'The Avengers' is great fun, but does Captain America's new costume have to look quite so goofy?

Is it just me, or does Captain America’s new costume look like a better-tailored version of those cheap Halloween outfits that any schmo can get online for $39.99?
I don’t know…Maybe it is just me. Even so, even though every close-up shot of Captain America made me want to giggle, I still found The Avengers far more thrilling than it has a right to be.

'The Avengers' original art drawn by John Buscema and inked by Tom Palmer

I don’t mind telling you that I dreaded the approach of this movie. Partly, that was because I had mixed feelings about most of the Marvel superhero movies that built up to it. But, also, I dreaded The Avengers because I’d been such a huge fan of the comic book when I was younger.

One of my most prized possessions throughout my young adult years were two framed pages of stunning original artwork from issue # 76 of The Avengers comic book featuring the pencil work of John Buscema with the incomparable Tom Palmer doing the inking. The comic featured Thor, Captain America, Iron Man and the rest of the Avengers doing battle against the mighty Arkon and his minions.

For decades, my life revolved around comic books, and The Avengers was my favorite. I didn’t see how The Avengers , the movie, could be anything but a disappointment.

I’m glad that I was wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie – much of it, anyway. What works about The Avengers – the major fight scenes, much of the cgi and, most gloriously, the humor – work so well that by the time the movie ends you most likely will have forgotten that deadly dull stretch that dominates the first act and the fact that so much of what the characters do make absolutely no sense.

You’d think that after all of the origin stories leading up to this that there wouldn’t be as much need for exposition, but after an exciting opening things slow down to a crawl. That’s because The Avengers is yet another origin story, this time of Marvel’s mightiest super group.

Loki, Thor’s brother and a Norse god sorely in need of a good shrink, shows up inside the heavily fortified headquarters of SHIELD sporting an evil smirk and what looks like a glowing designer hockey stick. Sgt. Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, spouting most of his lines with a stiffness that you or I might also exhibit if we had to speak such mumbo jumbo with a straight face while wearing an eye patch and a Matrix-style, floor-length coat) has to assemble the troops to fend off what Loki has in store.

One problem with superhero movies – and it is a serious one in my book – is that there’s never anything at stake. Yeah, I know: In nearly every superhero movie ever made the fate of the world hangs in the balance but, really, how frightening is that? The intergalactic threat, the cackling mad scientist, the power-hungry demagogue bent on world domination – these all will be beaten back. Earth, or Gotham City, or Metropolis, will survive. We know that going in.

But the built-in predictability of the ultimate triumph of good over evil isn’t the flaw I was talking about. Great movies, even great superhero movies, must be rooted in character. No matter how spectacular the action or the special effects, the human dramas at the core of the story are what make us care.

Josh Whedon, who both directed and wrote The Avengers, knows a thing or two about writing these kinds of movies. The best parts of The Avengers, for my money, are the character moments. Even my absolute favorite scene – a comic action scene involving the Hulk and Loki – works as well as it does largely because of the writing.

The Avengers is like a cinematic version of “We Are the World” – each major star has to have a moment to shine. Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, Chris Evans Captain America, and on and on – they each get at least one stand-out action sequence and character bit out front. It goes with the territory. But as well executed as they all are, these bits can provide only momentary thrills because not only do we know that these characters will not die, we also know that they will not change. At the end of the movie they all will be pretty much the same as they were in the beginning.

The exception to this here is Downey’s Stark, who goes from being a lone wolf prima donna to a self-sacrificing team player. But is this really a change in character, or is it a necessary (though well-orchestrated) shift made in order to get the movie to work?

For the most part, nobody changes, nobody grows, and our understanding of and appreciation for these characters don’t significantly deepen.

Maybe this will change as the series goes on – the stars reportedly signed on for six movies – but don’t bet on it. The next movie will be freed from the necessity of having to explain how the Avengers were formed, but comic book movie sequels always have to pile on more action, more villains, more special effects. Expect this to take precedence over more-than-perfunctory character development.

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  • About Eric Harrison

    Eric Harrison reviewed movies and covered film for a decade for the Los Angeles Times and Houston Chronicle. His movie coverage continues here on InsideMovies.net. You also can read Eric's movie coverage geared to Houston, the nation's fourth largest city, on MovieHouston.com. Find out more at EricHarrison.org.
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