Monday, 30 April 2012

Film Review: The Avengers

Certificate: 12A (intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, and a mild drug reference)
Directed By: Joss Whedon
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg, Gwyneth Paltrow, Stellan SkarsgÄrd
Budget: $220 million
Runtime: 142 minutes
Trailer: Watch

Mischief maker Loki returns to wreak havoc as Director Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D desperately assembles Earth's mightiest superheroes in a bid to thwart his alien invasion. As stories go this isn't about to win any pulitzer prizes, but then this also isn't what makes The Avengers the satisfying culmination of five origins movies and hundreds of millions of dollars that it is. In many ways it was always going to be difficult to live up to the extreme expectations of comic book nerds the world over, but fortunately it comes pretty darn close to quenching the hype.

Director Joss Whedon's task of managing this variety pack of egos isn't an enviable one, but it is one which he satisfyingly achieves with some added gusto for good measure. Maybe somewhat inevitably the film does tilt toward a certain iron clad person, however it is evident that Whedon has gone to excruciating lengths to never let one character run away with events. This balancing act extends to all quarters of the film, be it from managing the inflated super egos on show, attuning plot, characters and action while maintaining a healthy equilibrium between wit and emotional drama. Admittedly it is rather enjoyable to spend the first two-hours watching these jacked-up slabs of cool develop their inchoate bromances, but this is also one of those films which could have stood to show more of them fighting as a team rather than homoerotically checking out who has the bigger muscles.

For an action film it might be surprising then that The Avengers focuses more on the interactions of its egomaniacs rather than on who's exploding what and why. This is particularly noticeable with its brittle framework of a plot involving bland alien cannon-fodder which could be considered the quintessential definition of a macguffin. To its credit The Avengers attempts to be more than just superheroes being cool, however this ironically draws attention to the genre's inherent weaker points. Ordinarily asking questions of an unashamed spectacle would yield little other than headaches, but the fact The Avengers does not treat its audience like idiots only begs for answers. What happened to Loki and how did he survive the events of Thor? How did Thor come back to Earth if the rainbow bridge was destroyed? Also, who are these aliens and why are they allied with Loki? Certainly one can switch off and simply enjoy the film as is, but there is also something more cerebral at work which just craves further expansion. While commendable for its ambitious scope and desire for more depth than your typical action film, it is this recognisable cavate which make it slightly disappointing it's not fully realised.

Where The Avengers really succeeds is in its characters. Given the expositions we were given in the prequels the film wastes no time reintroducing us to our heroes, instead jumping straight in to the nitty gritty of group dynamics. This is done with an abundance of charm and humour, and thankfully does not rely exclusively on the witticisms of one Tony Stark. The biggest risk to The Avengers was always that it might become 'The Iron Man plus super-friends show', however Whedon maintains an impressive handle on our men in tights knowing exactly when to cut off those basking in the limelight for too long. It is a potential problem tackled to impressive effect as each character fulfils their function exceptionally. Downey Jr's Stark is still the Stark we all know and love while Chris Evans' Captain America provides the anchor, still confused by this world he's awoken in yet still the most invested in it. Hemsworth's Thor is no longer as tempestuous as when we first met him, and while he probably could have done with some more interaction with his comrades he nonetheless graces us with his godliness. However it is Mark Ruffalo's Dr. Bruce Banner who threatens to run away with the show. His introverted, gentile persona contrasts starkly with the green beast lurking inside in such a pleasantly unexpected manner while his scenes, particularly those with Tony Stark, sparkle with humour.

But this isn't just the bards of thunder gods and men of iron; The Avengers is uncompromisingly generous with its human antagonists too. Samuel L. Jackson takes a preeminent role this time rather than merely showing up at the end while Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow turns out to have more depth than merely being a kick-ass babe. Likewise, new Bourne star Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye is subject to a quivering plot-line as he's subjected to both sides of the coin. Perhaps most extolling of all though is the treatment of Agent Coulson (Gregg) whose monotone exterior we've seen in the prequels is charmingly shattered when he asks for the Cap's autograph and takes on Norse gods. Speaking of which it would be a travesty not to praise another fantastic performance by Tom Hiddleston as Loki, displaying an even more fiendish streak this time round after being 'wronged' in Thor. Indeed, he is bestowed some of the meatiest lines in the film, delivering with aplomb one of the most sneeringly vicious onscreen insults in recent memory.

It would be fair to note that in all likelihood no Avengers film would have ever lived up to all the ridiculously high expectations. However, this is damn close to the best anyone could have hoped for. The main problems with The Avengers mirror those of its prequels in that it is essentially an origins movie itself. Consequently it goes through the same motions of finding its footing and establishing its arcs which inevitably leads to similar imperfections. Yet given the high hopes and the unremitting fan love for Earth's Mightiest Heroes Whedon has done a fantastic job pulling it all together. Most of the criticisms are largely captious when considering the scale of the task, but with this first outing pleasingly accomplished and a tantalising teaser for another Avengers film (stay through the credits), Marvel can only go from strength to strength with this franchise.