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3 Stars Movies

No escape from the tyranny of continuity, in Avengers: Endgame

There is no escape from the tyranny of continuity. Like daytime soaps, superhero comics exist in a quantum state of constant churn and perpetual stasis. Characters are introduced and die and un-die, relationships form and split and reform, villains are defeated and rally and are defeated again. Excelsior, and collect your pocket change to spend at the newsstand next month, true believer!

Avengers: Infinity War (2018) was the apotheosis of comics’ perpetually open-ended narrative, in movie form. It was a painful experience for any humanities student, or indeed anybody who loves novels and cinema. How quaint to expect a classical narrative, now that popular entertainment movies have become what Martin Scorsese has called a series of sequences. Avengers: Infinity War was 2+ hours of hors d’oeuvres before a long-promised fancy dinner. At about 18 movies into the Marvel Cinematic Universe series by that point, one began to wonder if we’d ever get to the main course, let alone dessert. It can’t be coincidental that the best episodes are the few that managed to wriggle free of the bonds of the larger umbrella story, particularly Black Panther, Ant-Man & The Wasp, and Thor: Ragnarok.

That Anthony & Joe Russo’s Endgame is so drastic an improvement over Infinity War that new corporate owners Disney must have issued a memo on Micky letterhead, reading “OK, good job, kids, but make sure the next one has a plot”. Its classical structure plot is so startlingly unfamiliar for anything with Captain America in it, that if anything, it’s almost too simple, like a video game. Our heroes discover they have to do five specific things to prepare for a confrontation; they do those five things; they have that confrontation; there’s a wound-licking denouement. Bingo: it’s a movie!

Avengers: Endgame
Like much of the movie, this is a striking image. Avengers: Endgame deserves credit for its relatively complex villain (relatively for the genre, I must stress). But I just can’t get over the invitation to take this stuff seriously.

I loved Marvel Comics as a kid, but was more of an X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Daredevil kind of guy. I always thought The Avengers were lame, and instinctually steered away from the likes of Captain America long before I ever learned the word jingoistic, from Iron Man before I learned the word asshole, and from Thor because — I mean, come on, seriously? So it’s been a struggle for adult-me to take the cinematic Avengers characters semi-seriously enough to enjoy in live-action form.

Of the six original movie Avengers, only one is female and all are white. We can place the original whitebread Marvel Comics in the context of the 1960s, but what’s the movies’ excuse? Even years later, when the franchise has finally cultivated a deeper bench of female characters, it insultingly limits most of them to a single contrived hero shot. And to get specific with one head-scratcher I just can’t get over: when Brainy Hulk and Rocket Raccoon go on a special mission to Norway to re-recruit an incapacitated Thor, is it A) sexist, B) moronic or C) both that they ignore the last living Valkyrie warrior? She may have, you know, been useful. I mean, at least two of the official Avengers don’t even have superpowers (unless you count being really good at archery as super).

Avengers: Endgame
The women of the Marvel Universe deserved more than a single hero shot, which plays as a contrived “insert girl power moment here” sticky note in the screenplay. Especially since one is the last surviving Valkyrie warrior (a god!) and another is the most powerful superhero of any gender.

Speaking of, can we talk for a moment about how Hawkeye is totally let off the hook for going around the world summarily executing bad guys, without due process? Black Widow literally just stands there and watches him behead somebody. These are supposed to be heroes, with an aspirational moral element. That there wasn’t even a tossed-off line like “we don’t do that anymore” makes me suspect that a chunk of Hawkeye’s story was cut out of the final film, or that the filmmakers lost control over the many character arcs they had to juggle, or most worryingly, that they just thought it was super cool.

Griping aside, I have serious praise for Robert Downey Jr. for delivering some of the finest acting yet in any Marvel movie. His portrayal of a broken Tony Stark early in the film is almost uncomfortably real.

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3 Stars Movies

Robert Downey Jr.’s got a bum ticker in Jon Favreau’s Iron Man

Jon Favreau’s Iron Man finds just the right tone for a superhero movie, pitched somewhere in the sweet spot between Spider-Man’s emotional melodrama and Batman’s grim vengeance. This Dork Reporter, a former lover of comic books (that stopped keeping up with them partly out of frugality, and partly lack of brain bandwidth), sees two high water marks in the recent surge of superhero-themed Hollywood feature films:

Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man movies captured the key themes that made Spider-Man such a popular and lasting character in the first place (seriously, find me a kid in the English-speaking world who does not know all about Spider-Man). The comic book on its simplest level was a parable of the sometimes unwelcome changes that come with adolescence. Also key to Peter Parker’s teen psyche was his constant negotiation between his own happiness and responsibilities towards friends, family, and society. Please, let’s not discuss the painfully awful Spider-Man 3; the bitter wounds of disappointment are still raw, oozing, and infected.

The other comic book superhero franchise to translate well to the screen in recent years is, of course, Batman. Helmed by such mature, serious artists as director Christopher Nolan and actor Christian Bale, Batman Begins perhaps could not help but to turn out as well as it did. The comic book character was originally conceived as a lone vigilante avenger in the 1930s, descended into camp self-parody in the 60s, then reverted back to grim form in the 70s. The character followed a parallel arc in his movie incarnations: Tim Burton’s Batman films are dark and weirdly wonderful, Joel Schumacher’s are tacky and cheesy, and now Christopher Nolan has restored the franchise back to its gothic roots. Note that Heath Ledger as the Joker in the upcoming sequel Batman The Dark Knight doesn’t actually smile!

Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man
Talk to the… nah, that’s too easy

Iron Man was heavily marketed as Robert Downey Jr.’s redemption after decades of louche behavior led to him becoming unhirable (or more accurately, uninsurable). Was Downey perfectly cast, or was the role tailored to suit him? If anything, from what little I know of the comics, the filmmakers may have actually toned Iron Man’s alter-ego Tony Stark down. Physical disability is a long-established theme in Marvel Comics’ stable of characters, take for example the blind Daredevil. Stark’s distinguishing characteristic was his bum ticker, but he was also famously an alcoholic prick. Do you think, perhaps, there’s a metaphor to be found in the character of a soulless arms dealer who loses his literal heart but finds his conscience? Hmmm…

Terrance Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Robert Downey Jr., and Jeff Bridges in Iron Man
Djay da Pimp, Viola De Lesseps, Charlie Chaplin, and The Dude star in Iron Man

Jeff Bridges totally rocks a bald pate, and blessedly underplays his role as chief baddie Obadiah Stane. He’s the mellow voice of reason, sounding for all the world like The Dude with an M.B.A. That is, until he raises his voice for the first time, and the good times are over, man. Unfortunately, Gwyneth Paltrow (as the alliterative Pepper Potts) and Terrence Howard (Jim Rhodes) don’t fare as well. Paltrow, with little experience in the sci-fi effects blockbuster genre, is hysterically unconvincing at running away from fireballs in high heels (you can imagine her pouting “But Harvey said I don’t have to run from fireballs!”). Howard is just plain boring, with little to say or do.

Iron Man is quite enjoyable, provided you try to ignore the rather conservative gung-ho attitude toward the war on terror. It only disappoints at the very end, when it devolves into a CGI rock ’em sock ’em robot battle. It was inevitable according to the genre, and the natural trajectory of the plot, but still…

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3 Stars Movies

Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Kiss Kiss Bang BangEven if the marketing hadn’t trumpeted the dramatic return of burnt-out Hollywood high-concept screenwriter Shane Black, it’d be painfully obvious Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a movie crafted specifically for the audience he practically created with his Lethal Weapon quadrilogy. The all-over-the-place plot leaves a few threads dangling (What happened to the whole Michelle Monaghan femme fatale setup? Was it too obvious to be anything other than a red herring?), but that’s not really what matters; the movie is exactly what what Hollywood execs and critics alike mean when they use the belabored cliché “a ride that you either get on or you don’t.”