So, finally (not ‘finally’, obviously; this is a franchise, after all) the disparate stories of a group of ‘special’ people come together and a planet of red-faced comic book fans exhale as one. It’s been a long journey, occasionally exciting for the viewer, often extremely dull. Earth’s (and Azgard’s) heroes unite for a cinematic extravaganza, generally expected to be a film that roughly adds up to a crude summation of parts. And on the whole the film delivers, if it takes a while to reach the door. Stories are established, MacGuffin put in place, the traditional three acts laid out with confidence, Buffy’s Joss Wheedon provides an enjoyable post-modern Sorkin-lite script, and the CGI is as good as you could hope for. In a universe where blockbusters sometimes take the form of msg-coloured soft porn like Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Avengers Assemble is like Tokyo Story. Only louder. Much much louder.
Avengers Assemble is big and brash and more than competent, and fun. It is a blockbuster par excellence that spends so much of the first act dithering it almost falls flat. But by the end you feel satisfyingly beaten up by the barrage of action. For over half an hour, though, I was fearing the worst. To put it simply, the avenging is action of the highest order, while the assembling flirts dangerously with dramatic inertia.
The concept of this film was just as likely to push the cast and crew toward disaster as it was toward glory. These types of ensemble dramas all encounter the same problem: how to weight the screen time of the heroes. It’s one thing if the movie stars have their own hierarchy, battled over on their behalf by agents, such as in The Magnificent Seven, for instance. Robert Vaughan, however enigmatic and leather-clad he may be, is never going to get the same screen time as Yul Brynner. Nobody would have wanted that. And Ernest Borgnine was never going to be required to fill anywhere near as much air time as either Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen or William Holden in The Wild Bunch. But in a movie like Avengers Assemble it is the characters themselves who bring with them the star power. And each has a draw, a dramatic back story, and a fatal flaw that gives each character that long life. In this case all of the characters are here for a climax to careers that began in comic books. Their trajectories have been varied over the decades, (Thor hitting the low point perhaps when he was forced to play a mechanic in Adventures in Babysitting in 1989). But now they’re all here, each with recent solo projects to their names – except for Black Widow and the Hawk, who have to make do here with the only thing that comes close to looking like an interesting relationship between any of the characters. Rick Fury has an eye patch and a long coat, so he doesn’t need anything else. And Agent Phil has a man-crush on Captain America. (They would, incidentally, make a lovely couple). The film does manage to make each of its heroes strike about midway on the Interesting Scale, which is a great improvement on most of their solo projects. Tony Stark is solely indebted to the mumbling proficiency of Robert Downey jnr, and for the first time Bruce Banner has some depth. Mark Ruffalo, in actual fact, steels the show, if anyone does. Banner is twitchy, unsure, depressive – a much darker turn than anything Rick Fury can managed from behind his patch. All those who have wrestled with the character of the Hulk in the past, from Ang Lee (forever enhanced by Stewart Lee’s anecdote) to Eric Bana, to Edward Norton, have failed to raise the Hulk from the deepest dungeons of dull. Here the less-than-jolly-green giant is not only threatening (rather than annoying) but he has a sense of humour. It’s a remarkable thing that the cast find their feet so quickly, and what could be a clunky festival of egos jumping in front of each other whenever the camera is pointed in their general direction, is actually a finely balanced ensemble action film. The apex of this is displayed in the genuinely impressive finale when the camera swoops through the streets of an alien-horde-besieged city calling on each hero as they battle evil in their own individual inimitable styles. It’s the type of Wellesian camera (or computer) manoeuvring that really does lift this film above the average, and a flash of film-making that someone like Michael Bay should take note of if, indeed, he could retrieve his own camera from up Megan Fox’s skirt for a few minutes.
It seems comic book hero movies benefit greatly from having an imaginative director at the helm; they are, after all, storylines crying out for auteurs who wish to match the inherent fantasy with their own dynamism. The best of the precursors, Thor, was directed by Kenneth Brannagh, who had previously shown his monster-teeth with the underrated Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Brannagh brought to that film an exciting balance of playfulness and darkness, peril. Joss Whedon here has a similar success. The story is completely irrelevant. Just enjoy the noise.