Avengers Assemble (2012, Joss Whedon)

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Note: In most of the world, the film is called The Avengers (or, to be pedantic, Marvel’s The Avengers). In the UK and Ireland, however, it was renamed Avengers Assemble to avoid confusion with John Steed, Emma Peel and the rest.

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When Asgardian god Loki comes to Earth and prepares for an alien invasion, a group of superheroes is assembled to fight him…

There’d been character-crossover events like this before, but they tended to be monster mash-ups: 1943’s Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, 2003’s Freddy vs Jason, 2004’s Alien vs Predator and so on. Here, however, it’s multiple superheroes in the same story. It feels huge and it’s very often a lot of fun.

We’re firstly reintroduced to the agents from covert organisation SHIELD – series regulars Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) plus newbie Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) – who are dealing with an incident at their headquarters. Living god Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has arrived on earth to steal the Tesseract, a cube of almost unlimited energy. He also hypnotises Barton into being his lackey, which is a shame. The character has barely had any screen time in the series yet so it’s difficult to care about his plight.

Then we cut to Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), who’s recalled from a mission so she can go and recruit Bruce Banner to SHIELD’s cause. Since we last checked in with Banner (in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk) he’s learnt how to control his urge to turn into a giant, green monster… and he’s also changed his face. Edward Norton’s contract negotiations hit a rut so he’s been replaced in the role by Mark Ruffalo, who’s a very interesting and soulful presence in the film. Then Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans), Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) and eventually Thor aka Thor (Chris Hemsworth) sign up to the squad. There are also a few other subsidiary characters in the mix: Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Jarvis (Paul Bettany) from the Iron Man films, and Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) from Thor’s solo movie (2011).

So that’s our cast. The size of it doesn’t seem that large now, given the enormous roster of characters in later Avengers films, but it’s still a lot of people to keep busy and alive. The script does an impressive job of spinning all the plates, though at times it can feel like you’re watching an extended trailer rather than a fully dramatised story. Whedon uses a lot of short scenes and terse, comic-book-style dialogue. This can often be witty and clever – check out how the last line of one scene often foreshadows the next – but it can also feel very ‘written’. The pithy replies (Rogers: “We need a plan of attack.”/Stark: “I have a plan: attack.”) are fun and always tell us about character, but can mean everything feels a little superficial. When scenes of intimate drama do play out – such as Natasha conning Loki into blabbing some information, or the subplots concerning tensions within the team – it’s engaging stuff. There just aren’t that many examples.

This film is more interested in scope and scale and size and spectacle. It’s 136 minutes for a start, the longest MCU film yet. It begins in deep space with a Skeletor-type alien pontificating about invading the earth. There are huge sets, vast locations, massive action scenes, and many special-effects shots. Avengers Assemble is also clearly set in an even-more-comic-book-y world than its predecessors. Previous films in this series had impressively found real-world justifications for the superhero whimsy. For example, Captain America’s outlandish outfit was explained away as a theatrical costume.

However, here we have an enormous aircraft carrier that (somehow) hovers in the sky, a shadowy cabal who run a global security agency (seemingly with no recourse to any governments), and a secret agent who uses a bow and arrow…. just because. If the film weren’t so pacey and fun, this silliness might be more of a problem. But it *is* funny, as you’d expect from the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. Among the standout gags are Coulson phoning Natasha while she’s tied up by some bad guys; Coulson having a man-crush on Captain America; Tony Stark calling Thor ‘Point Break’; and the Hulk thrashing Loki around like a doll. (Note the mentions of Agent Phil Coulson. He was such a success in this series that he was spun-off into a TV show. The up-and-down Agents of SHIELD is, at time of writing, on its fourth season.)

The humour’s important, because the climax of the film is the most tiresome of modern superhero-movie clichés: the mass destruction of a city. Watch as thousands of people are killed and billions of dollars’ worth of damage is dished out! But try to avoid noticing how our heroes don’t seem that bothered! It’s by no means the only recent superhero film to suffer from this problem. Modern visual-effects designers have shot their loads over collapsing skyscrapers and urban carnage in numerous X-Men, Dark Knight, DC and Marvel films. Of course, an action climax needs *action*. But Avengers Assemble’s final half-hour is MacGuffin-driven nonsense and the big threat is a sensationally dull CG-army plot device. It’s a shame.

Seven men playing chess out of 10

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Thor (2011, Kenneth Branagh)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Banished from the heavenly realm of Asgard, god prince Thor ends up on Earth. But back home his brother has usurped the king…

This film has muscles, in more ways than one. Most noticeable are the beefed-up biceps of its lead actor but there’s also plenty of strength in the talent involved. A comic-book movie directed by Kenneth Branagh and co-starring Anthony Hopkins will have some heft behind it, not matter what else is going on. Sadly, though, the way Thor’s storyline bounces around between some very different worlds means we get a jarring clash of tones: the fish-out-of-water comedy and Dune-style space opera never quite seem to marry up.

We start with a group of scientists in modern-day New Mexico, presumably to reassure casual viewers that the film won’t be too far-out, then we cut to Tønsberg, Norway, in 965 AD. Monsters called Frost Giants are doing battle with humanoid gods on a barren, cold landscape. After three films featuring American scientists dabbling in gamma-ray experiments and ergonomic, biomechanical suits, it’s clear the Marvel Cinematic Universe is doing something different this time. It’s a risk, and it shakes the series up. But as the main storyline gets underway on the heavenly world of Asgard – all golden halls, Shakespearean pomp and CGI set extensions – it’s difficult to take things seriously.

Hopkins is king, an underused Rene Russo is his queen, and their two sons are engaged in a bit of sibling rivalry. Chris Hemsworth plays Thor, who is the heir apparent but recklessly goes to war with his father’s enemies. Meanwhile, Tom Hiddleston plays Loki, who aptly does start quite low-key. He slowly sneaks up on the film as its main villain, thanks to a controlled, effective performance. In this section we also meet Thor’s four friends: Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), Fandral (Josh Dallas) and Sif (Jaimie Alexander), though considering how lightweight they are they may as well be called Asterix, Obelix, Dogmatix and The Token Fit Girl. Idris Elba also pops up as Helmdall, a humourless man who seemingly spends his entire life standing guard at a teleport booth. (Casting a black actor as a Nordic god led to calls for a boycott from a right-wing American pressure group. The things some people choose to care about…) There’s talk of Mjolnir, a mighty hammer that was forged in a star blah blah blah, and a cube-shaped MacGuffin that contains some kind of nebulous power. It’s all rather po-faced and staid.

Things aren’t helped by the way the scenes are staged. Although shot conventionally, the film was always going to be converted to 3D for its cinema release – so we get some strange and distracting camera moves and lots of off-kilter angles. It comes as something of a relief, therefore, after half an hour when Thor is banished from his world and we finally return to the scientists from the first scene. The whole timbre of the movie switches now, and the light comedy begins. For example, having arrived on Earth, Thor is tasered while giving a self-important speech, then the same gag is repeated a few minutes later (he’s injected with a sedative this time). The lead scientist – and Thor’s love interest – is Jane Foster, played by a likeable Natalie Portman. She has two sidekicks: the worrisome Erik Selvig (played by the ever-dependable Stellan Skarsgård) and the sarcastic Darcy Lewis (played by the ever-adorable Kat Dennings).

Various SHIELD agents turn up too – this is an MCU film, after all. One of them, an archer called Barton, is basically a glorified extra with a few lines: you’d never guess from this perfunctory cameo that one of the franchise’s major characters has just being introduced. But by now the film is generally very entertaining. Hemsworth and Portman are good fun, and there’s a great sequence of Thor and Erik getting drunk together.

The big problem is that as we cut between New Mexico and Asgard, the momentum is stunted and the tone disrupted. If this were a 1980s film with a lower budget and no recourse to CGI, we’d be with Jane and co throughout. Thor would be a visiting outsider like the aliens in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Starman (1984), Howard the Duck (1986) and My Stepmother is an Alien (1988). We’d learn about his culture and background through the human characters’ eyes. But in its eagerness to show us everything the film loses something. Less would be so much more.

Seven pick-up trucks out of 10

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