The much-trumpeted comic superhero collaboration is here at last, writes Donald Clarke
THANK HEAVENS. The blasted thing has finally arrived. Unless I’m misremembering, Samuel L Jackson made his first post-credit cameo in the original production of The Ten Commandments. Over the succeeding eight decades, he has spurned no opportunity to stick his head round the door and alert viewers that some sort of superhero coalition was in the works.
Despite Sam’s efforts, it seems as if Marvel is not entirely sure the message has got through. Terrified that teenagers might confuse The Avengers with a 50-year-old TV
series (or its 15-year-old movie version), the comics company has done some prophylactic monkeying around with the title.
The seed-gatherers of the upper Zambezi now know that Marvel Avengers Assemble brings together a collection of Marvel superheroes (those not still licensed to studios other than Disney) to save the world one more time. Thor swings his hammer. Captain America waves his shield. Hulk makes like Moe in The Three Stooges. Somebody called The Black Widow redresses the gender imbalance.
Hardcore comic fans were delighted when Joss Whedon, one of their own, was selected to take charge of directing duties. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, more recently, The Cabin in the Woods, Whedon has demonstrated a gift for deconstructing modern myths while keeping the narrative zippy. For the most part, he delivers the goods in Avengers Assemble.
Despite a flabby middle-section and an overlong, bang-heavy denouement, the picture keeps its many plates spinning dizzily for more than two hours. But it’s hard to escape the notion that Whedon is not running on full steam. Forbidden from really pulling apart the sacred material (Marvel was never going to allow Joss to make his own Kick Ass), he is reduced to plastering wry quips over a fairly familiar universe-in-peril drama.
The dialogue certainly crackles. Returning as Tony Stark, alter ego of Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr continues to play with his character’s megalomania. Chris Hemsworth has fun with Thor’s Wagnerian pomposity. The frequent outbreaks of self-referential humour do not, however, establish enough blue water to properly separate The Avengers from its serviceable predecessors in the Marvel stable.
Much of the opening act is taken up with efforts to gather the heroes together. Marvel fans of this writer’s generation will fume at the absence of quaint founder members such as Ant-man and The Wasp. Instead, the relatively obscure Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) has been instructed to track down Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), The Hulk’s less green persona, while Captain America (Chris Evans), recently unfrozen, is prepared for life in the 21st century.
There are reasons to be fearful. Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s spoilt brat of a brother, has captured a terrifying power source and plans to open a portal allowing an army of grey aliens to annihilate New York.
In truth, the story is no less perfunctory than those that hung around Richard Donner’s Superman movies. Whedon is seriously hampered by the need to find something for everyone to do and by the vast differentials in the magnitudes of the characters’ superpowers.
The final apocalyptic battle (a little too close to a Transformers set-piece for comfort) sees an implausibly compliant Hulk and a gorgeously furious Thor cleaving whole buildings while Blackwidow and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) pathetically discharge revolvers and fire explosive arrows. Why not just throw water bombs at the intergalactic invaders?
Still, as early summer blockbusters go, Avengers Assemble will do well enough. True, it’s not the game-changing epic that many enthusiasts had hoped for. It lacks narrative focus. Even the best jokes are scored to sitcom rhythms.
But Avengers Assemble definitely plays like the work of a film-maker in love with his source material. For that it deserves at least one raised fist.
Abs fab: Avengers Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Captain America (Chris Evans)