Let’s be honest here, The Avengers, or Avengers Assemble as it is uncomfortably known on these shores, should never have worked. It was to be a convergence of behemoth egos, both characterised and in terms of the talent, with tangible potential to blow out spectacularly without the right control and above all the right balance. But thanks to the talent and immeasurable passion of Joss Whedon, the film not only works, it excels and it is easily one of the most enjoyable and certainly the purest superhero movie ever made.
It is not quite a resounding success however, with a number of developmental issues holding it back from being an unblemished masterpiece, including some clunking sections of dialogue that are a little too reminiscent of Michael Bay for comfort and the occasional imbalanced story choices that inspire little more than a slight frown but which gestate quickly and frustratingly offer a picture of what have been. Without wading into the spoiler pool too far, the inclusion of one subplot involving SHIELD’s somewhat shady overlords is wholly superfluous, and its ultimate resolution feels like a tacky sub-Independence Day mistake, and though it certainly isn’t a deal-breaker for the film as a whole, the comparative lack of refinement is distastefully blatant by proximity.
But make no mistake, when The Avengers is good, it soars. The effects are great, the set-pieces jaw-dropping and incredibly immersive no matter what your feelings on the giant woodlice at the end (no more spoilerish material than that will appear here), and the direction is both accomplished and smacks of fundamental passion for the project. This was a film made by a fan of the properties involved for the enjoyment of other fans, and as such it is as generously an entertaining film as you’re likely to come across, from the awe-inspiring action sequences to the frequent and effective comic touches. Most impressively of all, Whedon has taken a cornucopia of diverse factors and some monumental concerns, and made a seamless product that makes a mockery of any concerns anyone might have had of synchronicity and balance.
The biggest single problem, in every sense of the term was how to deal with The Hulk: mistreated in two unsuccessful (though not as poor as some might suggest) films, and now considered as unmarketable a solo concern as The Punisher, the big green one carried a lot of baggage across those iron-wrought shoulders. The problem always seemed obvious to me – rather ironically the humanist side of Bruce Banner’s story could never hope to compete for equal focus with his Dr Hyde side, and somewhat fortuitously for Whedon and the Avengers project, pulling away focus with other characters and story arcs was the perfect antidote. The sparing use of both Banner and Hulk works brilliantly, to the extent that there are a number of moments in which he threatens to completely steal the show, and if it weren’t for the generous script bias towards Iron Man (quelle surprise), he would almost certainly have succeeded.
Overall, the characterisations are mostly spot on: the four most familiar characters (those of their own movie projects) all feel perfectly on brand, and in some cases – for Iron Man and Hulk chiefly – they are actually drawn better than in their previous films. Robert Downey Junior appears to be having a lot more fun with this even snarkier, even more outrageous version of Stark, and Mark Ruffalo isn’t shackled by the poe-faced gravitas that both Ed Norton and Eric Bana brought to their Banners with refreshing results. Both Chris Evans’ Cap and Chris Hemsworth’s Thor feel appropriate, perhaps because they are the most recently created characters, even if Thor feels slightly like the most difficult to fit jigsaw piece without the self-conscious opulence of Kenneth Branagh’s direction – but then that is entirely the point of his character.
And though they are forced to fight for focus a bit more – thanks to being the newest kids on the block – both Hawkeye (or Barton as the film prefers to call him) and Black Widow (Romanoff) slip into the group effortlessly, because of tight scripting decisions and an intriguing story that effectively establishes a subplot just for them. It helps that Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner are more than dependable actors, and in their hands neither character is allowed to evaporate into the background.
Others aren’t quite so lucky: Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury is no more than ceremonially important to the storyline, which cruelly robs him of substance when he isn’t barking out inspirational slogans and equally undermines Jackson’s performance, and Stellan Skarsgard’s Erik Selvig is pretty much ornamental. They aren’t particularly bad performances by any means, but the characters aren’t given enough to play with, or stake a claim for some of the choicest attention, and the performances aren’t explosive enough to transcend the limits of the material. Had either of them been as impressive a performance as Tom Hiddleston’s delightfully Machiavellian Loki, their fates might have been different, but as it is, they are left behind when larger characters are on screen.
It is also telling that the least successful part of the film is also the point where the dynamics within the group feel the least organic: the first twenty minutes or so stumble a little too unevenly through expedition and explanation as the Avengers assemble, as the jigsaw pieces are gingerly pushed together. You get the feeling that Joss Whedon isn’t entirely happy with having to knit the group together in narrative terms, and the gleeful pick-up in quality at the real tool up sequence all but confirms those suspicions. And thankfully, Whedon was afforded the luxury of needing limited character generation by the pre-existing adaptations, because those limited obligatory sequences at the outset are hugely off the pace with the rest of the film.
But as I said, when the action is in full flow – ignoring the vulgarity of the manufactured third act expedience that drops foes into battle with the Avengers that are alien both to humanity and to the narrative – it is completely intoxicating. This is popcorn film-making at its finest, the celebration of spectacle, even superseding substance in places to hugely affecting result and for the first time in a long time I was reminded of the success that certain types of cinema can have in recapturing the contagious spirit of the Colosseum. And that is why The Avengers can justifiably count itself a worthy arena mate, if not a killer contender, to DC’s powerhouse The Dark Knight: there might not be quite the finesse, or the “classier” aspirations, but Whedon’s ensemble manages almost as powerful a punch through simple, gleeful excess and irresistible spectacle.
Towards the very end there is a conversation involving Nick Fury during which he is asked whether everything that happened was some kind of statement, and that is exactly what Whedon has created here. The Avengers is a statement of form: this is not only what superhero movies should be, it is what all so-called blockbusters should be – albeit perhaps with the slightest retuning towards perfection. Because without the off-putting undertones of other superhero series, their odd parallels with puberty and their unwanted preoccupations with humanism trumping superhumanism, The Avengers is also arguably the purest comic book adaptation of all time in both spirit and accomplishment. Its entertainment factor is as explicit, as visceral as reading a pannelled story, and if cinema is to be judged only on how it makes a member of its audience feel, this was prime quality, because I left tonight’s European premiere screening full of transferred adrenaline, and keen beyond all else to try and convince others to share that feeling.
In short, Joss Whedon deserves every hyperbolic showering of praise he will undoubtedly receive as the reviews come in.
The Avengers is released in the UK on 26th April, and in the US on May 4th.