Thursday, 23 April 2015

Throwback Thursday: Avengers Assemble (2012)

Seeing as the sequel Avengers: Age Of Ultron is out in UK cinemas today (!), and it's also (Throwback) Thursday, I thought I'd take the opportunity to republish my review of the first film. This was originally published on the now defunct Screen Highway, and was the only article I wrote for that site that hasn't been republished on AFA (as it's the only non animation article I wrote for SH). So, anyhoo here it is!

The following review was originally published in 2012 on Screen Highway.

Marvel Avengers Assemble/ The Avengers (2012)
Director Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johanssen, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L Jackson, Tom Hiddleston

Since the X-men and Spider-man films hit it big and the box office in the early years of this young century, super heroes have ruled the box-office. Sure there has been a fair few misfires but they have been more than made up for by the colossal success of the hits. It's no wonder that Marvel grew tired of watching other companies make bank off their own creations and decided to make a go of it as a movie studio in their own right. Even with Spidey, Wolverine and chums tied up at Sony and Fox respectively Marvel still has an impressive stable of characters to play with. Starting with Iron Man in 2008 they have attempted to do something never attempted in film before, and create and create multiple film franchises that occur in a single on-screen universe. Avengers is the culmination of this plan, bringing together characters established in the previous five films released by the studio.

The action kicks off when the Asgardian Loki (last seen as the villain in last summer's Thor) arrives on Earth, looking for the mysterious Cosmic Cube. Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) must call on the help of Tony Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man), Loki's adopted brother Thor, the newly defrosted Captain America and the Incredible Hulk, when Loki threatens the earth.

Although such a team-up has never been attempted before, the odds of this working did not look good. Previously comic-book movies that have tried to cram too much in have resulted in the likes of Batman and Robin and Spider-man 3. Trying to introduce too many characters has resulted in the films coming unstuck, so how on earth can a film with that many heroes work? Luckily it seems Marvel knew what they were doing. Gradually introducing the cast over several films has freed them for the need for origin stories (the downfall of many super hero flicks), and able to concentrate on the plot, and bringing the characters together. The Marvel films and characters have all felt distinct and individual so there was a big question mark over how well the characters would mesh. Thanks to a number of smart decisions on Marvel's part, it all comes together better than you could possibly have hoped.

The first right-step was in casting. Setting the tone by casting Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark, they have (ahem) assembled a line-up of strong actors who have had the time to get comfortable in their roles. The cast is universally excellent, without a weak link in the chain. It's not hard to see that everyone involved is having the time of their lives. Downey Jr gives great snark as Stark, with brilliant barbed one-liners aimed at his cohorts. Chris Evans brings real heart to the stoic Captain America, and Chris Hemsworth makes up in screen presence what he lacks in convincing accent as the mighty Thor. Some of the other performances are more surprising however- Tom Hiddleston brings gleeful menace to the villainous Loki, becoming infinitely more memorable than he was in last summer's Thor movie. Scarlett Johanssen's Black Widow was underwhelming in Iron Man 2, but more than holds her own here. The stand-out here though is new-comer Mark Ruffalo, who takes over the role of Bruce Banner (the Incredible Hulk) and makes it his own. Both as Banner and (via performance capture) as Hulk, he's responsible for several of the best crowd-pleaser moments, and is an inspired addition to the cast.

The second master-stroke was in Hiring geek-god Joss Whedon to direct. Whedon cut his teeth on TV cult-hits Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly and is comfortable with ensembles. It also helps more than a little that he is a lifetime comic-book aficionado who has written a few comics in his time to boot. He clearly has a great deal of affection for these characters and the universe that really shines through. The way the characters react to each other (whether hitting it off or bickering) is the film's greatest pleasure. The dialogue is typically smart (as in any Whedeon production) and has more genuine laughs in than many comedies.

Whedon is well known for his intelligent writing, but this is a big summer blockbuster, so action set pieces are a must. Having only directed one feature before, doubts were raised if Whedon could handle the massive high-stakes action that this film required. There's no need to worry though, as Avengers boasts some of the most thrilling sequences seen in a blockbuster to date. The action is as explosive and exciting as you'd hope, and Michael Bay could learn a thing of two about creating set-pieces where you can actually tell what's going on.

Negative reviews of the likes of Transformers are often dismissed by fans as taking it too seriously. After all, they argue, it's just 'check your brain at the door' type entertainment. The Avengers shows that it doesn't need to be that way, popcorn entertainment and well written need not be mutually exclusive. Whizz-bang action scenes are all well and good but when it's involving characters you actually care about, it makes all the difference.

Any problems with the film are only really minor niggles. It takes a little while to get going, concentrating on the non super-powered SHIELD agents first. While at the time you may be itching to get the costumed heroes on screen as quickly as possible, in retrospect you can understand why doing it that way was necessary- and once it does get going it never lets up. Some grumbles have been made about the beefy running time, but there's an awful lot to fit in, and it actually leaves you hungry for more.

This is very definitely aimed at fans of the characters who will be familiar with their back-stories. As a result if you have missed any (or all) of the preceding films (or are otherwise not up to speed with your Marvel lore) then you won't have quite the same experience. Yet it's not completely inaccessible to newcomers, as you learn everything you need to know from what’s shown in this film alone. Besides it works simply as a spectacular summer movie in it's own right.

This is simply an astounding achievement, and it works better than any fan could possibly have hoped. Whether you grew up on the comics, or if you have just enjoyed the movies over the past four years, this is the prefect culmination of what Marvel studios set out to do. It stands out as easily one of the best Super Hero movies to date, alongside The Dark Knight. As the opening shot of the Summer movie season the bar has been set incredibly high. Your move, Nolan.


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