Sunday, 29 April 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: The Avengers

I was fully prepared to be a little disappointed by The Avengers. Changing the title, in the UK at least, to Marvel Avengers Assemble wasn’t the greatest move, in my opinion. The title is of little importance, of course, but if they can go with something as clunky sounding as that, what else might they have got wrong? After all, this was a mammoth task, creating a movie that would balance the inclusion of so many major cinematic Marvel characters, give the fans the showdown they were waiting for, provide a genuine sequel to both Thor and Captain America, and still create a coherent, entertaining story was never going to be easy. It could so readily have become overblown and fallen apart. Thank Odin, this was not the case. While it isn’t perfect, The Avengers movie is one cracking slice of superheroics.

So much of this is down to the scriptwork and direction of Joss Whedon. Although Whedon didn’t write the story alone, his style can be felt throughout. He has an indisputable flair for dialogue, and, while you could never call it naturalistic, it is endlessly entertaining and frequently quotable. However, we all know how his scripts have been trampled in the past, by rewrites, questionable directing and flawed acting. When these all come together, the scripts are fantastic (compare, for example, Alien: Resurrection with Toy Story, to see his screenplays treated in wholly different ways). Here, of course, he’s calling the shots as well, so what we get is surely as close as possible to how he envisioned the film.

The action scenes are superb, with just the right balance of fantasy and realism. You can just about accept the clash of worlds here, as a Norse god lies low in the back of a jeep as bullets fly in all directions, or when an archer takes on a contingent of extraterrestrials armed with plasma weapons. While some have decried Whedon’s action directing as small scale or “televisual,” I feel this was in fact an effective way of gradually expanding the scope of the film, from smaller, one-on-one and group skirmishes to the vast onslaught in the final climactic act. It’s true that there is a noticable clash of styles; however, while I feared this would have been jarring, it in fact works to the film’s benefit. What could have crashed the movie instead gives it a tangible feel, of disparate elements coming together to form an effective whole.

All of this would be useless without fine actors to bring it all to life. The main cast we all know and love from their original appearances. Robert Downey Jr. brings the same cocky charm to Tony Stark as he did in the two Iron Man movies; he’s an arrogant wanker that you can’t help but like. Yet, we get to see his softer side in the early scenes with Pepper Potts. Chris Hemsworth gives us a more serious version of Thor to the one we previously got to know, but this feels quite right considering the urgency and gravity of the situation. Not only is this a duty of care for him, to his chosen world, but it’s deeply personal. It is his brother, after all, who is attacking the Earth. Still, he gets the odd goofy moment, particularly the “He’s adopted,” line which got a huge laugh.

Chris Evans perhaps had the hardest job out of the big name leads. Captain America is a tougher sell in the modern world, and without the period setting of The First Avenger, he could have been lost, or worse, become a joke. Thankfully, the script acknowledges this, and allows him to struggle fitting in (“It seems to be run on some sort of electricity!”) while never losing his straightforward, white-as-white heroism. As Colson says to the man himself, perhaps the world needs something a little old fashioned. However, his slimline new costume is a mistake, a step backwards from the flak-proof WWII version from his earlier film. Cap’s interplay with Stark is great, as their mutual dislike evolves into repsect for each other’s methods. Still, I would have enjoyed a moment between them to talk about Tony Stark’s father Howard.

Mark Ruffalo is a revelation as Bruce Banner. While I’m in the minority that enjoyed The Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton (I’ll admit I never watched all through Ang Lee’s Hulk), this is the first time that someone truly nailed the part for me. Ruffalo’s Banner is an uncomfortable joy to watch; it’s like overinflating a balloon, waiting for it to pop in your face. It’s an itchy, twitchy performance that betrays a barely contained anger held in place by great, but tenuous, self control. For once, Banner and the Hulk feel like two aspects of the same character. By allowing Rufallo to play the Hulk, then adding the visual effects on top, a continuity is provided. While I love the classic approach to the transformation, with the flash of green in Banner’s eyes, this time we get to see, in the final moment, the vulnerable, terrified eyes of Banner looking out.

Beyond the big four… well, Samuel L. Jackson plays Samuel L. Jackson, and there’s nothing wrong with that. You know what you’re getting with Jackson, and he’s a perfectly fine choice for the cynical, but not unheroic Fury. A big surprise is Jeremy Renner, as Agent Barton/Hawkeye. I’ve never found Hawkeye a particularly interesting character, but Renner gives an intense performance that is incredibly watchable. This is all the more impressive considering that, for much of the film, he is “compromised” by Loki’s magics. An archer was always going to have a tough time standing out among the big league superheroes, but Hawkeye makes it somehow feasible.

Scarlett Johansson gets a big cut of the screen time, and deserves it. While I never bought that her character was Russian, Agent Romanoff is brought to life by a controlled yet charismatic performance from Johansson. What looks like it could be a another uncomfortable scene of violence against a women, early in the film, turns into one of the most effective action sequences in the film, as the Black Widow fights her way out of an interrogation that isn’t what it seems. Despite her stylings as an assassin and spy, she’s the most competent soldier of the Avengers lineup; yet, underneath that, there’s a vulnerability. It’s an excellent performance. Also, on a more base level, it’s Scarlett Johansson running around in a skintight catsuit, and I’ll admit I’d watch two hours of just that.

There are other parts, smaller but no less important, that demand attention too. Cobie Smulders as Agent Maria Hill, Fury’s second-in-command, is quietly and unassumingly fantastic in the background, and deserves a bigger role in the inevitable sequel. Stellan Skarsgard, returning as Professor Selvig, is again classy, ingenious and sympathetic. Paul Bettany deserves praise for his charming performance as Jarvis, albeit one that you could miss in all the action. The big round of applause has to go to Clark Greg, who makes Agent Colson, once an insufferable military jobsworth, into the most endearing, heroic and believable character in the film.

A film like this relies on its villains as much as it heroes. Thankfully, Tom Hiddleston remains perfectly cast as Loki. While this more unhinged version of the Trickster is a less interesting character than the one we met in Thor, he remains a scene-stealing delight. That manic grin whenever things begin to turn his way… chilling yet magnetic. I hope we haven’t seen the last of him upon his defeat at the hands of our assembling heroes. The alien invaders he teams up with, however, are the film’s weak link. There’s no reason for them to be there other than as generic cannon fodder. While they look cool, and bring with them a suitably impressive arsenal - not least the serpentine spacecraft which turn out to be actual serpents - they have no background, no character or purpose. I’d never heard of the Chitauri (I’m now informed that they’re the Ultimate Universe version of the Skrulls, or one variant of them at least), and I wonder if viewers who aren’t familiar with Marvel would have felt equally bewildered by the vast influx of characters and concepts thrown at them from start to finish. The Tesseract/Cosmic Cube is a concept that is never adequately explained, although it works perfectly well as a MacGuffin to keep the plot running.

There is a lack of coherence about some of the plot. It’s never fully explained how Thor is able to return to Earth, how Loki is able to manifest precisely when he does, what the abilities of his staff are, or why the heroes didn’t take the bloody thing off him at their first opportunity during the big fight. Yet, for a world in which alien invaders rub shoulders with Norse gods, where a man in a robotic suit of armour fights at the side with a giant green rage monster, and in which a flying base is genuinely considered the safe and sensible option, logic was always going to take a battering. What we have in The Avengers, or whatever you want to call it, is a tremendously entertaining superhero blockbuster brought to life by astonishing visual effects, note perfect lead performances and a fast-paced and genuinely funny script, which is precisely what I wanted. Earth’s Mightiest Heroes? Damned right.


  1. Definitely looking forward to seeing this next weekend!

  2. Not painful to watch, but I thought the whole thing was a mess. Really liked the Hulk in it though.

    1. I loved it, as you may gather. But it has divided fans. I think a lot of people were expecting too much of it. It's certainly not perfect, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Bec has decided it was the greatest film ever, but that's Bec.

      It's better than 'Battleship,' at any rate.