What do you get if you cross a Norse god-king with an ego the size of a planet, a nervy science boffin with gigantic anger issues, a WWII super-soldier with a very silly costume and a genius billionaire playboy with flying power-armour? Arguments, that’s what.
With great power comes great banter in writer/director Joss Whedon’s blockbuster multiplier, which isn’t the best superhero movie ever – but might well be the funniest.
Avengers Assemble is a power-play that’s unprecedented in Hollywood history: launching four different $100m franchises to construct one super-mega-franchise. And it has to be said, handing it to a 47-year-old fanboy whose single previous feature film (Serenity) couldn’t even scrape back its budget at the worldwide box-office was a massive dice-roll.
Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Captain America (Chris Evans) on the big screen together was always going to be a huge kick. But could any screen be big enough for all them? Would Avengers Assemble look like four bodybuilders in an elevator? The suit, the smash, the hammer, the shield… Like X-Men: The Last Stand, Spider-Man 3 and Iron Man 2, there was a real danger of heroverload.
Sure enough, it takes Whedon some time to shuffle the deck before dealing out a functional plotline, as SHIELD chief Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) recruits the superheroes to save Earth after Thor’s power-mad brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) returns to enslave mankind with an all-powerful cosmic cube.
“What does he want me to do, swallow it?” asks Bruce Banner. And from there, the zingers keep coming. With X-Men and X2, Bryan Singer showed how you could disguise a compelling ensemble drama as a superhero actioner. Dialogue and dynamics are exactly Whedon’s special powers – as well as creating cult TV phenomenon Buffy, he worked on the scripts for X-Men and Toy Story – and his screenplay pulls together a group of mega-powered freaks and geeks who have pretty much zero interest in each other.
How? By locking big egos in tight spaces and letting the funnies fly. Lifting the movie’s pace every time he steps on screen in the first half, Tony Stark catalyses Avengers with gatling-gun wit. He drubs the Cap’s meagre brain like a speed-ball and hammers Thor, whether it’s his cape (“Doth mother know you weareth her drapes?”), his kingly lingo (“Shakespeare In The Park?”) or the fact he hasn’t had a haircut since his own movie came out (“No hard feelings, Point Break”).
But affectionately, Whedon plays to the characters’ weaknesses as well as their strengths as his comic-book heroes bounce off each other. And we do mean that literally. Mere mortals (Jeremy Renner’s laser-sighted archer Hawkeye, Scarlett Johansson’s gymnastic spy Black Widow) don’t get lost in the mix and cineastes will be delighted to discover that not one but two arthouse favourites pop up to steal Stan Lee’s cameo thunder.
Despite Scar-Jo’s seam-straining catsuit and SHIELD eye-candy Maria Hill (How I Met Your Mother’s Cobie Smulders, a Wonder Woman contender), there’s no sex factor in this superhero sausage-fest. Instead, the most interesting frisson sparks between fellow brainiacs Tony Stark and Bruce Banner. Third time’s a charm: Mark Ruffalo’s hand-rubbing performance as Banner looks definitive and Whedon, in just a few short scenes, captures a far more dangerous relationship between Banner and “the other guy” than we’ve seen in two previous big-screen Hulks.
One of the past problems was that Mr Hyde never really looked like Dr Jekyll. But with Ruffalo’s own face used as scaffolding for the CG monster’s features, a much more humanised Hulk emerges as the movie’s unlikely hero. Once the green giant bursts out of Banner’s shirt, he grabs hold of the movie and yanks it out of Downey Jr’s hands. The best moments and the biggest laughs belong to Hulk’s smash-happy personality – and only one of them is blown by the trailer.
Unlike Banner, bigness doesn’t come naturally for Whedon. So it’s no surprise that much of Avengers Assemble involves people talking in rooms. He hired Irish cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (We Need To Talk About Kevin, Atonement, High Fidelity) for that, but he’s also surrounded himself with a crew of slam-bang assistant directors who’ve worked on everything from The Bourne Ultimatum to The Fast And The Furious to Tarantino’s upcoming Django Unchained.
Having locked down the characters in Avengers’ first half, Whedon’s tech-team help him put his money (more than $200m of it) where his mouth is and let rip with a pair of exciting, elastic acti0n sequences that soak up the second half. After a cramped airship siege high in the clouds, the movie surges towards a wide-0pen blitzkrieg finale of city-smashing chaos that stretches for Transformers levels of mass destruction. As Loki’s army pours in from another dimension, one showboating unbroken action shot swoops through the battle to track each of the Avengers representing against giant flying robo-fish and alien charioteers.
Truth be told, there’s never quite enough real drama or danger for our effectively invincible superheroes. But this 135-minute romp between gods, monsters, men and supermen packs so much crowd-pleasing colour and humour that it’s impossible not to walk out grinning. Just don’t walk out too soon. As if we need to tell you, a few tantalising post-credits seconds reveal a Titanic super-villain who’s ready for the sequel(s)…
Fun to the power of four, Joss Whedon’s Avengers is equal to the sum of its parts – and for once, that’s no faint praise. Suit up.