Review: Marvel’s Avengers Assemble

***originally written 23 May 2012***

This movie was not designed for me. I’ve never seen Iron Man or Iron Man 2. I’ve never seen any iteration of the Incredible Hulk. I’ve not seen Thor or Captain America. In fact, when it comes to HUGE-budget summer blockbusting comic book films, I pretty much label them “not my cup of tea” and stay well away. I don’t even drink tea.

So whatever possessed me this time around, with a movie which, from an outsider’s perspective at least, sounded as though you’d need to know massive amounts of back-story to ‘get it’? Well, the answer is director Joss Whedon. Whilst his previous feature film Serenity was a patchy-but-good affair, an improbable farewell for his much-beloved canned sci-fi series Firefly, my Whedon-love goes back further than that to the golden days of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Say what you will about the series, but when Whedon himself took control of it, the results were always interesting. And, in the case of episodes such as “Hush”, “Restless” or “The Body” downright outstanding. His was a charmed touch, elevating whatever he came into contact with. Hell, I even enjoyed Dollhouse.

And so to Avengers. I walked in a complete novice. No preconceptions. And really, no idea what to expect. The little I knew about the characters made them sound pretty silly to me. What was this going to be about? At first… it seemed to be about nonsense. The beginning was tough. One of Whedon’s worst traits to date has been his contentment to hang a whole story on a simple MacGuffin and use a cod storyline to explore the character shades he finds more interesting. So it seems here from the off, as a ridiculous sparkly box of magic gets stolen from some random people (who are not introduced with any clarity) by some bad alien guy who doesn’t look like an alien and might actually be from mythology, but looks like a reject from a Flash Gordon audition tape (who, by the by, is not introduced with any clarity either). He ‘does a Caleb’ on a bunch of people – including a never-named character played by Jeremy Renner – and leaves Samuel L Jackson frowning over how very bad things are now they’ve lost their lovely magic box. Time to assemble The Avengers!

Things get better as our heroes come together. It’s a necessity that this takes time, and that’s fine. It allows a certain momentum to build. Robert Downey Jr. is charismatic from the get-go as Stark/flying-robot-guy. Chris Evans’ Captain America is perhaps the biggest surprise – I may well investigate his solo-round from last year. I liked the character a lot, even if he is shaped like a Dorito. Black Widow’s super-power seems to be Being Scarlett Johansson, so no complaints there, yet crucially she is also no one-dimensional fan fantasy – Whedon’s knack for writing strong parts for strong women. Mark Ruffalo makes Bruce Banner a quietly human proposition, very easy to warm to. His performance is the least showy, but it’s also the best. The only bum-note for me was Chris Hemsworth’s Thor. Forget one dimensional, he seemed no-dimensional, though I am assured his movie from last year is worth a look.

Some clunky exposition and the-Whedon-trademark-scene-in-which-all-the-characters-have-an-argument later, and the shit begins to hit the proverbial fan. It might take an hour or so to get there, but as soon as the giant-improbable-flying-fortress-aircraft-carrier thingy is attacked, the movie kicks into a high octane gear it never lets up on, and Whedon lets rip a tour de force of action that immediately sets him in the Big Leagues; a superhero of orchestrated CG mayhem with enough clout to make Michael Bay etc steady themselves on the furniture.

It’s fucking awesome.

That build up might take time, but it’s also there for a reason. Whilst things blowing up and catching fire sure is pretty to watch, and handled well in 3D, it is Whedon’s knack of building strong ties between audience and character that help hook you. It might all be complete nonsense, but you want the good guys to win. As a side note, Tom Hiddleston’s turn as bad-guy Loki might be your usual oh-he’s-bad fare, but it’s done extremely well. The man’s got a devilish charisma reminiscent on James Marsters’ pricklier days as Spike way-back-when (yes, I am going to continue evaluating this through the prism of Buffy).

And if the antics aboard the seemingly indestructable flying battery aren’t enough to settle your hunger for action, what comes later is a genuine FEAST for adrenaline seekers. In The X-Files movie, Mulder took a piss against an Independence Day poster, here Joss Whedon shits on that film’s miniscule ambitions. It’s essentially the end-bit of Buffy episode “The Gift”, but on such a jaw-drop scale as to sweep up even the most cynical viewer, flawlessly orchestrated. Whedon juggles his bloated cast deftly. Everyone gets a fair share of screen time. And Ruffalo’s Hulk lays claim to the biggest laugh of the evening.

But by the time it comes around, I wasn’t even cynical. And it hadn’t been beaten out of me, but charmed. I’d been won over by this beguiling set of superheroes. Sarcy, angry, noble, lordy and nice-arse. And their adventures had taken me on a rollercoaster. This is how summer blockbuster movies should be. Two hours in, and holy fuck you’re having fun. You know you’re being manipulated some, but you don’t mind. Marvel’s Avengers Assemble might not re-write any of the rules, instead it makes you not-care about the rules. So what if it’s formulaic? That guy just mashed up that alien good!

Not a masterpiece. As an outsider I needed more info on Thor and Loki. And that first hour ebbs and flows a little haphazardly… But perhaps the biggest tell of my enjoyment is a new-found desire to check out the other Marvel movies that I previously dismissed as not-my-cup-of-tea. Hell, maybe I’ll even try tea again.

Score:  4

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