Under the Radar

Marvel's Avengers Pay Off

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One reason so many big-budget studio movies are so terrible is that the executives in charge think that flashy special effects can distract the audience from boneheaded plots, awful dialogue and nonexistent character development. The Avengers proves that Hollywood can throw tons of money at a project and come up with something spectacular. The movie plays like a cross between Transformers and The West Wing, with frenetic action scenes connected by a complicated plot that manages to both make sense and give every one of the six Avengers something interesting to do.

Capt. Steve Rogers takes a first look at his 21st-century gear.

Lots of credit should go to writer-director Joss Whedon, most famous for creating the cult TV shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. Whedon definitely brings his renowned writing skills, keeping track of everyone's complicated motivations and backstory and effectively highlighting the conflicts six lone wolf superheroes are doomed to encounter when you trap them all on a flight aircraft carrier. Compare The Avengers to the X-Men sequels and you'll get just how much of a difference a real writer can make.

But maybe equal credit should go to producer Marvel studio exec Kevin Feige. Not only did he hire Whedon, he produced all five movies that serve as prequels to The Avengers (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor, The Incredible Hulk and Captain America: The First Avenger). Every one of those movies has moments that are setups for action in The Avengers but they've still managed to make a film that works even if you've never seen any of the prequels. Whedon doesn't have the special effects chops that movies like this usually require, but the Marvel assembly line has that angle covered so the director can concentrate on the characters.

Iron Man fans might disagree, but this is the best Marvel movie yet. Mark Ruffalo's performance as a recast Hulk finally makes that character work after two failed movies. Tom Hiddleston makes Loki one of the best movie villains since Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans have so much chemistry that you hope they get their own movie after each makes Iron Man 3 and Captain America 2.Jeremy Renner struggles through a tough assignment as Hawkeye and there could be a little more about his backstory with Black Widow.

When I saw the movie at an advance screening, there was rather heated discussion after the movie between some guys who were tallying up a list of "Whedon regulars" who appear as either extras or have very small parts in the movie. I can't begin to comprehend that, but there's plenty of that going on if that's what you're looking for at the movies. The now-standard Marvel setup for the next movie happens right after the end of the picture. If you wait around for the end of the credits, you'll be greeted with a blank screen.

The New York City alien showdown that comes two hours into the movie doesn't break any new technical ground and it would be a reason to complain if the rest of the movie wasn't so good. Since we've spent so much time with interesting characters and the plot makes sense, the monster works just fine. We can only hope Battleship viewers get that lucky.

UPDATE: Several commenters have pointed out that the advance screening print I saw didn't include the final after-the-credits scene, something about a visual payoff to a Tony Stark joke during the NYC alien battle. So stick around until the end.

Scarlett Johansson in a bodysuit is worth the price of a movie ticket.

Jeremy Renner wishes Hawkeye was as interesting as Mark Ruffalo's Hulk.

Does Chris Hemsworth's Thor have trouble with English as a Second Language or is he actually kind of a dumb jock?

Robert Downey, Jr. seems vaguely bored while he tosses off most of the movie's best lines.

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