Let’s get this out of the way: Avengers Assemble* is a tremendous action picture. There are very few ways about it. Geek god Joss Whedon was given the exciting yet herculean task of making a $220m action blockbuster with the coolest bits of kit in the Marvel toy chest. Dealing with four main characters (each of whom have their own film franchises), writer/director Whedon could easily have turned this into an incoherent mess, paying lip service to minor heroes and ending up with a movie that was long and boring. Running at 142 minutes, Avengers Assemble is a long film, but the efficiency which which Whedon has structured and shot it means that the movie never flags.
Directly carrying on story strands from 2011’s Captain America and Thor, Avengers finds international security agency SHIELD trying to harness power from a glowing blue cube called the Tesseract. Loki, the baddie from Thor, breaks into a secure facility and steals the Tesseract with the intention of using it to take over the world. Such a threat means only one thing: SHIELD director Nick Fury (a cool, eye-patched Samuel L Jackson) must assemble an awesome team of heroes to fight Loki and recover the cube. On his wish-list are Captain America (Chris Evans), a scientifically enhanced war hero frozen at the height of WWII and thawed out in modern day; Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), a billionaire genius who also moonlights as Iron Man; Bruce Banner (Marvel newcomer Mark Ruffalo), a gifted scientist with a tendency to turn into the Incredible Hulk every time he gets a bit cranky; and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the god-like thunder-warrior from a galaxy far, far away. Added into the mix are Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, a former Russian spy with an excellent line in kicking butt and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, an expert marksman who manages to make a bow and arrow look like an appropriate weapon to use against soldiers with machines guns.
The first act is full of exposition, but as Whedon showed in Serenity, the 2005 adaptation of his cult TV show Firefly, he is a master when it comes to re-introducing familiar characters in awesome ways. Every character has their moment to shine, with Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark hogging many of the choice quips. Scarlett Johansson is also given a decent amount to do as the sole female member of the team. Introduced in the Iron Man sequel, she was pitched as little more than eye-candy: all pistols and latex with very little by way of character, but here she becomes a cooler, more interesting character. It’s the same with all the characters: Whedon has quite a distinctively quirky style of dialogue that is funny but never feels out of characters. In fact, this could be the funniest ‘straight’ comic book movie ever made or perhaps even (whisper it) the best comic movie ever, full stop.
But as you may have heard already, the scenes with the Hulk are something special. This being the green giant’s third film appearance with as many lead actors assailing the role, the character has somewhat become Marvel’s whipping boy over the years and maybe for good reason. After all, there’s something intrinsically unsatisfying with most Hulk stories: while Banner’s primary motivation is to keep his temper in control and not become the Hulk, all the audiences want to see is the Hulk smashing things to bits. To have a main character whose desires are at cross-purposes to the story’s requirements can be quite infuriating. However, the way he is deployed in Avengers really makes the most of the character: he is a ticking time bomb that could explode at any moment and that knowledge gives the middle section of movie a sense of palpable tension.
But when the cards are on the table at the end of the movie, the final act delivers like very few action blockbusters do. In a huge action set piece, the heroes finally gel and we are treated to a thrilling action-fest that sees each hero do some genuinely cool stuff. How many times have you seen an enormously expensive movie and wonder where did all the money go? In Avengers Assemble, it’s all up there on the screen.