Joss Whedon’s Marvel team-up has been the most anticipated film on We Love Movies horizon since it was announced, Whedon geeks that we are. The man’s track record of dealing with ensemble casts, his love of superheroes (go see Dr Horrible’s Sing-along Blog now!) and his unsurpassed ability to bring the funny made him the geek communities wet dream candidate to helm the Avengers movie (although I’m not buying the addition of the word Assemble to the title so I’m dropping it now). But there were still questions: how would each character be given enough screen time to really make it feel like a genuine team movie? How would the lesser characters (Black Widow, Hawkeye) make their presence felt alongside their more highly powered teammates? And how exactly did Joss intend to get around the fact that the Hulk is seemingly unable to impress on the big screen?
Well, we’ll get to those questions in time, but the first thing you need to know right up-front is that Avengers is awesome.
Like, flat-out, see it twice awesome.
Huge, funny and even moving, everything here is dialled up to eleven, with Whedon’s obvious affection for the characters making it the most fun blockbuster I have seen in years. There’s no doubt that this feels like a film he’s had in his head – and heart – for years, so many chances do we get to see things from an angle unusual for most superhero films. That he juggles the characters brilliantly, with everyone getting meaty scenes of action and dialogue, both together and apart, is one thing. But what is really breathtaking is how accurate their voices are. The scene between Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) near the beginning of the movie could almost have been an unused scene from a previous Iron Man film, so effortlessly does Whedon slip into their easy banter. And in fact, Chris Evans’ Captain America/Steve Rogers dialogue is better than it was in his own movie, his earnest heroism flowing easier, allowing Evans’ own charisma to shine a little brighter. Whedon’s insistence on Mark Ruffalo being the only man to play Bruce Banner/Hulk has paid off in spades too; Ruffalo’s usual combination of soft spoken intelligence and his kinda shy body language lies in beautiful contrast with the monster he struggles to contain.
The team members interplay is superb, with various factions popping up here and there; Stark’s self-promotion sits uneasily with Rogers’ because-it’s-right nature, Thor and Hulk predictably get into the mother of all pissing contests and Banner himself, uncomfortable with handing himself over to the government and unsure of the role he is really being expected to play, quickly forms a natural alliance with fellow boffin and anti-authoritarian Stark. At the centre of everyone’s attention however is Loki (Tom Hiddleston); good in Thor, he’s brilliant here. It’s clear from the off that he’s been through it since we last saw him; looking gaunt and hollow-eyed and ready to enslave the earth, he’s electrifying and steals almost everyone scene he’s in (or at least, those scenes that aren’t stolen back from him; once, with steel, by Johansson and later – and most pricelessly – by the Hulk).
The whole thing just drips with an easy class, with so many touches that most films would find neither the time (such as Agent Coulson’s formerly steely self reduced to fanboy giddiness when confronted with his hero Captain America) nor the imagination for (an early scene between Black Widow and Banner, in which she has lured him away to a small shack in the hopes of acquiring his services, is a beautiful example of the level of care and attention that have gone into the film. Starting out smiling and confident, we see Banner unnerving her until she is almost on the verge of tears. Surrounding Banner, on every surface in the tiny shack, there are violent slashes of green, as if he were giving off a visual warning against her pushing him too far).
Worthy of special mention is the Hulk himself. Two dodgy films down, Whedon has finally gotten to core of the matter; Banner is a good man, desperate to avoid losing control and being responsible for harming others. But the Hulk? Well, the Hulk just loves to play… And boy, when he’s let off the chain, does he play. Leaping from building to building, swatting enemies out of the sky with ease, unleashing merry hell; we finally get the Hulk we’ve been waiting for, the Hulk as he should’ve been all along, destruction incarnate, with fists like wrecking balls (it should be said that though the Hulk will never be mistaken for “real” the decision to motion capture Ruffalo’s performance instead of creating a wholly CG Hulk was a good one and pays off – not least in two of the film’s funniest moments that remind us that, despite Stark using these words to describe himself, it really is the Hulk who “doesn’t play well with others”).
The action sequences are huge, with beautifully rendered destruction and generally very impressive CG. The set pieces, very smartly, take place on several fronts at once, giving each team member a chance to contribute their own special skills to the mix, with even Hawkeye (the key worry, naffness-wise) proving himself to be a hard-arse. The cutting between battles is fluid and keeps a strong hold on who is where with whom even in the middle of fifty different kinds of havoc. The pacing is strong too, despite it’s two and a half hour running time, without sagging before its final act as a lot of these films tend to.
But ultimately, CGI, acting, editing… I could talk about these things all day and not get to the heart of what makes this film work because all these things are beside the point. What you come away with is a feeling of sheer joy, that this is how these films should always be: effortless, fun, intelligent, ridiculous and made with love. Not to mention funnier than you would have thought possible. Whedon’s pen has never been sharper and finally, given permission to play in the big boys sandbox, he’s shown them all how to do it properly. As a long-time Whedon fan, I knew that if he could make a film that was as successful as his earlier Serenity, he would have a hit on his hands. The fact that he has managed to do that, and still retain the things that make his writing unique – genuine emotion, precision humour – on such a huge tent-pole release means we now have nothing less than a new benchmark in the superhero genre. You can call me lame if you want but there were points during the movie when I had the beginnings of a tear in my eye such was my feeling of pride in his achievement (wet eyes were also experienced, I later found out, by my friend and my girlfriend; it’s the bond that keeps the geek community together. We grieved with Whedon over the cancellation of Firefly. Today, we win one…)
Having broken some sort of box office record in almost every territory it has opened in (and with one American ticket seller claiming that 66% of people they polled said they would be seeing it at least twice) Whedon looks sure to be offered a sequel, but with Iron Man 3 and Thor 2 to come first – not to mention engineering a window into all these actors schedules – it could be a bit of a wait.
On the strength of this, it’ll be worth it.