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‘The Avengers’ Is a Pretty Good Movie Inside a Really Great Universe [Review]

Ever since it was announced that Marvel’s superhero films were going to build into one massive, series-spanning Avengers franchise, I’ve been wondering how it was going to work out. I’d even go so far as to say that a lot of the time, my curiosity over how the pieces were going to fit together outweighed my interest in what was happening in the individual movie. Now that four years of films have finally culminated in The Avengers, we have the answer.

I’ll admit right up front that the movie didn’t blow me away, but in terms of recreating that shared universe for the screen? They pulled it off. And they pulled it off well. Some spoilers follow.It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the movie, because I did. But it wasn’t quite the senses-shattering experience I was expecting. For me, there were only a couple of moments with genuine surprises, only a few where my mind went from “that’s pretty good” to “that’s great!” And part of that, I’m sure, is the fault of the movies that came before it.

After all, the most fun thing about these movies for comics fans is seeing aspects of the comics translated to the screen, but the Marvel movies have been doing that for four years, to the point where it’s really their trademark. Since 2008, we’ve seen Iron Man’s briefcase armor, Arnim Zola, an Asgard that looked like Jack Kirby designed it and a dozen other things that I never would’ve expected to see on film, and while The Avengers certainly has one thing that I never would’ve expected, that level of spectacle has become routine. It’s a good problem to have, but when a movie is built around doing just that for an audience that has come to expect it, it tends to seem a little more lackluster.

But while the specifics might’ve become rote, it’s the translation of the universe that really shines.

One of my favorite things about super-hero comics is that they’ve created a shared universe in a way that no other genre or medium has even come close to. I love the mechanics of a single unifying setting that’s built up over decades of stories, with a breadth and depth that goes everywhere from thugs on the street to cosmic battles for the fate of the universe. And the greatest strength of The Avengers — and of the movies that preceded it — is that it captures that shared universe feeling better than any other movie I’ve seen.

It’s been a common complaint about movies like Iron Man 2 and Thor that all the stuff that led directly to the Avengers felt shoehorned in, but it all really pays off when the characters come together. That alone is an achievement: This movie manages to blend the sci-fi of Iron Man, the fantasy aspects of Thor and the straightforward action movie elements of Captain America into something that feels natural. It’s logically consistent, and while that’s largely because the previous movies went out of their way to overlap those elements and lay the groundwork, the fact that Joss Whedon was able to juggle them all at the same time and come away with a world where all of these characters seemed like they should exist together is a pretty amazing feat.

Especially when you consider how much there was to juggle. This is, after all, a movie that involved Loki, the Cosmic Cube and an alien invasion, plus a Special Guest Villain who hangs out in the shadows until he gets his big reveal during the credits, so there’s a lot going on. It makes it feel like a big enough conflict to justify so many heroes coming together, while still maintaining enough of a unified plot that things never spiral into a confusing mess. For most of the movie, in fact, the schemes play out in the background, allowing the focus to stay on the characters.

That character work is another really solid pillar of the Avengers, and it was one of the most interesting to watch. Because of the way the franchise has been structured — in theory, at least — we’re already pretty familiar with most of these characters. We’ve seen Thor’s journey to learn humility and watched him come to care for humanity, we’ve seen the honesty and steadfast morality that make Steve Rogers Captain America, and we’ve spent around four hours watching Tony Stark mature into a hero instead of an aimless egomaniac with a suit of armor. Their characters have already been defined before the first frame of this movie, freeing Whedon’s script up to show how they interact with each other, rather than establishing who they are. It’s a luxury that most ensemble casts don’t have, and in a lot of respects, it pays off.

The tension between Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is especially well done, especially in how it defines them as characters. There’s a great scene where they’re arguing, almost about to get into a super-powered fistfight, when there’s an attack that puts the people around them in danger. Without missing a beat, they put aside their personal differences and shift straight into working together to help others, and that one simple scene establishes them as heroes more than any big fight scene could.

There are a few characters that don’t have that development behind them, though, notably Black Widow and Hawkeye. They’ve essentially been background characters in the other movies, so it’s no surprise that Whedon devotes a chunk of screen time to having them interact with each other, nor is it a surprise that they hint at past exploits that we haven’t seen. The problem is that while Jeremy Renner does a pretty solid job with what he’s given, Hawkeye doesn’t really seem to matter all that much. There’s not really anything in this movie that would change if he wasn’t there.

Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, on the other hand, is a little more interesting. She has a few great moments, including one that briefly required you to think that Whedon was an awful director before flipping it around, and one that saw her pulling off some Daniel-Craig-As-James-Bond moves that, despite being fully expected, were still pretty nice to see. But at the same time, her character isn’t quite super-heroic enough. She feels like a spy movie character transplanted into a super-hero movie, and while that’s how her role is built within the movie — Tony Stark describes her as a “master assassin” at one point — it doesn’t quite fit.

There’s a shot of all the heroes getting ready for the big final battle, and while everyone else is flexing gamma-powered muscles or swinging a magic hammer or getting ready to throw a mighty shield, she’s standing there loading a gun.

It just feels so normal. There’s a bit of an attempt at giving her the Widow’s Bite weapons she has in the comics, but they’re barely there. I really wish they would’ve gone a little further; I liked her character a lot more than I expected, and I feel like she could’ve been the breakout member of the team if they’d played it right.

Instead, that honor goes to the Hulk.

The Hulk’s a weird case in the whole Avengers franchise. He’s had two movies to get established in the minds of the audience, but whether it’s because of the shift in stars or the way they were spaced out, those movies feel a lot less connected to the core of the series than Thor, Captain America and the Iron Man movies. Despite that, though, Mark Ruffalo’s performance does an amazing job establishing him.

He perfectly conveys that sense of constantly being on edge, but tempers it with the weariness of a man who’s been worn down by a fear of himself. He probably has fewer lines than any other main character in the movie, but the way he says them and the choices Whedon made in the screenplay do an incredible job of getting it across. The fact that Bruce Banner always refers to the Hulk as “The Other Guy,” only ever saying the name once before he backtracks and corrects himself, speaks volumes about the character.

It’s also worth noting that the action is really enjoyable, too. There’s one great shot during the Big Fight that just moves from one character to the next as they threw down on the aliens, flowing through this battle that really shows off the scale of what’s going on. I even really enjoyed the little team-up moments that felt like combo attacks from a video game.

But as much as I enjoyed a lot of this movie, it didn’t strike me as the absolute revelation that I heard others praising it to be. With so much to juggle, the focus on character work, while certainly welcome, meant that the plot was pretty straightforward. Bad guys show up, good guys have a mandatory fight with each other, good guys fight bad guys, and we all go home to talk about it on the Internet. It’s serviceable, but it felt a little thin. Still, I’d rather have a thin plot than one that was bloated and unwieldy, so I’m guessing Whedon chose to err on the side of caution.

Also, purely based on my own personal tastes, I would’ve rather had a movie where Captain America didn’t just straight up kill a man who might’ve been mind-controlled by throwing him off the Helicarrier. Even that, though, it’s hard to blame on Whedon or The Avengers. After all, I had the same problem with the Captain America movie, so it’s certainly established, and Whedon goes out of his way to refer to what’s going on in his film as a “war,” even if it’s a war involving guys with costumes and names like “Captain America.” Hell, the very first thing Tony Stark does once he has the Iron Man armor in Iron Man is kill a bunch of bad guys with flamethrowers, so I guess that’s just how things work in the Marvel Movie universe, even if I’d prefer it to be otherwise.

That said — and this is a definite spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the movie — can we at least come together and agree that having this movie end with Iron Man throwing a nuclear missile at a bunch of aliens was at least a little weird? Seriously, if I’d told you a year ago that the Avengers movie ended with Tony Stark nuking aliens, you would have said I was insane. And yet, here we are.

But despite that utterly bizarre choice, it’s an enjoyable movie. And really, the fact that I can say that I saw a movie about the Avengers that only had great acting, well-done character work, fun action and a competent plot is a pretty good testament to what they’ve been able to accomplish with these films.

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