It's taken a long time for a major studio to take Joss Whedon seriously. A cursory glance over his cinematic CV to date demonstrates more of a preference in recent years towards utilising his skills as a last minute fixer-upper of exhausted properties than entrusting him with a similarly large scale project to entirely call his own, this despite a deafening call to arms from a sizeable fanbase on his behalf. His 2005 feature debut Serenity (sniffed out by Universal after its TV progenitor, Firefly was unceremoniously dumped by Fox), whilst ecstatically received in some quarters, did little on the business end to ensure that anyone at Fox was going to lose any sleep, especially with profits from his earlier pop-cultural phenomenon, Buffy the Vampire Slayer still bringing in more money than a modest B-picture ever would.In some respects, the lengthy delay in the release of Cabin in the Woods, his collaboration with director Drew Goddard, that arrived recently to widespread critical and commercial acclaim has probably done his future prospects behind the camera the world of good, landing as it did the first of a one-two, knockout punch that's set to floor any remaining detractors with the release of Avengers Assemble this week.
Even with the stringent guidelines on narrative and character enforced by Marvel on their most fiercely guarded property in place, allowing Whedon the level of creative control they do here, along with the budget that had so far eluded him, proves the most astute decision the studio has made since their ascent to the role of popcorn behemoth with Sam Raimi's Spider-Man (2000). The hiring of auteurist (for want of a better word) talent behind the camera for the likes of Hulk (2003) and X-Men (2000), proved a willingness to finally take their properties seriously, but whilst rival studio Warner went from strength to strength in allowing Christopher Nolan complete freedom with his Batman pictures, Marvel's ferociously over-protective brand management led them ultimately to Spider-Man 3 (2007), a film serving merely to raise the fundamental question of the point in hiring a particular talent for his specific genre sensibilities without the foresight to allow him to exercise them.
It's pretty safe to say that genre sensibilities are something that Joss Whedon possesses in spades, acknowledging tropes without condescending to position himself above his material or the people that populate the world he's fashioning. His handle on character and group dynamics are present throughout all of his work as both writer and director, Avengers Assemble proving no different from his wrangling of other bands of misfits in everything from Toy Story (1995) and Alien : Resurrection (1997) to Cabin in the Woods (2012). In many respects he's the closest modern inheritor of John Carpenter's genre crown, his characters' existences on the fringes of the world they inhabit owing as much to Howard Hawks' output as Carpenter's do.
Whedon's strong ear for dialogue and propensity for a snappy one-liner may separate his Avengers from their recent cinematic incarnations by investing them with a wit and sharpness of tongue previously unavailable to them, but his firm directorial grasp on the way each interacts with the other ensures that his writer's hand is rarely visible, the group's movement from boundary testing to unified fighting machine a joy to watch. The three act structure may be nothing if not formulaic, the battle lines and MacGuffin neatly drawn, but it matters little when executed with the clarity and dynamism that Whedon brings to proceedings, most notably in the terrific action sequences, the final forty minutes especially setting a new benchmark in the delivery of popcorn thrills. No matter how slick or coherent the orchestration of such large-scale set-pieces proves, it's all fool's gold unless we've sufficient investment in those involved, and if at first Avengers Assemble is a little slow off the ground (a necessity perhaps to allow access to those unfamiliar with the preceding Marvel films' set-up), the shifting alliances and inter-group tensions (often leading to barnstorming face-offs) are so deftly drawn in the first act that their pay-off is keenly felt, each character given ample opportunity to shine.
In terms of performance there's barely a hair out of place. Scarlett Johansson's Natasha Romanov may be the weakest leak, but by no means disastrously so. Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth, whose two fish-out-of-water himbos play up their straight-laced moral compasses to Robert Downey Jr's narcissistic wise-cracker Tony Stark, a terrific running gag seeing them excluded from Stark and Bruce Banner's science and strategy talks. If there's one performance that proves revelatory, especially after two previous incarnations that failed to fully encapsulate the human side of a character at his most potent when in CGI form, it's Mark Ruffalo's Banner. When the Hulk is unleashed, the character is an absolute show-stopper, providing both the strongest action beats as well as the biggest laughs, but it's Ruffalo who offers the most nuanced performance in the film, his mild-mannered scientist in self-imposed exile ever aware of the destructive force he's fighting to suppress.
In terms of fanboy checklisting there's little in Avengers Assemble likely to disappoint. All the requisite superhero showdowns are in place, finally answering every schoolyard question as to who would win a fight with whom. Whedon has not only handed Marvel their strongest film by a mile, he's also delivered the best blockbuster of recent years. A triumph.
Avengers Assemble - 2012 - USA - 135 mins - Dir : Joss Whedon