2008′s Incredible Hulk and Iron Man. 2010′s Iron Man II. 2011′s Thor and Captain America. Some films tackle backstories inside their own feature. Some create a mammoth canon; a franchise so large and a universe so armed to the teeth with invention and magnificence that it dares to take a leap where other studios would not dare step. And here we present, ladies and gentlemen, The Avengers.
Or, at least to us Brits, Avengers Assemble. Quite the reason why Marvel’s marketing body decided to change the name for us “across-the-pond”ers we may never know, but the resulting film is no less fantastic. Clocking in at a suitably lengthy 142 minutes, we start at a brisk pace and never look back. But who are The Avengers? Well, there’s the billionaire genius Tony Stark (Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr), the genetically manufactured super-soldier Steve Rogers (Captain America, Chris Evans), the demigod from Asgard, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and, in his Marvel debut, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, who you won’t like when he’s angry. We’ve also got assassins Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), all under the umbrella corporation S.H.I.E.L.D., headed up by Nick Fury, or as you know him better, Samuel L. Jackson.
That’s quite a roster. And being put up against Loki (Tom Hiddleston), you may start to think that 2 hours 22 minutes isn’t quite enough time to give everyone their own screentime or, if that’s achieved, to keep it flowing. Thankfully, Joss Whedon has had his fair share of experience dealing with a host of casts demanding the screen (check out Serenity), and handles this monumental task with seeming ease. The priceless commodity that’s the reason we all want to see this story unfold is the dysfunctional family of superheroes – the smart-talking Stark, old-fashioned Rogers, thoroughly alien Thor and wholly nerve-wracking Banner each bring their own strengths (and volatile weaknesses) to the table. The banter is quite often both harsh and hilarious (hearing Stark call Thor “Shakespeare in the Park” or “Point Break” throughout the film is a great running gag), and each player flits off one-liners with swift glances and venomous accuracy.
Of course, from the rest of the Marvel films, there was always a risk that this would be an Iron Man-athon. The most charismatic and crowd-pleasing mainstream character of the franchises was hidden behind a mask for most of Iron Man 2, disguising his screen-grabbing charm with CGI metal, but here he returns by the bucketload to demand your immediate attention. Granted, he doesn’t always receive it, with each of the Avengers taking their turn in the spotlight, frequently turning the tables and providing unpredictable – and often unforgettable – verbal punches. They trade these with the physical ones with enough abundance to balance out the film’s dialogue and action without ever breaking pace, although a sequence near the middle of the film atop a large flying boat (yes, that’s right) may cater slightly too much for the fanboys and may leave most people stranded at sea (pun most definitely intended). But the act nevertheless plays a pivotal role in the film, showing how the characters learn to leave each others’ throats and bond to get at that of a mutual enemy.
Just to be clear, this is a supremely funny film. While Thor and Captain America focus more on their brooding vibes, focusing more on sorting out their evil brother and getting to grips with a world seventy years older than the one he’s used to respectively, the one liners are (as usual) depended on Stark. But it’s when the fantastic Ruffalo breaks from his zen-like, humorously relaxed Bruce Banner and launches into the Hulk that we get to see some of the best slapstick of recent film memory, putting many characters – including in one of the best comic moments of the film Thor – straight back in their place with a bang. As arguably the most daft member of the clan, Whedon has crafted a character that can deliver for any audience, and Ruffalo is sublime as both Banner and the mo-cap Hulk.
Is this the greatest comic-book film ever? Sadly, we would be lying if we said yes. Sticking close to any classic comic-book roots, the goodies will always triumph over the baddies, and the driving force of Loki – the mystical “cosmic cube” – is a plot device that could have been just about anything. The immense final battle is wonderful to watch but the hordes of fodder they’re fighting off don’t seem to be much of a challenge. Tackling so many characters into one story successfully would always mean that the story would have to take a hit, and it does so here, stripped back to its most basic so that Whedon can accommodate four wonderful main characters and a deliciously evil villain for them to stretch their muscles against.
With The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spider-Man lined up for the summer, they have a bar set and set high. While it may be too camp for the brooding, gritty Nolan Batman series, this is a phenomenal attempt and a truly great blockbuster that is both jaw-droppingly gorgeous and side-splittingly funny. The moment that all the Avengers line up beside another to conquer the threat is almost ridiculously incredible. For once, the hype has been lived up to as close as it could be. Avengers, assemble!