Saturday, 5 May 2012

Film Review | Avengers Assemble (2012)

Definitely a candidate for "film with most prequels", Avengers Assemble (or simply The Avengers if you don't live in the UK, apparently retitled to distinguish it from the less-than-reviled unrelated 1998 film starring Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman) had an awful lot of build-up, anticipation and hype to live up to. There were any number of ways the film could have misfired, and should it do so it could have been a fatal blow for Marvel Studios, as pretty much all of their recent output has been building up to this one film. Thankfully, AA manages to just about live up to those incredibly high expectations.

The film sees Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), a.k.a. Iron Man, Captain America, The Incredible Hulk and, er, Thor, come together for the first time as superhero team The Avengers to take on Asgardian baddie (and Thor's brother) Loki (Tom Hiddleston) as he leads the other-dimensional Chitauri in an invasion of Earth.

The key to AA's success is not just in bringing together four well-known superheroes with their own discrete franchises - films such as Alien vs. Predator and Freddy vs. Jason have proven that simply throwing successful characters together does not automatically a successful movie make - but that it brings them together in such a comprehensively successful way. The way in which writer and director Joss Whedon has woven a seamless tapestry of the Old World stylings of Thor, the World War Two era characteristics of Captain America, and the modern day bearings of Iron Man and The Hulk (the last two also coming with their own idiosyncrasies) is impressive in itself. The whole thing just works, and all the better because Whedon is acutely aware of the ridiculousness of some of the concepts with which he is working. Steve Rogers' outfit is always going look the silliest, Thor is never going to slip unnoticed into 21st Century America, and Hulk can't help but be a not-so-jolly green giant. But Whedon works this to his advantage, gleaning some of the film's funniest moments from it. "You don't know what you're dealing with" says Thor to Iron Man when they first meet. "Shakespeare In The Park?" Stark quips back faster than a lightning bolt from Mjolnir.

Whedon's script isn't light on comedy, with moments throughout which aren't just amusing, but downright laugh-out-loud funny. The exchanges between the four superheroes and their conflicting mentalities produces some incredibly human humour, perfectly crafted by Whedon's razor-sharp writing. The director also knows his way around physical humour, equally well-crafted and perfectly placed within the film. One exchange of blows between Hulk and Loki is especially memorable for all the right reasons.

The performances from the whole cast are a delight. Downey Jr., Evans and Hemsworth slip back into their already established characters pleasingly well. Ruffalo deserves huge credit for making Bruce Banner/Hulk his own character after two misfired attempts at bringing the rage monster to the big screen in the last decade. Ruffalo largely ignores the character created by Edward Norton in the most recent 2008 film, and to good effect; his Banner is a paranoid genius haunted by the alter-ego he refers to only as "the other guy", and that Ruffalo establishes a character of depth and sympathy so quickly within the film reaffirms him as a genuine cinematic talent who has until recently often gone overlooked.

It's also important that Avengers Assemble never becomes about one superhero and his sidekicks. It would have been very easy to make this "Iron Man 3 (featuring Thor, Hulk and Cap)" considering Downey Jr.'s popularity and Iron Man having had two films to the other members' one (or in the case of Ruffalo's version of the Hulk, arguably none). But each plays an equal part, feeling as though each has not only their own strengths, but also shortcomings. Each character also feels as though they develop throughout the film, with each becoming more rounded as they develop as a team.

The supporting cast cannot be overlooked here either. Samuel L. Jackson is predictably excellent as Nick Fury, fleshing out a character who has been limited largely to cameos in Marvel Studios' output thusfar. Tom Hiddleston brings menace and insanity to Loki, transforming him into a genuine evil force to be reckoned with, something I feel he fell short of when introduced in 2011's Thor. Clark Gregg returning as Agent Phil Coulson is a joy in all his scenes, a wonderfully human counterpoint to the superpowered multi-dimensional larger-than-life characters surrounding him. Black Widow is surely one of the most well-developed female characters in a superhero film, making her introduction in Iron Man 2 feel somewhat one-note, thanks here to Scarlett Johansson's pleasing performance and Whedon's smart scripting and direction. Her relationship with S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) is established well and is hopefully something that will be developed further in future Marvel Studios outings.

Avengers Assemble is not without a handful of imperfections. The good versus evil story is a little too by-the-numbers, and the Chitauri led by Loki feel somewhat generic at times. But these are minor niggles in what is a superbly crafted superhero action film. With a run time of nearly two-and-a-half hours the film could have become a real slog, but I enjoyed every minute. The action sequences are brilliantly realised, never feeling overly busy or confusing (take note, Michael Bay) - one particular unbroken tracking shot within the final battle taking in all four superheroes battling against Loki's invading forces is truly breathtaking.

Avengers Assemble
 is ultimately as good as anyone could have hoped the film would realistically be, and deserves to go down in cinematic history as one of the best comic book films ever made. It's equal to the sum of its parts, and the parts within it are pretty damn awesome. It takes the best parts of the films which led up to it and combines them together in a genuinely wonderful way.

But perhaps, most of all, the film is a success because it doesn't try to be something it's not. Giving the characters here a gritty and realistic reboot would most likely produce a film of pretension and silliness. The closest we've seen to that in the Marvel Universe is 2008's Incredible Hulk, which for the most part just didn't work. Christopher Nolan proved in 2008's The Dark Knight that taking a comic book character, his allies and adversaries, into a quasi-real-world setting can produce something truly outstanding; Whedon in 2012 has proven that it's possible to come very close to that level of success whilst at the same time wearing your fantastical comic book credentials as proudly as Captain America wears his star-spangled suit.


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