When it comes to superheroes, cinema spent several decades playing catch-up to the boundless imaginations of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and the other legends of the comic book universe. The film studios could buy up the rights to all the characters and storylines that they wanted but technology often let them down. What could be inked on the page by the artists at Marvel and DC could not always be matched on the movie screen. However good the resulting film turned out to be (and there were a few winners) it would normally entail some poor actor looking faintly ridiculous in a costume whilst hanging from wires or lying on their belly in front of a back projection.
The leaps and bounds in computer technology changed all that and has meant regular raids on the comic book back catalogue over the last fifteen years or so. Caped crusaders of all forms became increasingly important weapons in Hollywood’s summer arsenal. If you were to continue this analogy, then The Avengers is a WMD of a movie.
From an FX perspective, this ultimate hero team-up represents some of the best work done by WETA since they breathed life into Middle Earth at the turn of the twenty-first century. The effects in The Avengers are simply astounding. This is not just a case of believing that a man can fly but that he can don a suit of mechanical armour whilst plummeting from the top of a skyscraper or level a forest with one blow of a mighty hammer. All this magic is rendered so real that even the hardened cynics out there would find it hard not to be impressed.
The Avenger had little choice but to be great. The build-up to it has been immense since the release of the first Iron Man in 2008. Since then, each of the core Avengers has stepped up to the plate with The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America each taking their turn. Their eponymous adventures all had varying degrees of merit but for audience members who risked the withering looks of cinema staff by staying behind to watch the post-credit teasers, there was a hint of things to come. The Avengers is not strictly a sequel but having had the back stories of several characters already established allows director Joss Whedon to plough straight into the action. Believe me; we are talking about some serious action.
Barely ten minutes into the film and the headquarters of S.H.I.E.L.D – the military organisation run by monocular bad-ass Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) – is obliterated by the power of a device called the Tesseract. This is the cosmic cube which cropped up in both Thor and Captain America. Depending on which side of the good guy/bad guy divide you happen to be on, the Tesseract either represents a new source of sustainable energy or a key to unlocking a door to the other end of the universe and letting in alien nasties.
Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the grinning wicked brother of Thor, falls firmly in the latter camp. He plans to use the Tesseract to take over the world with the assistance of an extra-terrestrial army. With Loki on the rise, it is time for Fury to roll out the Avengers Initiative and bring together the greatest heroes on Earth (subject to contractual obligations) in order to save the human race. “How desperate are you?” enquires Loki of his opponent. “You have made me very desperate,” growls Fury in response.
The talent roster is impressive. There is the Norse God Thor (Chris Hemsworth), wartime poster boy Captain America (Chris Evans), human shaped shrapnel Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), and Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) aka The Incredible Hulk. But that’s not all, they are joined by Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who does not really have any super powers other than looking amazing in a LBD. She can kick butt with the best of them though and plays a pivotal part in saving the day. There is also the super slick bowman Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who makes for another great character.
This is a mission movie without the need for a training montage as the team members are already match fit. What they do need to learn though is how to get along with each other after initial meetings result in a clash of enormous egos as well as fists. In an act of fidelity to the source material, the Avengers do not just fight the enemy, they also battle each other. The dust-up between Iron Man and Thor is especially impressive.
Billionaire, playboy, philanthropist Tony Stark (the man within the iron) takes particular pleasure in needling his fellow heroes and only really clicks with like-minded technical whizz Banner. The placid, mumbling doctor who normally looks like he has slept in late, or perhaps that is just Mark Ruffalo, is the big green elephant in the room. Wind him up just that bit too much and you might unleash the Hulk, and then you have real problems.
The generally strong cast helps to install human hearts in the supernatural bodies. These are tough guys but they also experience guilt, grief and even fear. Admittedly, Downey Jr. gets to steal the show a bit as the smart-talking Stark but each actor does well with what they are given. Thor is a trickier role to make believable thanks to his “Shakespeare in the park” dialogue but this allows the opportunity for some fish out of water humour. The real danger of the film, that there would not be enough room for each character to make an impact, is happily avoided. Plus, there are welcome returns for Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark’s long suffering lady friend and Clark Gregg as S.H.I.E.L.D agent Phil Coulson. Look out too for nice cameos from a couple of older but familiar faces from other fantasy classics.
The race to find the Tesseract is the chord on which to hang some superb action set-pieces, including an attack on S.H.I.E.L.D’s flying fortress and a climatic showdown on and above the streets of Manhattan. This gloriously destructive mayhem, in which our heroes seem severely outgunned by a legion of terrors from outer space, is deftly handled by Whedon and is hugely exciting stuff. The smirk on the Hulk’s face when he is finally given permission to “smash” is a moment to savour. Needless to say he does not have to be told twice.
The Avengers also has some very funny moments, several playing on the slightly absurd predicament of being a super being on an ordinary planet. Yet, though everyone here is clearly having a lot of fun, the film never stoops to cheap mockery or camp silliness thanks to an overall respect for spirit of the original comics.
If you are a committed hater of all things comic book then this film may do nothing to change your mind. If you like comics then you will no doubt love this, unless you are one of those types who arrive at a film with a detailed check list of expectations and consider any deviation to be a crime against the genre. Anyone else, even if you have never read a comic in your life, should really enjoy The Avengers. The film certainly sets a challenge for The Dark Knight Rises later this year, although that will be much more down and dirty of course. The big question now is what the Avengers could possibly do for an encore?
There is a suggestion mid-way through the credits of who their next opponent might be but in the meantime, The Avengers is terrific stuff and should be seen by anyone who loves a good time at the movies.