Avengers Assemble (2012)

This year’s Spider-Man reboot may have cornered the market when it comes to superfluous adjectives, but that hasn’t stopped Joss Whedon delivering what is surely 2012’s loudest, funniest and warmest superhero movie.

That’s a pretty (yes) amazing feat when you consider Avengers Assemble is essentially a sequel to the towering likes of Iron Man, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. It’s been in the offing pretty much since Robert Downey Jr first strapped on a metallic super-suit and branded himself Iron Man. Four years and as many Avengers-assembling Marvel movies later, it’s up to Whedon to unite various plots, subplots and cameoing characters in the Avengers’ first movie outing. You almost feel sorry for him.

Except after years championing stellar ‘ensemble’ projects like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly, Whedon makes rallying The Avengers look like a stroll in the park. Even being slapped with a whopping budget ($220m) doesn’t seem to bother him. Whedon, see, is a character man, and handing him a collection of superheroes to play with is like locking Dr Frasier Crane in a room with a sex maniac who has mummy issues.

And what characters they are. With Iron Man (Downey Jr), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Captain America (Chris Evans) all clashing egos and – at times – fists, the characters are what we’re here for. Whedon gleefully shows us the world’s shiniest superheroes scrapping (Iron Man vs Thor!), bonding (Black Widow and Hawkeye!) and sniping (Tony Vs Everybody!), and Whedon’s a generous leader, granting all of our colourful combatants numerous funnies. Better still, Black Widow finally has something to do, transforming into a well-rounded heroine under Whedon’s mindful gaze, and Ruffalo’s is easily the best movie Hulk yet.

In a movie with eight leads, though, it’s no surprise there’s not much to go on in terms of plot. The film doesn’t even have its own villain, instead plucking Loki (Tom Hiddleston) out of 2011’s Thor and giving him some beefed-up domination designs. The absence of a particularly exhilarating plot, though, is more than made up for in the spectacle of having so many superheroes crammed into a room together. The resultant snippy banter is as thrilling as the film’s two main set-pieces.

Character is key, then, but thanks to that Hulk-sized budget, Avengers is big with a capital BIG. The film’s final 30 minutes are a maelstrom of apocalyptic action as an entire city is brought to its knees by Loki and his minions. Meanwhile, a second act aircraft siege is just as exhilarating, with each of our heroes forced to show what they’re made of. This is no soulless Michael Bay action-fest, though, because throughout the set-pieces we’re glued to the characters, each of whom has more wit and humanity in their little finger than any of the leads in Transformers.

Avengers Assemble is a staggering achievement. Though it sacrifices complex plotting and a memorable villain for more time with the titular fighters, that’s a sacrifice we’re willing to accept. A nimble, massively entertaining blockbuster that has everybody involved bringing their A game, Avengers is big and beautiful. Spider-Man has a lot to live up to. 4/5

Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows (2011)

Explosions. Gypsies. Gunfights. There’s a lot going on in Sherlock Holmes’ second big screen sleuth-‘em-up. But to director Guy Ritchie’s credit, Game Of Shadows never loses sight of the thing that made the first Holmes so explosive – the crotchety interplay between the titular detective and his eye-rolling sidekick. Who knew that homoeroticism could be so lucrative?

Clearly the minds behind Shadows do. Whereas the Holmes/Watson bromance of the first film felt almost like a happy mistake, here Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law’s married couple-aping bickering is cranked up another notch. To the extent that the duo even sweep the ballroom, hand in hand, for a brief musical interlude. Because yes, Shadows is all about this twittering twosome. Sure, Noomi Rapace (of Girl With The Dragon Tattoo fame) has been recruited as a French gypsy, but even she ends up merely staring at her quarrelsome male companions in wonder and bewilderment.

Thank goodness, then, for Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris), who ensures that this isn’t a game without purpose. Like Holmes himself, you’d need a ball of wool and a very big wall to fully understand Shadow’s convoluted, runaway train of a plotline. But that’s OK, because with Moriarty established as Holmes’ foe early on, we know that wherever this wild goose chase is going, it’s all going to come to a climax with Holmes going giant brain to giant brain against Professor M.

Game Of Shadows is a far more assured film than its predecessor. Though the action set-pieces are plentiful, it knows when to take a breather. The humour is also pricklier, with Stephen Fry landing some chucklesome barbs as Sherlock’s flouncing brother. Who cares if it’s all completely ludicrous? Who cares if Holmes seems more psychic than cleverly deductive? In Ritchie’s film, even the mystery plays second fiddle to Downey Jr and Law’s verbal (and occasionally physical) tête-à-tête, meaning even if you haven’t got a clue what’s going on, you’ll be having a rollicking good time anyway. 4/5