The Avengers ***1/2
In case you’ve been living on Asgard (original home of Thor) then you know that this is the big one: Marvel Studios’ mega-movie matchup, the mother of all superhero movies, the one where Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). The first four have all had their own movies; Iron Man’s had two, and The Hulk has had either two, or one and another one, depending on your point of view.
The Hulk – and, vitally, his alter-ego Bruce Banner – was played by Eric Bana in the first modern big-screen hulk movie, directed by Ang Lee and, while appreciated by some, the film was ultimately considered a misfire. The next time around, in The Incredible Hulk, Bruce and his big green anger-man was played by Edward Norton. Norton is the only one of the Avengers not to be in The Avengers, and here Bruce Banner et Hulk is played by Mark Ruffalo. It’s a great piece of casting and Ruffalo, and The Hulk, emerge as the most interesting of the heroes on show. Given the Hulk’s more fraught cinematic history than the others’, his constant re-castings, and the traditional difficulty of bringing him to the cinema screen (he’s not really a superhero – at least not like the others – he’s just an angry scientific mutation; as The Hulk, he is, inevitably, a big glob of CGI) this is an interesting development. The smart money was on Iron Man trumping the others, because Robert Downy Jr. has made Tony Stark, the man inside the iron, so appealing in his two solo films. But in this film, Stark’s snarkiness comes off as a little too vain and self-obsessed when contrasted with the straight-arrow sincerity of Captain America, the basic honesty of Thor and the calm, gently humorous intellectualism of Ruffalo’s Banner.
The Hulk benefits, too, from a delayed entrance, along with lots of anticipatory build-up from the other characters. You get a sense that, even among Viking Space Gods, all-American heroes and flying billionaires, The Hulk is beheld with a sense of awe. Certainly, later in the film, The Hulk is shown to be the strongest of the lot, by a country mile; a scene where he gives one of the others the flick is very funny. In fact, the Hulk provides a lot of laughs, which are necessary, as everything else is pretty ludicrous.
The film falters with the villain. Tom Hiddleston’s “Loki”, from the Thor movie, is an unmanly simpering pedant who is no match for these Avengers or any other decent hero. His single character trait – arrogance – is played to death, and exposes the character’s lack of dramatic depth: all he wants is for people to bow down to him. Whether Hiddleston is a good actor or not (it’s impossible to tell from this one-note character), he hasn’t the age nor gravitas to bear the weight of being the super-villain in this super-movie. He certainly isn’t helped by his criminal sidekicks, who are an army of CGI aliens. Who cares about seeing CGI aliens being hit by our heroes? They’re just CGI aliens, as disposable as Blofeld’s limitless henchmen. Stellan Skarsgård’s character, Selvig – also from the Thor movie – is (essentially) brainwashed for much of the movie into working for Loki. Now, if they’d let Selvig turn bad and actually be the super-villain, then you’d have an actor who could stand up to the star power assembled against him.
It was always going to be a tricky business finding a tone for a film that combines the hamminess of Thor, the straight-down-the-line unpretentiousness of Captain America, the silliness of The Hulk and the post-modern, eyebrow-arching irony of Iron Man. That director Joss Whedon has put them all in the same movie and made it work at all is no mean feat; they fact that it’s as good as it is is pretty remarkable. Who cares about the villain anyway: you’ve come to see The Avengers. And Scarlett Johansson in an amazingly flattering outfit of black latex that should keep you warm at night.