Superheroes – alongside James Cameron and boy wizards – have, in recent years, utterly dominated the cinematic box office. So much so that it is hard to think back to a time when releasing a comic book film was a bit of a gamble (and I certainly can’t remember, given that X-Men, the kick off point for our current situation, released when I was 5). 

However, 2012 was a special time for this genre, more so than any other point over the last decade, thanks to the fact that the two flagship comic publishers released conclusions to their biggest movie franchises. DC’s The Dark Knight Rises versus Marvel’s The Avengers (with the silly and unnecessary subtitle of Assemble in the UK, just in case one person who had been living under a rock for 40 years thought it was an adaptation of the espionage show) went head to head. The internet was aflame with which film would be bigger and/or better. In terms of money made, Avengers outclassed DC, becoming the third highest grossing film of all time, and the highest grossing film of all time that isn’t incredibly boring.

However, quality-wise it was never such a simple story. Ignoring the fact that quality is often subjective, whilst financial success is entirely objective, most people assumed that on past evidence Nolan would produce a barnstorming finale, filled with dark menace and brooding quality, whilst Joss Whedon’s superteam would be fun but light, and of a lower cinematic quality. On the final evidence, I would be inclined to disagree with this. Now, this may perhaps be confusing, seeing as I gave TDKR a 5 star review, but that was more of a hype train rating than a critical one, and has since been retracted to more of a 3/4 star.

Possibly the main reason for Avengers’ slight superiority is that has far clearer idea of what it wants to be. Nolan’s Batman trilogy has always been about the deep darkness of people, more about realistic criminality and justice than men in tights and, therefore, a final chapter with a *SPOILER* happy ending and a healthy dose of fan service seemed rather out of place. The Marvel ‘Phase 1’ build up to Avengers was, on the other hand, almost entirely jovial, starting as it meant to go on with Robert Downey Jr’s charming and funny rendition of Iron Man.

On the topic of characters, it is a testament to Whedon’s skill as a screenwriter that he handles a team of people who can (and have) carry their own films, merging all of their stories highly successfully to create a super-ensemble that, Hawkeye aside, genuinely feels equal for the majority of the film. And it is with this group interaction that Avengers cements itself as easily the funniest comic-book film that isn’t Kick Ass. This inclusion of humour does much to elevate AA above the standard blockbuster fare, so commonly scripted with nothing but hoorah-ing military jargon and clumsy exposition, and is aided by an entirely successful cast, with a particularly noteworthy mention to Robert Downey Jr, whose original Iron Man film kicked this whole ‘Phase 1’ off.

Undeniably, RDJ steals the show for the good guys, but he is equalled, if not quite outclassed, by Tom Hiddlestone’s maniacal villain, Loki. From the very start there is a visible madness and threat in his eyes, and it is entirely believable that he could lead an alien army to attack the earth. He is saddled with some typically villainous lines, but nothing cringeworthy and he does get the best insult of the runtime, hurling a rage fuelled rant at Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow which culminates in the incredibly surprising ‘you mewling quim!’

In the end though, the majority of the billion plus dollars which the film earned was probably down to people looking for a good slice of action movie, and here AA delivers a storm. Superpowered fisticuffs (Thor vs Captain America and Iron Man being a stand out moment) gives way to what is almost a war movie as Loki’s army descend upon Manhattan. The fighting is incredibly well choreographed and the special effects are simply superb, looking fantastical and yet believable throughout, for example, Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk maintaining the actor’s features despite being an enormous green monster. At one point it did feel to me like the finale was approaching cinematic overkill, especially with a new plot strand brought in within the last 20 minutes, but the most part of the culmination is definitely grin inducing.

Avengers Assemble is 2012’s best superhero film, if not best action, with a snappy screenplay, an excellent ensemble cast, jaw dropping effects sequences and two of Marvel’s now famous post credits extra scenes. Anyone looking for an antidote to the ‘gritty and visceral’ tagline now bestowed on far too many films should sign right up.

Writer/Director: Joss Whedon

Stars: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Tom Hiddlestone

Rating: 12a

Runtime: 143 mins