Here’s a couple new movie reviews to help remind you that I am not dead.
Iron Man 3 (2013) - I find the Marvel Universe films to be fascinating. Not because of the film themselves, because many of them, including Iron Man 3, are underwhelming, but to my knowledge, the Marvel films are the first to attempt to create a universe of film franchises in film. Comics have done this for decades, but film had never really attempted to tie together multiple franchises (Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, Captain America, and so on) into one single fictional universe. For that reason, I find myself continuing to watch all the Marvel films, and kudos to Marvel for achieving that, because otherwise, there’s not really any good reason why I went to see Iron Man 3. The first film was better than most superhero movies, sure, but the second one was humdrum. The third one, to its credit, attempts to do something special by bringing in director/co-writer Shane Black, known for writing Lethal Weapon and directing the meta-detective comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and having him infuse some of that tongue-in-cheek sensibility intoIron Man, the franchise that could best benefit from that approach, considering how smarmy and sarcastic Robert Downey Jr.’s take on Tony Stark already is. Black tries to incorporate loftier ideas into the story; for example, Stark’s panic attacks and anxieties regarding the vaguely referenced “New York incident” is a literal reference to the events of The Avengers, but is also easily interpreted as post-9/11 anxiety, especially considering that the first two films already dealt with post-9/11 themes. This interpretation makes more sense when you consider the central twist of the film, which reveals the bin Laden-esque terrorist known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) to be a British actor, merely a boogeyman decoy hired by the real terrorist, scientist and military industrialist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). This comes off as a very anti-Bush (and anti-Obama, considering his terrorist policies are in truth a continuation of Bush’s) statement, where terrorists like bin Laden were turned into real-life “supervillains” that had to be stopped at all costs, allowing for more military action, more war, and more incursions into freedom. That’s quite the political statement for a big-budget comic book movie released by Disney, isn’t it? And yet the film doesn’t really follow through on that statement - it reveals it through the plot twist, then doesn’t take it ay farther, failing to really elucidate Killian’s motivations and goals, and then devolves into a standard comic-book movie with a climactic explosion-filled battle that forgoes the political completely. The final battle isn’t even that great on a purely action level - the idea of tons of Iron Man suits in a fight sounds great, but in practice, it’s just a lot of stuff happening without any real emotional investment (why should I care if these suits don’t make it through the fight? Tony doesn’t even care). The idea that Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) ends up saving Tony is a nice twist on the “damsel in distress” problem, but it doesn’t change the fact that she spends the previous thirty minutes of the film being exactly that. The film on the whole is still simple fun, but beyond the political subtexts, there’s nothing that special about the film. Black’s lighter touch makes it stand out from other superhero films, but if I’m being honest, I find that light, sarcastic tone tiring. Black seems like he’s attempting to upend tropes, like introducing a kid who helps humanize the hero with his innocence and then having Stark recognize the kid’s attempts to play up his innocence and mock them, but the kid character is still simply doing exactly what the trope requires him to do. That’s basically the story of the film as a whole - unconventional ideas being drowned out by superhero film conventions. I give Black and his cast and crew credit for trying to do something different, but alas, being in a multi-franchise universe means not straying too far from the rules and, more important, marketability of that universe.
Three out of five suns
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) - In comparison to Iron Man 3, the new Star Trek film doesn’t have much to say politically. Its villain does commit some terrorist acts, but that’s less a political statement and more a shorthand for modern audiences to recognize evil as well as an excuse for more blockbuster-friendly spectacle (apparently audiences like seeing large things blow up), and there is the storyline of a Starfleet leader using the Enterprise crew as a ploy to start a war with the Klingons, but that section of the plot is too convoluted to say anything with clarity about real-world war and politics. The film doesn’t really have anything particular to say, no message underneath, which is partly why Star Trek purists don’t like J.J. Abrams’s take on their beloved, philosophically-minded sci-fi universe. What Star Trek Into Darkness does have, however, which gives it a leg up on a film like Iron Man 3, is a far better sense of character; it focuses mainly on the relationship between its two main characters, Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), giving its audience an actual reason to care what happens to the characters they’re seeing onscreen. On the surface, it may not seem like the movie’s main focus is on that main friendship, but rather on Kirk’s attempts to capture John Harrison, A.K.A. Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the subsequent betrayals of Fleet Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), but the thread that ties all the various twists and turns of the plot from the very beginning to the very end of the film is the unlikely bond between Kirk and Spock. Kirk’s loner personality and willingness to bend the rules put at odds with Spock’s rigid understanding of rules and morality and difficulty in understanding and partaking in human emotion is the real main conflict of the film and the source of the film’s emotional arcs and dynamics as the two butt heads but maintain their deep respect and admiration for one another and ultimately gain from stepping in the other’s shoes. From a pure storytelling standpoint, this makes Star Trek Into Darkness a relatively satisfying summer blockbuster. As a film lover/analyzer, Into Darkness gets a further lift by being a bizarro-remake of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, where Khan is a new rival and temporary unlikely ally instead of a well-known old nemesis, Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) is a new Starfleet recruit instead of the mother of Kirk’s estranged son, and instead of Spock dying to save the crew, Kirk dies for the crew in a scene that is almost exactly the same as Wrath of Khan's, with Spock and Kirk putting their hands together on either side of glass, except with the positions reversed. Again, there's nothing really meaningful being said by doing this; it's merely interesting to note the connections and how Abrams is utilizing his mandate to do anything he wants with the Star Trek universe with the simple explanation of “hey, different timeline”. As usual for Abrams' projects, the film is well-crafted and beautiful to look at, and his notorious penchant for lens flares actually makes sense for his Star Trek films, where so much of the action takes place in buildings or spaceships made of shiny metal and full of bright lights which would indeed, in a real world situation, cause lens flares. The cast is great, charming, witty, and, when it’s called for in the villains, threatening. The only shame is that the film really doesn’t make good use of its female characters, which is a particular waste with a character like Uhura played by an actress with the talents of Zoe Saldana. Unfortunately, Uhura’s role in the story is incidental, little more than “Spock’s girlfriend”. Carol Marcus, meanwhile, gets a bit more to do, but she also suffers the indignity of the completely gratuitous underwear shot; as hard as I try, I can’t think of what seeing that character in her underwear contributes to the story. That doesn’t ruin the film, but it’s another annoying example that Hollywood still feels the need to blatantly sexualize its female characters. Isn’t the future depicted in Star Trek supposed to be a better place, one of peace and equality? You got the storytelling part down, J.J., so maybe work on that bit of it for next time.
Four out of five suns