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Avenge Is Sweet

Whedon keeps the story simple and the fans happy

by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

The Avengers

At long last, The Avengers is here. This ensemble movie has been in the works since the first Iron Man (2008), when - after 10 minutes of end credits - Nick Fury introduced Tony Stark to the Avengers Initiative.

Marvel's film division is definitely in its glory days, as they should be: they have 50 years of comics to take stories from. It'll be decades before they need to reach for the duds (hello, Thor Girl!).

DC Comics can only dream of achieving a similar plateau for the Justice League - especially considering they're about to reboot Superman because the last one was a dud. ("I've got it!" say studio executives. "It was the red shorts! "I blame the shorts!" "Ditch 'em and our troubles are over!").

Oh, and they're still desperately trying to convince themselves that Green Lantern is a viable franchise.

Marvel's storylines have remained fairly sunny thus far (discounting the thousands of anonymous casualties, of course). Three movies in, for example, Tony Stark's alcoholism has yet to become a plot point. Inconsistencies in some characters are starting to appear (does Bruce Banner have a handle on the Hulk or not? And how come he looks different every movie?), but they're unlikely to bother the general public. As long as Hulk smashes, right?

The Avengers does a nice job of tying up the loose ends left hanging by Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America. Exiled from Asgard, Loki (the excellent Tom Hiddleston) enters into an alliance with an alien race of control freaks known as the Chitauri. Loki must locate the Tesseract (the unlimited source of energy seen in previous movies) to create an inter-dimensional doorway and allow a full-scale invasion of Earth. In exchange, the outcast demigod gets to rule the planet. Hey, it's not Asgard, but it's something.

After an initial clash sees Loki in control of the Tesseract and some valuable human assets, S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury is forced to call the big guns - Iron Man, Captain America and Bruce Banner. With the addition of S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives Black Widow and Maria Hill and Loki's disapproving brother, Thor, the Avengers assemble for the first time. The only problem is, their agendas, powers and ability for self-control differ wildly.

Kudos to writer/director/geek god Joss Whedon for going beyond simple personality issues to explain the tensions within the group. Half of the Avengers like structure and find sense in following orders, while the other half has had their very existences threatened by authority. Nick Fury may come across as a fairly passive figure (comparatively speaking), but his job, to manipulate these larger-than-life personas into serving the greater good, is the hardest of them all.

Whedon doesn't try to reinvent the wheel here: The Avengers goes through traditional beats like growing pains, emotional push and personal sacrifice, with a tone closer to the first Iron Man than, say, the relentlessly bleak The Dark Knight. Most of the time the creator of Buffy, Angel and Firefly keeps himself out of the equation, although the dialogue is unmistakably in Whedonese (Tony Stark's nickname for Thor is "Point Break", for example, while Captain America's earnestness is a nuisance for the snark-loving supergroup).

Whedon's biggest leap forward with The Avengers is the design of action set pieces, most notably with a three-tier fight that has every hero facing a threat appropriate to their skills (shades of Buffy's epic season finales). Their safety really isn't in question at any point, but it's nice to enjoy a scuffle that follows the basic rules of cause and effect (if not physics).

Since most of the cast of The Avengers has been established in previous movies, there's little in the way of character development. The new additions, Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) are rather one-dimensional and merely serviceable. Mark Ruffalo in his first turn as Bruce Banner is the one with more room to play. His choice, turning the anger-prone scientist into a sad sack, is reminiscent of Bill Bixby in The Incredible Hulk TV show -and there's nothing wrong with that.

The Avengers ' most transcendental achievement is rescuing the Hulk from Marvel purgatory. After two failed attempts to jump-start a franchise with the raging green monster, it becomes clear the Hulk works far better as a supporting player and comic relief. Whedon's Jaws-like approach to revealing the creature is the right one considering that, even today, all the CGI in the world can't make the Hulk look remotely realistic.

The Avengers works very well as an origin story, but less so as a "first mission" tale, since Whedon doesn't dedicate as much attention to the baddies. Loki's diva antics and runaway sense of entitlement make for an entertaining antagonist, but the same can't be said of the Chitauri. As generic a set of villains as you'll find in a comic book movie, the warmongering extraterrestrials are never a real threat (the destruction of New York notwithstanding). Happily, a secret scene post-credits points at a more worthy opponent for the next movie.

The 3-D in The Avengers is underwhelming. Here's a movie that would work just as well as a 2-D spectacle, and does so for at least two thirds of the film. Once again, people: unless Martin Scorsese or James Cameron are involved, there's no point in paying extra for a stupid pair of glasses.