Avengers review | Avengers Assemble review

Joss Whedon’s ensemble comic-book outing has a sparkling script and a tremendous villain

For me, no superhero crew without Kick-Ass's Hit-Girl could ever be truly awesome, but this one is registering strongly on the awesome-o-meter nonetheless. It's an enjoyably absurd and absurdly enjoyable extravaganza, both delirious and surrealist.

Six gifted protagonists – Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Dr Bruce Banner aka Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) – have to conquer that wounded solitariness normally so essential to the superhero identity, and team up, forming a magnificent seven because Banner/Hulk counts twice. Painfully, therapeutically, they work out their intra-heroic tensions to battle a supervillain who has stolen a throbbing translucent blue object called the Tesseract. It's an energy source that could destroy Earth.

So this is an anti-fracking parable, obviously, or possibly pro-fracking, but in any case a mightily enjoyable adventure, due to the sparkling script from director and co-writer Joss Whedon and in no small part to a tremendous performance from Tom Hiddleston as Loki, the loathsome Norse deity, embarrassing his wholesome sibling Thor with Earth-domination plans and general uncalled-for evilness, at one stage actually making a whole crowd of people kneel to him – in Germany. That is an aspirational move for any bad guy.

Hiddleston's Loki is breathy, petulant and long-haired in a bad way: often baring his teeth like a 12-year-old Jeremy Irons on Ritalin. He is a terrifically entertaining Brit-thesp villain in the traditional mode, and whatever actually happens to that Tesseract, the awful truth is that Loki steals the film. At one stage, the Avengers lock him in a Perspex cage, and Hiddleston gives it the full Dr Lecter, while Black Widow shows up, channelling Clarice a little. Convulsed with contempt, Loki spits at her: "You mewling quim!" Oh no you didn't, Loki. You did not just use the Q-word. Now you're for it.

In theory, Dr Banner is on the team because of his brainy knowledge of gamma radiation. But, of course, he will be called on to lose his temper in the cause of righteousness and to that end he appears to be wearing the decency-preserving stretchy trousers that fray quaintly around the knees. Ruffalo actually makes Bruce and Hulk interesting, even droll characters (he also plays the monster in mo-cap), superior to the Eric Bana and Edward Norton incarnations, and his version ingeniously locates the big green monster's secret not in the over-rehearsed subject of "anger management" but depression and self-hate.

Johansson has a nice interrogation scene at the very beginning, although she doesn't get much action in the rest of the film, and perhaps looks the tiniest bit self-conscious in the outfit. Downey Jr's Iron Man is an interesting member of the team in that he comes alive when he is in civilian mode: the haughty, competitive, Black Sabbath T-shirt-wearing plutocrat and self-appointed smartest guy in the room who snipes and backtalks compulsively, like an Aaron Sorkin character. He reprises the eyeball-swivelling "in-helmet" face shots that were a feature of earlier Iron Man films.

The effect is to appear to give each Avenger a kind of rotating, recurring cameo in someone else's movie – Loki's, probably. The cameo effect reached a high point with the reappearance of Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark's demure amanuensis Pepper Potts.

It's all great stuff, although the final showdown is drawn out. There is arguably now nothing to stop the mega-villains of the world forming their own Traveling Wilburys' supergroup of evilness; perhaps the point is that it is precisely their innate wickedness and selfishness that prevents them doing this, yet if each could be persuaded that their interests were served by going into Molotov-Ribbentrop mode, it might create a kind of evolutionary crisis in the world of superhero battles; the Avengers would bring in more team members, and any film about the ensuing contest could last for days.

Who is first among equals in the Avengers' assembly is a moot point. Hulk has the edge in brute strength, Captain America in bravery, Stark in brains, Black Widow in forensic psychology and smoking-hot sexiness, and Hawkeye in charisma – but Thor would appear to have the greatest emotional investment, as the brother of Loki and the one member of the team who is always vulnerable to accusations of going easy on their opponent or even letting him get away. Fortunately, Hemsworth keeps what can only be described as the acting lid on Thor's inner turmoil. The Avengers are about action, not agony.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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