I am NOT calling it Marvel Avengers Assemble, which is just insulting to our collective intelligence. Humph.
The Pitch: The long-haired god and his immovable object meet the irresistible force, the irascible scientist, the irresponsible robot, the irritable Russian, the invincible soldier, some guy with a bow and arrow and Samuel L. M***********’ Jackson.
The Review: For so many years, Marvel comic adaptations were the poorer cousins of their DC counterparts. While Batman and Superman films have dominated the blockbuster scene for thirty years and more, Marvel had to contend themselves with The Punisher, Howard The Duck and repeated failed attempts at a Captain America film. Then the last decade has seen a revolution, with the X-Men and Spider-Man being given successful treatment by filmmakers who actually knew what they were doing. But these were outsourced properties, and if Marvel was going to put its own stamp on the movies, what better way to do it with the biggest of all their properties, the Avengers? Over the last five years they’ve been testing the water with individual adaptations of Iron Man, Thor, Hulk and Captain America, but it became clear that this was not only a strong array of characters but a massive collection of egos. Would it even be possible to get all of these massive Marvels onto the same screen? And who could do justice to them if they did?
Step forward one Joss Whedon, master of small screen and comic book culture, but a man who’s had a somewhat less than impressive record himself when it comes to big screen adaptations. Put simply, from Alien: Resurrection to Serenity Whedon has at best a cult following, but there may have been no-one better suited to bringing this clash of the titans together. No matter what the medium, Joss has a track record of marshaling large rosters of characters, and there’s a huge list lined up here from the best of Marvel’s own brand adaptations. This does create two problems up front: to actually assemble the Avengers takes an inordinate amount of time, as they’re rounded up one by one, and there’s then a significant imbalance in the back story afforded, with Thor and Captain America getting further exploration of their methods and motivations while poor old Hawkeye still gets little more than a name and an prior affiliation with a SHIELD colleague. If Basil Exposition had been a comic book character, he would’ve fit right into the Avengers.
That’s not to say there’s not a lot of nice moments or sharp dialogue, but that’s all they are, never quite gelling together or giving the plot the forward momentum it needs. Sure, it’s great to have an excuse to get them all together, but motivations in some cases are a little weak and throwaway in a way that comic books can often get away with but which seem more exposed on screen. Many of the best throwaway moments are given to Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man, the potential star of the ensemble right from his first appearance in the shiny red suit four years ago, but the other major success story is Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, with a much better balance between Banner and beast than either of the previous attempts, playing well on Ruffalo’s natural charm but also managing a brooding menace. The rest of the Avengers themselves all get moments to shine but rarely steal the screen. Of the Avengers themselves, Hawkeye is the most underused, and while both Nick Fury and Agent “Phil” Coulson have some zingers to hand out, but Cobie Smulders’ Maria Hill feels like she’s just being set up for future installments. As for the bad guys, Loki is even better here, Tom Hiddleston commanding the screen – no mean feat against such a roster of hero talent – but he’s poorly served by a supporting army who prove nothing more than Avenger fodder for the final battle.
Ah, the final battle. Once all of the Avengers are assembled, and something has finally been worked out for them to be Avenging, Whedon and co finally let rip. Everything that you’d possibly hoped this could be and more comes to pass, with scores of moments to please both the general crowd and the fanboys and an epic sweep to the action, which comes in wave after wave of that Avenger fodder mentioned earlier, that does finally give each of its leads stand out, iconic moments. The third act of The Avengers, taken on its own, has to be one of the best summer blockbusters ever, there’s just a risk that when you get the Blu-ray that may be the stretch which gets worn out first, as everything of the highest quality is weighted into that final third. Producer Kevin Feige somewhat bizarrely compared The Avengers to the most recent Transformers sequel in interviews, and he’s actually right in the sense that the film increases in quality over the course of time, but thankfully even the dullest moments here are better than the heights that the giant fighty robots managed last time out. The better comparison here is the first Spider-Man and X-Men movies, for despite what amounts to five prequels The Avengers turns out to be an origin movie, as good as its Marvel brethren but sadly suffering from the same flaws as almost every origin film in its genre. When you consider how well the second entries in each series turned out, and how high the heights reached are here, you’ll be salivating at the thought of Avengers 2. Let’s just hope that Iron Man 3, Captain America 2 and all of the other required interquels can keep us entertained in the mean time.
Why see it at the cinema: For the first of the main summer blockbusters of the years it’s oddly uncinematic, shot in 1.85:1 (the widescreen TV ratio, rather than the normal cinema widescreen of 2.35:1), but the combination of the sweeping visuals and the gut-aching humour of the last third mean this is best seen with company.
Why see it in 3D: Don’t, if you can help it. The first third is swathed in darkness and becomes almost unwatchable with the polarising filter reducing the light levels, and when the film does move into daylight some of the 3D in-your-face moments have a disappointing feeling of fakery. You’re absolutely better off not paying the premium.
Should I wait for the obligatory end credits sequence? Only if you’re a hardcore fanboy. I’m not, so I had to come home and Google what happened. This one’s also in the middle of the credits, so only sit through all the names if you have a genuine appreciation for the craft involved or Alan Silvestri’s bombastic score.
The Score: 8/10
The Review: Whenever awards season rolls around, the trend in more recent years has been towards at least one movie which may as well have been called “For Your Consideration”. The likes of Little Miss Sunshine and Juno, not to mention almost the entire output of Wes Anderson, seem to have a slot reserved for Oscar contention, into which this year’s offering will slot. So this year’s award magnet seems to be The Kids Are All Right, which has dipped into the bin of indie script ideas that produced dysfunctional family (Sunshine) and teenage pregnancy (Juno) and has now pulled out lesbian parents.
Often, the indie of the year will be an opportunity to finally recognise an older actor (Alan Arkin) or to give an up and coming their big break (Ellen Page). This year almost feels like an attempt to do both; Julianne Moore and Annette Bening have seven Oscar nominations between them and both get roles to get their teeth into, with both delivering characters that sit well in comparison with their previously nominated performances. Mark Ruffalo, one time MTV award nominee and soon to be third choice Hulk, might feel a little put out at being described as up and coming but his star is certainly on the rise, and it’s actually Ruffalo who gives the most rounded and likeable central performance, but is most likely to get lost in the more crowded male award categories come next year.
The narrative itself is also a little uncomfortable in places; a reference to straight actors in gay roles early on in proceedings couldn’t be more knowing or self-referential if Julianne Moore turned to camera and winked, and that’s not the only occasion on which the film is guilty of having its cake and trying to eat it. The actors invest plenty of emotional honesty into their performances, it’s just a shame that there is the odd occasion where it all feels a bit forced. Stick with it, though, and eventually the drama feels earned and the good work of the whole cast starts to bear fruit.
In the pantheon of indie Oscar movies, it never reaches the heights of Sunshine or Juno, maybe because it is trying just a little too hard at points. It is generally positive and uplifting rather than cynical about the various forms that modern family life can be found in, and doesn’t judge or preach. As long as you go in with the expectation of excellent actors elevating some decent if unspectacular material to a noticeably higher level but never reaching true greatness, then you shouldn’t go far wrong.
Why see it at the cinema: Cholodenko’s direction isn’t hugely cinematic, but the drama will benefit from having space to breathe once the early self-consciousness is out of the way.
The Score: 8/10
The Review: There’s something odd about people in general – we like to be surprised. We like that twist at the end, we like the intricacy of the puzzle and trying to work it out. But, by and large, we don’t like magic any more. The theatrical men with their grand illusions seem to have had their bubble burst in recent years, partly because society got bored and allowed itself to give away all the endings and secrets on TV specials. So if you’re going to pull the wool over someone’s eyes these days, you need to do a few things right.
Firstly, you need to draw in your mark, and get their attention. Writer / director Rian Johnson sets up the story with a childhood prologue which sets out the principles and the character traits in a very efficient seven minutes, which almost works as the first act of the movie; everything you need as set-up for the rest of the movie’s been tightly but expertly packed in here, capturing both Bloom’s reasons for participating and his disappointment that not everyone leaves happy at the end. This then allows the body of the movie to head off in random directions, but always leave you feeling engaged and connected.
Secondly, you need to make sure your act has polish and professionalism. Two things work in the movie’s favour here – the travelogue locations would make a James Bond film feel proud, landing in one location for just long enough to edge the plot along before rattling on to the next. It takes with it a strong cast who are all having fun with their roles, except maybe Adrien Brody who only gets to drop the melancholy occasionally as the titular Bloom. But Mark Ruffalo, Robbie Coltrane and Maximilian Schell all tuck into theirs with appropriate gusto, Rinko Kikuchi (you might remember her from movies such as Babel) gets to have enormous fun as the mute explosive expert, almost a live action Gromit to the Brothers’ Wallace, and especially Rachel Weisz, the collector of hobbies who gets to show most of them off in a fantastic montage early on.
But thirdly, and most importantly, you need to have your ending ready – the crowd won’t come back if the trick doesn’t reveal itself well. Johnson, both through script and direction, keeps things moving along at pace right to the end, but the travelogue feel and the nature of the layers of the con give a fun, frothy feel, then at the last he attempts to reach for gravitas and danger, and we don’t want it to end that way. It’s as if you’ve watched Matt Damon in Ocean’s Eleven, only to discover the end of a Bourne movie at the climax. Sadly, the ending doesn’t feel as if it’s been earned – there feels one con too few or too many, but either way the Brothers come up just short of a successful show. Better luck with your next mark, fellas.
Why see it at the cinema: The huge amounts of background detail and action in the distance, almost like a Zucker comedy, are best captured where you have the chance to see it all. There’s also enough good laughs to keep the communal spirits up.
The Score: 7/10