There’s two different approaches to superhero movies, and to superheroes in general. One is that being a superhero is serious business: that superheroes are dangerous obsessives, potentially vigilantes, that their work stems from trauma, that they raise interesting moral questions, that they tell us something about ourselves.
This is the increasingly prevalent approach, mastered by Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, in which the idea of someone, namely the Joker, actually having fun was taken as terrifying. The other approach, that being a superhero might actually be a hell of a lot of fun, that saving the world doesn’t mean you can’t crack a few jokes, has been out of fashion recently: even Spiderman is pretty serious these days. But with The Avengers, that may all change.
The Avengers (actually called Avengers Assemble in the UK in case we confuse it with the 60s TV show, but never mind: I’ve been watching trailers for “The Avengers” for months now, and that’s how I think of it) is written and directed by Joss “Buffy” “Firefly” “Cabin in the Woods” Whedon. He was a good choice: it has his trademark wit and his usual focus on fellowship, on the family we choose. It doesn’t, on the other hand, show much of his habitual genre-bending: it’s fairly straightforward superheroics, amped up a long way. Rogue Norse god summons aliens to conquer the world, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes get together to stop him. That’s pretty much it for plot, though there is a lot of plotting and counter-plotting.
The heroes in question will be largely familiar to you if you’ve seen a summer blockbuster or two in the past five years. Chris Evans as Captain America and Chris Hemsworth as Thor tread on each other’s toes slightly, both being blond, muscular and dislocated in time and space: but Cap’s old-school American decency and Thor’s even-older-school Nordic demigoddery are very different schticks.
Jeremy Renner is new as Hawkeye, and is cleverly-used but under-developed: understandable when the cast also has, from the Iron Man movies, Scarlet Johansson as Black Widow and Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, Iron Man himself. Downey gets all the best lines, but that’s because he’s Downey, and he deserves them. Convening the team is Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury, the extremely stern head of SHIELD, a secret military organisation that also features Clark Gregg as the wonderful Agent Coulson, a flying aircraft carrier, and Robin from How I Met Your Mother.
What, you want more? Alright then. This is the movie that finally, gloriously gets the Hulk right. Twice in the last ten years Dr Bruce Banner and his angry alter ego have stumbled, embodied by Eric Bana and then by Edward Norton: but this time Mark Ruffalo is note-perfect as the good doctor terrified of his own emotions.
More than that, the Hulk is well-used: as an unpredictable rage-ball he is the spanner in everybody’s works, and since this is a movie in which an awful lot of people have an awful lot of hidden agendas, something that will factor into and mess with all of them takes the plot and the tension to another level. Also, the Hulk just roars: there’s no cartoonish Hulk-speak (though there is one very good joke about this: the movie as a whole is impressively funny when it wants to be, which is often).
That lot are up against Loki, Thor’s megalomaniac brother, played by Tom Hiddleston, who vies with Downey for the most magnetic presence on-screen, spouting quasi-Shakespearian delusions of grandeur and wearing a hat with really big horns. He has the aforementioned aliens on his side for the showdown, but for much of the film he is practically alone against the heroes, and uses mind-games and magic rather than enormous explosions. The tension between the team members isn’t created by him of course, but he exploits it, and for much of the film’s run-time you wonder how the climax of the film could possibly be more fun than all the bickering and power-plays that make up the first two-thirds.
Then that climax arrives, in midtown Manhattan (where else?), and jaws drop all over the cinema. Wise-cracking takes a back seat to sequences of astounding fluency and innovation, like watching storyboards stream straight out of Whedon’s mind. The film is resoundingly, catastrophically good fun, and it’s clear that the people making it were having the time of their lives too. Saving the world doesn’t have to be solemn.
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