For the past few years, every product of the Marvel Comics film portfolio has been building to this. Captain America’s big screen debut was subtitled prominently as ‘The First Avenger’, and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), has been popping up in post-credits scenes for years. Looking to emulate the structure and crossovers of their comics, Avengers Assemble brings together the separate franchises of Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and the newly recast Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), as well as previous supporting characters. Does Avengers Assemble deliver, or collapse under the burden? It’s not without its flaws, but Joss Whedon has put together an immensely enjoyable film, the best Marvel-based one to date, and one that is not in the least bit ashamed of its comic book roots.
The film opens with Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. at a facility attempting to harness an immense source of power, the Tesseract. Everything is promptly and rudely interrupted by Loki (Tom Hiddlestone), the villainous brother last seen on the big screen having a bit of a siblings tiff with his brother Thor. Making off with the Tesseract, the situation quickly spirals out of the control of us conventional mortals, and Fury looks to assemble the title ensemble in order to save Earth, or at the very least ‘avenge it’ as Downey’s Stark puts it.
The tone of the film has been pitched extremely well by writer/director Whedon, who isn’t afraid to have the film’s comic roots shine through. There are often what appear to be cheese-on-toast moments in the dialogue, but fortunately the film earns itself enough good will to allow this to sit nicely within the tonal framework. In addition, the fantasy elements of the likes of Thor have been married very well with the more ‘realistic’ tech-based world of Iron Man. Even if this wasn’t the case, the verbal ripostes between the various heroes, all with their own issues and egos, often sparkles with the sort of irreverent humour and wit one would expect from Joss Whedon. As good as Christopher Nolan’s take on DC Comics’ Batman has been, this Marvel ensemble is an entirely different and more light-hearted beast.
Although everyone is on generally good thespian form, especially Tom Hiddleston as the villainous Loki, the film predictably strains a little under the weight of four established franchises. In the end, to set everyone up for the 3rd act requires a plot development that is dependent on a certain amount of familiarity with previous Marvel films, and could feel a little forced. Additionally, new or previously peripheral characters such as Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow have little time to develop as more than action fodder or eye candy. Having said this, it’s wrong to suggest it actively detracts from the film – but it is nonetheless disappointing given how Avengers Assemble exceeds elsewhere.
With these minor criticisms in mind, it’s impressive that the majority of the film could work either as the distillation of the separate Marvel franchises or an introduction for the uninitiated. Certain sequences and references will feel more at home and appreciated by those who have seen the solo efforts, but the fast-paced and engaging plot keeps things bouncing along – just at the point the film could lose steam, the pace and action picks up for a truly superb closing battle.
It is particularly admirable that Avengers Assemble is clearly the best big-screen depiction of the Incredible Hulk – a character that has arguably defeated a talented director in Ang Lee and (in a separate pseudo-reboot) an excellent actor in Edward Norton. Mark Ruffalo’s affable turn as the witty but uneasy Banner is underscored by edge-of-the-seat tension over his alter-ego’s eventual appearance (one close shave in his lab is especially well handled by Whedon). When the inevitable eventually happens, much improved special effects and an excellent fight sequence result in a terrific impact.
Avengers Assemble is an excellent piece of blockbuster entertainment. Much has been made of the fact that blockbusters don’t need to be a brainless Michael Bay effort in order to attract an audience. Whilst ‘brainless’ is a pejorative that shouldn’t be applied to Whedon’s cornucopia of superheroes, the film certainly doesn’t aspire to PhDs in Psychology or Philosophy either. There is a lightness and wit to the character portraits presented. Whilst this means there maybe isn’t the same obvious thematic depth to the film (although there are broad strokes painted about the moral and immoral uses of technology) this is not something that it needs, or wants, to aspire to. When the characters themselves are drawn with enough depth, humour and self-awareness, and action scenes are choreographed engagingly the result is every bit as good. There are legs in the old-fashioned blockbuster yet. The superhero film doesn’t need to be a gritty reboot in order to feel fresh.
With the phenomenal rise of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, the Marvel stable had to deliver something excellent but genuinely different in Avengers Assemble and with Joss Whedon behind the camera they have done so. Thanks to the excellent combination of humour, characters, action and intensity Avengers Assemble is the best Marvel film yet.