The Avengers (And That’s What I’m Calling It – You Hear Me, Marvel Marketing Department?)

Recently, I’ve embarked on an epic Avengers blogathon, watching all of Marvel’s superhero films in the run up to The Avengers, despite having never read any comic books ever (except the Christmas of 1992 when I was given the Beano annual as a present). Now I’ve finally got round to the main event, a mere 26 days since it was released! Tomorrow, I give you exclusive preview of Richard Donner’s Superman!

So here we finally are. It’s taken five films – which the cynical might describe as prequels – in which, amongst the implausible and explodey costumed exploits, Samuel L Jackson and/or Clark Gregg occasionally popped in for a cheeky cameo or two to mutter mysterious hints about an organisation called SHIELD and an initiative called the Avengers. And now, after an arduous and sometime checkered journey, we reach the frothy, fever-dream culmination.

From the evidence of Marvel’s earlier cinematic efforts, this should only be a good, rather than a great, piece of work. It’s an absurdly ambitious task, and you do not envy the Nick Fury-esque efforts of Marvel’s  producer Kevin Feige in assembling such a giant project. Feige must simultaneously please a mainstream summer audience, his Disney overlords, and the slavishly pedantic fanbase.

But the proven talent of Joss Whedon as writer-director is an inspired choice. Whedon is a both geek demigod and a storyteller of some mettle, someone who knows the importance of empathetic characterisation even as the sky is falling, and in the Avengers he has largely managed to fashion something great, rather than good, ticking all the requisite boxes but sprinkling proceedings with a stirringflair and Whedon’s trademark wit.

It is an imperfect film. Among my quibbles: does it really need to be over two buttock-achingly hours long? Did the SHIELD HQ really need to be a massive flying invisible floating aircraft carrier (could it not have just been, you know, a building somewhere)? Do we really need a protracted sequence where Iron Man and Captain America are essentially doing some extreme car maintenance on the SHIELD HQ? Are Black Widow and Hawkeye really superheroes, or are they in fact just regular human beings who are a bit handy with weapons that any regular human being could feasibly purchase? (Shit versions of Batman, then. Surely SEAL Team 6 would have been more effective than a sexy lady in lycra?) And can we not come up with better baddies than the army of orc-lite faceless cackling prosthetic green snot-monsters?

But you didn’t pay to see green snot monsters – you paid to see a buggerload of superheroes, and a buggerload of superheroes you get. The Avengers is the Escape to Victory of comic book movies. but as plate spinning acts go, Whedon has managed to keep most of the crockery unsmashed, balancing his volatile and ragtag gang with masterful equilibrium. Such is the radiance of Robert Downey Jr’s charism that it could be so easily have become Tony Stark Presents The Iron Man Show (Featuring The Avengers), but everyone gets at least one super-duper cool move, and most get a few. Even Hawkeye and Black Widow – who, as we’ve established, aren’t really superheroes, get their moment to shine.

Things tend to dither a little towards the middle, as the requisite falling out inevitably takes place so that Samuel L can give a rousing speech and the heroes can learn to get on with each other. And when they finally do, WOW. It’s the payoff everyone’s waiting for, and it delivers. Man oh man, it delivers. The final hour is as entertaining an hour as any I have ever seen on screen. Stomping, satisfying and frequently (and unexpectedly) funny, it makes a hero of the heretofore mistreated Hulk and allows all the superheroes to live up to their label. Suddenly the five previous  films are worth it. The Avengers is one of those rare films that has you grinning from ear-to-ear as you leave the cinema. How often does that happen these days?

Previously: Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, ThorCaptain America.

Assembling the Avengers #2: The Incredible Hulk

It’s kind of ‘Avengers Week’ here on The Nuge, whereby I watch all the previous Marvel movies in a barefaced attempt to drive geek traffic to the blog whilst everyone’s talking about the Avengers. Yes, it’s shameless. I don’t care, ok?  

Coming just one month after Iron Man in the summer of 2008, The Incredible Hulk reboots the mean green smashing machine, following Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003). Less thoughtful, less value-neutral (‘incredible’, eh? let me be the judge of that, thank you very much!) and generally more enjoyable than its predecessor, this second attempt at a big screen green giant is perhaps the most complex of the Avengers, and the trickiest to portray. How do you take a troubled genius scientist and a raging alpha-male monster with no regard for human life, and make him a hero?

The first act, largely set in Brazil, is great. It sensibly decides that everyone knows the Hulk backstory, and so condenses the character’s origins into a lightning-fast pre-credits sequence, before spending an enjoyable first hour pitting Bruce Banner on the run, chase-movie style, from some grumpy US special forces.  Undoubtedly enjoying the benefit of Ed Norton’s rewrites, the script is relatively cliché-free, and there are some delightful moments. Tim Blake Nelson nearly steals the show in his brief appearance as scientist Samuel Sterns.

It struggles to leave a mark, though. Marvel have been brave with some of their director choices (Whedon, Branagh, Black) but with Louis Letterier, they went for the safe route. His career spans the full Meh gamut, from OK, I Guess (The Transporter) to Definitely Shouldn’t Have Bothered (Clash Of The Titans). So whilst The Incredible Hulk is very capably directed, and looks fine, it’s tremendously difficult to get excited about. It’s powerfully unmemorable, too.

And ultimately, the problematic elements of the original character become ever-present. Yes, Hulk Smash, but Hulk Wisecrack? Hulk Reflect On The Nature Of His Identity? Hulk Able To Appear Without The Use of CGI? Sadly not. As thoughtful and considered an actor as Norton is, he basically stops acting when transforming, and his presence is keenly missed as ILM take over the reins. Hulk is a blunt knife of a character. It will be interesting to see what Ruffalo does with him in the Avengers. Because you know what, Bruce? You’re right. I don’t like you when you’re angry.

Previously: Iron Man. Tomorrow: Iron Man 2.

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