Friday, August 19, 2016

Common Complaints About Millennial Supervillains

Care more about experiences — like blowing up White House — than material things.

Too quick to move in with parents, disintegrate them with some sort of a ray gun

Mock older villains' hashtags, like #loweringbatmanintosharktank,  #tellingbatmanmyevilplan, #ohnobatmanescapsedsomehow

Will not explain what 'Netflix and chill' means, no matter how often they're asked
Would rather post selfies with planet-destroying robot than actually destroy the planet

Monday, May 2, 2016

Revisiting Marvel: Iron Man 2

Iron Man 2 remains one of the oddest films in the Marvel canon. Slapdash, unfocused and at times downright nonsensical, it still elevates itself on the smart layering-in of details and its sheer desire to entertain.

Re-watching it, I found myself impressed with the amount of details piled up by director Jon Favreau, who has proven himself over the years to be masterful when it comes to pungent moments that make his movies feel lived-in.

For example, while Tony Stark's opening appearance at the Stark Expo largely exists to provide exposition, the thought and effort put into the crowd's wild enthusiasm tell the story of how popular the superhero has become. (Love the glowing 'heart' on the cheerleaders, and the toy armor crowd members are wearing.) Really, that's the MO of the whole film; it's a lurching, oddly plotted affair, but one forgives it for its scene-by-scene craftsmanship.

That said ... hoooooboy, that plotting. The film opens with a breezy, monster movie-like creation story for Mickey Rourke, then has his character largely operate behind the scenes. (For most of the second and third act, Tony Stark doesn't even know he's alive.) The conceit that Tony is being poisoned by his arc-reactor heart has the potential to be powerful, but instead gets diluted in the half-dozen other plots the film crams in. And, while I can forgive comic-book movies a lot, the solution to Stark's poisoning it maybe the most ridiculous plot turn every foisted on an audience. (Tony's father discovered a new element, but couldn't manufacture it, so instead hid a guide to it in his plans for the Stark Expo, then vaguely alluded to it on the very end of a series of film-strip outtakes (!!!!). Additionally, SHIELD somehow put this together on its own, then let Tony put the clues together himself instead of just telling him, because they're dicks, or maybe just fans of moving father-son storylines.)

Extra Notes

1) I don't think Favreau gets enough credit as a director of small- to medium-scale action. Rourke's opening attack on Tony at the Grand Prix is fun stuff — love the newly activated suit burning through his shirt —and the comic structure of the Black Widow/Happy assault on Rockwell's facility is great.

2) Rourke triggers the final drone attack at the Expo because Tony will get blamed, which makes zero sense as it's Hammer who's giving the presentation based on Stark Technology that was flat-out stolen from Tony Stark. Wouldn't such an attack just help Stark's case?

3) Garry Shandling was a delightful piece of casting as the smug senator from the hearing.

4) Speaking of casting: Man, is Gwyneth Paltrow effortlessly charming as Pepper Potts.

5) Another fun comic beat: the failure of Rockwell's vaunted 'ex-wife' missile in the middle of the climactic action scene. Don Cheadle's resigned "yeah" at the end is priceless.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Revisiting Marvel: Iron Man

Season One of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is, all in all, probably my least favorite season. The budget is chintzy; some of the storylines are ridiculous; many of the performers haven't yet found their voice. But when I rewatch the series, as I do every few years, I find I can't skip it. There's something about watching the story in its embryonic stages — the flinty humor, the warmth of the relationships — that is pleasing.

It's the same with Iron Man, the movie that jump-started the Marvel Universe that's dominated popular movies over the last decade.

When fans rank their favorite Marvel movies, Iron Man usually isn't at the top of the list. It's usually overpowered by films with bigger action, like The Avengers; flashier villains, like Thor; or more shaded plots, such as Captain America: Winter Solider.

But rewatching Iron Man, it's remarkable how many of these films expanded on the blueprint it drew up.

The glowing heart (heh) of it is, of course, Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark. I've often praised Marvel's decision-making, and it all began with the choice of Downey, who at the time was thought of as a risky gamble. His wit and fierce, obvious intelligence are such a fit for the character it's impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. This, I think, is one of the areas where Marvel has had wild success: casting actors who suit the qualities of its main characters perfectly. Whether it's Chris Evans as stubborn, virtuous Steve Rodgers; Chris Hemsworth as cocky, powerful Thor; or Scarlett Johansson as guarded, conflicted Natasha Romanov, the company's approach to casting has been top-notch.

The other area where Marvel has excelled, especially when put side-to-side with rival DC, is in establishing real relationships among its characters. That again is a trend that started here. Every time I watch, I'm surprised at how much Iron Man is a movie about the relationship between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts as much as it is about Tony Stark becoming Iron Man. In fact, Tony-as-Iron-Man is only onscreen for a limited amount of screen time; almost as much is devoted to the relationship-exploring banter between the two. (And note that Pepper is given at least a cursory amount to do, as compared to Lois Lane in Batman v Superman.)

One more note: I think it's an oversight that Jeff Bridges is not often listed among Marvel's great villains. Sure, his ambitions aren't grand — which is actually a relief in comparison to the tiresome destroy-the-planet plots of seemingly every other film — but he injects a real, simmering rage below the surface. Watch how he explodes as soon as he discovers Pepper's deception, or the way he slings the line, "Tony Stark built one of these IN A CAVE!" at an underling.


Finally, I think a lot of credit must go to Jon Favreau. It looks easier in retrospect now that Marvel has fine-tuned the formula, but he was able to craft a fun, witty action movie that has brisk action, great banter and real heart. That's rare, with a blueprint or without.

Extra Notes

1) It's amazing how unhurried this film feels. Rather than racing from one universe-building set piece to the next, it actually takes time to let characters talk to each other. How refreshing.

2) Bridges' bit of business bringing Tony a pizza is great. That kind of care makes it all the more menacing when he turns villainous later. ("Oh, Tony, this is your Ninth Symphony" Bridges purrs with real admiration as he pulls Stark's arc reactor out of his chest. Really, guys, Bridges is great.)

3) "I was doing a piece for Vanity Fair" is probably the smuttiest line outside Guardians of the Galaxy. I love it, of course.

4) Shout-out to the effects work, which give the Iron Man armor a texture and weight that makes it feel like a genuine presence in the world they've created.

5) Love the robot in Tony's lab. Love it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Other Questionable Gender-Related Moments in Jurassic World

1) Bryce Dallas Howard's character shockingly killed off when, in middle of climactic foot chase, she pauses to TiVo the following week's episodes of The View.
2) Female dinosaurs portrayed as moody, always complaining about how cold it is
3) Female scientist's lengthy exposition about DNA sequencing found to be "too off-putting," dubbed with enthused reviews of Activa yogurt. 
4) Last third of the film a seemingly out-of-nowhere defense of abortion restrictions 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Clarence Thomas is the Worst, Part 4,327

In a surprising and powerful concurrence to the case Davis v. Ayala, Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy railed against solitary confinement. This was a bit of surprise, as the case didn't overtly concern itself with solitary and all the horrific effects it has on human beings. But it wasn't a shock, either; Kennedy has had this particular form of torture on his mind for a while, even testifying about it before Congress.

Justice Clarence Thomas' response was, to invoke one of my favorite philosophers, nasty, brutish and short. He wrote:

[T]he accommodations in which Ayala is housed are a far sight more spacious than those in which his victims, Ernesto Dominguez Mendez, Marcos Antonio Zamora, and Jose Luis Rositas, now rest. And, given that his victims were all 31 years of age or under, Ayala will soon have had as much or more time to enjoy those accommodations as his victims had time to enjoy this Earth.

I was going to write a long screed about Thomas, but I'm not going to, as Slate's Mark Joseph Stern has helpfully done that for me.

I'll just add this: Thomas seems to be arguing here — as he largely has before — that the government can carry out any sanction, no matter how cruel, as long as it's less cruel than the crime the criminal inflicted.  

I want to be give Justice Thomas the benefit of the doubt, but if there are any Eighth Amendment claims he would consider, I have yet to encounter them.

At any rate, I'm on unsteady ground criticizing Thomas' grasp of the law. I feel steady on my feet criticizing his morals. If our government is willing, as it often is, to commit lesser tortures on its citizens, all it will do is create monsters. Lesser monsters, maybe, but monsters all the same.