Before we start, let’s get the title out of the way: in the UK, it’s supposed to be called Marvel Avengers Assemble, which is such a hideous mouthful I’m going to ignore it completely (from now on at least).
The story: Earth’s mightiest heroes are brought together by S.H.I.E.L.D., an agency dedicated to protecting Earth from the threat of invasion. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) must battle with Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who leads an invading force of aliens with the intention of taking control of the planet.
Marketing pedantry aside, The Avengers is the film we’ve all been waiting for since 2008’s Iron Man first hinted at such a team-up. It’s been the holy grail for comic-book fans for decades: a film universe equivalent to that of the comics, where superheroes not only co-exist but join together to take on a superior foe, or alternatively beat seven bells out of each other. Or preferably both.
There have been hints at such a prospect before. Joel Schumacher’s Batman films (*shudder*) made mention of Superman and Metropolis, though fans prefer not to remember this (or indeed his films). Then in the early 2000s Warner Bros attempted to jump-start both their DC superhero big guns with Batman vs. Superman, an epic to be directed by Wolfgang Petersen from a script by Andrew Kevin Walker. This was scrapped when separate reboots were chosen instead; and, needless to say, don’t expect Clark Kent to turn up in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series any time soon.
The main obstacles to a gigantic Marvel superhero mash-up have always been legal ones. The company had in the past made deals with different studios to adapt specific characters. Thus, Spider-Man lies with Sony and X-Men and Fantastic Four are locked in at 20th Century Fox – and studios are notoriously protective of their properties. But this changed when Marvel set up their own independent financing. As rights began to revert back to the company, several of their characters came back under the same roof and a team-up project became a legal, if rather unlikely, possibility.
But pipe dreams finally began to turn in to reality when in 2008 Iron Man featured a post-credits tease with Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, who in the comics is in charge of S.H.I.E.L.D. This obviously sent fans in to something of a tizzy, and sent a clear signal to Marvel that an Avengers movie was worth pursuing.
The Avengers are of course a team of Earth’s greatest superheroes. Except they’re not; they largely consist of Marvel’s second (or even third) tier of characters, the ones you find after you get past the aforementioned crown jewels like Spider-Man, X-Men, or Fantastic Four. Only the Hulk could be considered a true A-lister; Iron Man has been popularised by two blockbuster films but was largely unknown to the masses before then, while Thor and Captain America only have a single film to their names, both of which – though financially successful – mainly served to set up the story seen onscreen here. The remaining two characters, Russian spy Black Widow and ace archer Hawkeye, only had minor roles in previous Marvel films and were certainly unknown outside of comic geek circles, mainly because they don’t really have any noteworthy superpowers.
So it’s greatly to Marvel’s credit, as well as that of writer-director Joss Whedon, that this project is the success it deserves to be. After all, trying to fold several characters with such varied backgrounds – a billionaire in a hi-tech flying suit of armour, a man who transforms in to a giant green bodybuilder, a defrosted WWII super-soldier and a Norse demigod wielding a magic hammer – in to a single universe is no easy task.
But by laying the groundwork so far in advance, with Samuel L. Jackson popping up across most of the films (he’s only absent from 2008’s The Incredible Hulk) dropping hints about bigger things to come, audiences had plenty of time to get used to the fact that they were watching characters that shared a larger onscreen world. The softly-softly approach has clearly paid off, with huge public demand for this epic culmination. Just take a look at the early box-office returns for proof – £15m+ in the UK alone.
The film itself is a fast-paced, action-packed delight: from start to finish it’s a blockbuster that treats its characters and its audience with respect. The action is suitably grand and thrilling but never deafeningly so (Michael Bay could learn a lesson or two here). This being a Joss Whedon film, there’s wit and humour to spare which makes it palatable to Marvel newcomers without alienating longtime fans. Unlike Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, which try to sit within the real world as far as possible, The Avengers is a comic-book film and proud of it, and as such it’s perfect summer entertainment. That’s not to say there isn’t drama and suspense – certainly plenty of that – but Whedon finds exactly the right balance, letting the humour naturally permeate the breathless action sequences. All the main characters get their moments in the spotlight (though Captain America and Thor are pushed to the background a bit towards the end). Hell, even the 3D isn’t bad.
If one was to nitpick, the humour did occasionally undercut the threat that Loki was supposed to present, and the film might have benefited from easing up its pace a fraction every now and again. But when you’re having this much fun, why quibble? I can’t wait to see it again – surely the ultimate seal of approval.