IRON MAN 2: SO MUCH ADDING UP TO SO LITTLE
The theme of this week's column is "catching up." We'll get to the comics in a bit. Since everyone is talking "Green Lantern" this week, let's start with a superhero movie I belatedly saw this weekend: "Iron Man 2." I watched it on Blu-ray from the comfort of my own "home theater." No annoyingly dark 3D projection, no yapping from the people around me, no blinding cell phone screens popping up like whack-a-moles. A 46 inch television screen and surround sound is all I need, thanks.
It was an enjoyable two hour diversion, but lacked anything for the audience to grab onto. Or, rather, what it had to grab onto was often pushed aside in favor of another hook to grab onto, which would then be overwritten by another hook. The movie is weaker than the sum of its parts, some of which were very good and potentially great.
The problem is, the movie tried to do too many things. It could, for example, have been a whole movie about Tony Stark battling an addiction to alcohol and watching him slowly hit rock bottom before conquering it. While the alcohol fueled a plot point or two, it was always a sideshow, never something you rooted for Tony to overcome. The movie could have been the story of Stark battling a technology industry competitor who isn't as smart as he is, but more vicious with laxer morals. The back-and-forth could have been exciting as the blows traded grew bigger and bigger throughout the movie. Surely, there are parallels in the high tech industry to draw from. The movie even could have withstood a B-plot about a spy infiltration of Stark Industries and the problems that would cause and how Stark and Friends could find it and fix it -- even if it doesn't need fixing but, rather, acceptance and approval. Heck, you could have done the whole movie as a Stark Industries Civil War -- the company versus its eccentric, yet brilliant founder who The Board has serious qualms with. (And one member of The Board, of course, has access to some high tech weaponry on the side to challenge Iron Man with…)
I thought at first that it was the classic Hollywood problem of overstuffing a second superhero movie with too many villains, but I'm not sure that's it, entirely. There really are only two villains in this movie -- Whiplash and Jonathan Hammer -- and only one of them is a physical menace. This isn't a Schumacher Batman movie with multiple villains. There are a lot of other characters in here, though, including Black Widow, Nick Fury, Senator Gary Shandling, James Rhodes, Pepper Potts, Happy Hogan. They all play roles to support the main throughline of the movie, but they're almost too distracting in the end. None are meant to be the villain of the movie, or the new hero. (War Machine comes close, but he's still just a military-trained Iron Man who advances the plot in little pieces and does nothing else.)
Let's see if we can track Tony Stark's arc: he's under fire by the Feds, who he successfully fends off by pointing out that nobody's close to his level of technology. Meanwhile, his technology is slowly killing him and he's drinking alcohol to counter the effects of it. This leads to some bad alcohol-induced moments, but the whole plot line is short-circuited by Nick Fury's quick fix and pointer to the ultimate solution. Tony knows he's losing control, so he signs over the company to Pepper, who ultimately has to turn her back on him for the good of the company and her own well-being. Meanwhile, Tony's father shows up for Exposition Theater and to maintain the critical elements of every superhero movie: Father/Son issues. Tony's friend fights him and steals a copy of the Iron Man armor, or maybe Tony lets him? Jonathan Hammer is an industrialist and inventor who's smart, but not quite as smart as Stark, but represents a threat to Stark because he's just dumb enough to buy a bad guy's help. Black Widows is a spy for S.H.I.E.L.D., and Nick Fury wants Tony for the Avengers. Fury becomes the oracle, dropping vague clues and a box of hints instead of just saying something in the thirty seconds it would normally take.
So what's the movie about? I'm still not sure. In the end, there's a big battle that ends quickly and Iron Man wins. Pepper is still the CEO and Tony is still Iron Man. And everyone else goes away. The two strongest points of the movie, I thought, were Tony's relationship with Pepper and his relationship with Rhodes. The former was an easy Will They/Won't They kind of thing, while the latter is there mostly for the explosions and laser gun firing bits. (The Iron Man/War Machine battle in Tony's house was the best action scene of the movie, though.) But they still get drowned out amidst everything else.
The highlight of the first movie, of course, was Robert Downey Jr.'s take on Tony Stark. He was over-the-top, cocky, confident, and hilarious. He had both the gravity for the role and the hilarity in the right spots. He was a guy you wanted to root for because of his situation in life. In this movie, he's the conceited arrogant jerk whose Senate testimony should be accompanied by a big red flashing light in the corner of the screen to scream "FORESHADOWING ALERT!" It's no longer entertaining or whimsical or exciting. It's just a man clearly setting himself up for a big fall. It gets a little better as the movie goes on, but that opening scene turns you off from Tony right away.
Worse, the movie grinds to a halt every time Jonathan Hammer appears on screen. The instant a word flies out of his mouth, the comic book-based movie becomes "a comic book movie," the insipid two-dimensional poorly-acted overblown and silly farce of a movie that critics have used to describe any cartoonish movie for decades now. Just when you think we've gotten away from that term as a pejorative, Hammer comes on screen and it's all right there again. He's as subtle and as mature as any six year old boy on the playground. He made the whole movie feel cheap and as ham-fisted as a 1960s Marvel comic at its worst. Yes, you can get someone to play that kind of role and make it work, but you can't cast William Shatner in every movie.
From a comics point of view, I realized after the first half hour that the movie was the perfect encapsulation of the modern Marvel comic, especially the ones crafted by Brian Michael Bendis. There's a lot of snappy patter, but there's also a lot of analysis of a superhero scene through the eyes of the media, the politicians, and the "police." (In this case, it's more the military than the police, but it's the same concept.) There is some strong characterization delivered through the dialogue, and a few cute on-liners. It was really the perfect blend of, say, Bendis' "Ultimate Spider-Man" and Matt Fraciton's "Invincible Iron Man." Remember how the latter had the opening storyline of the Iron Man armor's specs being open source and getting terrible weapons built in all the wrong places around the globe? That's a lot like what the movie is about: worry over the technology in the Iron Man armor and how quickly the wrong people will be able to deliver it. Why, the movie even casts real people to star in it, quite like Salvador Larocca uses in "Invincible Iron Man." Thankfully, they're slightly more realistic in the movie. (I guess "Green Lantern" falls somewhere in the middle there.)
"Iron Man 2" is an entertaining film with a couple of major road blocks, but I enjoyed it. While it tried to do too much in one movie and fails to grow a heart because of it, it's still a fun little quick roller coaster ride. It's just not anything that will engage your mind or heart too much. It's more "Transformers" than "The Dark Knight," let's just say.
TWO IMAGE COMICS TRYING TO BE "LOST"
Two comics are vying to become the next "Lost," and one is faring better than the other, though it's still too soon to call.
First, we have "The Mission." It frustrates me a bit, though some of it in a good way. It reminds me of "100 Bullets." It started off with a strong premise and a conspiratorial story arc. It's got the man trapped in a new world he didn't ask to be in, plus a world gone mad around him in quiet ways that he doesn't understand. In this case, Paul appears to be turning into a hitman for heaven, specifically under Gabriel's watch. But there's obviously more to the story, as the universe grows ever so slightly with each issue.
I hope that (A) there's a plan behind this and (B) they don't complicate it to the point that it gets confusing to read. So far, the opposite has been true: The stories have been overly simplistic, such as with issue #4, where not much happens except to create a meeting between Paul and another "civilian" who's part of the whole conspiracy at the same level as he is. In issue #3, Paul questions his sanity and searches for clues that what's happening to him is all real. We also see a hint of the troubles he's having at home from being a secret hitman.
I like the idea of a series with shorter stories. It's good to see that there are writers out there -- Jon and Erich Hoeber, in this case -- who can build a universe one single issue at a time. The first story was a two-parter, but the next two are isolated, standalone tales with a purpose. At the end of the issue, you know the writers had a point to make in their story, which makes it all that much more satisfying, even when the issue as a whole felt a little thin.
"The Mission" is a relatively light read, but one with a good head on its shoulders and an interesting story to tell. The fifth issue is due out this week already, and I can't wait to see where they take it next.
The series that worries me more right now, though, is "Morning Glories" as it starts to take on some of the worst traits of "Lost." It has a large cast interacting in a larger mystery in ways that are never quite made apparent to the readers. We're quickly getting to the point where if we don't get any answers, the smaller single issue stories with a twist are going to get more ludicrous and less satisfying. We need answers. I don't care if there is an ending in mind and everything is planned out and don't worry. The problem is, you're not going to keep an audience around on that hope anymore. They'll bail. They've been burnt one too many times by now. There has to be a happy medium, one in which the writer can display that he knows what's going on while bringing the reader in on just enough of it to prove it. There has to be some level of resolution to the series on a smaller level, or else the whole thing feels like it's spiraling out of control.
See Kelly Thompson's recent review of issue #10 to get more specific. It's a well-written piece that sums things up nicely.
The first half dozen issues were pure gold. They invited us into a strange new world, threw out a number of cool mysteries, and intertwined plot lines in entertaining ways. I liked getting lost in that world. I fear that it's starting to become too much work for not enough return. I can only hope Nick Spencer and Joe Eisma find their way back home.
I've been reading more of Lewis Trondheim's work, so you might be reading more about that next week, unless some random Blu-ray of the past pops up in my radar again this week.
I have a photography blog, AugieShoots.com, where I'm currently discussing my outing shooting a Brian Wilson concert. Or, go to VariousandSundry.com to read other oddball thoughts that aren't comics-related.