Over the past few years, several of Marvel’s movie adaptations of its greatest comic book heroes have featured short scenes after the credits. Once the seemingly in terminable list of CGI artists has finally concluded, an eyepatch-bedecked Samuel L. Jackson would appear, offering each film’s titular hero an opportunity to join “The Avengers Initiative”.
In The Avengers — known here in the UK as Avengers Assemble to avoid confusion with the cult TV series (and woeful movie remake) of the same name — filmgoers get to see what all those scenes were about.
Of course, the comic book fans already know: The Avengers is a long-running comic which brings together Marvel’s heaviest hitters to battle with might enemies as they bicker with each other, just as DC Comics’ mightiest do in the Justice League of America series.
Battle and bicker. That just about sums up the movie, really. As one might expect with a script bearing the name Joss Whedon, the character interplay and social dynamic is peppered with brilliance. Whedon tends to write every character as if they actually say what we tend to only wish we’d said once we leave the room. While the end result is never naturalistic, it’s always a joy to listen to.
And when the film has a range of leading men who are each the stars of their own franchise, there’s a lot of chest-puffery for the audience to enjoy — for every ego on screen is just crying out to be pricked. As the UK name suggests, this film — the first in a possible series — spends most of its time persuading these larger-than-life characters that they really do need to team up. The conflict that exists has long been explored in printed panels, but to see it on screen — and to see it work so well — is a delight. Jackson’s character — Nick Fury, of the intelligence organisation S.H.I.E.L.D. — has to muster these monumental superheroes into a team, and writer/director Whedon has the same task.
Crafting a story that gives all these leading characters enough time in the spotlight without it feeling like a checklist (“Hulk? Done. Captain America? Done. What’s next?”) must have been tricky, but after a shaky pre-credits start it works superbly. If you’ve seen Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man films, Chris Hemsworth as Thor or Chris Evans as Captain America, they’ll need no introduction here — their characters remain fully intact as realised in their own franchises. And Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, The Black Widow, and Jeremy Renner as Hawk, feel like genuine members of the team despite being supporting characters in the preceding films and this one.
The real revelation, though, is the Hulk. After two previous incarnations, with unassuming scientist Bruce Banner played first by Eric Bana, then by Edward Norton, it seemed that Marvel was doomed to forever be unable to fully realise a movie version character which is simultaneously its most primal and most complex. Happily, though, a combination of Whedon’s script and a superb performance by Mark Ruffalo — which then feeds into the CG work of his big green alter ego — it feels like Hulk finally works. The character’s duality is recognised, but more importantly recognises that while they may look, think and react completely differently, they have more in common than appearances may suggest.
But all the team-up camaraderie in the world would matter for nothing if the threat were not sufficiently serious. Thankfully, Tom Hiddleston reprises his role as Loki, Thor’s brother — and his plan to ally with some extra-terrestrial invading forces gives the film the baddie it desrves. It also, of course, creates yet another Hollywood blockbuster where the good guys are American and the bad guys are English, but when Hiddleston’s performance is so deliciously, unctuously vile one can hardly complain.
The film isn’t without its flaws — the opening sequence is pretty much all exposition and explosions, with little of the wit or intelligence that kicks in once the title card has faded away. And the ending of the battle relies a little too much on the “kill the Macguffin in the middle, and all your opponents will die” device that will be familiar to fans of sci-fi in any medium. But both of these pale into insignificance compared to the joy of a comic book adaptation which had multiple ways to go horribly wrong, and which gleefully sidesteps all of them.
The preview screening I saw had no post-credits sequence, although rumours are circulating that one was filmed after the movie’s Hollywood premiere. If those rumours are incorrect, no matter — because the film proper ends on its own cliffhanger, setting up a potential adversary for The Avengers 2, played by an actor not unknown to Joss Whedon. Here’s hoping his services have been required for the sequel.
Avengers Assemble goes on general release in the UK on April 26.