All hail Joss Whedon for it is he who will deliver us from the evils of terrible cinema. After the stunning The Cabin In The Woods last week (also starring a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth), comes Avengers Assemble – the first bona fide must-see of the summer, a relentless, balls-to-the-wall action spectacular which delivers exactly what you want from a comic book adaptation and redraws the blueprint for ensemble cast heroism.
Villainous exiled god Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has designs to use the Tesseract – supposedly a source of limitless energy currently under study at the top secret government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. – to create a portal to another dimension where an army of alien beings waits to invade earth.
The only thing stopping him is The Avengers Initiative, a theoretical superhero team envisaged by director Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson). As Loki’s plan starts to unfold and things get increasingly desperate, Fury has no choice but to call on the wayward superheroes: stalwart defender of the American way, Captain America (Chris Evans); billionaire playboy in a suit of high-tech armour Tony Stark/Iron Man(Robert Downey Jr.); presumed missing genius Bruce Banner (who also doubles as the unstoppable force of The Hulk) (Mark Ruffalo), Loki’s Asgardian brother Thor, superspy Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and expert marksman Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).
It starts off slowly and that’s initially a worry. But that turns out just to be the first incline that all carts must traverse on their journey to the top of Space Mountain before taking the dizzying headlong rush onwards.
The set pieces are nothing short of fantastic – Iron Man repairing the turbines on the team’s flying aircraft carrier HQ in mid-air while Cap fends off invading militants; an enormous city-flattening dust up that forms the breath-taking conclusion – Avengers Assemble is never short of eye-candy.
Interestingly it seems that Whedon has been paying attention to video games recently. The cinematic introduction to Marvel vs. Capcom 3, which featured superheroes battling all over a downtown metropolis, and Marvel Ultimate Alliance which saw Captain America lead Thor, Spider-Man and Wolverine against an army of airborne robots are among some of the best in cooperative action set pieces. Whedon has distilled what made these shorts great and has expanded them into all-out an all-out cinematic treat.
But the real highlight is the way the team are characterised as individuals – Cap’s determined leadership, Stark’s arrogance, Thor’s pride, Bruce Banner’s mild but simmering intellect, The Hulk’s indomitable rage – and yet they all gel together as a team when the time comes.
Juggling six characters while making them compelling and successfully merging them as one unified whole is something which takes a great deal of skill. The fears that this would be merely a pit stop for the continuing adventures of Tony Stark – an Iron Man 2.5 if you will – are completely unfounded. Stark plays his role without ever threatening to overwhelm his co-stars.
As great as they all are – first among equals and all that, a special shout has to go to The Hulk. After two disappointing solo outings, The Hulk has finally got the movie he deserves. Firstly, he looks great. Gone is the plasticine-y look of his cinematic predecessors and Mark Ruffalo’s motion capture acting provides exactly what you want from the big guy – an unstoppable but uncontrollable force. Finally Hulk gets to do what he does best – Smash.
It’s also very funny – Joss Whedon is almost the undisputed master of snarky asides and there’s no better medium for that than a superhero movie. He gets the tone just right – there’s never a feeling of “we’re going to do a funny bit now”, the wit is free-flowing and natural and slots in perfectly to the film’s frenetic pace. Consequently it’s actually a lot funnier than most of this year’s self-styled “comedy” films.
All this comes together so well and it’s so much unalloyed fun, that it’s set the bar unfathomably high for the rest of 2012’s superhero outings. The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises had better be damn special if they even hope to hold a candle to Avengers Assemble. As for Joss Whedon, we should all rush up to him and give him a big hug – thank you, thank you, thank you.
Like this? Then check out a force more sinister than Loki’s army of Chitauri.