The first three chapters out of the Marvel Studios stable were, it’s fair to say, a mixed bag. Jon Favreau’s Iron Man was a solid affair that tried to ground Tony Stark firmly in reality, only for it all to blow up in his face with the ill-judged, ill-paced, ill-Mickey Rourke sequel that was nothing more than a PowerPoint about daddy issues. The Incredible Hulk tried to put the comic back into comic book movie after Ang Lee’s previous effort, Hulk. Instead, powered by Edward Norton’s self-importance, it lost its way in the second half and became as involving as a film of two CGI characters beating the shit out of each could be.
If Marvel Studios took stock of all this is up for debate, but what can be agreed on is their next two efforts, Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor, brought a lot more to table. Tighter pacing, more experimentation (Go on, who had money on Kenneth Branagh directing Thor?) and more importantly a genuine sense of fun that was lost in The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2. They stopped being about simply pleasing the whims of the fanboy and more about being ensuring that everyone had a good time. Which brings us bang up to date with The Avengers, written and directed by Joss Whedon and starring pretty much everyone from the last five Marvel movies with the Ted Norton sized hole being filled in by Mark Ruffalo.
So, to summarise; Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) half brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), has returned from his exile and he’s bringing an army of aliens intent on taking over the planet Earth. Only the Avengers can stop them. Except the Avengers don’t exist yet. Yep, despite the seemingly never-ending appearances in other people’s films, Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) hasn’t actually got round to gathering everyone up due to his funding being pulled. So he spends part of the first act trying to re-convince people to join his gang with a little help from ex-soviet spy, Black Widow (Scarlett Johanssen) and uber-archer, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). And when I say ‘part of’, I mean it. Joss Whedon has made it very clear that the backbone of his film is the clash of characters that comes from Marvel’s rosta, so it’s no surprise we speed through getting the band back together.
When everyone is present and correct, Whedon’s script ensures that the one-liners fly as fast and as hard as the fists. Like Whedon’s previous work, it’s the dialogue that shines through. From the culture clash between Captain America (Chris Evans) vs Iron Man (Robert Downey Jnr) right down through the almost Shakespearean verbal sparring between Loki and Thor to the grunting match between Thor and Hulk, it all just works. However, it’s not all about the words is it? You came to see a rock show, not some Poet Laureate, I know. And be assured that Whedon delivers on that front too. From the annihilation of Manhattan Island to the downing of a village sized airship, Whedon’s direction is confident with a healthy dash of experimentation. On top this, we have a number of superhero fights that are sure to plague the forums for years to come. With this and 2005’s Serenity, it’ll be interesting to see how he deals with the more visually sober Much Ado About Nothing later this year.
With so many characters on-screen, there is always the danger that some of Earth’s mightiest are going to be MIA. And unfortunately this does happen. Jeremy Renner seems to spend most of his time appearing in a completely different film. There’s probably a few reasons why there hasn’t been a Hawkeye movie and this movie highlights them. Whilst even Scarlet Johanssen gets to do a hell of a lot more than she did in Iron Man 2 (she comes across something resembling a human being as opposed to a Tony Stark sex doll), Renner just stomps around smoldering. I would almost argue that he’s surplus to requirements if it wasn’t for Maria Hill played by Cobie Smulders, who has inherited the lion’s share of exposition dialogue; ‘What happens now Fury?’, ‘Where’s Captain America?’ etc.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Mark Ruffalo as the world’s worst sponsor for anger management, Dr Bruce Banner/Hulk. Ruffalo is a delight every time he’s on-screen. Compared to Eric Bana and Edward Norton’s portrayal of Banner, Ruffalo plays him less tortured soul and more man just trying really hard to be left alone. Even when he does dip his toe into melodrama and confesses all about his alter-ego, it works for him rather than against him (‘I swallowed a bullet, he spat it back out’). When he finally does lose his rag, The Hulk (voiced by 70s original Lou Ferrigno) is impossible to watch without a big, cheesy grin on your face.
In summary, The Avengers is fantastic addition to the Marvel Studio canon. Like Thor and Captain America, it reminds you that, yes, films like this can never be more than fun and explosions, but that doesn’t mean they have to be instantly forgettable (Hello Spiderman 3). If they can keep this kind of quality control, which really does mean trusting your talent to call the shots rather than forcing them into bad decisions (hello again Spiderman 3) then the thought of the forthcoming Thor 2, Captain America 2, Iron Man 3 and The Avengers 2 seems less depressing then it originally did.