Tag Archives: Iron Man

Regarding Movies About Two Superheroes Fighting Each Other

If you were to put 2016’s blockbusters in a museum, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War ought to be displayed next to each other. They’re the sort of movies that, when looked at together, take on a whole new dimension. Because one is far more successful than the other.

To understand why Civil War succeeds, you don’t have to look much better than at how BvS fails. Both movies have the same conceit: Two heroes fight each other. Thus, if you want both characters to remain sympathetic, they’d better have a dang good reason to be fighting. Funnily, both movies end up on the topic of collateral damage. In Civil War, Tony Stark/Iron Man and Steve Rogers/Captain America disagree on whether to put the Avengers under UN oversight, something that is complicated when brainwashed assassin Bucky Barnes enters the fray, forcing Steve to go outside the law. Bam, conflict.

In BvS, Batman doesn’t like how Superman is so powerful and causes so much collateral damage, and Superman doesn’t like Batman because he, um, takes the law into his own hands? Right off the bat the difference is clear, Civil War had a clear conflict, BvS was murky at best. Watching BvS, I was never sure why they were fighting, what it was they disagreed on. Furthermore, BvS has no complications in the conflict between Batman and Superman; they don’t like each other in the beginning, and continue to dislike each other the same amount until the fight. In Civil War the accords form the initial conflict, which then get complicated by Bucky’s reappearance and what they uncover about Zemo. Meanwhile, in BvS, the status quo between Batman and Superman doesn’t really change.

Which is weird; you’d think that with Lex Luthor running around with Kryponite and Zod’s corpse he’d be in a good place to incite some tension between the two. However, he doesn’t have any direct bearing on the plot until he kidnaps and threatens Superman’s mom well into the second hour (blowing up the Capitol sends Superman into exile and doesn’t directly escalate the conflict between the two heroes). Compare this to Civil War, where Zemo (who fulfills the same role as Luthor) blows up the UN (and frames Bucky), thereby setting Cap on a path that’ll put him at total odds against Tony. That’s before he sets Bucky on the other Avengers too, by the way. In other words, Civil War escalates the animosity between its two heroes. By the time they come to blows, we totally get why.

The coming to blows bit is where we see another divide. In BvS, Batman and Superman’s fight is just a skirmish before their big brawl against Doomsday. Civil War has a big airport fight with all the heroes happen before Steve and Tony’s one-on-one. This ordering shows where the priorities of each movie lie. See, you save the best, biggest, and most important climax for last. Rey and Kylo fight after Poe blows up Starkiller base. Frodo climbs Mount Doom after the battle of the Pelennor Fields. If the fight against Doomsday is the Biggest Moment of BvS, then the “Dawn of Justice” subtitle becomes the most important part. Which is weird, because the whole movie up to that point has been ploddingly trying to excite us to watch the heroes fight, only for the big thing to be them teaming up. Despite Batman versus Superman being the dang title, the ending tells us we’re not supposed to be interested in watching them fight. In Civil War, however, Steve and Tony throw down comes at the very end and proves a catharsis for the entire movie.

Okay, so, there’s actually a lot more about these movies. Both of them have a third party who joins them in the climax, though where Wonder Woman gives interesting looks throughout, Black Panther brings an additional point of view to the plot and ends up being the only true hero. Both have heroes manipulated into fighting, but while Lex kidnaps Superman’s mom, Tony finds out Steve’s best friend kill his parents (and so Tony fights Bucky [and Steve] because he wants to, while Superman is doing it because he has to). Then there’s also BvS contorting Batman and Superman into being funhouse mirrors of their accepted selves to fit the plot, while Civil War sees Steve and Tony’s own flaws orchestrate their undoing.

But I’m at my word limit and it’s getting late here, so I’m ending this here. Point of all this? Sometimes it’s worth watching a lesser movie to appreciate one that does the same thing better.

Except for Fant4stic. That movie just tells you what not to do.

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Masculinity in Age of Ultron

I saw Age of Ultron Thursday night and I have thoughts. There’s the obvious nerd-out factor of the film, and it’s really cool and does a lot of things right (and, arguably, does indeed go smaller than the first Avengers), but those are essays rants for another day.

So let’s talk about how the movie portrays the idea of masculinity. Because it’s actually really interesting.

Age of Ultron, like The Avengers before it and probably every Marvel movie until I get my friggin’ Captain Marvel movie, is very male dominated. But that doesn’t stop it from portraying a variety of roles for the men to take on. Macho men being manly all the time this is not, rather the Avengers portray different shades of masculinity.

Bruce Banner may be the most obvious. His ‘alter-ego’ is inherently violent and destructive, a stark contrast to his more mild-mannered usual self. He’s a violent man who eschews violence. Here’s a man who would rather that problems not be solved by punching.

This serves as something of an antithesis to Thor, who delights in battle (and tries to comfort Bruce at one point by telling him how well he fought). That said, when Thor competes with Tony, it’s not over who’s the better fighter. Instead they’re boasting of the impressive accomplishments of their significant others. Implicit here is that these two who embody traditionally masculine traits (Thor’s the fighter, Tony is characteristically bawdy) are both with accomplished and important women, and both are okay with it. Being ‘manly’ doesn’t mean downplaying the accomplishments of others and sometimes it means deferring to that as the true measure by which they measure themselves.

It’s Steven Rogers, though, who as Captain America is in some regards the paragon of masculinity: he’s brave, physically fit, honorable, a leader, and so on. But at the same time he’s also humble, he hopes for the best in people, is willing to be vulnerable, and knows he can’t always do it alone. He’s a lot like Captain Awesome from Chuck, in that he embodies a sort of ideal masculinity, but without a lot of the toxicity that goes with it.

Which brings me to Hawkeye, who gets a vastly expanded role in this film. Not only do we get a deeper look into his inner life, but we also see his role as a part of the team. Clint is, not unlike his comics counterpart, effectively the most normal of the Avengers. More than that, though, he’s the one with the most normal and fulfilled personal life, making him also the most stable; the least ‘manly’ of the Avengers is also the one who’s got it the most together. Furthermore, within Age of Ultron he carries much of the film’s emotional weight; he may not be the hardest hitter but he is the heart. In many other stories this position is usually occupied by a woman, or the most feminine one if there are multiple (think Katara from Avatar and Kaylee from Firefly). Clint isn’t seen as less capable for it; he, like Raleigh in Pacific Rim, portrays a form of masculinity that’s supportive in nature.

The male action hero has been somewhat pigeonholed over the years. There’s an immense focus on the John McLane, John Matrix, and Indiana Jones type, that is the swaggering, self-reliant, gun toting, never backing down sort. Compare The Expendables, an ensemble cast of very traditionally manly action heroes, to Age of Ultron. The former are all cut from the same hyper-masculine cloth, whereas the male Avengers are more nuanced. None of them are seen as lesser for not being as much of a brawler as Thor or as brave as Captain America. Rather, the film acknowledges that masculinity comes in different forms and that’s perfectly okay.

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The New Western

The superhero genre – since it’s become a genre unto itself and not a subset of science-fiction or action – is really taking off, in case you haven’t noticed. Between Marvel Studios putting out two movies a year, DC’s big plans to do big things, and the companies Marvel sold characters to over the years trying to make good on their investments. It’s big.

Some articles I’ve read online have likened the superhero genre to the western. It sounds a touch farfetched at first; the western’s about cowboys and lawless towns, superhero flicks are about people in costumes and their derring-do.

But the western is also in some ways a morality play. You’ve got the good cowboy and the bad one, the white hat and black hat. Good versus evil. Same with the superhero genre. Dark and brooding as Batman is, he’s fighting for good. The X-Men want acceptance and coexistence, as opposed to the Brotherhood’s want to dominate. Robert McKee’s description of the western; “a mythical golden age for allegories of good versus evil,” works equally well for the superhero.

The western was immensely popular for a period of time, with some of the earliest movies ever made showing shades of the genre. These films, particularly the ones most remembered (which I’ve found out are considered revisionist westerns, as they deconstructed a lot of tropes of the westerns that came before), feature elements that can be reliably found across the board. You’ve got the desolate town on the edge of civilization and the duel at high noon, for example. There’re the themes of lawfulness and lawlessness and doing wrong to do the right thing. Conventions are expected.

Likewise, the superhero genre, now reliably bringing in millions of dollars at the box-office, is arguably the closest thing we’ve got to a sure thing. Until recently, the structure and set up of superhero movies were reliably similar to one another. You had the hero getting powers, the hero figuring out what to do with his (because face it, just about every lead in a superhero film has been male) newfound powers, rises to the mantle of his responsibility, then goes to fight the villain who’s often a byproduct of his own call to heroism. Usually, if we’re watching a superhero movie, be it Batman Begins or Iron Man, we know what we’re getting into – and we’re watching it for that.

There’s the argument that the western afforded greater flexibility. Simpler sets and lower budgets meant just about anyone could take a stab at it. With a great range of voices involved, the western offered diverse takes on the themes of the genre which allowed it to grow into the esteem it holds today. The western could be about someone audiences had never heard about and would still be engrossing.

But superhero movies need massive budgets for intricate special effects and they need the comic book source to do well. They’re tied to studios and the money they afford, strangling out creativity and voices in favor of rolling in the dough. Hence the formula.

…right?

See, here’s where I think the superhero genre’s moved forwards, maybe even more so than the western. And I’m not talking about the smaller, independent ones like Chronicle; I mean Marvel’s tentpoles and the like. Over the past few years, we’ve seen superhero films going past what we’re expecting from them. The Winter Soldier was more like a spy thriller than your usual superhero set up; The Dark Knight was a crime movie; and Thor has heavy shades of fantasy. They remain expensive, but the movies show thematic and stylistic variance.

Guardians of the Galaxy may be most emblematic of superhero movies going forwards. For starters, Star-Lord and the others were hardly household names when the film was announced. The majority of the film’s audience wasn’t going to the movie because of the recognition of the name. Then Guardians hardly followed the typical superhero plot, eschewing it instead for the space opera. So here’s a superhero movie that feels very much unlike a superhero movie, yet still is one. Why?

At its core, Guardians has that central theme of a superhero film: good versus evil, where the hero has to overcome their flaws to defeat the villain. At the end of the day, that’s the kernel of the genre. Unlike the western, however, superhero films have a lot more flexibility setting-wise with how to explore it.

So here we are, on the verge of several, several new superhero movies over the next few years, with a big concern being that we’re gonna grow tired of them really soon. But give the genres similarly to the western, the western’s staying power in its heyday, and the comparative flexibility of the superhero film; I’m thinking we’ll be alright.

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Superhero Overdose

If you haven’t heard, DC recently announced their cinematic plans for the next six years. We’ve got a Justice League movie, a Wonder Woman movie, one with the Flash, one with Aquaman, a Green Lantern movie, and so on. It’s DC’s answer to Marvel’s Avengers. They’re looking to emulate Marvel’s formula, releasing two a year. Not only that, it looks like most of the Justice League roster from the cartoon is getting their own movie (except Martian Manhunter which is its own infuriating can of worms). Between Marvel and DC, we’re looking at four superhero movies a year — and that’s not even counting other studios with rights to Marvel characters, like Fox with X-Men and the Fantastic Four. That’s a lot of superhero movies, a lot of men in proverbial tights (and one woman, so far) running around doing superhero stuff.

Now, with so many superheroes flying around, it’s likely we’re looking to get a glut of that genre. Woohoo, there’s Age of Ultron, Ant Man, and Fantastic Four next year, but after that there’s gonna be Batman v Superman, a new Captain America, a new X-Men movie, and Suicide Squad. And then after that comes Wonder Woman, and Justice League (so far). Genres can become tired, look at how few Westerns there are as opposed to a few decades ago. With all these superhero films coming out, and with superhero movies usually following a specific pattern we could end up watching the same darn movie over and over again. If that happens, then people get tired, people stop watching these movies, and people stop making superhero movies.

Thing is, we’ve seen the superhero movie a hundred times. The hero gets powers, the hero figures out what to do with powers, the hero fights bad guys. Sequels have been playing with the follow up, but we’ve seen the super-powered-hero-fights-evil formula over and over again. Superhero movies as we know them has happened.

So how do we keep it interesting? So far the trick has been genre blending. The Dark Knight was a crime movie with Batman. It was different and it was big (though I’ve heard the argument that it wasn’t a Batman movie, but that’s another issue). More so now than ever, superhero movies have to stand out. The Avengers was a heroes-fighting-villains narrative, but did it better than anyone else and threw in some internal conflict and hints of a war movie for good measure. Unless a new movie surpasses it, doing the same thing will be repetitive.

Marvel Studios, and Joe Quesada, know this. Look at the most recent releases from Marvel. Iron Man 3 was as much Lethal Weapon-y as it was Iron Man, The Dark World was borderline pure fantasy, The Winter Soldier was a spy/espionage movie, and Guardians of the Galaxy was pure space opera. Looking ahead, Ant Man is planned to be a heist movie, which there are never enough of. Marvel’s keeping things varied. In fact, I think one of the reasons Winter Soldier and Guardians were so well received is that they were so unique. Both tapped genres relatively unheard of at the moment, and both executed them incredibly. If Marvel Studios can keep making movies that challenge the idea of a ‘superhero’ movie they’re in good shape.

So the onus is on DC to do the same thing. It’s hard to judge how they’ll do, especially given the kinda mostly alright Man of Steel, but if they can make Aquaman feel very different from The Flash and not just in subject material, then there’s hope. We don’t wanna keep watching the same movie with swapped out details.

But I cannot overstate how freaking excited I am about all of this. In the next two years I’m getting a second Avengers movie, a new Star Wars, a movie with Batman and Superman, and what’s reportedly a movie about Captain American and Iron Man. Heck, they just announced a movie featuring The Lego’s Movie glorious riff on Batman! All this is the twelve-year-old in me’s dream come true. I don’t like not liking things, it’s tiring and it’s not fun to hate everything you watch. I want these movies to happen, I want to like these movies. I just hope these movies are good.

 

Also, I’m making a movie! Help me get it funded!

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Interconnected

I’ve been waiting for Agents of SHIELD to really get into its groove proper. It finally did last week, courtesy of some major plot points from Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Which is kinda odd, really. A feature film bearing a different name affecting a TV show that much. I mean, it makes sense within the universe they’re creating, but from a meta perspective, it’s terribly uncommon.

And that’s one thing I love about the stories Marvel Studios’ been telling. They’re all connected. This was a gamble. Back in 2008 when Iron Man came out and Nick Fury mentioned the Avengers Initiative, Marvel was asking audiences to wait a few years and watch a few seeming unrelated movies in hope of a big team up coming out later. It could have failed, some of the movies could have sucked, but they took the risk to try and build their cinematic universe.

Seeing as The Avengers made what businesspeople call a ‘crapload of money,’ it paid off. Not only that, but it was a legitimately awesome film. Best of all, it stood alone. You didn’t have to have seen any or all of Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, or Captain America: The First Avenger to get it. Sure, watching those movies helped, but it was great on it’s own. Each Avenger was quickly and succinctly introduced enough for a new viewer to get what was happening.

Every Marvel movie works that way. Someone can see The Winter Soldier on its own, or after having only also seen The First Avenger, or seen all the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe chronology as well as Agents of SHIELD and enjoy it. There’s a decided effort for each film to be able to stand on its own and yet play with the others around it. They compliment each other but are not dependent on the others. It’s a fun sort of storytelling; you follow a group of independent characters and then see them all in a big event, then see them apart again.

Marvel’s asking viewers to embrace a sort of storytelling not really seen in film (or TV, really). Outside of the occasional Alien VS Predator, having independent franchises team up like what happened in The Avengers just doesn’t happen. Though it does in the comics. Their Guardians of the Galaxy title may intersect with the Avengers title, but you don’t have to be following both to understand what’s going on. Does it help? Sure, but it’s not a requirement.

Consider the last episode of Agents of SHIELD, “Turn, Turn, Turn.” What happened in The Winter Soldier directly affects the show in a massive game changing sort of way. Like in the comics, they’re weaved together to stand alone but also enhance each other. “Turn, Turn, Turn” offers a different perspective on what happened in The Winter Soldier and the film shows the big picture of the events in the show.

This also makes great business sense. See, Marvel’s smart; they know that not everyone will watch every one of their movies. It’s to their benefit for every film to be as stand alone as they are. It allows them to remain accessible to anyone. Winter Soldier deftly sets up Steve Rogers as being a man out of time who feels a bit lost in a way that doesn’t feel obtrusive to someone who’s seen the prior movies, yet so that someone new can follow what’s going on. It plain works. Add in the fun of getting more understanding the crossovers and Marvel’s market expands.

I’m so glad Marvel managed to pull this off. Things like seeing Bruce Banner at the end of Iron Man 3, references to Stark tech in The Winter Soldier, and Sif showing up in Agents of SHIELD remind me of the Iron Man and Spider-Man cartoons I’d watch as a kid where anyone could and would show up. Somehow, Marvel did it: they made a cohesive cinematic universe. Now I really wanna see what happens next in that world.

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Heart of a Child

I grew up in the 90’s with a steady diet of Lego, Jedi, superhero cartoons, mecha anime, Power Rangers, and Ninja Turtles. All this was peppered in with bedtime stories from my Dad, some of which were about the Chinese strategist Zhuge Liang, others were about Han Solo and Luke Skywalker going on adventures, and still others about Superman and Batman teaming up to fight bad guys.

There are side effects that come with this; the firm belief that giant robots are awesome, for example. Others are the ingrained image of a mulleted Tony Stark at an anvil, or memories of Captain America and Iron Man showing up on Spider Man’s cartoon. But then, those are all cartoons and stuff, puerile parts of childhood.

Only not.

A lot of the stuff I grew up with is being tapped and turned into cinematic fare these days. Sure, there’ve been Batman and Superman movies since well before I was born, but a movie about Iron Man? And Captain America? And one where they team up with the Hulk and Thor? In a movie? Eight year old Josh would be giddy at the idea (as twenty-two year old Josh still is).

Here’s the thing, I’m not eight anymore. How does a movie work to appeal to me now? Characters like Batman and Spider Man have had several incarnations in various media for various audiences. Adam West’s Batman differs sharply from the one in Justice League who in turn differs from Arkham Asylum’s. Sure, there’s the same character but differences in tone and style. There are many different ways to interpret characters and genres these days.

Especially Batman. Christopher Nolan approached the Caped Crusader from a much more mature point of view than we’d really seen on screen at the point. He deconstructs the idea of a superhero throughout the Dark Knight Trilogy. This is how Batman would work in a ‘real’ world: masks bought in bulk to avoid suspicion, for example. Gone is the romanticism of being a superhero.

Nolan’s Gotham is awash in a gray world of corrupt cops, sold-out lawyers, and mob rule. Batman himself is not entirely in the clear and, as he Commissioner Gordon puts it at the end of The Dark Knight, isn’t the hero Gotham needs. This is Batman for a more grown up, more adult world, a blurry world where right and wrong aren’t quite distinct.

Then on the other end of the spectrum we have Pacific Rim. The movie has, as director Guillermo del Toro put it, the heart of a 12-year-old and the craft of a 48-year-old. The movie is brimming with the hope and excitement you had when you were 12. There’s little attempt to ‘grow up’ the mecha genre, at least as far as growing up means how everything must be brooding, dark, and deathly serious. Sure, characters die and sacrifices are made, but it’s a clear view of Good and Evil; it’s that idealistic dichotomy.

Pacific Rim, like The Avengers, is a reconstruction of its genres. The Avengers acknowledges the problems of having a team of six superhero egos, but factors overcoming it into a plot. Pacific Rim makes Kaiju terrifying and Jaegers awesome, crafting a movie’s world where it not only works but is acceptable. These are movies that have grown up but remember the romanticism of being younger.

There is, however, yet another point on the spectrum: The Lego Movie. This movie doesn’t give a crap about growing up. There’s no playing at re/deconstruction; instead it takes it’s idea — a movie about Legos — and runs with it. It’s a movie about being a kid, about those times when you built a spaceship and ran around your room making laser noises and chanting “spaceship!” over and over again. If anything, The Lego Movie is an ode to childhood in the purest sense. It doesn’t just have the heart of a child, it’s about being a child.

Is one way of doing it better than the other? Nah. I love the grittiness of The Dark Knight as much as I love the colorful cacophony of The Lego Movie. I was ten once and these movies, with all their different interpretations, remind me of what it was like.

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Formulaic Formulas

There are a lot of people who, when it comes to movies, say there’s a distinct formula to how everything works. Some people blanch at the thought, others say it’s blame for the derivative nature of, y’know, everything.

Well, there is a formula.

Sort of: there are these certain moments you can use to plot the course of a movie’s story. Just about every good story will hit these beats. They may not always be as pronounced as in another film, but they do happen.

Now, this isn’t bad. This isn’t the same plot, it’s the same moments. Campbell outlined this over sixty years ago where he outlined the Hero’s Journey in his Hero With a Thousand Faces. For my purposes (and as a way to prep for homework), I’m gonna be using what Viki King lists in her book How To Write a Movie in 21 Days mixed with what I learnt last semester.

Let’s look at Iron Man. Because I love the movie and I analyzed it for a midterm. As the movie opens we’re introduced to Tony Stark; genius, billionaire, playboy. We’re also introduced to a central theme: Tony’s irresponsibility. Now that we’ve got all that set up, it’s time for stuff to happen, like getting shrapnel in his chest. This changes his life, so what’s he gonna do about it? Tony opts to make his life count and builds the prototype Iron Man armor and breaks out, returns home, and shuts down Stark Industries’ weapons manufacturing; thereby crossing the point of no return.

Welcome to Act Two. This is where we spend time dealing more with Tony’s inner workings, figuring out who he is. He builds a new armor, continuously improving it, almost as a symbol of his working on himself. Of course, if this was all that happened in Act Two it’d get boring quick. So we force Tony to recommit to his goal. How? His weapons are still being given to the bad guys. He suits up and fights them, proving that yes: he is Iron Man, he’s done just sitting around. From here things only escalate. Obadiah Stane becomes more obvious in his villainy, leading up to where the worst possible thing happens: Tony loses his Arc Reactor and Stane goes after Pepper. This in turn leads us to the climax: Tony suits up with an underpowered Arc Reactor and fights Stane and wins. So concludes Act Two.

Now we’re tying up lose ends, Tony’s alright and, in a press conference, says that, yes, he is Iron Man. And the movie ends.

We can run Iron Man 3 through a similar break down: Tony’s introduced as an insomniac, the big issue of the movie comes up shortly after (he feels vulnerable; is he Iron Man or is the armor Iron Man?). Then his world changes: the next Mandarin attack leaves Happy Hogan injured. So Tony issues a challenge and his mansion is destroyed, creating his point of no return. Act Two begins with a broken Tony who, over time, rebuilds himself. We soon reach the midpoint where Tony recommits to his goal: he goes to the Florida mansion to continue doing the hero thing. This is followed shortly after by the worst thing possible: Air Force One is attacked, Pepper captured, and Rhody’s armorless. Then the climax at the docks and the resolution at the cliff. See? Still works.

But what about a movie that’s not about fighting bad guys? Like (500) Days of Summer?

Tom’s normal world is introduced by the narrator and the theme is brought up shortly after (what is love?). Then we’re given the inciting incident: Tom and Summer meet. The point of no return comes when they sleep together. From there we build their relationship, culminating in the midpoint where they break up and Tom fights with himself about whether or not go after her. The worst possible thing is portrayed to Regina Spektor’s “Hero”: Tom find out she’s engaged. The climax is Tom looking for work and Summer getting married. The resolution? The talk on the bench and Tom meeting Autumn.

Movies need these beats; without the midpoint Act Two starts to sag and gets dull. Without the worst thing possible happening (even if it’s not earth shattering), the climax loses its potency. We need some semblance of normalcy for the protagonist to leave behind. It all has to happen in some form, scale, or another.

Anyway, with all that done, I now have a quartet of movies to watch and break down. See you next week.

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