Earth is on the verge of an apocalypse after Asgardian malcontent Loki (Tom Hiddleston) seizes a magical Macguffin called the Tesseract with the aim of unleashing an alien invasion. SHIELD agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) assembles the Avengers. Billionaire playboy genius-in-a-robo-suit Tony ‘Iron Man’ Stark (Robert Downey Jr), cryo-revived war legend Steve ‘Captain America’ Rogers (Chris Evans), swaggering thunder god Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and rogue scientist with gamma-induced anger issues Bruce ‘the Hulk’ Banner (Mark Ruffalo) must find some way to set mounting grievances aside, team up with ass-kicking action babe Natasha ‘Black Widow’ Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) plus ace archer Clint ‘Hawkeye’ Barton (Jeremy Renner) and hopefully save the world.
A select few films are fully capable of reducing jaded grownups to the level of excitable eight year olds. With Avengers Assemble writer-director Joss Whedon achieved just such a feat on a global scale. Whedon delivers a boisterously entertaining superhero extravaganza that in essence brings all your Saturday morning cartoon fantasies to life. Cinemagoers are in the hands of someone who revels in the cathartic joy of comic book absurdity, though crucially not to the extent of alienating non-fans. Using the skills he mastered handling the similarly ebullient ensemble heroics of Serenity (2005), Whedon pulls off a dexterous balancing act allowing each member of the outstanding cast their own exhilarating moment in the sun, rolls out enormous set-pieces with a panache Michael Bay could only dream of, peppers the film with those trademark delicious Whedon one-liners, and most importantly conceives some cunning emotional hooks to make us care about these larger than life yet unexpectedly vulnerable characters. For after all, Marvel Comics are the masters of the super but human heroes.
The film stands in intriguing comparison to that other sublime superhero movie of 2012, The Dark Knight Rises. For whilst tonally the films are night and day, on a thematic level they are not wholly dissimilar. Both movies concern themselves with this theme of inspiration. Whereas in Christopher Nolan’s superhero myth-as-sociopolitical critique a selfless superhero inspires a tarnished humanity, in Whedon’s swashbuckling romance humanity inspires a group of (briefly) self-involved superheroes to reach for greater glory. The key character is Agent Coulson, endearingly portrayed by low-key scene-stealer Clark Gregg as a closet fan-boy, who poignantly observes that the Avengers project was never going to work unless the heroes had someone to fight for. It is a rare example of a post-modern in-joke that proves disarmingly affecting.
Whedon nods to the post-9/11 conspiratorial overtones shading the current comics incarnation of The Avengers, but his heart belongs to the original Sixties version wherein our heroes would routinely bicker and feud though only till reminded of the greater struggle and what their existence meant to the world. Whedon clearly believes in the values these heroes represent. It is an incredibly busy film giving viewers plenty of bang for their buck whilst revelling in the sheer coolness of an aircraft carrier that transforms into an invisible spaceship, a freefalling Tony Stark transforming into Iron Man in mid-plummet, an array of standout hero-on-hero grudge matches, and Black Widow taking out a dozen Russian spies - including film director Jerzy Skolimowski! - in a slinky cocktail dress. Even amidst all this Whedon makes finds time for alternately witty, charming or sweet-natured asides and throws around the occasional weighty philosophical question such as humanity’s need to set itself beside godlike beings.
A likeable cast rise to the banter in Whedon’s script with Robert Downey Jr’s wisecracking playboy routine finding a worthy foil in Chris Evans’ charming man-out-of-time, Mark Ruffalo the most engaging Bruce Banner to date, and Scarlett Johansson’s hilariously effective interrogation techniques among the standout turns. You have got to love a film that crams in Norse gods, robots, giant monsters, super-spy stuff, includes Jenny Agutter and Powers Boothe as part of a shadowy cartel of international power brokers, spaceship battles, alien invaders and still finds time for a Harry Dean Stanton cameo.