Avengers Assemble is one one of the best super-hero movies ever made. I've used this line once before, very recently, so I'm beginning to feel like one of the luckiest among Blu-ray review team at being given not one, but two absolute corkers to get my teeth into – and that's just what you'll do as soon as you park yourself up to watch this hugely anticipated, glorious melting pot of comic book heroes and heroines.
I want to point out early on that although I have a healthy interest in the characters featured in this movie that harks back to my boyhood days reading comics, I haven't really maintained this interest with much fervour during the course of my adult life. So I confess that my in-depth knowledge on the subject is, you might say, cloudy. However, it's the movie I'm here to have a pop at, and I have to say, I feel like a kid again already.
If you're reading this review, then chances are you've already either watched this movie, read other reviews before this one, or both. Regardless of what brought you here, the one thing that I can be pretty sure of if you are reading this, is that you're a comic book fan-boy - and boy, who wouldn't be? Of course, I concede that it's been a fairly rocky road for comic book super heroes and the big screen over the years as it seemed to become an epidemic of unimaginable proportions with studios falling over themselves to make comic book adaptations. This resulted in some truly forgettable offerings indeed - but these wayward depictions of famous comic book characters have been well documented and heavily trolled, so I won't waste any of your time regaling you with the woes and why's of some of the pointless movies we've had to sit through.
If these adaptations are so bad, why do we sit through them? - we don't have a choice. These characters are ingrained into our psyche from when we were kids, and we feel an obligation to watch these movies in the hope that they get it right. Even when we know that the original writer of the work is vehemently aggrieved by the adaptation, we feel obliged to take a look anyway. It's like watching a child whose eyes are full of hope and wonder as they run at full speed towards the concrete wall between platform 9 and 10 at Kings Cross - you know you should stop them and avert the inevitable bloody outcome, but you simply can't not let this unfold before your eyes.
It's not that I wish to sound glib on the subject of comic book heroes being made into movies, in fact, I'm ecstatic that I live in an age where some of my favourite superheroes can be brought to life with CG, but it's worth mentioning that it hasn't all been rosy early on so we can get past all that stuff. What I will say is that Avengers Assemble manages to unhinge itself from this hit and miss past and plant it's heels firmly in the soil as a perfect example of how to do superhero movies.
Taking Avengers Assemble in isolation is, well – it's damn tricky actually. There are five other movies that precede it in the Avengers series, each with it's own narrative, but all setting something up for this movie. For now though, let's, for the sake of clarity, assume you know nothing about The Avengers or who they are, and with that in mind, it really all boils down to sibling rivalry.
It all begins in Asgard, the Norse homeland of the Gods, ruled by Odin. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is an Asgardian with a giant chip on his shoulder. He is the adopted brother of Demi-God, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and has forever lived in his shadow. Tired of playing second fiddle to his golden haired, hammer hurling brother, Loki decides that enough is enough, and meets with the leader of the Chitauri, an alien race filled with malice and hate, hell-bent on retrieving a curiously magical item known as The Tesseract. In exchange for this item, the leader of the Chitauri, known only as The Other, agrees to provide Loki with a Chitauri army sizeable enough to subjugate Earth.
Blinded by his hatred for his brother's love for earthlings, and poisoned by his own bitterness at how Thor is their father's favourite Prince of Asgard, Loki spitefully sets his sights on Earth, where he intends to become ruler of all living things.
At a remote, secret location, Dr Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) is working on research of The Tesseract on behalf of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division – otherwise, more palatably known as S.H.I.E.L.D - a covert, quasi-military agency acting as a global multi-national security outfit. Their work is often shrouded in secrecy and mystery, and it's no surprise to find that the Tesserract's purpose is something of an illusive one. Dr. Selvig's work is interrupted when the device begins to behave somewhat abnormally. Director of S.H.I.E.L.D, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), arrives at the facility just in time to witness the Tesserract open a Portal through which Loki appears carrying a mighty sceptre.
Unleashing an incredible show of power and force, Loki begins to lay waste to the facility and it's workers. Sparing only Dr. Selvig and one of S.H.I.E.L.D's operatives, Clint Barton - also known as Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) - by enslaving them under some mysterious spell with the sceptre. Nick Fury and his right-hand man, Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) manage to escape unscathed. Seizing the Tesseract, Loki begins to exact his vengeance on Earth.
As hope for Earth looks to be diminishing, and fearing Loki's intentions, Nick Fury reactivates The Avengers Initiative - a call to arms for a specialist team of remarkable people.
Agent Natasha Romanov, a deadly assassin also known as Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson), is sent to Calcutta where Dr Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) is believed to be keeping a low profile. Dr Banner's reputation precedes him. The utterance of his name tends to drain the blood from the faces of those whose ears it falls upon. You see, Banner has a pretty fierce temper, and tends to fly off the handle in pretty epic style. To be fair, it takes quite a bit to upset him, but if you do, chances are you'll get to meet “The Other Guy”. Dr. Banner, a gifted physicist, was once exposed to extreme levels of gamma radiation. This exposure left him with a mutant alter-ego; a green giant with extreme strength and an inability to control his excessive rage. Impervious to bullets and affectionately known as The Hulk, he is quite an incredible adversary, and one that Nick Fury is very keen to bring back to the Avengers Initiative. Make no mistake, Agent Romanov has her work cut out for her in convincing Dr Banner to come and work for S.H.I.E.L.D. without upsetting him, but his abilities as a scientist also make him the best chance they have at locating the Tesseract, and ultimately Loki. Reluctantly, Dr Banner agrees – much to Agent Romanov's relief.
Agent Phil Coulson is sent to enlist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr), a self proclaimed genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist. Tony Stark is also known as Iron Man. Formerly an arms manufacturer, Stark turned his talents to ridding the world of hateful aggressive arms, pouring his incredible intellect and engineering skill into the development of an exoskeletal super-suit. The suit is powered by Arc Reactor technology, an ingenious invention that Stark developed in order to keep himself alive after suffering a near-fatal chest wound when he was kidnapped in Afghanistan. In short, it is the most condensed and ludicrously powerful battery ever developed. Stark managed to harness it's power and channel it to power his armoured suit, which also gives him the ability to fly, and to withstand incredible force. He is virtually invulnerable to attack from any conventional weaponry, making him a worthy foe for any evil villain. Though Stark is an arrogant but cheeky, quick witted playboy type who tends to dance to his own beat preferring not to take orders from anyone, he recognises the danger Loki presents and agrees to join the team.
Meanwhile, Nick Fury approaches Steve Rogers (Chris Evans). Rogers, formerly a somewhat frail young man with an intense sense of patriotism, denied his desire to serve his country against the axis of evil in World War II due to his afflicted body and weak stature, became the subject of a military experiment in which a serum was administered that would unlock the potential human peak physical condition, enhancing strength, speed and dexterity far beyond anything attainable naturally. The perfect soldier. Originally something of a patriotic hero back in the 40's, Rogers assumes the identity of Captain America when he dons his brightly coloured suit and shield. Captain America embodies American idealism, and stands for justice, truth and honour. Standing up for the weak against the strong, he is a symbol of perfection – but to a fault. He's a slightly ill-fitting member of the group, frozen in time for over 60 years, awaking to find himself a little lost in the modern world. How customs have changed, and values have shifted over the years are something of a mystery to him. Undeterred by his lack of knowledge, Captain America assumes the militaristic role of Sergeant at Arms for the group of fantastic characters.
And then there's Thor, the Crown Prince of Asgard, and brother to Loki. Based largely on the Norse God of the same name, Thor wields a giant magical hammer, with which he can travel great distances very quickly, and can summon thunder and storms. The hammer is a powerful weapon, answers only to Thor and can be lifted by no other man or being. Motivation for Thor is a different kettle of fish than it is for the others. Where he sees his brother meddling in things he doesn't understand and hopes to help him see the error of his ways, the rest of the group see Loki very much as the bad guy that they have to take down. Thor's values are firmly set in the righteous camp, and his customs and mannerisms are very much that of the mighty medieval warrior. With his brother running riot on a world that he has come to love, endangering a people he has come to have a great affinity for Earth, Thor joins the group with mixed feelings. Whilst he hopes to save his brother from his madness and protect him from the rest of the Avengers, he is also torn and understands that he may not be successful, and that his allegiance is ultimately with The Avengers and their mission to save the world.
Assembled and briefed, The Avengers set out to ensure the safety of Earth and it's inhabitants, protecting it from the evil half-prince Loki. They must retrieve the Tesseract before Loki lays waste to Planet Earth and disappears with it forever. Loki, however, is smart, and his plans are forward thinking. When the Avengers capture Loki, they find that the location of the Tesseract is a secret that only he keeps. Constantly aware that time is running out, The Avengers attempt to extract the device's location from him, and in the process discover that by capturing him, they may have played a part in helping him achieve his insidious goal. Their mission is one that no other beings can undertake with any hope of success, and the weight of the world lays heavily on their shoulders. This, my friends, is the pinnacle of superhero perfection.
It's really difficult to pick out a star of the show. This is pretty much entirely attributable to Joss Whedon's masterful handling of characters. Each came into Avengers Assemble with it's own backstory, so it's important to remember that all the character development had been dealt with by other directors in previous films in the Avengers Series. It really is a great credit to Whedon's understanding of the characters and his ability to handle them with the care that was required to succeed in such a daunting task. I daresay in the Hulk's case, presenting the character with a much more pleasing personification than in the Louis Leterrier version earlier in the Avengers series, was a bold move, but it was definitely the right one. Managing to bring together all these individual personalities into one movie is a monumental task, and Whedon not only achieves this, he does it with balance, and a humour that's beyond anything I've seen in a superhero movie to date.
I agree that this sentiment may sound like general fan-boy flapping, but the truth is that it's pure popcorn entertainment without the naff, droning reliance on special effects. That's not to say there is a lack of special effects, far from it, but it's certainly not the fall-back position for the movie, and melts extremely well into the overall presentation without ever seeming like CG filler. Of course, the story isn't the most intricate, but it really doesn't need to be. All the backstory already exists, and the plot actually plays second fiddle to the movie's slick and stylistic presentation; it's a vehicle for the characters, since that's really why this movie get's bums in seats. No one goes to see it to find out whether Loki will succeed in destroying Earth, they go to see it because it includes some of the most iconic and amazing super hero characters in history all together in one bombastic movie.
It's not all braun and no brains, however, there's plenty in here for those familiar with the Marvel universe to chew the cud over between the huge array of extremely satisfying action set pieces. Even these often quite spectacular action scenes still aren't everything that Avengers Assemble has in it's locker; with plenty of belly laughs to appease the the rest of the audience, I'd struggle to think of anyone that wouldn't enjoy Whedon's bubble-gum blockbuster romp, even if only for the feel-good factor it effortlessly delivers.
Let's look a little closer at what makes this such a success. First of all, none of the characters seem to like each other very much. Sure, there's the buddy-bromance elements that bubble up to the surface once in a while, as you might expect, but for the most part, there's conflict at every turn. You have Captain America, whose idealistic outlook and patriotic sentiment irritates the hell out of Iron Man's self obsessed and clinically sarcastic nature. These guys rub each other up the wrong way something awful. Then, of course, you have Hulk. He pretty much hates everybody, and in his debut scene, spends a good 5 minutes desperately trying to murder Black Widow and smashing literally everything, until Thor jumps in in a moment of heroic chivalry, as is only natural for his character, allowing Black Widow to escape. Hulk, with an unbiased and insatiable anger that isn't reserved for any one particular character, is a little upset by this and proceeds to smash Thor too, but the Demi-God's hammer proves a challenge even for the Hulks incredible strength and uncontrollable rage. It's fair to say at this point that, whilst Hulk is just angry at everybody, none of the others actually dislike him. They understand that Banner is just a tightly compressed, huge green bottle of rage, and it's because of this that they all tend to tip-toe around him, trying not to make him angry. When his anger becomes unshackled, they try not to invite focus of his rage on themselves. Of course, Tony Stark is the exception here - his boyish curiosity is as uncontrollable as the Hulk's rage, constantly jabbing at Dr. Banner trying to provoke him into turning into The Hulk. It's not out of spite, of course, it's simply Stark's unflinching intrigue towards banners other personality.
But is there more to the conflict between The Avengers than meets the eye? Yes, quite probably.
At first it just seems like Whedon is having fun with the characters and allowing them to interact with each other, almost pairing them off for spats of comedic irritability. However, under further scrutiny, we can see that there's a subtlety that Whedon is employing. When the frustrations with one another come to boiling point between The Avengers, we notice that Loki's Sceptre is ever present in the room. We already know that it has special powers of persuasion, as we saw in the opening scene when Loki enslaves Hawkeye, and the professor to carry out his bidding willingly, but it's never telegraphed that the sceptre is toying with the avengers and subconsciously manipulating them. Whedon decides to be covert about this, and although upon second or third viewing it may seem obvious; at first, it's really not. We're not spoon-fed this at all, and if you miss it, it doesn't render anything confusing or nonsensical, it's remains thoroughly believable that they all dislike each other. But when you do notice it, it becomes something of an “easter egg”, a bit like an achievement that you may have tapped into something surreptitious that's between you and Whedon. He gives us a deeper narrative than we ask for, but he doesn't force it on to us. The wily trickster!
Although credit for the casting of the central characters can't be given to any one director, it's absolutely perfect. Robert Downey Jr literally personifies Tony Stark to the point that it's impossible to imagine anyone else ever playing him.
Chris Evans is irritatingly perfect for Captain America, so brilliantly executing his role as the single-minded symbol of purity in America. His facial expressions at times say far more than any number of words could, a subtlety that is a welcome if rare trait among actors that I think he deserves a lot of credit for.
The hulk is contentious though, and this is the only character that Whedon decided to do his own thing with. Whether it was down to necessity at not being able to get Edward Norton, the original replacement Dr Bruce Banner after Ang Lee's terminal flop that saw Eric Bana portraying the troubled physicist, or whether it was through his own choice, it's hard not to sit there and think to yourself that Mark Ruffalo would have been perfect all along. His quiet and reserved mannerisms are perfectly juxtaposed with his bubbling undercurrent of seething fury. I found Ruffalo to be just as well cast as Dr. Bruce Banner, as Downer Jr was as Stark.
I had questions about Jeremy Renner's portrayal of Hawkeye though, and I have to say I'm still disappointed. Of course it's fair to point out that the character doesn't really get much of a run out in Avengers, spending a good deal of it being a bad guy, but I still thought Renner is a bit of a mis-fit. I struggle to really buy him as a tough guy. Right from the beginning when he burst onto the scene with a laudable performance in the excellent The Hurt Locker, I was impressed by his palpable performance, but I still couldn't get my head round him as a tough guy. Same thing when I heard he was cast in The Bourne Legacy – something about him leaves me unconvinced when he plays the macho tough guy role. Perhaps my mind will be changed with Avengers 2... remains to be seen.
Scarlet Johansson is as captivatingly beautiful as ever as Agent Natasha Romanov – AKA – Black Widow. Sporting some rather titillating outfits, it's difficult to find much at fault with her performance. Of course, not just because of the way she looks, but also due to her basically punching her way through most who stand in her way in a gratifyingly brutal display of feminine guile. If I'm entirely honest though, this role hardly flexes Johansson's ability, which, as we know from her breathtaking performances in the likes of Lost in Translation or The Black Dahlia, is very accomplished.
Chris Hemsworth first exploded onto the scene (rather literally, unfortunately) in the opening moments of J.J. Abrams Star Trek as George Kirk, and here he brings a sense of gravitas to the stage with his portrayal of the God of Thunder, Thor. Personally I find it almost impossible to dislike Hemsworth, and it's as though he was born to play this character. Almost immediately, Thor rekindles his spark with the audience through his endearing naïvety when it comes to customs of earth. Although Hemsworth's accent is dubious at times, which is surprising considering he is Australian, his performance is solid, and he's physically believable as Thor. What a shame that Natalie Portman's character from the movie Thor doesn't get more than a brief mention in passing.
British born Tom Hiddleston plays the Arch Villain, Loki, rather brilliantly. He's both deplorable, yet somewhat amusing at times – a balance that isn't easy to get with characters like this. Throughout the movie we feel as though Loki is slightly out of his depth, but at the same time, we get an unquestionable sense that he knows he's gone too far past the point of no return to consider his half-brother's desperate plea for him to turn his back on evil. It's actually quite a depth that Hiddleston manages to conjure, and really ought to be applauded for not treating the character with too serious an approach, or too comedic an approach. It's a very well balanced performance indeed.
Ok, here's where I run the risk of losing respect, but dammit, I can't leave this unsaid. Samuel L. Jackson's lamentable performance as Nick Fury is thoroughly flat, and disappointingly wooden. I know his role is secondary to the rest of the cast in many ways, but something about Jackson's performance, to me, seems awry. Maybe he was going for a very emotionless approach, seeing Fury as a man with a vision and a mission that has no room for sentiment, or perhaps he was trying too hard to impart his own interpretation of the character into the performance, both of which might have worked if the character had had more development. The truth is, Nick Fury is the most underdeveloped character in the whole series, even though he's the only one to have appeared in all but one of the movies. I just felt that Jackson could have done slightly more with Fury's character, especially given Fury's level of involvement in Iron Man 2, which is reasonably extensive, and shows some decent flourishes of personality. Anyway, I won't dwell on this too much for fear of going from the luckiest reviewer here to being the most hated one in the space of a few pages.
The writing is excellent as you would expect from Joss Whedon, who penned the screenplay as well as directed, but the story was co-written by Whedon and Zak Penn. Penn is also the scribe responsible for quite a mixed bag of material ranging from Last Action Hero through to Xmen: The Last Stand. I have a bit of a bone to pick with Penn though, since he was the one responsible for the drab and somewhat under-achieving remake of Ang Lee's extremely divisive Hulk – The Incredible Hulk (Ed Norton, Liv Tyler). However, he's earned his salt this time around with an explosive and dynamic story, despite the fact that story isn't exactly the main event with his collaboration with Whedon this time around.
What's with the crummy title? Yeah, I know. “Avengers Assemble”, renamed so in the UK to avoid confusion between the Avengers (Ralph Feinnes, Uma Thurman) movie adaptation of the British TV series from the 1970s (yeah, as if that's likely to have happened). It's pretty lame, but you know what? The movie is so absolutely jam packed, filled to the rafters full of moments of pure unbridled gratification, that you soon won't care what it's called at all. It's absolutely epic. Sitting down to enjoy it for the first time and we're filled with a gleeful anticipation at how this movie is going to turn out. I'm sure this will resonate with most of you.
It's a very ambitious project, so I found myself being very careful about not allowing myself to expect too much. Believing the hype is one thing, but deciding for yourself has, for me, never ever been about whether or not I enjoyed the preview. In fact, I've come to hate previews with a bitter passion of late, often finding that they offer far more than is required to get the juices going. During Avengers I found myself laughing out loud on at least 10 different occasions, none of which would have had the same impact had I watched the trailer. I found myself overflowing with explosive excitement when I watched the Hulk roar onto the scene to heroically punch a giant alien in the face, another moment that would have been lessened for me had I watched the trailer before. It's such a pity that directors don't get to edit their own previews. That's an initiative I could get behind.
But don't let this put you off in any way – I've now watched Avengers 4 times through, and each time I just get more and more out of it. I feel continually rewarded for my investment of time, which I gladly give and likely will continue to do so, and that's where the real jewel of this movie lies. There's so much going on throughout, that there's always going to be more to squeeze out of it with re-watches. I can only really say the same thing of the Iron Man movies, though I reached a point with these where I concluded I needed to leave it a while before watching again; but so far, I haven't gotten close to that point with Avengers Assemble. It's by far and away the best Avengers film to date, with, for me, the worst being The Incredible Hulk. Captain America, although it had a pretty deep and well structured narrative, was also a disappointment for me, but where those two fail to hit the mark, Joss Whedon's Avengers Assemble utterly destroys it. A wholly gratifying experience that's as appropriate for a date night as it is for a hard-core fan-boy convention. If you're disappointed, I'll give you your money back personally. (Under no circumstances will I actually give you your money back, sorry)
Our Review Ethos