You know that moment when your stomach drops and you realise you have dropped a clanger? I experienced that a few weeks ago. Gleefully heading to the website of my local multiplex to book opening-night tickets for Avengers Assemble, it dawned on me that I was actually going away for the weekend on release day. Could I change my flight to a later departure in order to catch the first screening of the day? Probably, but that would perhaps be a bridge too far, even for a movie that carried more expectation than was reasonably healthy. So it was a few days on from release, avoiding spoilers with fervency not seen since the heyday of Babylon 5, that we were finally able to take it in and deliver a verdict.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s safe to say we were always confident of Joss Whedon delivering. The box office disappointment of Serenity was criminal, but the movie itself proved that the geek demigod can balance an ensemble cast while spinning a yarn that appeals to established fans of a franchise and curious newcomers alike, while his comic book credentials were never in doubt since a hugely successful run on Astonishing X-Men. However, nothing should detract from Whedon’s achievement in stirring so many characters into the melting pot without spoiling the broth – unlike in bloated Bat- or Spider-sequels, everybody gets their chance to shine in Avengers Assemble. A Whedon script in the wrong hands can feel as out of place as Steve Davis reading from a joke book (cast your mind back to Alien: Resurrection for a reminder of just how much), but the quick and witty patter on offer in Avengers Assemble never jars or grinds. And although Robert Downey Jnr inevitably chews the scenery with the lion’s share of the one-liners, it’s a certain jade giant that really brings the house down with a perfectly-timed comic delivery.
Ah yes, the elephant in the room. After two recent critical and commercial bombs involving the character, Avengers Assemble was likely to live and die based on its use of The Hulk. Whedon shows that Bruce Banner’s suppressed id can carry a blockbuster in the right hands, with Mark Ruffalo’s sympathetic and engaging portrayal of Banner dovetailing perfectly with the sheer fervent spectacle of the self-proclaimed strongest one there is smashing and trashing New York City. Meanwhile Scarlett Johansson makes the most of a surprising amount of screen time to make Black Widow a worthy character addition to the Marvel cinematic universe (a strong ass-kicking female character at the centre of a Joss Whedon cast? Who’d have thunk it?), Chris Evans gets to portray the Captain America he doubtless had in mind when inking a multi-picture deal as the super soldier, Chris Hemsworth builds on an air-punching entrance as Thor by providing plenty of final-battle money shots while keeping his performance on the right side of hammy, while his on-screen brother Tom Hiddlestone chews the scenery even more deliciously than he did in Thor, proving a moustache-twirling nemesis worthy of uniting the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye is a little under-utilised but still enjoys plenty of plot significance, and the supporting cast is a joy as always, not least Clark Gregg as Phil Coulsen.
It sounds like hyperbole, but the final hour or so of Avengers Assemble is possibly the most entertaining slice of pop culture committed to film in decades. Allowing those unfamiliar with the characters to learn who they are, and those of us already acquainted to enjoy their interaction and hunt for on-screen easter eggs, pays off in droves by the end. In a perfectly easy-to-digest final battle that will have Michael Bay weeping into his ADHD prescription papers, all manner of carnage and conflict is unleashed that leaves the viewer with one over-riding sensation – this is like watching a real-life comic book. With one long take in particular demonstrating some superbly choreographed teammate unity that brought a tear of joy to this humble fanboy eye, it’s hard to imagine anybody topping such alchemy that so perfectly brings the page to the screen.
2012 is threatening to be a vintage year for comic book movies, but Marc Webb and Christopher Nolan have one hell of a job on their hands matching the bar set here with their uber-franchise entries. That’s another concern for another day though – for now, enjoy the arrival of a genre classic. And for all our sakes, somebody put Joss Whedon in touch with WB next time they are start mooting their eternally-gestating Justice League movie…