The Avengers (Movie Review)

The Avengers movie posterBy now, it’s a little late for me to tell you to go see The Avengers. You probably already have, unless you decided to ignore a month’s worth of great reviews. But I finally saw it, and I loved it. (This was not a foregone conclusion. Of the various movies that set up the premise for this one, I had only seen Iron Man. I found it to be okay, even though most people loved it. That hadn’t left me inclined to watch all the others that people said weren’t as good as Iron Man.)

There are definitely problems: Captain America looks less like a believable character than someone in a Halloween costume. The Hulk changes from a malevolent monster to a warrior with self-control, and the movie makes little effort to bridge the gap between those extremes. “Street-level” heroes without superpowers contribute to the fights as well as Thor and Iron Man. And Samuel L. Jackson seems to be phoning it in the first half of the movie, despite the character of Nick Fury being written to his strengths. (He does improve a lot in his less frequent, but more vital, scenes late in the movie. When called on to deliver a “mutherfucking snakes” line, Jackson is up to it.)

These problems hardly matter, though, because the movie makes everything work. It also helps a lot that, like Jackson’s performance, everything gets better as time goes on. Each succeeding action scene is more thrilling, the characters become better established, and the momentum picks up. This is managed largely because the movie had a huge budget to match the sheer audacity of its plans: The disparate heroes and cosmic villains require a lot more suspension of disbelief than (successful) superhero movies usually aim for, but Marvel had the money to make the special effects work. It also succeeds because it’s written by Joss Whedon.

To many people, Whedon is mainly a source of quirky dialog, and some of that pops up here. Unlike comic writers such as Brian Bendis, though, he is able to control his tics and take on other styles. This was a big-budget action movie first, a spiritual sequel to several different movies second, a Whedon movie last. His version of Tony Stark was completely true to the prior movies, and I can only assume that the other characters, who were written very differently, fit the movies I didn’t see.

Whedon’s real talent is respecting established characters. He’s usually done this with characters he created, but comics like Astonishing X-Men have proven that he can do it just as well with other peoples’ stories. He not only rewards the fans who are familiar with the characters, but shows newcomers why the fanbase exists. This made Whedon a perfect choice for this movie, which needed to handle a wide variety of heroes without making their coexistence seem ridiculous. Honestly, as much as I loved The Avengers and would now line up to see any other superhero movie Whedon writes, this still didn’t sell me on the Marvel movies in general. It would be too easy for lesser hands to mess up a premise that involves a dramatic god, a gee-whiz science fiction hero, a monster driven by rage, and more all in one plot. The only character here who I am really interested in beyond this one movie is the Black Widow, played flawlessly by Scarlett Johansson. (Whedon’s reputation as the only mainstream writer who reliably includes strong female characters is now firmly established.)

I feel a little silly making such a big deal out of a summer action movie, but The Avengers really was excellent. With a satisfying plot, time for every character, and big-budget action that really felt exciting, this is a rare achievement. But this wasn’t “just” a well-executed movie; The Avengers may be an important step for superhero movies as a whole.

In the past, I’ve had a general rule that superhero movies succeed to the extent that they make their stories simple and streamlined for a wide audience. Everyone in the X-Men movies gets their powers from mutations, because also throwing in magic and cosmic forces would stretch belief. Spider-Man’s web-shooters are organic, because it’s difficult to accept that he’d also be the sort of genius who could invent such a thing on his own. And so on. I think that’s a big part of the reason that we’ve never had a superhero series stay good for three movies. By that third one, the writers have gotten lazy, and so an alien creature falls to Earth directly onto Peter Parker’s bicycle, because the plot needs to start some way.

The Avengers, as I already mentioned, is an audacious movie. It opens with a scene that draws from Marvel’s stable of cosmic powers. It throws together heroes of magic, science fiction, and good old human toughness. And the result is something that even I, as a comics fan, would have considered accessible only to the hardcore fans. But instead, this is now mainstream entertainment! The credit is split among the huge budget, Whedon’s attention to all the characters, and to the earlier movies that laid the groundwork, but the fact remains that this is a sea change in the way that modern superhero movies work. We now have millions of people who are paying money to follow a convoluted world spread across multiple movie series, and the geekiest features of comic book plots appear prominently. It could even be argued that, because this follows up so much on Iron Man 2, this is a successful third movie in that series!

The Avengers is a fun movie. The Avengers is an important part of a series of stories that will probably be coming out for years. And yes, The Avengers is actually a bold change to the way that movies like this work. It may have all those flaws I listed at the beginning, but this is a huge success however you measure it.

Grade: A-

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