Tuesday, 1 May 2012

FILM REVIEW: Avengers Assemble

Two "Avengers" tower above the others in an entertaining extravaganza that still amounts to a missed opportunity

There’s a terrific moment during the final third of Joss Whedon’s long awaited pre-summer extravaganza, Avengers Assemble, where the police look at Captain America (Chris Evans) in full costume, and then ask why they should listen to him. It’s an intriguing reminder, if we needed it, that comic book characters will never quite fit into the real world - and it’s followed by an equally great moment where our hero proves his importance to the doubting civilians in the wink of an eye.

In those few minutes alone, and indeed, the whole of Avengers Assemble, the strengths and weaknesses of both the superhero genre and the film itself are laid bare for all to see, resulting in an entertaining spectacle that only falls apart once you stop and think about it.

The plot is thin, merely a framework for a spectacle containing some of the “big names” of Marvel Comics. Here, you’ve got Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, on autopilot) assigning Captain America and his five fellow “Avengers” – Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Natascha Romanoff/The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) – to stop Loki (Tom Hiddleston) getting his hands on Tesseract, the key to “unlimited sustainable energy”.

To cut to the chase, it’s something like JJ Abrams’ Star Trek on earth - right down to the team of heroes, the obvious McGuffin and the pantomime villain hell bent on vengeance.

Done right, such a formula can result in the perfect summer movie; but Avengers Assemble is missing the pace, brevity and focus that Abrams – or to a greater extent, Brad Bird – might have been able to provide it with.

The tone of the film is all over the place; for every subversive moment, amusing line or entertaining action sequence, there’s a lack of coherence, dragged out running length and plot holes aplenty (Why is Hulk suddenly able to control his anger so effectively?). When you watch Avengers Assemble, you’re not just watching battles between heroes and villains on screen, you’re watching a battle between the popcorn flicks of today and the popcorn flicks of the past – emphasis on narrative versus emphasis on action. In large parts, it feels like the film hasn’t been scripted at all, leaving the actors to relax and play to their strengths.

If only the actors had more strengths to play to. Hawkeye, Captain America, the Hulk and the Black Widow remain mostly ciphers throughout the course of the movie. Lack of investment in four key characters is a real killer. (Not to mention wasting an actor of Mark Ruffalo’s calibre in a role that, really, could have been played by anyone.)

What elevates the film above the mediocre are the screen presence and performances of Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston. It’s no coincidence that Iron Man and Thor were the best of the pre-“Avengers” flicks – when you have central figures as charismatic as Downey Jr. and Hemsworth, or villainous performances as snidely as Hiddleston’s (his unthreatening physique is deceptive), you’re virtually guaranteed a good time.

A good time that could, alas, have become a great one with a tighter script, surer directorial hand and more empathetic leads. Perhaps the Joss Whedon formula is just not suited to the big screen.

(As an aside, need I mention that the 3-D is unnecessary?)