My colleagues, Johnny Messias and Dee Pilgrim have already written about The Avengers elsewhere on The Void. They’re great reviews that steer clear of the geek lexicon, but this one isn’t going to be anything like that.
What began as an otherwise inconspicuous two minute bout of fan service right at the end of 2008’s Iron Man, has climaxed with the mother of all comic book movies: a £200 million summer tentpole team-up, nearly six years in the making. The sheer scale of the endeavour dwarves anything that has gone before it. Five blockbuster films, all seeding the main event without failing as standalone adventures, two of which had the unenviable task of selling lesser known characters in the canon to an unknowing audience.
While none of the Marvel franchises have enjoyed quite the same level of success and critical acclaim as the original Iron Man, none of them have been a flop which has made the sell for this film so much easier. Hulk reintroduced the green goliath by way of a minor retcon (and a new actor in the role who has been replaced yet again for The Avengers) while Thor and Captain America delivered handsome returns. Only the Iron Man sequel failed to generate much critical acclaim, apparent as it was that it was merely a prologue to the film that has just been released (a criticism that was also levelled against Thor perhaps fairly given that while a viewing of the latter is not essential, it is nonetheless useful for a bit of context).
The result of all that labour (and some astute directorial choices) has been a satisfying body of work that has culminated in the cinematic equivalent of crossover comics, a true event movie. Consider the schedules, the money, the sheer creative direction required to shepherd such an undertaking. Put like that, it is a wonder we are watching The Avengers at all.
And what relief that after all that (expensive) build that Joss Whedon’s epic is nothing less than a two-and-a-half hour blast of pure unfiltered popcorn that for the first time, truly captures the excitement, colour and sheer cool of a comic book. The Avengers is a relentless stream of outlandish characters, pop dialogue and remarkable special effects that demands a giddy glee right from the word go.The script is so crisp and lean, there’s scarcely a wasted minute. In a move echoing Grant Morrison’s four panel recounting of Kal-El’s origin in All-Star Superman, the film’s over-arching threat is dealt with in less than five minutes leaving the rest of the film to deliver everything the audience wants to see. It would be easy to make the criticism about a wafer-thin motivation but the Avengers is fight comics writ large and Loki’s machinations add the the necessary gravity beyond ‘Alien army seeks willing planet for subjugation. Must have GSOH’.
Whedon has already proven he’s got the chops for writing for a team (his run on Marvel’s Astonishing X-Men is a qualitative continuation of Grant Morrison’s seminal run in all but name) so it is no surprise to find that everyone gets their moment in the sun. The real revelation is how deftly this is all handled. Put aside all thoughts of Iron Man and his Super Pals’, this is a film about The Avengers. The script crackles with all the necessary ingredients, including crucially a whistle-stop origin for each character. If you’ve ever read a Marvel team-up all the familiar tropes are here: tension, in-fighting, misunderstanding, grudging respect and willing co-operation. If you haven’t, all of this fits together like a well-cut jigsaw. The cast are all afforded generously smart dialogue so no-one gets all the best lines and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is so sharply malevolent, he ably presents a threat great enough to unite such a motley crew.
Whedon also handles the age-old problem of what to do with the Incredible Hulk (Marvel’s comics arm tends to send him off-planet/on sabbatical for their crossovers because of his game-changing presence) with a consummate ease by having the shadow of his power loom large over the film – for every character, Hulk is always in the room and it means that when he does show up, it’s like he’s been there all along rather than a supporting player simply there to turn the tide. And on that note, Ruffalo fills the role effortlessly with the right combination of humility and self-deprecation. A franchise surely beckons.
The Avengers is a relentless stream of outlandish characters, pop dialogue and remarkable special effects that demands a giddy glee right from the word go.
The final third of the film is the most obvious pay-off – a good old fashioned brawl that was the only ever option. Whedon shows a real talent for such co-ordinated mayhem, nothing gets lost in the bluster and while much has been made of the rapid manner in which the film wraps up, the truth is anything but. Instead, we get a splash page and a neat coda that sends our heroes back out on their solo adventures. There’s a fleetingly sad moment when you realise that after all that, this chapter is over but a tremendous sense of excitement knowing that all this will be again. The wait is going to be agonising, the bar having been raised so spectacularly. Nolan, Webb et al have a hell of a task on their hands besting Whedon’s effort this summer but such expectation can only be a good thing for the genre. The Avengers is great action comics and very nearly the ultimate comic book film – the (infinity) gauntlet has well and truly been laid down.
Finally a post-script on the marketing: All of the trailers for The Avengers have offered just enough to tantalise the audience but have in actual fact revealed so much less than they imply. Execrable posters aside, the drip feed of information borne of real confidence in the product has meant that audiences haven’t seen most of The Avengers before buying their ticket. Early reviews have been uniformly spoiler-free simply because there has been so much to spoil – half the enjoyment has been watching so much new.
While Warner Brothers continue to founder in their attempts to bring all their franchises together in one place (and let’s face it, a World’s Finest with Bale and Cavill, let alone a Justice League is not happening in this climate), Marvel have quietly and assuredly just got on with it.