Avengers Assemble REVIEW

"If either of you mention those photos of my arse again I will punch you in the nuts."

12A | 143 minutes
Release Date: 27 April 2012
Distributor: Walt Disney
Director: Joss Whedon
Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johannson, Samuel L Jackson

By royal decree we Brits are supposed to refer to this, in full, as Marvel Avengers Assemble. It’s an ugly rechristening, of course, but in a way it’s utterly apt. The word “assemble” reeks of the unique pain of flatpack furniture, gazing blank-eyed at brain-melting diagrams of nuts, screws and neat chunks of plywood converging in some impossible pan-dimensional ballet on the page.

Joss Whedon is the man who’s been handed the screwdriver, Allen key and infinite amounts of tea and patience, tasked with bolting together countless separate pieces of the Marvel universe into a functional cinematic whole. Does the finished product wobble slightly, sit not entirely flush? You bet, and small wonder, too.

It’s an insanely ambitious ask for anyone, let alone a director with only one true big-screen credit to their name. Whedon not only needs to deliver a profoundly bed-quaking climax to years of tease and foreplay. He must also juggle four big-gun superhero icons, and fuse together the disparate DNA of their worlds: noble-eyed ‘40s heroism, mythic wizardry, weaponised techno-cool and big, green smashy-smashy stuff. It’s an inescapably jarring clash of tones. At one point a Norse trickster god rides in a military jeep, strafed by machine gun fire, and it feels like The Lord Of The Rings crashing brutally and inexplicably into 24.

Whedon’s A-game has always been powered by a smart mouth and a gift for ensemble writing, and those are the best muscles on display here. The movie’s true energy is a relentlessly catty wit, deployed as an endless hail of snark-grenades: Iron Man refers to the freshly defrosted Captain America as a “Capsicle”, while Loki’s Asgardian pageantry is coolly dismissed as “Reindeer Games.” You also sense Whedon the linguist’s mischievous smirk as he smuggles the phrase “mewling quim” into mainstream blockbuster cinema. And top marks for that.

Miraculously, the movie feels equally shared between its superpowered pantheon – though some Avengers are rather more equal than others. Robert Downey Jr steals scenes with the insouciance of a man trousering a Rolex at Tiffany’s, especially relishing some screwball byplay with Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts. Chris Evans has rather less fun, dignity visibly wilting in a shockingly misjudged costume, but he maintains Cap’s winning, Jimmy Stewart-on-steroids appeal. Elsewhere, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor appears to have misplaced the easy, boyish charm of his own movie but has sufficient golden-maned charisma to hold his own.

Two Avengers feel shortchanged in the leap from page to screen: Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye is an inscrutable blank with none of the impetuous fire of his comic strip counterpart, while Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, though she may boast Buffy-style self-possession and aptitude for ass-kickery, remains as convincingly Russian as the Fourth of July.

The Hulk is better served. As the new screen incarnation of Bruce Banner, Mark Ruffalo brings a soft, sweet weirdness that barely masks a broiling anger (“I’m exposed, like a nerve. It’s a nightmare.”). His first shirt-shredding Hulk-out is genuinely unnerving – for once the Hulk’s eyes are Banner’s eyes, and just for a moment there’s a rending flash of vulnerability there. Once in green, tattered-trouser mode, the Hulk moves with a loping hint of Kong and soon earns the biggest laughs in the film.

Whedon plays his character cards well, revelling in the interplay of these icons and adding an intriguingly adult layer of ethical complexity to the Marvel universe as SHIELD’s agenda takes a turn for the shadowy. He’s an actor’s director, too, coaxing strong performances from his sprawling cast. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is a finely played antagonist, all psychological game-play and sickly smile.

But if Avengers Assemble showcases Whedon’s strengths it also exposes his weak spots. An early smackdown between Thor and Iron Man feels curiously low-key, betraying Whedon’s small-screen roots. It’s not short on the eye-smacking visuals – a sequence where the SHIELD heli-carrier rises from cascading waves is majestic – but too much here feels pinched and boxy, too tightly framed and televisual, lacking true widescreen wow.

A final reel assault on Manhattan adds some much needed spectacle (all ash, rubble and scream of emergency sirens, it’s a clear nod to 9/11 and Millar and Hitch’s The Ultimates, an obvious creative inspiration). But this sequence exposes the deepest faultline in the film: the alien villains are faceless armoured goons, a strikeforce of anonymous cannon fodder. There’s no insight into their motives, their culture, their plotting. Why are they here, other than to have their extra-terrestrial asses handed to them on six superpowered plates?

Avengers Assemble motors on quips and star charm and the primal Top Trumps thrill of assembling its protagonists. But beyond an intriguing experiment in franchise-mashing there’s no compelling reason for it to exist, no burning tale it needs to tell. It’s simply a slick delivery system for satisfying years of fanboy longing. As the plot pivots on the Asgardian Tesseract – “a source of unlimited sustainable energy” – so the film’s essential power source is the phrase “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?”

And, ultimately, that’s unsustainable.

Nick Setchfield

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