Saturday, April 28, 2012
‘Iron Man’ started it all, coming out of nowhere with the unlikeliest choice for director, and – whaddaya know? – it was pretty damned good. ‘The Incredible Hulk’ delivered a strong first half before degenerating into silliness and tedium with an arse-numblingly interminable denouement which basically featured two screensavers repeatedly twatting each other. ‘Iron Man 2’ wasn’t all it could have been, but featured a couple of stand-out set-pieces and a rollicking performance from Mickey Rourke. ‘Thor’ was hit-and-miss and proved (if ‘Frankenstein’ hadn’t already tipped us off) that Kenneth Branagh is best restricted to quirky low-budget character-driven movies and not mainstream blockbusters.
Then came ‘Captain America’ and – whaddaya know part two? – it was clear that Marvel Studios had got their game on again.
Now we have ‘Avengers Assemble’ (a last-minute retitling lest anyone confuse it with Jeremiah Chechik’s 1998 über-flop) and I took my seat with some trepidation. I had two big worries: there would be too many protagonists for whom screen-time would have to be found; and they’d have to face a threat so overwhelming that things could easily get OTT. And, to a greater or lesser degree, both those concerns remain inherent in the final product. But, with so much expectation – and so much riding on it in terms of future franchise instalments – I have to give writer/director Joss Whedon credit for just going for it with such balls-to-the-wall bravado. The man could easily have found himself in possession of a poisoned chalice. As it is, he serves up a generous measure of something that, even if it isn’t the finest or headiest wine, certainly goes down nicely while you’re partaking of it and never mind that it’s a tad forgettable afterwards.
So what’s it all about? Remember Thor (Chris Hemsworth)’s treacherous half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddlestone) in ‘Thor’? Remember the Tesseract, that blue glowing thing that looks like the bastard offspring of a drunken fumble between a Rubik’s cube and a lava lamp, from ‘Thor’ and ‘Captain America’? Well, Loki steals it from SHIELD – royally pissing off head honcho Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson, finally getting to have some fun with the character after all those cameos) – with the intention of using it to open a portal so that his new best buds, an alien race who want to destroy earth for pretty much the same reason that some people climb Everest (because it’s there), can bring a fuckton of high tech weaponry to the party and start some shit.
The Tesseract theft makes for a scene-setting pre-credits sequence, after which Whedon gets straight down to business which a “rounding up the team” sequence. Here, his opening shot is the best with Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, looking hot and kicking ass with the best of ’em), in a perilous situation which she effortlessly turns to her advantage. In short order, we’re then re-introduced to Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, taking over from Edward Norton and doing a sterling job – he really communicates a sense of Banner’s battered but still noble humanity), Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jnr, on cruise control for most of the movie) and Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans, recapturing the pitch-perfect tone of his erstwhile performance). Mismatched and conflicting in terms of their characters, they go after Loki. Then Thor – who has unfinished Loki-based business of his own – comes crashing into the plot and things go haywire.
Whedon has huge fun throwing his antagonistic protagonists together and turning up the heat under the slanging matches and in-fighting. Loki, a grinning nemesis given to Bond villain style speechifying and grotesque flights of egomania, plays them like a piano concerto, even when ostensibly in captivity. Entering its middle act, the film flags a little with the tit-for-tat my-super-power’s-better-than-your-super-power bickering becoming laboured and repetitive. Then Loki’s cohorts bring the fight directly to Fury’s command centre, while his alien backers get tired of waiting and the invasion of earth grows immient. At this point, Whedon changes horses in mid-stream and the in-jokey, fan-boy-friendly storyline segues into a symphony of destruction akin to Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay having a “who can blow up more buildings, trash more cars and conjure more orgasmic explosions” contest in the streets of Manhattan.
It’s not the only stylistic gear-shift Whedon effects. Inspired bits of comedic nonsense (how Loki is finally overpowered is so unapologetically juvenile that it had that audience I saw the film with in hysterics) awkwardly rub shoulders with po-faced serious moments that don’t really have any business in this kind of movie, while Whedon goes for one tub-thumping bit of patriotism too much, particularly in a montage towards the end which evokes (and cheapens) memories of 9/11.
As I said earlier, it’s enjoyable but forgettable. An hour and a half after I got home from the cinema, and I’m struggling to recall certain details. I’m screwed if I can remember what the alien race was called. It sounded like the Chihuahuas. And while we’re on the subject, the scenes on the alien planet are just plain dreadful.
So: better than ‘Iron Man 2’ and ‘Thor’ on points, not as good as the first half of ‘The Incredible Hulk’ but much better than its second half, straggling behind the original ‘Iron Man’ and nowhere near as good as ‘Captain America’. Not an unmitigated disaster, and perhaps as good as it was ever going to be, but with ‘Iron Man 3’ and ‘Captain America 2’ slated for next year and the year after, I’d say the Marvel franchise is a safer bet as individual projects rather than ensemble movies.