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Down at the O2, the Robert Redford-endorsed Sundance film festival is in full swing. Lots of artfully shot films, dealing with serious subject matters and moments of historical importance in a mature and highbrow fashion. There is a lot to praise in it, both conceptually and in terms of end product. Sadly for the directors and actors involved, their artistic prowess is totally lost on me, as on Sunday I went and spent the best two hours of my week watching a bunch of previously-maligned superheroes smashing things up.

The latest in the long line of Marvel films is a sort of culmination of all of them. A greatest hits of all the previous incarnations of their characters, if you like. The roll call consists of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr, continuing his awesome renaissance), Captain America, Thor and Hulk, in addition to two more “human” heroes in Black Widow and Hawkeye (played by Scarlett Johansson and pudgy-faced Hurt Locker man, Jeremy Renner respectively).

At this point, it’s probably best to confirm that the plot is utterly absurd. Indeed the only thing in the film that rivals it in these stakes is the sight of 40-year-old Gwyneth Paltrow prancing around in a pair of tiny denim hotpants, the very embodiment of mutton dressed as lamb. Some sort of power cube or something has been found on earth, blah blah blah, Loki (played with admirable menace by Tom Hiddleston) assembles an army, blah blah, comes to earth, blah blah, Samuel L. Jackson assembles a team of superheroes to counter them. It could have been written in crayon by a toddler, in between covering his face in glitter and licking a window. Does that matter? Not one bit.

The appeal of many of these characters, since their creations, has always been that they were so flawed. Whether it’s obviously so, in the case of Bruce Banner’s lack of control over his big green alter ego (lovingly referred to by himself as “the other guy”), or the more subtle approach of Tony Stark’s narcissism, all the heroes are not entirely good. The results are usually hilarious, with Downey Jr’s deadpan put-downs of Thor dominating the early scuffles as the gang of individuals warm to the novel concept of teamwork.

Once the “banter” is out the way, the film builds towards an enormous climatic battle for the salvation of earth or something (the plot is still entirely irrelevant), in and around the concrete jungle of New York. It’s unfortunate for the American population that every battle for earth seems to take place in one of their cities, but I suppose that’s the price you pay for not knowing that anywhere else in the world exists.

Avengers Assemble (presumably changed from the US title of The Avengers to avoid us Brits thinking that a wrinkly Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackman were the planet’s last line of defence) is that rarest of beasts, a compilation that exceeds the sum of its parts. Despite the undoubted class of the Iron Man films, 2008’s abysmal The Incredible Hulk was so bad that the franchise should have been shot, fired into space, then blown up for good measure. Yet, as the Avengers battle for mankind here, the Hulk is the hero, providing some kick-ass stunts in addition to the sort of slapstick that Charlie Chaplain would be proud of.

This is one of those films that leaves you with a huge, silly grin on your face from start to finish. Indeed, the only recent film that I can think of that rivals this for big, dumb, tongue-in-cheek fun is 2007’s Transformers. There are many parallels with Michael Bay’s masterpiece (and it is a masterpiece), not least the presence of some mysterious and poorly-explained power box, let’s just hope that the inevitable Avengers sequels are a little less underwhelming.

They say it’s a fine line between genius and insanity, Avengers Assemble straddles that line with consummate ease. With Dark Knight Rises, Prometheus and The Hobbit still to come, it’s too early to pronounce this as the film of the year, but the benchmark has been set and it’s surprisingly high. Over to you, Messrs Nolan, Scott and Jackson.

by Harry Harland

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