Hollywood has turned into a bizarrely egalitarian place. By yesterday’s rules genre favourite Joss Whedonshould have had to slog through some well-received C and B-list pictures before he was allowed anywhere near Marvel’s flagship blockbuster.
Yet here we are. Despite his sole big screen, feature-length directing credit being Serenity, he’s turned his knack for writing and directing wise-cracking ensembles – honed on Buffy, Angel and Firefly – onto the stars of some of Marvel’s biggest movie franchises, all formidable toylines in their own right.
Even with a movie universe created specifically to this end like Marvel’s, there are cracks where the slightly different worlds in which the characters operate don’t quite line up. The variation in tone and Top Trumps power level between the major players of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr’s vainglorious armoured billionaire), Thor (Chris Hemsworth’s overly-literal thunder god), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo’s bemused Doctor Jekyll, turned big green indestructible Hyde) and Captain America (Chris Evans’ sincere super-patriot) – without even getting onto slinky secret agent Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), steely-eyed marksman Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and no-nonsense spymaster Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) – are too extreme for any reasonable fix. As there is no reasonable fix, Avengers Assemble just gets on with it, and in doing so is perhaps the most faithful comic-book movie of all time.
Not faithful in terms of box-ticking its way through the canon, particularly, but in terms of being a big, brilliant, multicoloured romp that breathes life into the garish absurdity and silliness that endears us so gleefully to the world of superheroes. There’s a clunky opening sequence with Tom Hiddleston’s brattish Loki that kicks the plot off the starting blocks with a thump, leading into a series of pitch-perfect introductions in which every player presents themselves to the viewer and the plot – from Black Widow kicking seven shades of slayer out of some villains like Buffy reborn, to Steve Rogers pounding a punchbag and worrying about his place in this brave new world before Nick Fury turns up to offer him one.
Like the very basic comic-book crossover, Avengers Assemble sets our heroes against each other at the machinations of a common enemy (Loki and mind-controlled minions, plus some rasping, ringwraith-like baddies from another dimension… or something like that), have a face-off guaranteed to make fanboys squeal and seal-clap, bicker and trade Whedonesque, genre-savvy punchlines before finding their place within the team and, through teamwork, defeat the big bad. With this many characters – and even supporting characters, as Thor’s Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), the sardonic Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Iron Man’s Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) all feature – to even get between that relatively unpretentious a-to-b narrative would be near impossible to pull off. Compare this to Bryan Singer’s slickly ponderous first X-Men movie, in which there’s a whole lot of scene setting and not much else. Whedon does it, although that the DVD/Blu-ray will come with 30 minutes of deleted scenes proves that this is anything but effortless.
Avengers Assemble is big, but it isn’t bloated. It’s just over two hours long, but it doesn’t feel like it, as energy levels are ramped up and remain so for the duration. There’s an amazing economy of dialogue and motion, with every line or gesture intended to bring us joy, and not just drive the plot mechanically forward like the failed super team-ups of old.
Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man is obviously the stitch to this social fabric, sparking the back and forth and setting the tone, but everyone gets their moment – Captain America gets to be more the moral and cultural conservative of Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s The Ultimates, but without the xenophobia and self-righteousness, and the CGI Hulk – voiced by the iconic TV Hulk Lou Ferrigno and mo-capped by Ruffalo – is a gloriously funny and emotionally diverse brute, capable of playful aggression and relish as much as the mindless rage that reduced entire segments of his solo outings into set-smashing tedium.
You could be forgiven for the merciless mocking of Hawkeye – whose inclusion in 2011’s Thor was deeply contrived – in the run-up, but even he finds his place in the narrative, and is sort of endearing, with the exception of the way he flicks his collapsible bow out, which he does far too often, and a bit of pointless rappelling from a girder (presumably Renner invested in his own kit after Mission: Impossible, and insisted on getting some use out of it). Surprisingly, Captain America is next up in the uselessness stakes. He gets some moving scenes that anchor his character to this new world, but the power differential between him and three guys who can destroy buildings with their big green fists, their repulsor blasts, and their magic hammer is so great that come the climatic final battle he’s reduced to being the leader of a redundant second tier of Avengers with Black Widow and Hawkeye. It’s a brief lapse, though, and Cap subsequently proves his worth – directing the battle and mustering civvies like the star-spangled icon we want him to be.
The level of comic-book cheese and overwhelming nature of the cast and premise might confuse those unfamiliar with the earlier movies or source material. For those who’ve been pressing the air out of acid-free bags since childhood, or find themselves hiding the price tag on that impulse purchase of Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s 1982 Wolverine miniseries from their spouse, Avengers Assemble is such a pure and unadulterated comic-book movie that it will bring you to tears.