Mrs Romanoff, We're Needed
'What, not another one? The one with Sean Connery and Uma Thurman was awful...'
My literary advisor's response to the news of the then-impending release of the big-screen version of The Avengers was, it seems, typical. Sensitive to being tarred with that particular brush, the movie's distributors have specially retitled it for its UK release, where it seems to be appearing under the monumentally inelegant title Marvel Avengers Assemble, which sounds more like a trade-magazine headline than a proper movie. They can take their new title and stick it; I've been referring to this movie as The Avengers for a number of years now and The Avengers it shall remain.
The last-minute decision to rename must have been a bit peeving for Marvel Studios, as this film is the culmination of possibly the longest and most expensive advertising campaign in cinema history. You may remember the first trailer, which appeared in theatres in 2008 under the title Iron Man... oh, all right, I'm exaggerating a bit, but the fact remains that the two Iron Man movies, Captain America, Thor, and The Incredible Hulk all had a definite sense of building towards this moment. This kind of coming together of separate characters and series happens all the time in comics, but it's a new and bold departure as far as cinema is concerned. All credit to Marvel for giving it a whirl, and even moreso for giving the writer-director gig of a huge movie to someone whose last film didn't even make its money back in theatres: Joss Whedon.
The story scores highly for its potential to baffle anyone who hasn't seen all the previous films, but here goes anyway. SHIELD's attempts to tap the potential of Asgardian power-source the Tesseract hit a snag when the widget opens up a dimensional gate allowing the malevolent Norse god Loki (Tom Hiddlestone) access to the Earthly plane. Pausing to suborn various helpers, he saunters off taking the Tesseract with him. He has struck a deal with belligerent aliens the Chitauri and the conquest of Earth is on the agenda.
This worries SHIELD boss Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), who sets about assembling a team of specialists to sort the problem out. Already on his books are the crackshot Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and superspy Black Widow (Scarlett Johanssen), and quick to sign up is chemically-enhanced super-soldier Captain America (Chris Evans – no, UK readers, the other one). Less immediately eager are playboy genius Iron Man (Robert Downey Junior) and brilliant-physicist-stroke-unstoppable-atomic-monster Bruce Banner (not content with doing his usual changing-from-pink-to-green trick, the Hulk has also transformed from Ed Norton to Mark Ruffalo for this outing). Matters are further complicated when Loki's adoptive brother, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) takes an understandable interest in his activities...
Before we go any further, I know there's one question probably burning at the front of your mind – something you feel you absolutely have to know. Okay, I shall tell you: The Avengers doesn't have a post-credits sequence. You can clear off... well, not as soon as the closing titles start, for you'll miss a bit revealing the villain of the sequel – or, as I like to think of him, The Hideous Antagonist Next On Screen – but don't bother hanging around until the end unless you get off on reading the names of special-effects technicians.
Anyway, as a story pitch, it sounds completely insane. It probably is completely insane, but this kind of wild banging-together of different characters and tones is bread-and-butter stuff as far as comic books is concerned. As a film in its own right, The Avengers is probably deeply flawed and fundamentally misconceived: but it's not a film in its own right, it's an attempt to do a proper superhero team story, full-scale, on the big screen. And for me it delivers in spades: insane it may be, but it's also insanely entertaining.
There's a very particular structure to comics stories where superheroes meet for the first time, and The Avengers adheres to this with admirable fidelity, for the most part. First of all you get the sequences introducing everyone individually and demonstrating what their schtick is, and these are present (mostly). Then, before battle is joined with the actual villain, there is the inevitable misunderstanding and/or clash of egos resulting in the good guys knocking seven bells out of each other at great length. This sort of thing fuels the perpetual 'Who would win in a fight between...' debates comic fans love, and The Avengers goes for this with great enthusiasm. The initial barney between Thor and Iron Man is jolly enough, but I was particularly delighted later one when the story finds time for a proper scrap between Thor and the Hulk. Once this is out of the way it's time for some regrouping and laying in of plot ahead of the final battle.
I was listening to a review of The Cabin in the Woods on the radio where Joss Whedon's undoubted talents as a writer were under discussion. The point was made that, while it's all very well to deconstruct genres and play with conventions, would it not be possible for Whedon to simply make a straightforwardly brilliant movie that operated solely in its own right and wasn't constantly referencing or commenting on something else? Clearly someone hasn't seen Serenity, but no matter: in many ways The Avengers is that movie. You don't need to have seen any of the other Marvel Studios films to follow the story here (but, equally impressively, the film feels like it's significantly moving on the story of all the main characters), and the way in which Whedon builds investment in the story and orchestrates changes of mood is impeccable. He stuffs the thing with quotable dialogue, too – Robert Downey Junior is probably the main beneficiary, as you might expect. As a director Whedon is also impressively ambitious – in the middle of the climax he finds time for a lengthy, ludicrously complex tracking shot that may well become a cliche of this kind of story in the future.
So far as I could tell, there are relatively few comics in-jokes in this movie, but as the whole thing seems designed to delight the fanbase I doubt anyone will be too upset. While this film doesn't exactly feature a classic Avengers line-up – I suspect the nature of Marvel's contract with the people who make the X-Men films means that none of the various mutant Avengers can appear, while absent founder-member Giant-Man is, basically, a bit rubbish – the ones who do appear all get their moments to shine, both in terms of action and characterisation.
Personally, after two ultimately unsatisfying solo movies I was particularly delighted with the treatment of the Hulk in this film. Mark Ruffalo is very good as the Banner incarnation of the character, and when he does lose his rag and go green it's unmistakably and unashamedly the comics version of the Hulk that appears: he jumps around! He roars! He smashes things! He even gets some proper dialogue! I'm not surprised that this film has put the possibility of another Hulk movie back on Marvel's agenda.
Despite all the good things about The Avengers, I feel compelled to point out a few problems. The action and characterisation and humour are all exemplary, but even given the movie's lengthy duration they appear to have squeezed out most of the plot. The story is rather straightforward and looking back on it I'm not completely sure I'm sold on some of what happens, in terms of character's motivations. And while the script does a commendable job of combining the plots of the original Avengers origin from 1964 (disparate heroes join forces to stop Loki) with a storyline from Mark Millar's Ultimates reimagining of the team (covert agency assembles gang of freaks to combat alien invasion), the Chitauri themselves feel like a rather generic and undeveloped menace, just inserted to provide a gang of mooks for the team to clobber and to provide an appropriately epic threat for the final act.
Churlishness, though. At a time when the likes of Battleship are considered acceptable as a major summer release, the intelligence, humour, and evident love for both its source material and basic storytelling that The Avengers displays throughout is not much less than a tonic for the soul. Marvel Studios can look forward to massive box-office success, Joss Whedon can look forward to his new status as a bona fide major-league player, and we can look forward to the next wave of movies featuring these characters. There's one other superhero movie coming out this summer that's carrying a equally huge burden of expectation (and possibly pitching for a more mature audience, too) but that looks likely to be a rather more sombre and thoughtful affair. In terms of general crowd-pleasing spectacle and sheer entertainment value, The Avengers may be the most successful film of this genre to date.