To say there has been a high level of expectation surrounding Marvel’s The Avengers would be an understatement. Geeks and fan-boys have been waiting many a year for a big screen multi-hero mash-up and they expect, nay demand that they be provided with something worthy of the wait. But think about it, how many movies of this kind, the big budget summer blockbuster, are truly brilliant? Sure they pack them in in their millions and their financial success provides the backbone of the entire movie industry, but how often does the summer blockbuster truly engage and thrill from opening to end credits? Aren’t they more often than not exercises in style over substance? Aren’t they the kind of movie where the bits in between the ever-increasing set-pieces are merely what you have to endure in order to see the eye candy? There are exceptions of course. X Men 2, Spiderman 2, The Dark Knight I hear you cry. But surely these and a few others are simply the exceptions that prove the rule. And surely a movie event that brings together some of the biggest names in the Marvel comic book universe on the big screen for the first time expects, nay demands to be another one of those exceptions.
The setup is fairly simple; when Loki (Tom Hiddleston), evil brother of demi-god Thor enlists the help of an alien army to enslave the world under his rule, director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Nick Fury enlists the help of Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, The Incredible Hulk and the God of thunder himself Thor to form the Avengers Initiative and save the planet from unspeakable threat.
The man charged with the task of assembling these larger than life, iconic characters into a cohesive unit is none other than Joss Whedon. Yep, that Joss Whedon. Creator of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse and a man who has fallen foul of the system more times than Bruce Banner has contemplated anger management. The list of injustices he has been forced to endure is a veritable hit list of missed opportunity. His first big screen incarnation of Buffy in 1992 was mangled and mishandled beyond comprehension and bore little resemblance to Whedon’s original vision. It was an abominable movie, despite this reviewer’s affection for Kristy Swanson resulting in my seeing it SEVEN times in a movie theatre! Yep, if ever there was a sentence worthy of exclamation it was that one. Alien Resurrection suffered a similar fate and was regarded the low point of the Alien franchise before Fox attempted a super-villain mash-up with the Alien Vs Predator “movies.” In fact, Fox have a lot of apologies owed to Whedon, their heartbreakingly premature cancelling of Whedon’s cult TV shows Firefly and Dollhouse another kick in the teeth for the writer, producer and director. But of course it is not for the reasons above that Joss Whedon has amassed an army of adoring fans (Whedonites) or that the worlds he creates (the Whedonverse) are devoured and dissected with such passion and glee. Through his own TV re-interpretation of Buffy, the spin-off show Angel, and the short-lived but much-loved Firefly & Dollhouse, Whedon has proven himself adept at handling ensemble casts in fantastical situations. Aah, now it makes sense.
Despite the raised eyebrows that greeted Marvel’s announcement that Whedon would be both the writer and director responsible for bring The Avengers to the big screen (the culmination of a five movie arc that began way back in 2008 with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man) it now seems like such a perfect fit. For lets be clear about this, Whedon has hit this one out of the park. Grasping his opportunity with all the glee and abandon of a kid handed the keys to the toy store of his dreams, he has created a movie so thrilling in its execution the only problem Marvel has is how in the hell they are going to follow it up. Everything you’d expect from an Avengers movie is present and correct, fantastic visuals, superb effects and barnstorming action. But tellingly, it’s the bits in-between that thrill almost as much as the set-pieces. It is in these scenes that Whedon the screenwriter comes to the fore; his dialogue is fresh and funny, the most surprising aspect of the film being its comedy. With Whedon’s hand on the pen humour was always on the cards, but The Avengers hits you with a handful of genuinely hilarious jokes in much the same way as a good horror movie hits you with it’s scares; surprisingly, unexpectedly and thrillingly. The cast plays a huge role in this aspect of the film of course, Robert Downey Jr’s now effortless inhabiting of the role of Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, providing line after line of sardonic wit, while others are given many a moment to showcase their deadpan delivery. For this is Whedon back in ensemble mode, and it is in the group dynamics that The Avengers really soars. With initial distrust and aggravation giving way to mutual respect and acceptance before the seeds are sown for the bonding of a formidable team, the ease with which Whedon threads the multiple characters, conflicts and relationships together is highly skilful at least, but at times bordering on masterful.
There was always the risk that this could turn in to the Tony Stark show, with Thor, Captain America, Hulk, Hawkeye and Black Widow being sidelined to sidekick territory, but Whedon gives each and every character a reason to be there, their moment to shine and for the audience, a reason to invest in and care about them all. The cast is uniformly impressive, Samuel L. Jackson revelling in the beefed-up presence of S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury and the two Chris’, Hemsworth (Thor) and Evans (Captain America) continuing in the vein of noble heroism they established in their solo efforts, their verbal sparring with Downey Jr always a delight. But in perhaps the movie’s breakout performance Clark Gregg excels as Agent Coulson, a bit-part presence in the preceding movies but here with a larger role that sees him contribute in comedic, dramatic and emotional ways. Jeremy Renner too has far more to do here than in his exceedingly brief cameo in last years Thor, his character Agent Clint Barton aka Hawkeye taking some dark turns along the way.
Despite the success of the The Avengers’ ensemble nature however, there are two characters that stand out as particular highlights. The first of those, Bruce Banner aka The Incredible Hulk, was perhaps the movie’s biggest challenge. With Ang Lee’s 2003 stab at bringing the Hulk to the big screen proving a noble misfire and even the 2008 versionstarring Edward Norton only a marginal improvement, there was every possibility that the big green guy could prove to be the weak link here. But by now it won’t surprise you to hear that Whedon has nailed Hulk. The arc provided to the character of Bruce Banner and his alter ego is brilliantly written. Thanks to a great performance by Mark Ruffalo (replacing Edward Norton thanks to those dreaded creative differences) and incredible effects by ILM that improve on the 2008 version tenfold, Hulk’s transformation from uncontrollable monster to day-saving superhero is enthralling, and in the breathless finale Hulk provides not one, but two of those fantastic laugh out loud highlights. The effects used to bring Hulk to life here, Ruffalo playing both roles thanks to the magic of motion capture, allow you to truly see the man inside the monster and the monster inside the man. Poetically, just as Bruce Banner has come to terms with the fact that he and the Hulk are one and the same, the technology has advanced to allow us the audience to see likewise.
With Whedon’s history of creating strong, iconic females it should come as no surprise that the second standout character is Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow. Played as she was in Iron Man 2 by Scarlett Johansson, Romanoff is more superspy than superhero, as stealthy mentally as she is physically. It is she above any others that is provided the hints of intriguing back-story and depth, the ease with which she turns the tables in her favour always impressive, yet always alluding to a dark past yet to be explored. Johansson may never have been better, proving herself the holder of the major movie star presence her fame has often alluded to. There is clearly more to come from both star and character.
With all this talk of characters, conflicts and relationships you’d be forgiven for thinking The Avengers to be a little talky for a summer blockbuster, but nothing could be further from the truth. The action quotient is high and it is here that Whedon the director comes to the fore. The visuals are amazing whether in three dimensions or two and an action beat is never far away. The film’s finale is a near-hour long battle to save the world from the invading force summoned upon by Tom Hiddlestone’s evil Loki and is full of jaw dropping spectacle, tension slicing humour and, thanks to the preceding interactions a genuine concern for our heroes. Give me this any day of the week over the monotonous grind of anonymous robots doing battle in Transformers. For here there is the very real risk of loss and sacrifice.
If I really must attempt to find faults then perhaps the very lengthy cast of characters inevitably leaves some short changed. The ever-excellent Stellan Skarsgaard is missing for the entire mid-section and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts is given little to do but look pretty in jean shorts in no more than a cameo role. Hastily dealt with also is exactly how the mighty Thor managed to find his way to Earth as are the whereabouts of his true love Dr Jane Foster (played in 2011’s Thor by Natalie Portman.) But in all honesty if you can’t look past these tiny nitpicks and enjoy what is on offer here then you’ve probably stumbled into the wrong screen anyway. Marvel’s The Avengers is what Joss Whedon does best, pure entertainment with genuine heart, emotion and humour. As for how they’ll follow all of this up, a mid-credits surprise hints at a future foe for the super-team whilst next on the agenda are Thor 2 and Iron Man 3, both due in 2013. And given their show-stopping turns here it can’t be long before the Hulk and Black Widow grace our screens in solo efforts. Whatever is next for The Avengers one thing is clear; Joss Whedon has set the bar mighty high for any superhero. And that includes those that reside in Gotham and Metropolis.
WATCH THE TRAILER NOW