Cross continuity mash-up stories have always been problematic. Whether it was Universal studios mangling their horror lineup in the 1940s or Gozilla being paired off with…well any out-of-copyright creatures his creators could find, it’s very hard to make something that doesn’t feel unbalanced or too much like a small child’s playtime fantasies. This is why I’ve never been overly keen on superhero team-up comics, like DC’s Justice League or Marvel’s Avengers. There’s this overriding feeling of crass commercialism. Hey, you like this one superhero, right? Well, we’re going to start putting half his content in another, otherwise unrelated comic, and you wouldn’t want to miss out on his adventures now would you?
If you have a group of characters created individually, who operate in very different ways and occupy very different versions of the world (even if the developers insist it’s the same universe) it’s very difficult to get them to feel right in the same story. It works for characters who were designed to work together, the X-men and the Fantastic Four were originally written as groups and as such have a proper hierarchy and balance of characters that makes them work, but when you throw too many characters from separate comics together, it can get messy pretty quickly.
So kudos to Marvel Studios for not only giving this difficult setup a go on the big screen, but also for having this planned all the way through. I for one was so keen to look out for clues to the wider plot I went to see films about characters I really had no interest in (sorry Captain America, but I’ve never been a fan). It was an ambitious project and now we can finally see the results. Is it worth the wait? Well… sort of.
If you’ve already gone through the preceding films, you’ll already be familiar with most of the main characters and if you haven’t the next paragraph might seem a more than little ridiculous. Nick Fury, the eye-patch sporting agent of shady government organisation SHEILD, has to gather together a bunch of disparate heroes after the Norse god Loki steals some magical energy macguffin and threatens to destroy the earth. So Fury rounds up World War II super-soldier Captain America, arrogant playboy genius Iron Man, and anger-management nightmare the Hulk, to join the two unfortunate heroes that didn’t get their own films, Black Widow and Hawkeye. After Loki goes on the rampage, Thor arrives to give his (adopted) brother a stern talking to, before promptly joining the other heroes in stomping around a giant aeroplane arguing. Oh and there’s some business with an alien army of what I think were supposed to be the Skrulls but they look like escaped demons from the Constantine movie wearing Warhammer 40K armour.
It’s the sort of big, brash, dopey action movie that’s big on laughs and flashy action sequences with explosions. So suspend your disbelief from the top of the Empire State Building and you’ll probably enjoy it. Directed and co-written by nerdy fan-favourite Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy and the marvellous Firefly), you can expect snappy one-liners and well-choreographed fight scenes that make good use of the 3D gimmick without causing too many headaches. The cast look like they are having fun, although most of them don’t have much to do. Robert Downey Jr is starting to look slightly too comfortable as Tony Stark after two Iron Man films. Poor Scarlet Johanson is stuck trying to breathe life into Black Widow, the only significant female character and stereotypical sex object. Black Widow is a bit out of place as a character; how is being a spy a super power and why is that her defining characteristic? Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans are basically playing watered down versions of their earlier characters, although there are some nice moments where they get to play up the “fish out of water” thing a little. Tom Ruffalo really stands out as the mild mannered Bruce Banner, Hulk’s alter-ego, and delivers the most interesting and engaging performance of the film; it’s a real shame they didn’t find him in time for the earlier installments.
All in all, the film is nowhere near as disastrously childish as it could have been, but nor is it the industry changing masterpiece some were hoping for. It proves that it is possible to combine franchises on screen and make a film that isn’t entirely horrible (New Line cinema I’m looking at you). Unfortunately, although the basic overall plot was presumably worked out long in advance, each film was written by a different person and it shows in some of the characterisation, I mean, what on earth has happened to Loki? In the Thor movie, he was out for revenge on the rest of the Aesir and earth just got caught in the crossfire, now he’s on some sort of megalomaniac quest to rule earth with his army of shiny space aliens. His IQ seems to dropped a few points too; he’s gone from being a Machiavellian master of deception to a shouty sadist who gives away his plans far too easily and repeatedly walks into traps. Wow Marvel, you’ve managed to turn the archetypal trickster into a dumb, narcissistic supervillain, real smooth guys. Admittedly, it’s still a lot of fun watching the lovely Tom Hiddleston run around dressed like an over-enthusiastic LARPer and it was nice to see him involved in a few more action sequences, but I would have preferred a little more depth or at least some continuity.
Actually, while I’m on the subject of the Nordic contingent of the film, something has been bothering me since the Thor movie came out. Why are there so few films based on Norse mythology? Hollywood has been mining the depths of Greek and Egyptian myths since the creation of the medium, but I can only find about a dozen films based on Norse ones. So here’s a thought: now that Skyrim, Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings have proved that fantasy fans love Celtic knot-work, dragons and big burly men in furs and helmets, and now that the Marvel movies have reminded everyone of the gods themselves, why not make a film based on the old sagas? Why not start with Thor and Loki, they’re familiar and there’s an interesting dynamic there. The son of the All-Father and the ultimate outsider in an intense, almost obsessive friendship, that could be pretty powerful if handled properly. The myths give a nice mixture of broad bawdy humour and sinister foreshadowing. Then there’s Loki’s extended family. That could be fascinating, I mean, what does Loki think of his monstrous brood and how would Thor react to the discovery that his best friend is the father of the sea-serpent that aims to kill him? And what about the death of Baldur, there are so many interesting ways to handle that. What are Loki’s motivations there? Is this the final reveal of a malevolent anarchist, a cry for attention from jealous admirer or just a prank gone horribly, horribly wrong? Plus you’ve already got the perfect melancholy ending with Loki’s punishment and the enduring threat of Ragnarok. Good grief, this stuff is gold! Now where did I put my notebook?
Er… where was I… Oh yes Avengers. You see, this is the problem. It’s fun and it’s witty and the action sequences are fairly exhilarating, but it’s not quite diverting enough to stop me distracting myself with the notion of Norse mythology films, or Tom Hiddleston’s eyes, or how much popcorn I had left. It’s not a bad film, but it’s not quite as clever or as revolutionary as it could have been.