Friday, April 17, 2015

Iron Man 2

It's FlashBack Friday again guys! I know everyone is going crazy for the new Star Wars and Batman v. Superman trailers (admittedly, I had a hard time sitting down to watch this movie, I was so excited), but I hope you can spare a few moments to read my thoughts on Marvel's safe bet move after The Incredible Hulk disappointed at the box office... Iron Man 2! This one I not only saw in theaters, but my wife and I made an event of it, wearing Iron Man shirts and watching it in IMAX during its opening weekend. It was a tremendously fun experience, and at the time I thought it was even better than the first Iron Man. Well, time has offered me some perspective, and while I think there are some things this film does incredibly well, I have to say that I was much cooler on this sequel five years removed than I was after the much-hyped theatrical release.

It's been six months since Tony Stark proclaimed to the world, "I am Iron Man," and his subsequent work has apparently brought about a relative world peace. However, the senate isn't too thrilled with one man having so much power, and they move to bring the Iron Man suit under the control of the U.S. government. Tony doesn't have much time or energy to devote to their claims, as he has a much bigger problem to deal with - his imminent death. The mineral powering his suit is also poisoning his blood, raising his toxicity level every day. With his mortality very much on his mind, Stark makes a reckless decision to race in a Grand Prix event in Monaco, where an angry Russian ghost from the Stark family's past has come to seek justice on Tony in front of the entire world.

Let me just say, this first section of the movie is done to near perfection. Ivan Vanko's introduction mirror's Tony's from the first movie, constructing an arc reactor in a bare-bones facility and using it to make something extraordinary. The character of Whiplash doesn't have much to him, but Mickey Rourke's intimidating screen presence alone makes this villain appear more formidable than what the screenplay earns on its own. I'm not sure I ever really thought that Tony was in any real danger with his palladium core problem, but once Whiplash shows up on the race track I found myself seriously concerned for Stark's safety. That scene is probably one of the coolest in any comic book movie, and it's a shame that nothing else in this film can really stand up to it. Vanko whipping race cars in half and calmly striding away as the vehicles collide in fiery explosions is really exhilarating, and it's capped off by one of the coolest Iron Man suit-up scenes we're ever going to get! It's a pretty quick fight, but it's the pinnacle of what this movie has to offer.

But the villain of Iron Man 2 isn't just Whiplash, it's also Stark's main business rival, Justin Hammer. I absolutely love Sam Rockwell in pretty much everything (see my review of Moon) and he puts in a performance almost as good as Robert Downey, Jr. in this movie. His awkward attempts to top Tony Stark and his hilarious train of thought ad-libs crack me up every time, and I kind of wish he came back in Iron Man 3. Then again, the last thing that movie needed was another person telling jokes... but I digress.

Surprisingly, Tony's storyline is perhaps the most boring in this entire movie. Starting with his drunken shenanigans at his birthday party and lasting until he confronted Justin Hammer at the Stark Expo, I was hopelessly falling in and out of consciousness. I eventually lost this battle and actually slept through the entire scene of Stark discovering his new element and creating another arc reactor that wouldn't poison his blood. It was kind of a lame way to resolve his mortality sub-plot, particularly given the amount of screen time it was given up to that point. I cared more about his interplay with Pepper than I ever did about his blood toxicity level, and the scenes with Nick Fury and Agent Coulson are so forced I honestly think my selective watching (aka, sleeping through those parts) actually improved the film.

There are still a lot of other things to like here, such as the tragically under-used action scenes. The fight between Iron Man, War Machine and the Hammer drones inside that dome was probably the coolest battle we'd seen in an Iron Man film up to that point, but it only lasts about a minute before Tony's magic laser cuts the rest of them in half. I would have liked to have seen more gritty take-downs like War Machine cutting a drone apart with his wrist guns as oil sprays onto his scowling face like a blood splatter. Instead, they want to abbreviate the second-coolest action scene in the movie by bringing in a supposedly upgraded Whiplash to take on the two friends. This could have been such a cool fight, but instead the technologically advanced Iron Man tries to engage Whiplash in a boxing match, and after a few minutes he and Rhodey casually shoot their palm-repulsors at each other to dismantle Vanko's whips. It was just a lame way to end what should have been an epic throwdown.

All in all, it was a pretty good follow up to the 2008 blockbuster, but Iron Man 2 has a lot of untapped potential. It's obvious that Marvel was concerned by The Incredible Hulk's lackluster profits and wanted to reinvigorate everyone's enthusiasm for the team-up this entire franchise has been building towards. Though this wasn't the best in the series, it was a marked improvement over Hulk, and gave them enough financial returns to move forward with the other two stand-alone films before Avengers: namely Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. I still enjoy this film, even with all of its weaknesses, and I give it a pretty solid three stars.

Well, that's it for my FlashBack Friday series leading up to Avengers: Age of Ultron! If you want to see the other films I've reviewed beyond this point, click here! I have to warn you, though, some of these reviews are pretty rough. By going through those reviews from Thor all the way to Guardians of the Galaxy, you'll see how my review format has evolved... and by that I mean lengthened. Hopefully you'll find something there to enjoy. Anyway, thanks for reading, and let me know what you thought of Iron Man 2 in the comments below!

IRON MAN 2 is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and some language

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Incredible Hulk

Welcome back to FlashBack Friday!... Except, it's on a Wednesday! While this is coming a couple of days early to leave room for other reviews to come, it's also oddly fitting for The Incredible Hulk. One of the few films by Marvel that didn't spawn a sequel, the 2008 follow-up to the wildly successful Iron Man is kind of a pariah on the otherwise sterling resume of the MCU. Just like with Iron Man, I didn't see this film in theatres, and had a slightly sour taste in my mouth from the last theatrical appearance of the green rage monster in 2003's Hulk. I was a little apprehensive coming into my first viewing of this film, but I was pleased to see that it was a complete 180 from the cerebral, artistic snooze-fest that was the previous Hulk film. I've seen this film several times since then, and my opinion of it has evolved as the identity of the MCU has solidified over the course of its Avengers journey.

One of the best things about this film is it's economical telling of the Hulk's origin, compressing it into the 3 minute opening credits sequence without any dialogue at all. After such a short period between Hulk films, it helps to have a bit of a buffer to re-acclimate audiences with the new direction this film is going to take. It's a very kinetic opening, with impressive visual effects and fast-paced music to keep our attention hooked. In fact, it may be the best part of the entire movie, which is both a bit of a criticism of what's to come as well as praise for what this opening does right.

We're immediately introduced to the new Bruce Banner after that, who is living in Brazil and learning martial arts as a preventative measure against his inner hulk. Through breathing exercises and meditation, he's been able to go 158 days without incident, which helps keep him off the grid for the time being. He's found a relatively peaceful life working in a bottling factory while researching different ways of eliminating his hulkism. If you've ever seen the 1970's TV show of the same name, there are going to be a TON of call-backs and homages to that series that you will probably enjoy. I noticed a few times when they literally played entire pieces of music from that series at certain points, and the set up is exactly what you would see on that show: Bruce (or David in the show) has moved to a new place and is trying to find a cure, but becomes entangled with a local problem that eventually leads to the Hulk resurfacing. It's not a bad way to start things off, and Edward Norton does a pretty good job of portraying the loner with a destructive secret he's trying to hide.

But after a workplace injury where some of Bruce's blood drips into one of the bottles (leading to Stan Lee's death by gamma poisoning), General Ross is able to trace Bruce's hideout and takes an elite team of black-ops agents to bring in the scientist. What happens next is actually a really exciting chase scene, recalling some of the best foot-chases from the Borne series. He eventually seeks refuge in the factory, but is pursued not only by Ross, but also by a group of bullying coworkers who want to... I don't know, beat him up for some reason...? This plan doesn't go well for them, however, as Bruce eventually hulks out and tears the place apart.

This leads to one of my biggest complaints about this film... Hulk looks really REALLY bad after seeing how great he can look in The Avengers. It may sound nit-picky, but his muscle-definition is way too extreme, his proportions are too cartoonish, and his hair is really annoying to me for some reason. It doesn't look anything like Edward Norton, and even when they make a point of showing Bruce Banner getting a haircut it has no effect on what the Hulk looks like. Plus, they keep trying to make his eyes green for some reason, which separates the character even further from reality (not that a giant green monster will ever look "real", but The Avengers pulled it off). Overall, the CGI of this movie is a pretty big step down from Iron Man, but most of that is just the effects of age. Had visual effects technology not taken such a big leap since 2008, it probably wouldn't be so glaringly apparent.

Other than that, I kind of liked the character journey for Banner as he reunites with his former love, Betty Ross (played by Liv Tyler). Their chemistry is a little flat for me, but there are still scenes that work. I buy the moments of Bruce not being able to get aroused without hulking out, and I bought into Betty's character the most during the cave scene where she has nothing to play against besides a CGI creature three times her size. Liv Tyler is a very attractive woman, and when she shows more emotion I think she's great in this movie. Unfortunately, most of her scenes are played without much feeling, and I fault the direction more than her performance. She's been great in other things, whereas the director has gone on to direct such classics as 2010's Clash of the Titans, and Now You See Me.

Having said that, the love story isn't what makes this movie enjoyable. The Hulk finally gets to have some battles here, and his fights with the military and especially with Abomination are pretty adrenalizing. This may be the first time that we see Hulk as a force of nature that cannot be controlled, and it's the only time we really see a "real fight" for Hulk as he takes on the incredibly ugly Abomination. Everyone loves the police car boxing glove scene, and I do too, but I have to say that this entire climax was much more exciting the first few times I watched it. It's sort of bitter-sweet that Marvel did so well with the character in The Avengers, because now I can't really enjoy these action scenes without the technical deficiencies calling themselves out. Still, it's pretty entertaining to watch, and Hulk finally getting the upper hand on Abomination by choking him out with a chain is pretty impressive to this day.

Overall, this set up a lot of characters that are never going to pay off (General Ross, Betty Ross, Dr. Samuel Sterns, Dr. Leonard Sampson, etc.), and it's ultimately the one that doesn't matter in the Marvel cannon. Even though fans were a bit more appreciative of it overall, The Incredible Hulk disappointed at the box-office, and were it not for one of the later Marvel films, I would call this the weakest of the MCU. That's more indicative of the quality of these Marvel movies than it is an indictment on Hulk, but I have a hard time getting excited about this movie since it appears to matter so little in the grand scheme of things. Suffice it to say that Marvel eventually figured out Hulk, and white it's great for the universe as a whole, it's to the ultimate detriment of this film. Still, I'm going to give The Incredible Hulk a slightly generous three stars.

There's still one more Phase 1 Marvel film that I haven't reviewed yet, and it will be coming out on Friday. Based on the epic showdown that we're promised in the trailers for Avengers: Age of Ultron, I figured it would be fitting to review the Hulk and Iron Man films in preparation, and I think a lot of people may be surprised by my review of Iron Man 2 this weekend. Anyway, thanks for reading and let me know what you thought of this movie (or any of my reviews) in the comments below!

THE INCREDIBLE HULK is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action violence, some frightening sci-fi images, and brief suggestive content

Friday, April 10, 2015

Iron Man

It's Friday people! And since we're coming up on the much anticipated release of Marvel's summer throwdown, Avengers: Age of Ultron, I figured I would go back and re-watch the three MCU films that I haven't reviewed yet. And what better way to start then with the film that started the Avengers franchise we all know and love, Iron Man. This is one of the few Marvel films that I didn't get to see in theatres, as I was out of the country at the time of its release. However, from my first viewing of this superhero game-changer, I was completely enthralled by what I was seeing. Most entertaining of all was easily the charismatic, and mostly unknown to me at the time, Robert Downey, Jr. Marvel has always done a great job of casting relatively unrecognizable or down on their luck actors in their superhero roles, which allows audiences to connect to the characters better than if a household name (like Tom Cruise, who was rumored for the part early on) had been offered the role.

Unlike the typical superhero film, which might begin with voiceover and a credits sequence to slowly immerse you in the new world being introduced, Iron Man begins with Tony Stark in a military convoy somewhere in Afghanistan to the awesomely appropriate "Back in Black" by AC/DC. This introduction tells everyone something crucial about the character we're about to follow in the span of about ten seconds... he's a freaking rock star! Tony Stark is a cocky, wise-cracking, billionaire playboy whom we just can't help but love. We only get a few seconds of his electric personality (besides a five-minute flashback to the day prior), however, before the humvees are attacked by an onslaught of gunfire and missiles, killing the soldiers protecting him and showering his chest with shrapnel.

He wakes up to find a device inserted in his sternum with a wire connecting to a car battery. It's pretty gross to think about, and the only reason the terrorist organization known as the Ten Rings are keeping him alive is so that he'll build them a Jericho Missile that he demonstrated previously. Trapped with a surgeon named Yensen, the pair begin to build, not a missile, but a suit of iron to escape from their heavily armed captors. This is actually the genius of this movie - each step of the Iron Man evolution is given adequate screen time so that we can actually buy into the technology being presented. Not only that, but Robert Downey, Jr. sells it in such a way that we're more entertained watching him work in a shop than when he's fighting against Iron Monger at the end of the film.

Every element of this movie is combined to perfection, complementing a character that would become the most popular in the biggest superhero team-up of all time. Not just Downey, but the supporting actors/actresses do incredible work. Particularly Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Pots, who elevates what could be simply a thankless role as the love interest and actually makes her something of an equal to the eccentric superhero in the making. Jeff Bridges is pretty convincing as both a likeable father figure to Tony, and also the menacing, cut-throat business man that will eventually don the Iron Monger suit. What's even more impressive is to think that most of the lines were ad-libbed by the actors, as the script was undergoing some problems thanks to the writer's strike in 2007. Thankfully, director Jon Favreau assembled a group of highly-talented individuals who could improvise believable dialogue that actually pushed the story along in an organic, entertaining way.

It wasn't just the talent on screen that made this film a success, however, as the technical mastery of the animators at ILM as well as the physical props made by the legendary Stan Winston brought the Iron Man suit to reality far better than most could have imagined. If every other part of this movie was as good as it turned out being and the Iron Man suit wasn't cool, this movie would have probably been just a modest success. But because the design of Iron Man looks so freaking awesome, it became the mega-blockbuster that it did and led to the rest of the MCU coming to the big screen. The frosting on the cake that gave the action scenes an extra punch was the rock-inspired score by one of my favorite composers, Ramin Djawadi (Pacific Rim, TV's Person of Interest, etc.). Even with Downey's terrific performance, the workshop scenes wouldn't have been nearly as entertaining were it not for the building rhythms and the guitar pulses of songs like "Trinkets to Kill a Prince", or "Mark II". He perfectly blends heavy-metal with orchestral flourishes with electronica, which is something the future Iron Man films desperately needed.

The only complaint I really have about this film is that the climactic battle is a little underwhelming. Iron Monger is presented as a bigger, stronger version of the suit Tony's been developing... even though we can clearly see that Iron Man is far more advanced. If it weren't for the handicap of a lesser arc reactor in Tony's suit, this fight would have lasted about 30 seconds. There are still some cool moments, like when Obadiah Stane grabs a passing motorcycle and bludgeons Iron Man with it, or when Stark uses his chest repulsor to make Iron Monger drop the minivan so he can catch it. But the whole scene on the rooftop is a little weak when comparing it to the rest of the movie. If there wasn't a really cool ending still to come, I would probably have dinged it a half-star at this point, but Tony can't help it at the press conference and has to tell the world, "I am Iron Man," making the entire audience cheer.

To sum up, this is one of the strongest comic book movies ever made, and probably my second favorite Marvel movie to date. It's right up there with The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and it deserves additional credit for how risky a move this production was for Marvel. Iron Man is an incredibly entertaining film, and one that re-launched Robert Downey, Jr.'s career and gave us one of the biggest block-busters of all time. I give this movie a solid four stars.

Next week I'll be covering the other Marvel film of 2008, The Incredible Hulk, followed by the divisive Iron Man 2 on Friday. I can't wait to revisit those films, and hopefully you can come back to read those reviews too! Let me know what your favorite Marvel movie is in the comments below, and thanks for reading!

IRON MAN is rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and brief suggestive content