Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Movie Review: Marvel Avengers Assemble

Look, if it's OK with everyone, I'm just going to call it "The Avengers" or just "Avengers". In the latest act of naming lunacy, here in the UK we have to call this movie "Marvel Avengers Assemble" which is long-winded and un-catchy and stupid and I can't think of a single good reason why the decision was made to change it unless there was some weird legal thing to do with the old TV show (and deeply crappy movie) but I'm more inclined to believe that some coked up Marketing Executive just wanted to make his mark. But, title notwithstanding, me and Z got out to the movies again this weekend and just like everyone else we went to Marvels long-awaited superhero team-up movie.

Oh before we start - I've already seen folks on the internet doing warm up laps for the upcoming "Which is better, The Dark Knight Rises or Avengers?" debate and would advise if you're readying for that, please do us all a favour and go punch yourself in the crotch until you come to your senses and realise that a) its possible for them both to be excellent and we should hope that is the case, and b) one of them isn't even out yet. Thanks.

So with that said, back to the review.
I think the real achievement of The Avengers isn't that it is a witty and fun roller-coaster of an action movie, which of course it is, but that of all the things that could have gone horribly, horribly wrong with this film, none of them do. There has been a lot of coverage of this film in the last few months during the build up to release, but for me I don't think there has been enough talk of how staggering ambitious this whole project was. We are used to attempts to build franchises now -  in fact we're overrun with the damn things - but Marvel have tried something here that's often been talked about, but never really attempted before. Four of the main characters here have had their own precursor films with separate writers, directors and extended casts, as well as a loose group of cross-over actors like Samuel L Jackson and Clark Gregg appearing to loosely link them together. All of these films had to work both in their own right, and as part of this larger project. All the main actors had to sign on to be stars of their own films, then come into another and play as part of a team, and not be the big star.

Not only all that, but they had to ask audiences to stay with them through the 1940s war-movie styling of Captain America, the 50s B-Movie in the desert setting of Thor, another stab at The Incredible Hulk and the ultra-tech whiz-bangery of two Iron Man films and leave them actively wanting more, rather being fatigued on costumed heroics. And then, you have to make a film that not only balances four characters with their own franchises, but adds a bunch more, expands on subsidiary characters, needs a villain, and needs to top the spectacle and stakes of the precursor movies to justify it's cross-over status. I mean, comics do this all the time but to try it on a cinema screen? Just think about it for a bit, think about what they set out to achieve.

And they did it. They really did.

For starters The Avengers is just a flat out hugely entertaining spectacle of a film. As you might expect from a Joss Whedon script it's sharp and witty, and a lot of ideas are communicated quickly and effortlessly in banter and bickering rather than rafts of exposition. To my great relief there is no great effort to give "in case you missed this" backstories to the characters, instead giving them stories within the film that fill in what we need to know as they go, whilst throwing in enough nods to the earlier films to reward people who have seen them. But a lot of it just expects the audience to buy into ideas like "they have a flying aircraft carrier" or "these two characters have a long history together" and get on with doing something interesting with the ideas themselves. We also learn a lot about the characters within the films big sweeping action sequences, something other blockbusters could do well to copy.

My big concern was the Robert Downey Jnr factor. Not only is he an extremely charismatic screen presence, but Tony Stark has the sort of snarky wit that Joss Whedon loves to write, and the fear was always that he would just dominate, and the film would end up being "Iron Man and Super Chums" rather than a true ensemble piece. Again, bullet dodged - largely thanks to a great performance from Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner who shares a lot of key scenes with him, and (surprisingly, as I thought this could a bit of a thankless role), Chris Evan's Captain America firmly owning the can-do team leader role, calling him out when he needs it. So it falls to the villain to make a bit to steal the movie, with Tom Hiddlestone refining his performance as Loki into a sneering, arrogant and intelligent foil whilst retaining the air of lost neediness that made him so nearly-but-not-quite sympathetic in Thor. He even carries off the stupid Horned Helmet.

That said there is really no-one who isn't good in this. The script makes some smart decisions around Hawkeye and Black Widow to give them more screen time (and makes me want a Bond-style S.H.I.E.L.D. movie, please), and along the way manages to contrive as many comic-book style hero-vs-hero fights as it possibly can. It sweeps along in grand style with next to no flab, everything serving a purpose and purring like a well-oiled entertainment machine in which every part rises to the occasion, right up to a conclusion that, like it should be, is bigger in scope and threat than anything in the subsidiary films.

At time of writing, Avengers is posting financial hauls in cinemas across the world with record-breaking intensity, and Captain America, Iron Man and Thor all have further sequels in the works. Which means that  this may not even be the high-water mark of the current run of superheroic domination at the multiplexes. So far, Marvel Studios have shown an admirable ambition for their franchises, coupled with an even more admirable dedication to creative quality control, and on this evidence, long may it continue.