter phenomenon signified.

The popularity of the "Twilight" films is, on the other hand, dreadful news for all of us, unless you're a fan of low standards and mindless teenage phenomena. That's why "The Hunger Games" being so much more popular was wonderful news about the movie industry and the American movie audience. "The Hunger Games" announced itself on-screen with a pretty good movie, too.

TV popularity is -- in and of itself -- similarly empty. It needs qualitative judgment and analysis to fill in meaning. Numbers, in themselves, mean nothing.

Of course, Super Bowls ring the Nielsen bells.

But the popularity of "NCIS" indicates that the combination of forensic procedural, crime plots that sometimes stray into Tom Clancy lite and a loving office family (Mark Harmon as Daddy, David McCallum as Grandpa, Cote de Pablo, Michael Weatherly and Pauley Perrette as the siblings) is a week-to-week bell-ringer, numero uno.

The popularity of "American Idol" and "Dancing With the Stars" means, on the other hand, that we Americans fall for the same combination of sentimentality and competition that the rest of the world does, no matter how well-made a show like "DWTS" happens to be.

On the other hand, "Castle" finishing seventh in the overall ratings a couple of weeks ago is still more evidence of how much adults and adults-in-training crave their nightly amusements served up with a little style (whereas the No. 8 show on the list, "Two and a Half Men," proves how little style a hugely popular show actually needs. It's as comically minimalist in its way as the old "Honeymooners").

The real wallop, though, in the April 17 Nielsen list comes in at No. 20 -- "Person of Interest," a dark, dark show featuring brutal violence, paranoia and total alienation from an urban world that none of the inhabitants trusts and that requires constant vigilante attention to set right.

It seems that, in our fantasy lives, we are always looking for Avengers.