Phase One Complete: The Avengers

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“The board is set, the pieces are moving. We come to it at last, the great battle of our time.”

– Gandalf the White, Return of the King

Each generation has a defining moment, that crystallizes itself in the collective consciousness, so that no one in the world is left unaware of the event, or unmarked by its passing.
I remember where I was during the Battle of New York, and chances are you do to. Everyone does. Chances are equally good that you were sitting in a movie theater, enjoying a bit of shallow escapism when the sky suddenly opened up, raining aliens and hellfire on the city below.

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Man, New York just cannot catch a break.
But as so often happens, our darkest hour gives rise to heroes, the titular Avengers in this case.
Perhaps you’ve heard of them.

So, on the off-chance that anyone at Sony or Warner Bros., or Fox or whatever is reading this review and hasn’t worked out the obvious for themselves: this is how you build a shared universe. This is the playbook, and it’s so baffling to watch studios try to replicate this formula by cutting corners, jump-starting their universes with a single film. No. No, no, no. Linking together a series of references and Easter eggs and trailer bait does not a movie make.
Say what you will about the Phase One films, but even the bad movies were still movies. The worst of them -Incredible Hulk, natch- still gave us set-up so that a line like this could pay off:

‘Last time I was in New York I sort of broke… Harlem’

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So where do I even begin with the Avengers? It’s a near perfect film. It’s the Citizen Kane of super hero movies. It’s the promise made that was actually kept. And for someone that remembers the Star Wars prequels, the Matrix sequels, X3, Spider-man 3, Superman Returns, Fantastic Four and it’s sequel, the interminable dumpster fire that the Pirates franchise became… the Avengers was a palette cleanser for all those early adulthood disappointments. It was more than a movie. I almost didn’t know how to process the awesome at the time, and even now it’s like witnessing a miracle. How did this happen? How did we come to live in such times? These are philosophical questions we’ll be wrestling with for generations to come, and fall well outside the purview of this article. It’s enough to know that it did happen, I just saw it again, and it remains a highwater mark of the genre. There are so many moving parts that come together – and that needed to come together – that even if the movie was simply good, if it was reasonably coherent, that would be an accomplishment all it’s own.

Instead we have a super-hero ensemble film that – even though it builds off five previous movies – stands on it’s own. I’m serious. Now, obviously I’ll never have the experience of someone who randomly walked into a movie theater in the first week of May 2012, saw their options

and was like, yeah I guess I’ll see the Avengers, since John Cusack as Edgar Allen Poe sounds like the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard:

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Even to those poor souls, the Avengers would have been a good bet. I’m pretty sure it would have made sense and been perfectly enjoyable, even if seeing the five movies preceding it deepens that enjoyment.

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In part, this is because the movie is structured so well. After a scene that introduces us to conflict, the movie spends the next while bringing the Avengers in one at a time, giving them their due and establishing their characters. Seven superheroes (I’m counting Nick Fury here, who gets a bump from walk-on cameo to full on co-star)  almost seems quaint now, as we move into the third Captain America movie which stars, I think, everyone. But it’s worth pointing out how horribly awry this could have gone. Instead, only Hawkeye gets short shrift here, but since no one cares about Hawkeye this oversight isn’t so much a bug as a feature.

The Avengers also perfects the three battles/three acts structure that I noticed in an earlier review (that pattern held for Thor but was abandoned in Captain America, presumably because of it’s own structural issues). Act one ends with the forest battle between Iron Man, Thor and Captain America; Act two with the Helicarrier fight and Loki’s escape. And inbetween and amongst these flashy set pieces we get a lot of snappy dialogue and character moment which – witty banter aside –  serve to build the friendships that are the warm, beating heart of the movie.

Not that everyone starts out as friends – that would be boring – but seeing these relationships change and grow over the course of a two-hour action film, well – it’s something to see. It’s incredibly rewarding and I think that it makes for a very human story that nearly everyone can relate to. And nearly everyone did.

The Avengers made so much money.

I don’t think that’s necessarily any yardstick or guarantee of quality (looking at you, Avatar), but what it did guarantee was that the MCU wasn’t going away any time soon, and that we would soon be awash in imitators. It changed the zeitgeist.

So rather than breakdown the myriad of things that work in this movie (which was everything, pretty well) I want to call attention to something that really, really worked and something that really didn’t.

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The Hulk was perfect. It’s taken a million years of human evolution, but we can finally, realistically portray a green-skinned giant monster-man in a movie and that’s not something you could have claimed back when the Incredible Yawn was released.

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And before that, things were even worse:

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But the wonders of advancing CGI aside, the Powers that Be have finally zoned in on the perfect Bruce Banner. Don’t get me wrong: as an Edward Norton fan I was pretty pleased with his take on the character, and legitimately upset when he was recast for someone I’d barely heard of. But that was all before I’d seen Mark Ruffalo do his thing, which mainly involves dry-washing his hands.

I don’t know why, but that one mannerism, that one nervous tic just kills. Looking at him you can just see his struggle, and his burden, in a way I haven’t seen any other actor effectively portray. He slouches. He stutters a little. There’s a haunted quality in the eyes.

It doesn’t hurt that this is the first time we see Bruce Banner in a group of his peers. Previous outing have always focused on him on the run, or being hunted, the man alone or what-have-you. Here we get him sciencing and trading witticisms with the likes of Robert Downey Jr and it adds a whole new dimension to the character, which in turn adds a lot of depth when we finally see the monster.

Having raved about the Hulk, and how awesome he was, we should talk about the flip side of that awesome; the blandest, dullest, least super of all heroes: Hawkeye.

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Seriously, why is this guy in the Avengers? His dad must be someone on the World Council or something. Someone pulled strings, is what I’m saying. Like, I get that he’s got great eyesight, and like, hand/eye coordination and all that. And I guess he’s a big deal in the comics? Or something? But let us not forget for one moment that – in a movie set in the 21st century – this guy’s gimmick is to use a weapon older than recorded history. And yes, I acknowledge that even in this film he’s got some lovely arrowheads: exploding ones, and even a usb/hacking arrow, but it’s not like he’s Tony Stark inventing his own tech. No, someone in a S.H.I.E.L.D. lab somewhere is pumping these out. So which came first, the arrowheads or the archer? Were they just stockpiling arrowheads while scanning like, Olympic teams and hunting clubs in a desperate bid to find their Chosen One? Or was Clint Barton such a hot shot with a gun that he was able to pull in some favors with R&D? The more I think about it the more it hurts my head. It doesn’t help that Jeremy Renner (who I’m sure is a nice guy or whatever) has approximately zero charisma. His performance in the Bourne Legacy was enough, for example, to send them running for Matt Damon again. I know he was in the last couple Mission Impossible movies but I cannot remotely recall a single noteworthy or interesting thing he did in those films. Dude is fucking boring, yo. At least in this movie he was relevant as the mind-controlled heel-turn, but this is going to get ridiculous when we get to Age of Ultron.

Anyhoo. I’m nitpicking here, and I know it. In truth, at least Hawkeye makes Black Widow a little less conspicuous as being the only unpowered hero on the team. And his being compromised by Loki gives ScarJo some nice character moments. I’ll take it.

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At the end of the day, the Avengers is as near-perfect a superhero ensemble film as has yet been crafted by the hands of man. The story is simple enough to allow the focus to be on the characters, and that was a smart call on the studio’s part. I’m gonna give this one 9 Loki’s scepters out of 10. It was audacious. It was visionary. It was amazing.

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