As someone who has long adored comics, the huge upswing in the number of superhero movies over the last decade or so has evoked conflicting emotions in me. On the one hand, it’s amazing to see heroes spring to life when they’re done well, but on the other there’s a lingering disappointment if they fail to do justice to the legacy of the source material. For every Batman Begins there seems to be an Iron Man 2 to counterbalance it, for every Superman Returns (which I maintain is incredible) there’s a Spider-Man 3.
Thus when the announcement of the Avengers film was made, I was a touch unnerved. How on earth would it work? The Avengers are a collective of individually developed chatacters with decades of backstory; which characters would be included, and who would take on the colossal task of piecing them together? Marvel has been ramping up to this moment for several years, releasing as they have several individual films for each Avenger. Thor was fantastic fun, Iron Man was delightfully amoral and witty, but how would these heroes mesh on screen with the Hulk, who has yet to find success on celluloid?
The answer to all the above is two words: Joss Whedon. As writer-director of Marvel Avengers Assemble, to give the movie its proper title, he has pulled off a miraculous feat, and made one of the finest blockbusters of the last decade.
The plot itself ties together strands from a few of the aforementioned individual flicks; Thor’s brother Loki (a reptilian Tom Hiddleston) is still alive despite being forcibly removed from Asgard in Thor, and has formed an uneasy alliance with the spacefaring, violent Chitauri race: Loki will dominate his brother’s beloved Earth by recovering the Tesseract (as seen in the Thor and Captain America films) – a power source of seemingly unlimited potential – and letting the Chitauri attack Earth to subjugate and enslave the human race. Eyepatched S.H.I.E.L.D. chief Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) witnesses Loki’s destructive recovery of the Tesseract, as well as the apparent hypnosis of top S.H.I.E.L.D. assassin Clint ‘Hawkeye’ Barton (Jeremy Renner) by Thor’s brother, turning Barton from friend to foe. Seeing no alternative, Fury seeks to reignite the stunted Avengers initiative, and with the aid of Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) looks to assemble Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (TM) to fight the incoming menace and recover the Tesseract: Tony Stark’s Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Steve Rogers, better known as Captain America (Chris Evans).
So far, so MacGuffin. It’s true that there is a straightforward device driving the plot of Avengers, backed up by the usual combination of human-endeavour-gone-awry and hokey science which has been a staple of comics since the immortal Stan Lee was in his 20s (which quite possibly may have been in the 20s).
Yet the biggest strength of Joss Whedon’s film is that it quickly adorns this central – frankly quite ropey – idea with a smattering of intelligent subplots and character arcs. Black Widow and Hawkeye, who as skilled but normal human beings represent the least awe-inspiring heroes on paper, hint at a stilted relationship several years past; Banner is trying to atone for his rage-induced destruction by curing diseases in developing nations; Captain America is trying to unpack a world that makes no sense to him; Stark is reaping the benefits and curses of his narcissism; Fury is chasing a dream which has already died once.
Whedon’s experience with character-driven TV shows – Buffy, the wondrous Firefly – is telling in this approach. Not only is he able to juggle several complex ideas at once, but his gilded pen means everyone has distinct, loveable traits, whether it’s Captain America wearing his trousers around his bellybutton and speaking in outmoded maxims or Ruffalo’s Banner shuffling about his lab like a newborn calf, seemingly disorientated by the rage that bubbles within him.
Clearly, Whedon has a preposterously talented group of actors to work with, but he is the star of the piece. His script is superb, rattling through plot without lengthy exposition, dropping in some truly inspired gags alongside the gravity of the situation. From Hawkeye to Banner and back, all of our heroes get their moments, and Whedon spends as much time analysing their individual and collective weaknesses as their strengths: we know that the last 40 minutes of this film will be a spectacular set-piece, but it’s the journey which makes the payoff worthwhile.
As for the fighting itself, the visual effects are terrific – as you’d expect from a $220 million dollar blockbuster really – and there’s some Marvel-esque creativity in the action itself: Captain America using his shield to enhance the power of Iron Man’s hand-mounted repulsor rays (yes I’m a nerd but that is what they’re actually called), Hulk bouncing off foes as he leaps city blocks in one bound. This is more than bog-standard super-fisticuffs, it’s epic warfare augmented by inventive concoctions and moments of levity.
In essence, all Whedon has done is take a hugely beloved comics franchise, imbue all its leads with humanity and character, create some of the most memorable action scenes of the last 5 years and make a 2-hour-10-minute masterpiece that plays to comic newbies and hardened Marvel-ites alike, injecting the whole film through with his own distinctive voice to raise the bar for blockbusters far above where it currently stands.
Nothing major, then.
Verdict: A genuinely miraculous piece of work. Whether you want to be amused by one-liners, engrossed by character development or just watch a large green superman batter aliens about the head, Avengers Assemble can provide what you need. This cements Joss Whedon as one of the best and most creative minds Hollywood has to offer: he’s made a film of the year candidate out of a potentially horribly franchised, filmmaking-by-committee, corporate, self-referential shipwreck. For the Herculean effort he’s made, maybe he should don a jumpsuit for the next one: in film terms, he’s one of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.