2010s, Action-Adventure

Iron Man 2 (2010)

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Director: John Favreau

By Roderick Heath

2008’s Iron Man proved something of a surprise blockbuster…well, a surprise to lots of pundits, but the trailer simply screamed “hit.” Anyway, it reinstated Robert Downey Jnr. as the go-to guy for schlock-enlivening eccentricity, and was built around the perfect way Downey’s former off-screen travails and his excessive talent accorded with character Tony Stark’s variation on the overindulged playboy with a billion-dollar brain—a lovable douche assailed by an increasing moral and emotional fog. Director Jon Favreau’s initial stab at the superhero genre was admirable at least in that it was a triumph of relative modesty, built around Stark’s impudently charming character and simple, but strongly defined relationships: with his fellow Afghani doctor prisoner Yinsen (Shaun Toub); with his doggedly loyal, patriotic but not fanatical friend Jim “Rhodey” Rhodes (Terence Howard); with his efficient secretary/gal pal Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow); and with his father-figure/rival Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges). Whilst its action scenes were pretty basic, its vigorous sense of humour, creative channeling of Downey’s gifts, and general warmth made it a swinging good time. It was also the rare movie that managed to evoke an adolescent boy’s ideal of the high life, with big, busting robot suits and a private jet with sexy stewardesses who turn into strippers on cue, and kept its tongue jammed defiantly in cheek, but not so much that it interfered with the melodramatic flow of the story.

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Iron Man 2, the much-anticipated follow-up, is, on the other hand, often a triumph of incompetence. It’s a film that keeps tripping over itself trying to make its busy, clashing elements coordinate. The first hour is a nonstop cavalcade of poorly deployed screwball banter that moves far too quickly for any effect; the audience I was with sat in stony silence whilst all the would-be comedy flew by unappreciated. The simmering, but not quite blooming romance of Tony and Pepper is kept at irritating, peculiar arm’s length throughout the film, as Tony makes Pepper his replacement CEO (nice of him, considering she’s been doing a lot of the job for years already), and then subjecting him to some mild indignities in being subordinated to her method, and, finally, a gutless resolution that sees Pepper throwing in the towel after a week, having provided a requisite amount of padding. Whilst some of Favreau’s innate understanding of how to use yardsticks of dude-cool—meaty guitar rock, hot gadgets and hotter women—is intact, Tony’s rakish edge has been toned down from the first film’s enthusiastic embrace of all the qualities James Bond used to revel in and now can’t. Well, neither can Tony now.

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Also missing is the first film’s stab at any kind of consequence. Favreau and his original screenwriters securely set the film’s high-flying fancy in a current setting, containing an inner irony in the disparity between its technological-fantastical vision of peace-making and the real world it tried to encompass that automatically advertised it as bullshit. But it was oddly relevant bullshit, because it tried to explore, through very veiled metaphors, the disparity between America’s fantasy of itself and the reality it’s often stumbled into or imposed for gain’s sake in the modern world. Obviously, it was going to be a bit trickier to realise a world that’s been creatively pacified by a guy in a shiny suit, but there isn’t even a decent Iron Man-saving-multiple-days montage to give a sense of context. Nor is Tony morally conflicted anymore; no, he’s goofily self-congratulatory and blithely contemptuous of any suggestion he needs an external moral compass. Whilst this does lay the groundwork for one of the film’s dozen or so subplots, the film can’t be described as following through with any enthusiasm.

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Either way, after a half-hour of celebrating the awesomeness of Tony Stark’s hegemony and contriving audience dislike for government types who insist on his accountability (“I have successfully privatised world peace!” he declares), a wise move especially as Tony begins to act increasingly erratic, a new threat turns up. Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) is a resurgent ghost of Cold War-era unfinished business, angry at Tony because Tony’s miraculous arc reactor power source is at least partly the product of work by Ivan’s father (Yevgeni Lazarev), who is seen dying at the very beginning. Ivan, a physicist himself but rendered tough and mean by years of imprisonment for trying to sell black market nuclear material, now builds a power suit with electrical whips to take on Tony, and successfully makes a splash at the Monaco Grand Prix where Tony’s racing. Ivan is swiftly bested after momentarily rattling Tony up, and for Ivan shattering Iron Man’s sheen of untouchability was enough.

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Ivan is soon rescued from prison by Tony’s even showier, more egotistical rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), who wants Ivan to perfect his own version of the Iron Man armour. Instead, Ivan develops robotic drone warriors. Meanwhile, back at the Stark pad, Tony’s reactor heart is slowly poisoning him, and fear of an early death is driving Tony’s giveaways and finally an embarrassing, even perilous birthday party where he lurches about in the Iron Man suit, confirming every anxiety about him his friends have held, and finally inspiring Rhodes to take another prototype suit and rumble with Tony to teach him a lesson. And yet it seems to me Rhodes makes a mildly dangerous but not serious situation actually, acutely risky in an inherently stupid attempt to play out a standard friends-have-a-corrective-brawl moment in super-sophisticated technology. And Favreau can’t even extract any humour from the subsequent spectacle of Tony’s trashed house. Rhodes takes off with his purloined suit and gives it to the army. Rhodes is now played by Don Cheadle, and, with no disrespect to Terence Howard, that is at least trading up, but Cheadle doesn’t get to do much more than spend most of the film glowering like Tony’s disapproving conscience.

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Hammer is then called in to turn this new suit into an even more awesome weapon by augmenting it with big guns. Is this plot synopsis piling up? Well that’s what the film does. Hammer’s plan to crush Tony’s empire with Ivan’s creations and the captured suit begins to backfire when he threatens Ivan. Oh yeah, and there’s a whole bunch more stuff to do with setting up the movie of The Avengers thingamy, with Samuel L. Jackson dropping by for a couple of scenes to do some by-rote Samuel L. Jackson shtick as Nick Fury, and Scarlett Johansson hovering for much of the movie as Natalie Rushman, a suspiciously efficient, brilliant, hypnotically nubile employee of Tony’s (“I want one!” he implores Pepper). She seems primed as the distracting menace and spoiling agent in Tony and Pepper’s relationship, but she finally proves to be one of Fury’s moles, real name Natasha Romanoff (great pseudonym, honey) investigating Tony’s character and potential. One of the best things about the first Iron Man was the fact that the franchise’s lack of history outside of Marvel fanatics, removing the pressure to make an over-busy, high-expectation thrill ride, actually helped make it a better thrill ride: the careful development of the standard elements made them stronger. Here, the exact opposite is the case. This contraption jumps from scene to scene and barely fits together.

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I don’t have any beef with the superhero-movie craze, which has elicited a lot of varied and energetic responses from the filmmakers charged with keeping Hollywood’s most reliable contemporary cash cow lively. Hell, I liked Spider-Man 3, which no one liked, precisely because it assaulted the iron cage of its own generic limits and sent itself up mercilessly: it had similar problems to this film, but was still thoroughly rooted in its characters’ angsts, whereas here the attempt to deepen Tony by exploring his conflict with his father and suggest darker possibilities to his control of such power, is feebly rushed through in a poorly balanced screenplay. Downey’s no longer the saviour of the movie: he’s thoroughly trapped by it, as he was in his other recent gallumphing franchise entry, Sherlock Holmes. What was fresh is here by-the-book screen filler. Oddly enough, Rockwell seems to be playing Downey’s part in the first film, the improvising loose cannon, trying to channel every confidence-oozing, fast-talking, infomercial asshole into his characterisation and occasionally wringing out some laughs, like his extended presentation of potential weaponry to Rhodes. But in the end, he’s stuck as a one-note, barely serviceable villain.

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It ought to be a crime to stick a dude like Rourke into the part he has here so early in his “comeback.” Comeback my Aunt Fanny: anyone who’s ever seen him in Year of the Dragon knows he could twist Iron Man up like tin foil and sink him from 40 feet into the trash. He’s cast here to capitalise on his hot status and still relatively low fee when any twit with a Slavic accent could have been jammed into a role in which he spends most of the film muttering in Russian and leaning over a soldering iron or keyboard planning vengeance. It makes sense that Rourke’s Vanko stares through his stupid antagonists with the same contempt the actor stares through the material, but it’s not really helpful to the movie. His essentially superfluous presence exemplifies what’s wrong with the whole deal. Finally, ironically, even unbelievably, it’s left to Johansson to save the movie, and even more unbelievably, she succeeds.

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In the film’s only engaging action scenes, she springs into battle readiness, forcing Hammer to cough up the facts and then taking out a coterie of his thugs with acrobatic skill whilst Tony’s dogsbody Hogan (Favreau) has a hard time beating up one. It’s a sequence with a very funny punchline (especially for those of us who recall Favreau’s performance as Rocky Marciano), and one that successfully shakes the movie momentarily to life: for once it’s people, rather than tin cans, bashing each other with corporeal dexterity and vigour. For Johansson, who’s stumbled through most of her movie career, after her good turn in Lost in Translation saw her promoted far too quickly to major stardom, it’s a quiet, if very brief, revelation of potential as a figure of force on film, her honey-soaked flirtatiousness in the first half giving an individuality to her later transformation into the regulation cat-suited butt-kicker.

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After that, Tony and Rhodes get their bromance on again to trash Ivan’s toy robots and best Ivan himself through the most throwaway of devices. The film fades out with modestly decent action and a good final moment with Garry Shandling’s obnoxious foil of a senator. So Iron Man 2 recovers a great deal in its last half-hour, but not enough to make me forgive the shambles that came before. Where with the first film the audience I saw it with was held in delight long enough into the end credits to see the Nick Fury teaser, here everyone jumped out of their seats like they were scalded. Iron Man 2 is making piles of moolah, but I can’t help but wonder if this flick will kill the gilt-egg goose. Apart from its flickers of life, it’s a big shoddy enterprise that drives a promising franchise into the ground.

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2000s, Action-Adventure

The Dark Knight (2008)

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Director: Christopher Nolan

By Roderick Heath

My favourite Batman movie is the one with Adam West. Perhaps it’s the retro-camp fan in me. But who doesn’t still remember the old show’s theme, or recall, with a bit of a smile, the endless variations on “Holy (whatever) Batman!” For dumbed-down Lichtenstein, the ’60s Batman was still a truly pop-art creation. It was stylish, funny, mocking, and zippy. I’ve never really been sure what to say about what’s come along since then. Tim Burton’s films came close to pop-art with their totally created Gotham City and outsized story and character gestures, but since Burton turned Bruce Wayne from a playful hipster into a dour, brooding near-psycho, Batman himself has consistently been the least interesting aspect of his own films. Burton didn’t seem able to find any love for his characters, in the way that he could embrace Ed Wood or Edward Scissorhands. Joel Schumacher’s entries were barely tolerable audiovisual assaults best watched mildly toasted.

Along came Christopher Nolan, a Brit would-be auteur with middling talent as a director and much talent as a poseur. Memento (2000), Batman Begins (2005), and The Prestige (2006) were, at least, all ambitious and “smart”, but they were also gimmicky, overlong, and lacking in depth. Despite their exertions, they, too, were disengaged films without heat, love, or real art. They were, to quote his own work, all Pledges and no Prestige, byproducts of our cleverness uber alles era.

The Dark Knight indicates that Nolan seemed aware of his missteps on Batman Begins. The story is simpler, the landscape less cluttered, the characters better drawn, the action tighter, and it tries for some genuine emotion. Aspects of the tale, like Harvey Dent’s (Aaron Eckhart) idealistic plight and Jim Gordon’s (Gary Oldman) conscientious despair, reach a pitch of operatic effort, if not result. Nolan’s new Gotham City is a normal-looking place with a minimum of CGI and silliness. The stringent, almost noir realism is refreshing at first, aiming for an aesthetic pitch that isn’t too far from Michael Mann. The trouble with this is that to a certain extent, it subtracts what’s attractive about a comic book in the first place—the colour, the invention, the defiance of reality in vivid print. Nolan attempts to transpose the surreal into the real world.

It doesn’t actually work. Batman just seems like an unnecessarily showy self-promoter in this milieu, and Dent’s eventual transformation into Two-Face presents just a scarred, scared, sorry bastard rather than one of the strip’s delightful grotesques. Here Nolan finds the limit of his ambitions—he can’t get real enough to explore Dent’s fate as tragic, but he’s turned his back on the twisted fantasy it began as. Nolan’s tone-deaf to the finer points of style and symbolic value. The dualism of Batman and the Joker, and Two-Face Dent between them fulfilling both of them, is both emphasised with the subtlety of a jackhammer, but also still feels fudged. The fact that Batman is a do-gooder who wears the apparel of traditional evil and the Joker is a villain who poses as a bringer of laughter, seems slightly too witty for this context.

One creation in Nolan’s new film, however, bridges the divide, and the catalyst for that is Heath Ledger’s inhabitation of The Joker, a figure who invents himself and plays up his own unreality. Indeed, it’s probably closer than any other version to the comic strip’s version of the character. The Joker, and Ledger’s performance within, is a piece of high-wire performance art, Dadaist in effect and nihilist in intent. It’s a brilliant idea that Ledger, who seemed to have worked himself to emotional exhaustion in conjuring it, certainly lives up to. When he inhabits the screen, there is the genuine, and genuinely exciting, feeling that anything can happen, and he is, for once, a villain of true weight to match a hero of depth.

The character is wrapped in mystery—his name is never discovered and even his own story of how he gained his cut-up mouth, which he partly obscures behind make-up, keeps changing. He’s a force of pure, taunting chaos, and this charges his scenes in the film with something that has eluded all of these films until now—a note of moral urgency. Unlike Jack Nicholson’s entertaining but absurd Joker, this is a truly malevolent force, a vicious psychopath dedicated to proving that “everything burns.” It’s a pity that the script can’t really keep up with him, as it keeps writing him out for long stretches whilst indulging Nolan’s fondness for convoluted plotting that moves with the grace and dexterity of a steamroller and his poor sense of scene structure and emotional rhythm. And the realism only goes so far. The Joker is captured (briefly) through an utterly ridiculous method.

Meanwhile Nolan stretches out the running time with unnecessary and stupid bits of pseudo-scientific gobbledygook involving cellphone sonar and fingerprints taken off shattered bullets that violates the film’s sheen of terse believability and lurches it into the realm of blockbuster tomfoolery and jaunts off to Hong Kong for some weak spy movie business. There’s one scene where a mob boss (Eric Roberts) is sitting drinking at a nightclub. Then Batman’s there, hitting people. It’s so arbitrarily staged, with such poor establishing shots, that Nolan might as well have had the cast suddenly start a break-dance battle or a dog show, and it would have made as much sense. Nolan has no ability in filming action, his sequences dissolving in blurry shots, frantic cutting, and finally, little excitement. The filmmaking in the action “climax” isn’t as tedious as that in Begins, but it still depletes the tension that Ledger’s antics so commendably earned.

It’s also a pity that Bruce Wayne and his leather-clad alter ego have been shrinking steadily to the point where he’s just a growling, mumbling chin under a hood. Christian Bale is an actor who can do anything, except, it seems, paint with black on black. Wayne is a bore. His lack of an emotional or sexual life of any substance and his moribund moodiness, render him a totally unengaging hero. Wait, oh yeah, the script reminds us that he’s not a hero; he’s a “dark knight”—whatever that means. There are some throwaway gags of Wayne the playboy’s hiding behind his gentlemanly loafing, pursuing models and ballerinas, but that’s strictly window dressing. One mildly rousing scene has Batman belt the Joker, who has broken into the fundraiser he throws for Dent and threatened Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), his ex-girlfriend. It’s a corny stunt Nolan pulls where Batman’s timely intervention and pith show up this walking spiritual void, and it’s cool.

But Nolan elsewhere has no skill at melodrama, and that’s a fatal lack for what is, let’s face it, not really art, really not deep. The moral conundrums The Dark Knight puts up are shot down in a few lines of Zen wisdom by Alfred (Michael Caine). Sure, it’s deep compared to where the good guy in the bright spandex always beats the crap out of the bad guy in the black silk. The dark, moral dilemma of the finale is nearly exactly the same, and isn’t actually any more cogent, than the one faced at the end of Spider-Man, and that one was considerably better staged.

But what was the comic book anyway, other than a mishmash of Zorro, Fantomas, Arsene Lupin, with some inspiration from Sherlock Holmes and Vidocq? Is it too much to ask that some filmmaker who grasps both the comic’s essential, semi-surreal stylisation and its roots in urban noir pulp to properly balance these aspects? What’s with this high-concept pressure to explore issues of terrorism and vigilantism? Maybe it’s the only avenue in which filmmakers can explore these issues today, considering that no one goes to see films that are actually about those things. Yet it demeans both forms. After some of the hard-to-swallow plot turns and the general let-down of the last third, I’m not so persuaded that I really wanted that more than I wanted Schumacher’s incoherent psychedelia.

Nolan lets his usual faults of going on too long and not being able to shoot action finally get the better of his very real efforts to make a more meaningful than usual comic book drama. Particularly in the deft, emotionally convincing perfor- mances of Gyllenhaal and Eckhart, the film gains a centre that slips away when one dies and the other goes psycho. That finally leaves Oldman holding the bag as a man trying to defend his family whilst all the freaks fight each other to stand-still. The Dark Knight is not a bad film at all, but it’s also light years away from the instant, legitimate noir classic it’s being hailed as. It may take a new, revved-up Catwoman to drag a reaction from this Batman that doesn’t sound like he merely needs a cough lolly. l

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