What a difference an opening makes.
Take the one to Marvel’s A-team epic: a mournful voice laments lives lost over shots of a hero’s mangled mask discarded in rubble.
Take it – that’s what Joss Whedon did, consigning S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill’s framing narration to the deleted-scene zone and leaving the ‘broken mask’ marketing window open for another summer movie to fill.
It was a smart cut; if The Dark Knight Rises thrived on whipping up worry over the trilogy’s exit strategy, Avengers Assemble was about making the right entrance.
After what sometimes felt like five years of extended (if fun) movies-as-trailers, it saw Marvel’s multifranchise shake’n’bake gamble truly deliver a primary-coloured, bumper-pack alternative to DC’s darkness.
Post-9/11 dread being Chris Nolan’s beat, May 2012 wasn’t the time for fear; it was the time for fun. That didn’t mean Whedon’s movie would be a walk in the park, though.
Sure, show a kid a sand-box or airlift a geek into Comic-Con: the chances of either not enjoying it seem on paper about as likely as pop-culture guru Whedon not revelling in the movie equivalent. But as Hill’s edited end voiceover suggests – with hints of meta echoing Whedon’s other 2012 hit, The Cabin In The Woods – uniting six Marvel icons could have been “absolutely a bad idea”. Super sequels can buckle with escalation.
What chance does a six-quel have? Is there room for a movie among the moving parts? Will it descend into a deluge of fan-fic cool shit? The answers, in reverse order, are ‘Only in a good way’, ‘Yes’ and ‘Plenty, with Whedon in charge’.
Trained in Buffy’s bicker’n’bond school of ensemble smarts and tight pacing, Whedon knows how to stir sparking character dynamics into propulsive plotting with the right ratio of heart, humour and action heat.
First stop? Humour. “The glory of the Avengers is the dissonance,” he enthuses in the extras, as the alien god, quip-cracking billionaire, Nazi-bashing boy scout, green-skinned monster, flame-haired high-kicker and laser-eyed Legolas converge.
Trademark Whedon snark bombs fly. The movie almost equalled its box office take in its ZPM (zingers per minute) rate; the pleasure is in their measure, not in their number.
Giving every hero the gag they need, Whedon doesn’t just assemble the Avengers, production line-style: he sharpens them. Tony Stark is quippier, Thor loftier, Steve Rogers nobler, Natasha Romanoff scrappier.
The surest proof of Whedon’s wiles is Bruce Banner, previously resistant to film success but here slam-dunked. Mark Ruffalo nails the role, his sleepy persona summoning the sense of a man struggling to keep a lid on some... thing.
Meanwhile, Whedon’s teamplay know-how resonates in the recognition that a little Hulk goes a long way: treating him as a weapon to be deployed cautiously and then only for maximum chaos, he builds tension slowly up to the first Hulk-out then gives the emerald icon the best punchlines.
Revelling in the characters’ possibilities, Whedon has shaped the most shamelessly enjoyable super-pic around.
With the good times a-go-go though, danger levels are neglected. Loki is terrific, Tom Hiddleston brimming with arrogance as he relishes Whedon’s verbosity, lamenting the burdens of “glorious purpose” and boo-hiss dissing Romanoff as a “mewling quim”.
But his alien army’s lack of purpose and personality leave a hole in a climactic CG scrap straight out of Transformers 3.
Despite his TV roots, Whedon shows impressive savvy in combining smarts with mega-screen wonder in character-based ruckuses (the fight in the woods, say) and fan-pleasing dosh shots (the Helicarrier’s rise), so it’s a shame to see him steer this close to generic FX Bayhem.
This is the heroes’ jamboree, though: a celebration, not a The Dark Knight Rises-style sayonara. So the villains take second place behind the need to give each lead their moment, from quip-offs to glory in battle, a need Whedon expertly pulls off.
Pity the disc extras aren’t cause for additional celebration, then. The ‘Item 47’ short is playful, spiralling off from the rumble in New York and establishing characters you might like to revisit; the gag reel taps the right comic spirit; deleted-scene gems include Rogers browsing clippings of the dead, a soulful interlude that perhaps should have stayed in the film.
Otherwise, ‘A Visual Journey’ sees the DoP marvelling at the NASA set’s scale but stalls at an under-scaled six minutes.
The Stark-heavy 90-minute doc maps the road to Avengers Assemble but dilutes the recent nostalgia kick of seeing the Marvel-verse grow with familiarity: new interviews and footage feature but so does material seen on earlier Marvel discs.
Still, Christmas is coming. A double-dipper set seems almost as likely as a sequel, and it’s to Marvel’s credit that Whedon’s high-grade hit delivers enough fun to justify both.
Avengers 2 will face bigger challenges, of course: like, how will it add new characters (Spidey? Ant-Man? Howard The Duck?) without just reheating Whedon’s recipe? And can the threats be threat-ier without spoiling the fun? Avengers Assemble is surely just the beginning, but as opening gambits go it’s a jubilant one.
Or, as Hill’s snipped voice-over understates, “it worked”.