Joss Whedon's Avengers Assemble is about as good as it gets for a superhero blockbuster movie. The action set pieces are thrilling; the emotional stakes are high; and in Robert Downey Junior, Whedon has found the perfect avatar for his trademark pop-culture savvy wit. The movie itself is the logical culmination of all those marvel adaptations we've seen in recent years, from the less successful (Hulks inter alia) to the commercially successful (Jon Favreau's Iron Man) to the hammy (Thor) to the more emotionally satisfying (Captain America.)
In this flick, the MacGuffin is the tesseract: a blue cube that apparently unleashes untold energy that can be used for good or ill. When Thor's resentful brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) comes to earth, wanting to use the tesseract to bring in an alien army, it's up to Samuel L Jackson's slippery government agent to unite the superheroes and save the world.
Whedon does a masterful job of handling a wide cast of characters, of whom the audiences have different levels of familiarity. He uses a prologue to set up Loki's theft of the MacGuffin then quickly moves to a couple of scenes that set up the new characters of the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansen) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and re-establish Dr Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). From there we're into the meat of the story: whether the Avengers can put aside their personality differences and learn to work together. This take us through spectacular action set pieces in a flying aircraft carrier/ supherhero lair and an alien obliteration of midtown Manhattan.
For me, the brilliance of Whedon isn't just the witty dialogue, although that sure goes a long way to lighten up a movie that's basically about macho blokes beating each other up. His genius is that he can crack jokes while simultaneously giving characters emotional doth and complexity in a few short scenes. This is particularly true of the way in which he depicts Bruce Banner as a deeply sympathetic, borderline suicidal genius struggling with "the other man". What's amazing is that Whedon/Ruffalo's Banner is simultaneously the most emotionally interesting and realistic character but also the one that generates the biggest belly laughs. His scenes in the final battle where he thumps Thor and throws Loki around like so much confetti are absolute crowd-pleasers.
And that brings me to the final reason why Whedon has made the best summer blockbuster I've seen in a long time: he knows how to direct action! Too many modern films have action sequences so frenetic that it's hard for the viewer to keep pace with the choreography of what's actually happening. I'd blame Michael Bay, but I think among the better quality filmmakers, the desire to imitate Paul Greengrass' Bourne films is also to blame. Whedon gives us all the loud bangs and crashes but never, never, let's us lose sit of the bugger picture. He keeps us engaged at every turn. And that's what makes AVENGERS ASSEMBLE a superhero movie with wit, heart and exhilarating action. I can't wait for the next installment.
AVENGERS ASSEMBLE AKA THE AVENGERS is on global release. The running time is 143 minutes. The US rating is PG-13 but parents be warned: there's a sneaky quim joke!