Thoughts on ‘Iron Man 2’

Past entries:
Iron Man
The Incredible Hulk

So far, the first Iron Man was an all-around excellent superhero film. The Incredible Hulk had a lot of issues, but was still a fairly strong entry. And Iron Man 2? It’s a huge flaming mess.

The film picks up about a year after the first Iron Man (cleverly filling in the details of what’s happened in the meantime through the villain’s wall of magazine covers detailing Iron Man’s career). The world is enjoying a period of protracted peace, since Iron Man has been able to act as a deterrent and stabilizing force against rogue nations. Tony Stark, meanwhile, has maintained his more altruistic life direction, but not without relapsing a bit into self-aggrandizement. This is nicely shown in his opening speech to the ‘Stark Expo’ in Flushing Meadows, New York (basically a world’s fair); he loudly boasts about his accomplishments, but then sincerely turns the subject to “legacy. It’s about what we choose to leave behind for future generations.” This followed by a first-person POV of him moving through a crowd of his fans, giving out autographs, including to a kid wearing a plastic Iron Man helmet, contrasting with his casually dismissive attitude in the first film. In short, Tony is improved, but he’s not a completely different person either.

This is followed by a Senate hearing where the slimy Senator Stern tries to get Tony to turn the Iron Man suit over to the US Government on the grounds that he is a danger without oversight and that it’s important for the military to get hold of the tech before any rogue nations recreate it. Throwing in on the government’s side are Tony’s obnoxious business rival, Justin Hammer, and, unexpectedly, his best friend Rhodey (Terrance Howard is gracefully replaced by Don Cheadle, who is a much better fit for the part and who introduces himself with the deliciously self-aware line, “It’s me, I’m here, deal with it”), though Rhodey qualifies his position as more of a compromise. Tony expertly works the crowd and outtalks the Senator, while throwing up footage to show that no one is close to replicating his suit. Or at least, so he thinks.

Meanwhile, it turns out that the arc-reactor in Tony’s chest is slowly poisoning him, meaning that unless he can find a suitable alternative soon, he’ll die. This leads him to act even more erratically than usual, from donating his modern art collection to the Boy Scouts to appointing Pepper as CEO of Stark Industries to commandeering and driving his sponsored race car in the Monte Carlo Grand Prix.

Tony’s reaction to dying is very believable for someone like him; he of course doesn’t confide to anyone but Jarvis and alternates between quietly trying to set things in order and engaging in reckless, self-destructive behavior. I also like how, when he appoints Pepper CEO, he acts as if it’s a spur of the moment decision, but then when she realizes he’s serious he admits that he’s actually been thinking it over for some time and checking legality of it, suggesting that his continued irresponsibility is at least partially a mask.

Then at the racetrack a hulking, taciturn Russian named Ivan Vanko takes a shot at Tony with his own arc-reactor-powered tech; in this case electrified whips. Iron Man defeats him, but Vanko shrieks, “You lose!” as he’s carried away and subsequently tells Tony that he’s exposed his vulnerability to the world and proven that the great Iron Man is not unique. Justin Hammer sees this and thinks Vanko might be useful to him.

(By the way, one of the things Vanko says is, “If you could make God bleed, then people would stop believing in Him.” Apparently, Vanko forgot the existence of Christianity. That’s not a criticism, just something I thought was amusing).

So, just from that summary you might get a sense of part of the problem: the film is all over the map, covering about four or five different plot threads with no clear through-line. Is the film about Tony facing mortality? Well, what does that have to do with Vanko or the government putting pressure on him or coming to peace with his father or the enigmatic ‘Natalie Rushman’ whose job seems to change from scene to scene? (I’m serious about that, one minute she’s supposed to be a notary, the next Tony hires her as his replacement assistant, then she seems to be working for Pepper as her assistant. And it’s not like a gag where she changes jobs every time we see her; it’s more like the script awkwardly shuffling her around so she can be in as many scenes as possible). Is it about the skeletons in the Stark Legacy? That perhaps they are a family of “thieves and butchers” as Vanko says? Well, no, because Vanko’s the only element related to that, and even then it turns out that he and his father were in fact criminals regardless of what the Starks did. Is it about Tony’s relationship with his late father? No, that only occupies about two or three scenes. Is it about Tony’s legacy? Perhaps, but there’s no payoff for that.

There is material here for about two or three different storylines, but they all jumble together in strange mishmash, so that not enough time is given to any one of them for it to be satisfying.

For instance, there’s the scene where Rhodey arrives at Tony’s house to find him drunk and screwing around in the Iron Man suit. He’s furious because he had just been sticking his neck out for Tony, and seeing things are getting out of hand he puts on one of the older suits, leading to a fight. Now, why is Tony so ready to knock Rhodey around, to the point where he gleefully asks for a soundtrack? It’s as if there were a few earlier scenes of their friendship fraying before this, but no; Tony just decides he wants to knock his best friend around and smash up his own house doing it. Even if he’s drunk, it’s a strange thing for him to do, especially as he doesn’t seem to be really angry with him.

Or there’s the Vanko-Hammer subplot: the first third of the film we see glimpses of Vanko building his tech, traveling to Monte Carlo, and then there’s a fight on the raceway, then the next hour or so of the film Vanko basically just preps for round two while Hammer gets more and more impatient. This leads to an admittedly cool climax with Vanko’s new drones, but then when Vanko himself shows up to the battle in his own new suit, the fight lasts about a minute. I’d say the main villain of this film is basically a sideshow, but I don’t think I could tell you what the main event was supposed to be.

Vanko’s an okay character; Mickey Rourke is intimidating as heck with his massive, tattooed muscles and inscrutable gaze, and he has a few humanizing touches like his love for his “burd,” though the efforts to give him a sympathetic backstory kind of fall flat when we learn that his father was a spy looking to get rich and that Vanko himself sold plutonium to Pakistan (I don’t mind that as a development, by the way, only that it doesn’t make him any more interesting of a character). And about the time he starts indiscriminately murdering people.

As for the other villain, Justin Hammer is amusing, especially when he’s trying to smooth talk Vanko like a bow-tie-bedecked salesman trying to get a commission off of the leader of a biker gang. But the trouble is that he’s much too much of a lightweight to be in any way a convincing threat, not to mention that he’s so grossly incompetent that it’s hard to see how he ever made it to his position in the first place, or why the government buys anything off of him.

Which, I suppose, brings us to the plot holes, and boy there are quite a few. I can buy Vanko knowing Tony would be at the Monte Carlo Grand Prix, since he sponsors a car in the race, but how would he be able to predict that he’d be in the race, since it was an impulse decision on Tony’s part? Wouldn’t Vanko be more likely to be targeting the high-rollers lounge? When Vanko is arrested after publicly showing off Iron Man-like tech, why is he taken to an ordinary jail cell? Shouldn’t the US or French governments be tripping over themselves to make a deal with him to give them his tech? Everyone focuses on how this discredits Tony, but no one seems to consider the question of where Vanko got the technology, except for Tony, and even he only gives the question a cursory nod. How come there are almost no repercussions, except for personal ones, to Tony losing it in the Iron Man suit? They discuss the possibility, but nothing happens (I’m going to guess that Nick Fury kept them off him for that one, but it’s weird nonetheless given how much the film emphasized that he was on thin ice up until now).

Later in the film, Fury puts Tony under guard so that he can go through his father’s notes and figure out the new element he needs to fix his arc reactor and cure himself. Our old friend Agent Coulson returns to watch him, assuring him that he won’t be allowed to leave. So a scene or two later, Tony is driving down the street in his open-top sport’s car to visit Pepper, then drives back with several table-sized pieces of his father’s scale model of the expo sticking out of the passenger seat, and Coulson doesn’t confront him about leaving until a few scenes after that! How the heck did he get in and out of the house? Then Coulson just leaves to deal with a problem in New Mexico (“Land of Enchantment,” Tony comments). Meaning that Coulson literally served no purpose in this film: the one role he has in the story is ignored the moment he is off-screen.

Also, why did Jarvis say synthesizing the new element was impossible, when Tony simply does it the next scene; no question of “it might be possible if this,” or “the odds are against that;” Tony just sets up a prism tube and makes the thing in his garage in the space of about two or three minutes after Jarvis said it was impossible.

Not to mention there are jarring tonal shifts, with jokey humor clashing hard with serious drama. Like when Tony’s blow-up at his birthday party, involving a drunken brawl with his best friend cuts to him chowing down on donuts while sitting inside the giant donut sign. Some of it can be excused as reflective of Tony’s own mood swings, but a lot of it just feels like the film was edited in a hurry.

So, I think you can see why I say this film is a mess. Is there anything else to be said?

As noted, I do like some of Tony’s reactions to his terminal illness; things like struggling to find a way to tell Pepper, or the way he swings from quietly desperate to reckless and overblown. This all does seem to fit with his personality. His attempts to advance his relationship with Pepper are well-done as well; again, he wants to tell her how he feels, but his psychological baggage keeps getting in the way, as does his irresponsibility, not only because of his bad behavior, but simply because he forgets things like the CEO of a major corporation can’t just drop everything and go on a vacation during a crisis.

There’s a good scene where he goes to her office to apologize for the fiasco at his party and brings her strawberries. Turns out, those are the one thing she’s allergic to.

“This is progress,” he says. “I knew there was a correlation there.”

It’s funny, but it’s also heartfelt as he tries to make his case, but is able to get the words out, while she is simply fuming at him for landing her in this mess (a nice touch is that when he walks in she’s trying to get the suit that Rhodey took back from the government, showing that, angry as she is with him, she’s still on his side).

The subplot involving his father was rushed, but the scenes it does comprise are very sweet, mostly centering around a promotional video that Howard Stark shot in the 1970s for the last Stark Expo, the outtakes of which turn out to contain a message for his son. The videos are openly reminiscent of Walt Disney’s films promoting EPCOT, with a similar sense of optimistic futurism. Howard’s final message to Tony, saying what he never said in life, is touching and lends a new layer to their complicated relationship, though it would have been better with more buildup.

There are a number of good character moments, like when Rhodey takes out the arc reactor of his suit before letting Hammer fiddle with it (still not willing to let Tony’s enemy study his greatest invention, even though they’ve had a falling out). Or when Tony and Rhodey make up and Rhodey clarifies, “It’s your fault, I just wanted to say I’m sorry” (as this indicates, the rapid-fire banter of the first film is back, if not quite of the same caliber).

Then of course there’s “Natalie Rushman,” AKA Natasha Romanov. Her introduction in this film is, unfortunately, only a shadow the great character she would become, with most of her dimensions yet locked away, but she is nevertheless a striking figure (and not just for the obvious reasons) as she coolly inserts herself into Tony’s circle, efficiently doing her ostensible job without turning a hair, only to let loose her formidable fighting skills when need calls for it. Her fight against a hoard of Hammer’s guards is probably the best action scene in the film, with some very smart choreography that has her using her agility and precision to take down her larger opponents with strikes to joints and soft targets rather than simply slugging it out (Stark’s driver, Happy Hogan, joins her and spends the entire sequence trying to take down a single guard, which is funny, but I also found it sweet how he refused to let her go in alone, even though she clearly knows what she’s doing).

Meanwhile, the film tacitly establishes why she was assigned to watch Tony with an early scene where he gets served with a subpoena because he was too distracted by the beautiful woman doing the serving. Women are Tony’s weakness; he doesn’t think clearly around them, so SHIELD naturally assigned Romanov, including working up a cover ID of an ex-model, knowing that Tony wouldn’t be able to resist adding her to his staff. It’s a smart bit of writing, following from a well-established part of Tony’s character.

I also like that when Tony shows up at Hammer’s demonstration at the end in his new Iron Man suit, Rhodey (part of the show as the newly built War Machine) accepts Tony’s story very quickly with only a little suspicious posturing; bad blood though there may be between them, they’re still old friends and he can tell when Tony’s being serious.

The final battle, involving a chase with Vanko’s drones and a back-to-back fight with Iron Man and War Machine taking them on, is very cool, even if it’s rushed, and the banter between the two of them flows very well, very much like old friends and equals (which is another advantage Don Cheadle brings to the table: Terrance Howard always seemed a little overwhelmed by Tony, but Cheadle is able to give and take on an equal footing with him, making their friendship more interesting).

I also like the film’s take on revisionist history, with Vanko sneering at Tony for trying to forget “the lives the Stark family has destroyed.” Only, as it turns out, Vanko and his father were in fact guilty and brought their own destruction upon themselves, meaning that the ‘official’ history was actually more correct than the alternate perspective. Not sure if the film meant for that, but it’s appreciated in any case. Likewise I appreciate the subplot of Tony trying to keep his own property in his own hands and resisting efforts to force him to nationalize it.

In summary, the best I can say of Iron Man 2 is that it’s mostly entertaining. It drags quite a bit in the middle, and seeing Tony be a drunken lout isn’t very fun, but the heart is there, especially in his scenes with Pepper, and when it does get going, it is fun to watch. But it is an extremely shaky entry, a good example of what happens when a plot is completely unfocused and a film tries to tackle too many things at once. A real disappointment considering how strong its predecessor was.

Thoughts on ‘The Incredible Hulk’

Past entries:
Iron Man

Following the excellent Iron Man, we have The Incredible Hulk, which, in retrospect, is a bit of an odd ball in the Marvel Universe (and not just because star Edward Norton ended up being recast when the character returned for The Avengers). It has a darker, heavier tone than most of its fellows, with very little in the way of humor and a greater emphasis on spectacle than character.

Incredible Hulk was an early effort in the ‘soft reboot’ formula; it doesn’t follow 2003’s poorly-received Hulk, but it doesn’t exactly ignore it either. Actually, the closest parallel I can think of is Evil Dead II, which essentially was an abbreviated remake of the original for its first third or so before settling into its own story. Incredible Hulk opens with a credits sequence swiftly recapitulating the Hulk’s origin and early career, with more details being filled in later, before picking up with Bruce Banner hiding out in South America, reflecting how the 2003 film ended with him hiding out in (I think) Central America.

This was a pretty canny move, avoiding the problem of spending too much time on the origin and dropping us straight in on the action. But not only that, the film is as much an adaptation of the classic 1970s TV series starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno (both of whom have cameos: the late Bixby via archive footage) as it is a straight adaptation of the comics. The entire first act plays out essentially as an episode of the show; Banner is hiding out in a menial job, trying to find ways to control and/or cure his condition, where he flirts with an attractive local woman and runs afoul of local bullies, eventually leading to him hulking out and having to move on (they even include his eyes glowing green when his transformation starts: a detail unfortunately dropped from the later films). As someone who enjoyed the series, this was hugely satisfying, especially when the sequence actually concludes with the haunting “Loneliest Man” theme from the show.

Only, in this case Bruce is driven out of hiding, not by a dogged investigative reporter, but by General “Thunderbolt” Ross’s hit squad (I don’t think he’s ever called “Thunderbolt” at any point in the film, apart from the end credits by the way). The General, we learn, was the original funder of Banner’s experiment, which, unbeknownst to Banner, was an attempt to recreate a supersoldier program from WWII (and which we will learn more about when it comes time to meet Captain America). Ross now considers Banners “entire body to be property of the US Military” and is relentlessly hunting him down. At the same time, though, his daughter, Betty Ross, was Banner’s girlfriend, whom he is still in love with.

And it is about here that we start to run into some serious problems.

There is a lot of potential drama here, but unfortunately the film misses most of it. Ross simply isn’t a very interesting character, and his motives for pursuing the Hulk are very weak; he just wants to turn it into a weapon. Why that is so important to him is never explored or explained: he’s just your typical Hollywood general who wants to turn everything he finds into a weapon regardless of any practical concerns. Speaking of which, why does the government give him so much support? He’s able to turn huge numbers of resources and manpower to seeking out the tiniest hint of Banner’s location, then bring massive military ordinance onto a college campus: who is authorizing this and why? Does no one involved question whether this mission is worth the time, money, and lives it’s costing, or whether there might possibly be a better use for them? Why does Ross wield such unchecked authority, especially when every single one of his missions ends in failure if not outright disaster. Even if the government wants the Hulk that badly, surely they’d put someone else in charge after Ross ends up turning a college campus into a war-zone with nothing but several million dollars worth of equipment loss and a high casualty count to show for it.

William Hurt compared Ross with Ahab pursuing the White Whale, but Ahab had a personal investment in Moby Dick in the form of his leg (and the vast, faceless power of fate of which the whale is only a mask), as well as an all-consumingly arrogant personality in his own right. Had Ross been given something of a personal reason for hunting the Hulk, or at least something more tangible than “think of the weapons potential,” it would have gone a long way to making his character more interesting.

Or they could have done more with his relationship with his daughter. Having the hero’s love interest be the daughter of his archenemy is a great idea, but in the film it doesn’t amount to much since both father and daughter have already made their choices before the film even opens: Betty hasn’t spoken to the General in years, and Ross can’t even honestly say that he values her safety over catching the Hulk. There are a few good moments between them, mostly amounting to the few times that Ross shows a little humanity, but their relationship is almost a non-factor in the story.

Again, the film could have done so much more here, if it was genuinely a question whether Ross cared more about his daughter or the Hulk, or if she cared about him enough to be torn by the conflict, maybe to have a crisis of conscience of whom she owes allegiance to, there could have been some real drama there. As it is, her attempts to mediate between the two amount to a brief suggestion that she and Bruce go talk to the General, and to her futilely begging Ross not to attack the Hulk.

Meanwhile the other villain of the film, Emil Blonsky, AKA Abomination is even more underdeveloped than Ross. His motive is first that he’s doing his job and wants to finish it, and then that he’s become addicted to the power in the super soldier serum and wants more of it. He’s also a tough fighter who wants to beat the Hulk (which leads to him doing some incredibly stupid things, like walking right up to the Hulk and taunting it).

This is a pretty weak motive, especially when it suddenly leads him to turn on Ross, who had been nothing but helpful and supportive of him this whole time. When he becomes Abomination, he just suddenly starts gunning for Ross with vindictive glee, as if there were already bad-blood between them, but nothing of the kind was ever hinted at. Had there been a scene where Ross tried to cut him off from the treatment or to take him off the mission, that would have made sense. As it is, he simply goes nuts.

One way to address the problem with both villains would be to have Blonsky lose control and threaten Betty, causing Ross to step in and have him arrested or kicked off the mission. That would create a rift between them, which would allow Ross to demonstrate a kinder and more human side while giving Blonsky a reason to go rogue. But they didn’t go that route, leaving Blonsky’s betrayal a simple lust for power. It isn’t that it’s necessarily unbelievable, but it’s not very interesting.

True, Iron Monger was underused as well, but at least Obadiah Stane was charismatic and charming, as well as insidious in his betrayal, meaning he was a lot more entertaining to watch than either of these two.

So, the film is very weak on the villain side, which unfortunately is a fairly large part of the plot. How is it otherwise?

Well, the depiction of Bruce Banner himself is very good (fortunately, since he is one element that the film cannot survive without). Edward Norton is heavily channeling Bill Bixby with his mild-mannered, kind-hearted, but quietly tormented character. Banner is the kind of man who can be on the run for his life, and yet still pause to help someone in need, because he simply can’t look the other way (nicely shown in the opening when he steps in to protect a female co-worker from some harassers). It is this compassionate quality that makes the character a worthy hero and enlists us on his side from the beginning.

His overall friendliness and quietly polite manners naturally make for a striking contrast with the roaring, smashing monster he becomes when enraged, which of course is part of the whole appeal of the Banner–Hulk dynamic: Bruce Banner has to be easy-going and polite; the kind of man who never causes any trouble or starts any fights, who will swallow any insult or ignore any slight just to avoid conflict, but whose sense of decency also won’t allow him to put up with malice or cruelty. The Hulk is what happens when such a man is pushed too far.

Which brings us to the Hulk itself. The special effects that bring the green giant to life hold up quite well: far better than the rather cartoony efforts in the 2003 film, and I really like the more upright, toned design (which, alas, doesn’t continue into the later films). The action scenes with the Hulk are pretty spectacular, questions of motivation and logistics aside, and the film has some gloriously comic-book-style shots, such as Hulk and Abomination leaping at each other, or the Hulk roaring his rage at a thunderstorm.

The first Hulk scene is shot mostly in shadow, mimicking a traditional monster film where we never quite get a clear look at it. But then, just in case there was any concern that they were shy about the effects, we have a big set-piece taking place in full daylight that opens with a full-on close-up of the Hulk in a rage. The smashing and fighting scenes are generally very satisfying, the film giving full-scope to the Hulk’s incredible strength and speed.

I also really like how the Hulk interacts with Betty Ross; how she is the one thing that is able to get him to calm down, and which he won’t just attack without thinking. It’s a nice ‘beauty and the beast’ dynamic, complete with scenes and shots that feel like they came straight out of a 1950s sci-fi film (such as a scene where the Hulk carries an unconscious Betty to a cave following its fight with the military), and it puts the film squarely amid one of the deep streams of human imagination; the strongest of men, who cannot be conquered by battle, is nevertheless ruled by the beauty of woman. It’s a rich, primal, archetypal image, well realized here, and one that will continue to be part of the Hulk’s character as we progress.

On the other hand, I do not like that the catalyst for Banner’s transformation has been changed from anger to simply his heart rate. This does terrible damage to the ‘fury of a patient man’ motif, and with it the instinctive connection the audience makes to the Hulk. We all know what it feels like to be so enraged that we want to smash things and roar and strike back against the world, and it is that primal connection that makes the Hulk such a striking character. By making it purely about heart rate (to the point where Bruce can’t even experience opposite emotions, like exhaustion or sexual desire, without risking the Hulk), the film undermines that link.

Yet the film still talks as if it were tied to his anger, including Banner’s classic catchphrase “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry” (here amusingly mangled by his attempt to say it in Portuguese). It’s an inconsistency and a dumbing-down of the story that could have easily have been avoided.

As for Betty herself, her character is okay: not particularly memorable, especially compared to Pepper Potts, but pleasant enough company. She doesn’t get to evince much personality or agency in the film, unfortunately (apart from a funny scene where she loses her temper at a New York cab driver), particularly since, as noted above, her relationship with her father isn’t utilized as well as it might have been. She spends most of her time simply being warm and supportive of Bruce and following his lead, which is fine and makes sense given their circumstances, and Liv Tyler fills the role adequately, but the character doesn’t leave much of an impression, except for her scenes with the Hulk.

(By the way, why does Betty’s computer have the same encryption program that Bruce’s laptop did, to the point where he casually just pulls it up and start’s a new email after hacking in? Is that standard issue on university computers?).

There are a few very nice, very human scenes between Bruce and Betty, including one where she sets him up to sleep on her couch and they each hesitate a long moment before saying goodnight and walking away: a fine example of a scene saying one thing and really being about something else. Another has her asking him what it’s like to turn into the Hulk. Though that one leads to Bruce denying that he and the Hulk are the same person; an idea that, unfortunately, is never explored further in this film.

Then there’s Dr. Samuel Sterns, Bruce’s oddball anonymous contact with whom he’s been working on a possible cure. Sterns stands out among the rest of the cast as the one who seems to be having the most fun; weird little eccentric genius whom Bruce and Betty can barely keep on track and who may not be quite as benevolent as he appears (his motivations, briefly sketched as they are, are a lot more believable than either Ross or Blonsky’s, but unfortunately the twist involving his character never got to go anywhere).

On the other hand, Betty’s psychologist boyfriend, Doctor Samson, comes and goes in the film so briefly that one almost forgets he’s there, and he probably could have been left out entirely (the trailers indicate that he originally had a larger role, and indeed, why have a psychologist in a ‘Hulk’ film if Banner isn’t even going to talk to him?).

The climactic battle between Hulk and Abomination is very cool, and despite the weaknesses of Blonsky’s character I’d call it a step up from the Iron Monger fight. It opens with a striking, almost documentary-style scene of a couple hapless soldiers reacting to the Abomination’s initial appearance, where, like the Hulk’s introduction, the creature is kept largely just off camera, so that we catch glimpses of it, but don’t see it clearly. The fight is suitably cathartic and frenetic, with the Hulk showing some surprising moments of cunning to offset the Abomination’s more berserker style.

Though I have to say, much as I appreciate having the line ‘Hulk Smash’ in the film, the delivery feels very forced, particularly since it involves the Hulk going from beaten on the ground to standing, saying the line, and pounding the earth in a jarringly abrupt manner. Also, it doesn’t fit with the fact that, earlier in the film, the Hulk had clearly said, “Leave me alone.” I don’t know why they didn’t simply re-dub or remove the earlier line, but it’s and unfortunate mistake in what could have been a classic scene.

Also, I have to wonder: what exactly are they planning to do with the Abomination after the fight? He’s beaten and exhausted, but seems conscious, and even if he isn’t, what’s gonna happen when he wakes up? It leaves the fight feeling a little unsatisfying; as if it only ended because the script said it was time to stop, but they didn’t really have a conclusion for the villain.

The ending for Banner, with him alone in a cabin and (apparently) purposefully unleashing the Hulk, seemed like a strange and somewhat sour way to end the film, but that thread, at least, was picked up and explained by The Avengers, so we will wait to discuss that until later.

All in all, The Incredible Hulk is definitely a step down from Iron Man. It’s certainly entertaining, stylishly filmed, and has very real strengths, but it makes a number of key missteps, especially with the villains, and there are a lot of moments where the script seemed rushed or incomplete.

In fact, one of the most satisfying scenes of the film is simply the ending, where Ross is drinking away his failure in a bar and none other than Tony Stark walks in. Despite flashes of ‘SHIELD’ and ‘Stark Industries’ in early scenes, it was this that cemented the idea that, yes, these stories existed in the same world, and yes, they are “putting a team together.” It was a high note to go out on for a film that was pretty good, but could have been a lot better.

Thoughts on ‘Dr. No’

Since my household recently purchased a complete box set of the James Bond films, we’ve begun a total re-watch of the entire series. So, I’ll be giving my thoughts on each film in turn.

First some background: I’m a long-time fan of the Bond films. I’ve seen all of them (except Quantum of Solace) at least once and have a fairly good working knowledge of the history and background of the films, though I haven’t gotten around to reading any of the books yet.

So, we open with the very first of the mainline Bond films: 1962’s Dr. No, in which James Bond travels to Jamaica (the Caribbean was a favorite haunt of Ian Fleming’s and a common setting of the series) to investigate the death of a British agent investigating mysterious radio interference with American missile tests.

What struck me most on this re-viewing was simultaneously how down-to-Earth it is compared to many of its sequels and yet how complete it is. The classic trappings of the Bond formula are almost all there in full force; M, Moneypenny, Felix Leiter, the casino, the exotic locations and high living, the women, and the oppressively powerful villain with his private army of henchmen. Only Q, and with him the emphasis on gadgets is yet missing. Also, the opening credits are instrumental rather than accompanied by a song, and the gun barrel sequence is slightly off in that it opens in silence.

More than that, the character of Bond bursts onto screen essentially complete; there was never a part where I thought “Well, Bond would never do that in later films.” On the contrary, watching this time and paying closer attention to the details of his characterization, I realized just how strongly marked a character he really is, perhaps not in depth, but in style and personality. We’ll come back to that.

Yet, as I say, this film is comparatively restrained when contrasted with its sequels. It in fact takes more the form of a detective story, with Bond spending most of the film pursuing leads and trying to trace the footsteps of his predecessor, Strangeways. He’s even referred to as a detective more than once (Dr. No eventually dismisses him as, “just a stupid policeman”). The emphasis is more on Bond’s cunning and cleverness than on his fighting prowess: the action scenes are generally pretty short and restrained, while scenes like Bond’s verbal fencing match upon meeting Quarrel (the first of many local Bond allies) or his interviews with the slimy Professor Dent take up much of the first and second act, interspersed with more quietly suspenseful scenes like Bond waking to find a venomous tarantula in his bed. The third act ramps up things a bit, but still remains pretty low-key and realistic (including a tense pursuit through a swamp that ends with Bond knifing one of the guards commando-style).

Partly for this reason, I was struck by just how good the movie was, and how effectively it tells its rather complicated plot and ushers us into the world of Bond for the first time. In the very first minutes of Dr. No we discover that a man at a British gentleman’s club is a spy, and then see him gunned down by what seemed to be three blind beggars. The stage is set; we are in a world where appearances cannot be trusted and death is a moment-to-moment possibility: a hidden world of spies and counter-spies operating just out of sight of normal people.

This is immediately followed by a scene of men and women working at a radio switchboard, identifying that something is wrong, and passing the information along. They’re dressed in normal work clothes and deal with the disappearance of two people in a calm, professional matter by referring it to the correct channels. It is a short scene that most people probably forget, but it is also important; the apparatus of spy work is, fundamentally, not a cabal of supermen, but a job like any other, carried out, for the most part, with cool routine and procedure. This is an idea that the films will return to again and again, and it is here established almost immediately.

From there we go to a high-end casino, where we receive our unforgettable introduction to, “Bond…James Bond” (apparently, this immortal line and its delivery was worked out by Sean Connery himself when he found the original version of the scene too dull).

As I’ve said, what is remarkable is how complete Bond’s character is from the start. To take an illustrative example: when Bond first arrives in Jamaica, he finds a man with a car waiting for him, ostensibly from the government. He coolly excuses himself without arousing the man’s suspicions and calls his contact to check whether a car has in fact been sent for him. Finding that none has, he goes back to the car and gets in anyway. He then grabs the chance to turn the tables, easily outfights the man, and proceeds to interrogate him (a cyanide-laced cigarette prevents him from getting any information, establishing the fear Dr. No inspires in his underlings).

This is a pattern that will recur throughout the film and indeed the series: Bond never takes the safe option. Instead, he prefers to walk into danger with his eyes open, trusting to his skill and his luck to get the better of his opponent and thus to learn from them. Bond is not looking for safety, but information, and in the hidden world of spies he needs to skate shoulder-to-shoulder with the people trying to kill him in order to get it. If he discovers a trap, his instinct is not to avoid it, but take the bait and try turn it to his own advantage, which he more often than not is able to do. It is a high-risk, high-reward strategy: the personality of a born gambler.

Casting Sean Connery was brilliant, not only for his acting chops and rugged physicality, but also for the rough air that came from his poor background. As implied in the early scene at the switchboard, Bond is fundamentally a workingman: a civil servant with a paycheck and a pension (despite the fact that he actually comes of a high-class family, as will be revealed later in the series). Connery, himself a working-class man in a job that causes him to adopt an air of sophistication, brings the perfect balance to the role, so that both elements are there, but so blended that it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.

This is the strange, potent blend that makes Bond so interesting; he is simultaneously rich and sophisticated, a gentleman of wealth and taste, and also a workingman, living by his wits and his luck, with earthy, human appetites in alcohol, women, and food (granted with high standards in all three). He combines in one person Jack the Giant Slayer – the cunning peasant who overcomes enemies ostensibly far above him through use of his wits and taunts them when he’s finished for good measure – and Sir Lancelot – the high-born knight of unquestionable loyalty and unmatched martial prowess who follows court etiquette to the letter. I don’t think any culture but England could have produced such a hero, which might be one of the reasons he has taken such a place in the popular consciousness.

Of course, he’s not a classical hero, like a knight of old: morally, he’s closer to a brutally pragmatic pagan hero, like Achilles or Odysseus. He kills his enemies in cold-blood (and even shoots the corpse of a dead enemy at one point as a final insult). He lies continually and without turning a hair, whether he needs to or not. And, of course, he shamelessly flirts with and sleeps with women as the mood strikes him, or as a strategy, and he’s perfectly willing to rough them up to get information.

But, at the same time, he has real virtues. He cares for his friends, is unshakably loyal to his country, and sincerely believes in the justice and freedom he is fighting for (when he meets Dr. No, he sneers at people who think they’re “Napoleon. Or God,” and comments that No’s disregard for human life suggests he’s working for ‘the East’). He’s also shown to be fairly generous and respectful towards servants and the poor (as seen when he drops generous tips to the staff at the casino). And though he sleeps around with many different women, he also makes a point to protect innocent girls like Honey Rider, the shell-collector he meets at Dr. No’s island. Once she shows up, he tries time and again to get her to safety or to protect her against the bad guys, and he treats her, as far as the film goes, very kindly.

Honey is the first main ‘Bond Girl,’ and her introduction, rising from the sea like Venus, is one of the most famous images of the series. She really doesn’t have anything to do with the story, except giving Bond someone to protect, but she is a comparatively rare Bond girl with an actual backstory (daughter of a marine biologist murdered by Dr. No), and she’s certainly a pleasant enough character, and giving Bond charge of an innocent party is a good way to keep the film’s rather shaky moral premise intact and emphasizes that there is a world of difference between Bond and his adversaries. Whatever nasty things Bond does, he ultimately does it to protect the innocent people that the likes of SPECTRE would abuse, exploit, or kill.

As for Dr. No himself, again we see the trappings of the Bond franchise are remarkably complete here in the first of many vivid Bond villains. He has comparatively little screen time, but his presence as an ominous, unseen force that drives people to suicide for fear of displeasing him, hangs over the whole film. He is introduced as a disembodied voice rebuking Professor Dent in terms that assure him (and us) that he knows far more of Bond’s investigation than he ought and considers himself completely in control of the situation. And, despite all of Bond’s strength and skill, he makes good on that assertion for almost the entire film.

Played with cold detachment by Joseph Wiseman, Dr. No, like so many subsequent villains, takes an opposite approach to Bond. He is a chess master and scientist, relying on his brains and organizational skills to control his environment to his own advantage. He speaks in a soft, calm voice, almost a monotone, wears a featureless suit, and has powerful robotic hands. All this marks him as having largely sacrificed his humanity for his own goals, in contrast to Bond, who retains his natural appetites and enjoyments, his sense of humor, and some fundamental ideas of right and wrong.

Dr. No, though not on screen long, makes a powerful impression and even after some twenty-four films, he stands as one of the great villains of the franchise. Not only that, but he serves as our introduction to the legendary SPECTRE organization, which will be pursuing Bond through most of the early films. We’ll talk more about them as things go on.

Though I mentioned the film’s remarkable sense of completeness, there are a few signs of it’s being the first of a series. The film opens with Bond trading in an old Berretta for his trademark Walther PPK, for instance, and he later is shown meeting his perennial American ally Felix Leiter for the first time (Bond specifically comments that he’s “heard of Leiter, but never met him” at this point). Leiter himself is slightly more antagonistic towards Bond than he would be later on, with some mild jockeying over whose jurisdiction No falls under.

The scene where Bond receives his Walther is another example of the film’s efficiency. It rapidly and naturally establishes the capabilities of the firearm, the fact that Bond is an experienced field agent, but not invulnerable (it’s mentioned he was in hospital after a previous mission went south), and that the double-o designation means he’s licensed to kill.

It’s not perfect, of course (I don’t know that any of the Bond films will make a ‘best of all time’ list, though some, this one included, would easily land on a ‘best action-adventure films’ list). There are things like how, as mentioned, Honey Rider has no story purpose in the film at all, or that Bond seems to escape No’s cell and foil his plan rather easily after all that build up, or the moments where the film’s comparatively low-budget shows through, such as the unconvincing green screens during the car chases. It probably could stand to be a little shorter, and depending on your taste in music the song ‘Underneath the Mango Tree’ will probably start to grate on you long before the film is over (the ‘Three Blind Mice’ song that opens the film is much better, to my tastes).

But despite these problems, even after all these years I’d still consider ‘Dr. No’ as one of the best of the Bond series. It’s a strong opening act setting the tone for a long journey.

Thoughts on ‘Ready Player One’

Today I went and saw ‘Ready Player One.’ It was more or less what I expected: shallow pop-culture porn, only not as good. I won’t say I didn’t enjoy parts of it, but the enjoyment was mostly of a very simple nature: ‘oh, hey, this is cool, oh, I recognize this.’ I think there is a great film in there, but the story and character are too generic to make it work.

One of the problems is that neither the game world nor the real world are presented as being desirable: the game world turns people into fantasy-addicted zombies, but the real world is so dreary and hopeless you can’t really blame them. I wasn’t especially invested in the story because I didn’t really buy the world they were presenting and also, again, it’s just so generic: evil corporation wants to take over the world to be evil. They have suits and evil-looking red and black drones and a private military, run virtual prisons (where is the government in all this?), and the CEO is the bad guy from Rogue One. They’re evil because they’re evil and the heroes are good because they’re trying to stop them. Also, the heroes are poor and the corporation has done them wrong.

The visuals aren’t especially creative or interesting either; just standard, usually ill-lit CG environments with a bunch of cameos walking about. Ego’s planet from Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 was more creatively fantastic than this game, which is supposed to be specifically designed to be creatively fantastic.

The film lives and dies on its pop culture credits, but it misses the point of why people connect to these things in the first place. Or if it not it plays out too generically for it to make an impact. The Greatest Showman captured the importance of fantasy in two lines better than this whole film does (“Does it bother you that everything you’re selling is fake?” “Do those smiles look fake?”). Here it’s pretty much just ‘hey, do you remember Gundam? What if a Gundam robot fought Mechagodzilla: wouldn’t that be cool to see’? (by the way, it seems Toho wasn’t one of the backers of this film, since the ‘Mechagodzilla’ on display doesn’t resemble any of the canonical designs and I don’t think they even used the roar). No insight as to what made these stories or characters interesting or why anyone would remember them; just Captain America-style ‘I understood that reference.’

Pretty much as soon as you hear the premise, you can guess the entire story. There’s the loser kid who turns out to be a hero because he’s sensitive and understands the secretive game developer. There’s the super-elite tough-girl gamer chick whom he’ll fall in love with while in no way outshining or having the advantage over. There’s the Black best friend, whose personality is ‘Black best friend.’ There’s a high-stakes competition for control of the world between the scrappy misfit kids and the evil corporation. The corporation will go after the kid in the real world, they’ll have to go back and forth between the two worlds some, and eventually the kid will triumph after passing a secret final test and getting some wisdom from the wise game developer, end on a moral. There is admittedly one twist I didn’t see coming, though it kind of felt like a cop-out more than anything: a way to get them out of a corner they really didn’t need to be in to begin with.

There is some talk about how characters in the game aren’t really like their players in real life, but it doesn’t amount to much: the Black best friend is really a Black woman best friend. The two Japanese players (who are introduced so casually it’s kind of a shock that we’re supposed to remember them when they show up in the real world) are really…well, Japanese players, but one of them is eleven years old. And they all live within a few miles of each other which…come on, really? Not only is that astronomically improbable, but wouldn’t it have been more interesting and more creative if one of them was stuck on the other side of the country and still was trying to help?

Also, the pretty redhead in the game turns out to be…a pretty redhead in real life, only she has a mild birthmark over one eye. Uh, what a shock? Really, I’m fine with that, only don’t try to pretend it’s a twist.

There were some good points there. I really liked the character of the game developer; this awkward, semi-autistic loner who lost himself in fantasy because he was afraid of facing the real world. He’s played by Mark Rylance, who I think is genetically incapable of giving a bad performance.

Honestly, the film would have been much more interesting if someone like that had been the main character: if it had been the story of a pathologically lonely person learning to let go of fantasy and face the real world. That would have had some meat to it, and would have fit in well with the pop-culture references (since the purpose of fantasy is to make us better equipped to face reality). Drop the stupid corporation plot and make it the story of a young man trying to find a way to reconnect with reality by using this imagination-based virtual reality as a springboard.

Apart from that, there are one or two good scenes: I like the bit where the hero figures out, just from his tone, that the villain isn’t really a fanboy despite him knowing all the right details. I also like the bit where, after being forcibly ejected from the game, he comments on how different the real world is, having spent so much time in virtual reality he has almost stopped noticing. I also liked the bit where the redhead meets the Japanese kid, goes to hug him, and he indignantly responds “ninjas don’t give hugs!” It’s a perfect ‘kid’ moment and rare instance of honest humanity in what is otherwise a shallow experience.

I also really liked how the ‘hired gun’ character acts basically like a standard gamer and sounds like he’s about eighteen in real life. That was one instance of the film making a clever use of its premise, though again it doesn’t amount to much since he doesn’t have much screen time or much of a payoff, and they could have done so much more with that idea (just off the top of my head: he has the heroes captured and is about to finish them off, then his Mom calls him away from the game to take out the trash giving them a chance to escape).

On the other hand, it’s really stupid that all these crowds are out in the streets playing virtual reality on the sidewalks: who in their right mind would do something like that? This isn’t staring down at your phone, which we know is bad enough, this is putting on visual and audio blocking gear and running around a city street. Not one of them gets hit by a car or face-plants into a telephone pole?

Basically, this is very much a film that puts style over substance and it doesn’t even understand it’s own style very well. I wouldn’t say it’s terrible, just not very good.

What’s Wrong with ‘Victoria’

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been watching Masterpiece’s Victoria. I really love the Victorian era as a historical period, so I ought to love this. But I don’t. It’s not…bad, but it’s not very good either. The actors are good and very well-cast in general, the characters are mostly fairly enjoyable (I especially like the Duke of Wellington, Robert Peale, and Diana Rigg as an ancient battleship of a duchess), and the relationship between Victoria and Albert is played up for all it’s worth. The sets and costumes are very nice to look at.

The trouble is the writing, for two reasons. First is that it’s pretty contrived and very melodramatic, as well as being kind of clunky and heavy-handed.

I previously wrote about the scene where Victoria and Albert, pre-marriage, find her dog, Dash in a snare and somehow it ends with him yelling at her regarding the poor, forgetting the dog entirely. That sort of thing happens fairly often. That’s what I mean by it being heavy handed: the transitions are not properly set up, the characters don’t always act believably to move from one scene to another, and the guiding hand of the writers is visible all-too often.

Or there are complications that show up out of nowhere and do nothing just to pad out the subplots for a little while longer, like the would-be romance between the chef and the dresser is briefly complicated when she finds out he’s been seen talking with another woman. Turns out she’s someone from America trying to hire him for a restaurant. This is wrapped up in two episodes in maybe five or ten minutes of screen time, we never find out just who the woman was, and we move on. It served absolutely no purpose except to drag things out a bit and a gin up a little extraneous drama.

Or characters are ignorant of things they ought to know about: when Victoria gives birth to her first child, in the middle of labor she notices a group of ministers standing outside her door and asks what they’re doing there (they’re ensuring against a substitution). She didn’t notice them at any point in the past few hours? No one thought to let her know about this practice at any point in the past nine months?

Then there are just moments that made my roll my eyes. When Victoria’s beloved dog dies, she walks in and finds his body in the middle of her bedroom. Was no one in charge of looking after him? Did no one check the room to make sure it was ready to receive the Queen? None of the servants had been in there recently? I may be wrong, and it may have happened like that, but…well, I’d lay long odds against it.

Also, the Queen’s household is oddly small: we’re told it measures in the hundreds, but we only ever see the same half-dozen or so servants hanging out in the kitchen.

The historical events are portrayed, but in a slapdash and generally simplified manner. The first assassination attempt is played up as her evil uncle possibly attempting to usurp the throne…which goes nowhere, as the show is constrained by the historical record that the man was just an obsessive lunatic. It plays up the melodrama as much as possible, but since it’s also trying to be somewhat historically accurate it can’t deliver much of a payoff.

So, the show is pretty clunkily written. But I don’t think I would mind that so much if it weren’t for the other problem, which is that it just feels off. The best way I can describe it is that the characters don’t act like Victorians so much as a modern person’s idea of Victorians.

There’s one episode, for instance, when Victoria comes home from opening parliament in her full regalia; mantel, sash, and so on. As she walks in, she drops the mantel casually to the floor, takes off her sash and tosses it aside, and so on. That’s something a modern person would do, but the Queen of England circa 1850 would never imagine doing this (again, none of her servants are on hand to take her very expensive and important regalia for her?).

Likewise there’s the fact that everyone we’re not supposed to like is extremely rude and condescending to Victoria. Now, I can buy that people and politicians of the time would be dubious about an 18-year-old girl ascending to the throne, and I can buy them muttering about her in private, but she’s still the Queen, not to mention that this was a time and situation in which manners were given very high priority: I do not believe that these men would speak to her like this. When Sir Charles Trevelyan is telling the Queen about the Irish situation, he makes a condescending comment about teaching her about it “when she’s finished with her nursery duties.” Again, he’s talking to the Queen of England; why would he make that kind of comment?

The reason is that we’re not supposed to like Trevelyan and having him talk down to our heroine is an easy shortcut to that (because his disregard for the starving Irish isn’t enough, I guess). But it doesn’t feel authentic; it’s the modern trope of the condescending Victorian male who casually talks down to the plucky heroine. This is a way for the writers to signal to us the viewers that, though we are in the Victorian era, we know that is was really a very bad time.

Now, I am perfectly aware that, by our standards, many men in the Victorian era had a very narrow attitude towards women in general. The expectations for what was proper for each sex were very firm, and though there was some flexibility, it came at the price of being conspicuous. Medical science made broad and unjustifiable statements about women’s mental capacity, emotional stability, and so on. In short, the attitudes of the day were not ours and in many cases were simply unjust and wrong.

However, this trope of men being casually rude and dismissive towards women in person rather than in theory (two very different things) is one that I find extremely annoying, as it doesn’t ring true for me. If nothing else, didn’t they have basic manners in the Victorian era?

The thing is, I don’t see this much in actual Victorian literature. Quite the reverse, actually: Victorian characters tend to go out of their way to be complimentary and polite towards women. Take Dickens’ Bleak House, for instance (published between 1852 and 1853). You have numerous female characters of all different personality types. There’s Esther, the heroine, who is quietly sensible, generous, and part way through is made the housekeeper for a large mansion because she is recognized as being intelligent and having very sound judgment. There’s Mrs. Jellyby, whose time is wholly taken up with arranging charities for children in Africa, leaving her family to fend for themselves. Her daughter, Caddy, befriends Esther, marries her dancing instructor, and sets about teaching herself different skills in order to be useful. Then there’s Mrs. Pardiggle, an officious busy-body who goes about doing ‘good works’ that annoy the poor without actually helping them.

This is just a small sample (it’s a Dickens book: there are tons of characters), but the point is the each of these female characters are very active, busy, and hard-working in their own way, no one tells them they need to stay in the kitchen or talks down to them for being women. They’ll tell them off for being foolish, annoying, or troublesome, but the kind of casual rudeness that is de-rigor in contemporary stories set in the Victorian era is, in my experience, all-but unknown in stories actually written in the Victorian era.

Now, let me be clear: I am not claiming this means it didn’t exist. Fiction is not real life, but fiction is a reflection of culture and values that were present in real life. It’s not a record what happened, but it is a record of what people were thinking about. That is why I like looking at fiction from different time periods: it is a more ‘inside view’ than reading historical accounts. The fact that I don’t see this sort of thing in Victorian fiction tells me that either it wasn’t particularly common or that people didn’t think of it much, meaning that it wasn’t taken as an insult (and if you’re going to say that’s because Dickens was a man, I don’t see this sort of thing in Jane Austen – pre-Victorian – or the Bronte sisters – though admittedly I haven’t read much of the latter). Take it for what it’s worth, but in all my Victorian and pre-Victorian reading (which I confess I haven’t done nearly as much of as I would like) I can recall this sneeringly dismissive attitude occurring only a handful of times…and always at the hands of people we’re supposed to dislike. Half they time, they’re women.

In short, I am not saying that this kind of dismissive attitude didn’t exist in the Victorian era. I am saying that, to the extent it did, it certainly was not expressed like this. That’s why this sort of casual rudeness feels very artificial to me, an imposition of modern views onto a pre-modern setting.

There are a lot of things like that in Victoria, from the Obligatory Gay Couple™ to Victoria complaining about post-birth purification and replying to someone referring to her new baby as a gift from God with “God had nothing to do with it.” These strike me as modern sensibilities foisted upon a distinctly pre-modern world, either because the writers weren’t able to project themselves into that mindset, didn’t wish to, or thought the audience wouldn’t go along with it. I find this extremely annoying because it seems unfair to the Victorians that they’re not simply allowed to be themselves and let the audience judge how we like them. Like many contemporary stories set in the past, the main point seems to be to make the modern world look good.

For a counter-example of this sort of thing, I recommend the 1995 Pride and Prejudice BBC adaptation, which was content just to let the story play out and allowed the characters to talk and act like people of their time and place (e.g. the only one really complaining of the entail was silly Mrs. Bennet, whom we’re not supposed to take seriously, rather than having Jane and Elizabeth lamenting the unfairness of it all). The 2009 adaptation of Emma did this as well: I suppose writers are a little wary of messing with Miss Austen.

Anyway, that’s my opinion of Victoria: not bad, but kind of shallow and artificial.

Thoughts on the Greatest Showman

The other day I got out to see The Greatest Showman before it left theaters, which I’d been meaning to do for a little while. I’d known almost nothing about the film before, except that it was about P.T. Barnum and the founding of his circus. Then a month or so into its release I stumbled upon one of the songs and discovered that it was actually a musical! I like musicals, and the trailers looked really cool, so I made a point a point of getting out to see it while it was still on the big screen. And I can say I enjoyed it a good deal.

In first place, I liked the style a lot: there’s a lot of brilliant colors, a lot of interesting sets, and a kind of cool thing where it’s just a little surreal and impressionist. It’s very much like a stage show where things are just kind of set for the duration of the story, and we don’t exactly see how things are done or question how much time is going by, but we’re given an impression of the progress of the story. For instance, we don’t really see any of the circus acts, just the performers dancing and singing in the ring, giving more the impression of a circus show. I think it works pretty well and it keeps the film moving without being bogged down in details.

Hugh Jackman’s really good, of course: I’ve read this was a passion project of his for years and that intensity really comes across in his performance. He absolutely owns the role of Barnum. I really liked the relationship between him and his wife and their daughters: it’s just a lovely image of marriage and family life.

Of course the dancing is fantastic; very fast, very energized, and shot really well, making excellent use of sets and props. Interestingly enough, for all the circus and acrobatics, my favorite dance number is simply Barnum and Carlyle discussing business matters in a bar.

The songs are…okay. There’re very energized, they work well in context, but with the exception of the title number and maybe the aforementioned bar song they didn’t really stick with me (no, I wasn’t especially impressed by the Oscar-nominated ‘This is Me.’ It was okay, but…nothing really special. Maybe I’m just sick of the ‘I exist so you should admire me’ sentiment, though, again, it works in context of the film and the performers claiming their human dignity). They’re a little repetitive and some are a shade too long and travel over too many verses without enough lyrical variety, but they’re enjoyable enough and, taken in conjunction with the story and imagery are thoroughly entertaining. Well…the opera number is a little stale, but it’s kinda supposed to be.

By the way, I friggin’ love one shot in the title song of Barnum and his performers charging the spotlight flanked by elephants. It’s an awesome image that fits the music perfectly and I had to mention it.

All in all, I liked the first half of the film much more than the second. When he’s dreaming up the show, taking audacious risks, making mistakes and learning from them, gathering his performers and perfecting his vision, it’s fantastic. You can feel his energy, his drive and creativity. The scenes of him meeting the ‘freaks’ are excellent. We get to see their suspicion, their uncertainty, their fear of being laughed at again, then their gratitude at finding someone who actually wants to treat them like human beings. I really liked the circus performers and the depiction of their comradery, and kinda wished there’d been a little more scenes of them just hanging out together.

The second half isn’t bad, but it’s not as interesting as we see Barnum losing sight of his own vision as he chases after the approval of the world in general instead of being content with the support of his family and friends and the knowledge that he’s bringing joy into people’s lives. It’s a good theme about how there is never enough social approval to satisfy one who feels marginalized, and how the best thing is to seek fulfillment in family, friends, and worthwhile endeavors, but it kind of drags a bit and it’s just not as much fun.

I also think a bit more time could have been given to some of the subplots. Like the romance between Carlyle and the acrobat is good, but it’s not given enough lead in: he finds her attractive, she says two words to him, the next scene their hands are drifting together and she takes offense when he hesitates. One more scene establishing why they’re so drawn together would have made a huge difference.

But on the whole, it’s really good; I loved the energy, the passion, the celebration of popular entertainment and the urge to make people happy (“Does it bother you that everything you’re selling is fake?” “Do those smiles look fake?”). It’s just a really good film musical with a strong will to entertain, and I imagine Mr. Barnum would have approved.

Thoughts on ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’

Today my family and I finally got out to see Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, this season’s sleeper hit. Having seen it, I absolutely can understand why it’s found the success it has, because, yeah, it’s really very good.

The story has four teenagers – nerd, jock, popular girl, awkward girl – being sucked into a video game version of the Jumanji game (the process by which the original board game became a video game is a deceptively brilliant bit of writing: achieving what needs to be done with minimal fuss while simultaneously establishing certain key elements of the Jumanji entity). Inside they have to play as their respective avatars – played by Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, and Kevin Hart – to complete the game and escape.

The concept of someone being pulled into a video game isn’t new, but it’s done with particular skill here. The movie takes full advantage of the situation, both to have crazy stunts and action (like having a helicopter pursued by a herd of rhinos) and for a ton of very funny jokes. For instance, the characters they meet in the game are NPCs, meaning they only have a few set reactions and lines of dialogue, which they will cheerfully repeat indefinitely if pressed. The characters each have three lives, a fact they make some very creative uses of.

I was very impressed by the writing. I mean, it’s not extremely smart or extremely clever, but they do a really good job of establishing these characters and giving them credible personalities along with their cliche types. For instance, the popular girl is established almost at once to be both very self-conscious and much smarter than she would seem at first glance, all in probably about a minute of screen-time. Their relationships are all entirely believable and human, as are their developments after they enter the game world.

Meanwhile, the four leads do a simply fantastic job of playing teenagers inhabiting video game avatars, especially Dwayne Johnson as the nerdy kid and Jack Black as the popular girl. I admit, I was a little worried about that element at first – it seemed like a chance for fashionable nonsense about gender – but no; it completely works in context, to the point where you simply accept the character as a girl playing a video game. This is another example of the film making full use of its premise: of course people often play avatars of the opposite sex, and if you were forced to ‘live’ the role, this probably would be the result. Plus, it’s just really, really funny; like an extended burlesque routine. It’s an example of taking an element of contemporary life and doing something genuinely creative with it.

And all the while, in all the over-the-top action and goofy humor, they still keep the focus on the characters and story. There’s a scene where Jack Black has to teach Karen Gillan how to be sexy: that’s funny on about three or four levels, but at the same time it’s also a key point of their character development, with the two of them opening up and becoming friends and the nerdy girl learning how to be more confident.

I also like that all the characters have something to teach and something to learn from each other. And that they all were, at the end of the day, what I would call legit heroes: at different points they were each willing to step up, sacrifice, and make hard calls for each other and for the greater good.

So, yeah, this was a really good movie: an example of really solid, well-done entertainment. It knows exactly what it is and wants to do and does it with energy and skill: exactly the kind of film that Hollywood ought to be making all the time.

Godzilla: Monster Planet


Cool, huh? Too bad that’s basically all he does.

Being the huge Godzilla fan that I am, I of course had to check out Netflix’s Godzilla: Monster Planet anime, supposedly the first in a trilogy. And…yeah, I didn’t care for it.

The story is that humanity has been driven off the planet by Godzilla and the other monsters, but have failed to find a suitable alternative world, despite the help of two alien races (who are basically the Xillians and the Black Hole aliens from the original series: a cool touch). After searching for twenty years, with their resources depleting rapidly, they decide to return to Earth – which due to relativity has been abandoned for 20,000 years, to see whether they can return.

It’s a pretty cool set-up: a ‘what if?’ scenario for the world of Godzilla that posits a not-unthinkable consequence of the established elements. But there are problems. Big problems.

In the first place, the animation is not very good. Oh, there’s a lot of detail, the characters look nice, and the designs are very good, but it’s too dark. Almost all the scenes are in heavy shadow or fog, so that not only is it hard to see what’s going on, but keeping track of the characters or even telling one from another is next to impossible. Plus the characters all move in a stiff, stop-motiony kind of way, as if they were semi-articular action figures.

There are plot holes too. The idea of Godzilla driving humanity off the planet isn’t a bad one, but it kind of requires some explanation: dangerous as he is, Godzilla can only be in one place at a time. So, why is it whenever humanity has anything important to do, they seem to be doing it right next to him? When they arrive back on Earth, a probe quickly tells them where Godzilla is. So why would they land in the same location? Even if their plan is to confront and kill him, wouldn’t it make more sense to set up somewhere it would take him a few days to get to, so they could be well prepared? I mean, they have the entire planet to choose from here.

And it’s slow-moving. And there’s a lot of repetition in the script: explaining the same things over and over. And things that don’t make sense or are established, but don’t pay off (for instance, it’s explained that a certain plant is as sharp as steel and can puncture a spacesuit. This never comes into play again).

But the biggest problem is Godzilla himself. Hoo, boy, let’s try to explain this:

In the first place, they changed his backstory and basically the entire concept of what he is. That’s not too bad in itself; this isn’t Godzilla the character, but kind of a variation on the idea of Godzilla. I can go along with that, even if I prefer the original. The trouble is, again, the animation. Oh, my goodness, what were they thinking?!

If the human characters look like semi-articular action figures, Godzilla looks like a non-articulate figure. As in, he doesn’t move. At all. Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not much. He’s incredibly stiff and moves extremely slowly, so that half the time it looks like they just have a still image of him that they’re shifting about the screen. I cannot tell you what a disappointment this is.

It seems to me the whole point of doing an animated version of Godzilla is to make him more alive, more natural, more energized; to free the artists to show the full extent of his power and ferocity. Why turn him into basically a statue that occasionally shoots off an atomic ray? Heck, Talos from Jason and the Argonauts – an actual metal statue – was more mobile and seemed more alive than this!

That’s the problem: he doesn’t seem alive. In the live action films, whatever else he is, Godzilla always seems alive, because for the most part, he is. That’s the glory of suitimation; the character is really on screen and really moving the way a living thing should. Even at his stiffest, even when the effects were at their worst, Godzilla always at least felt alive (though I haven’t seen Shin Godzilla yet). Heck, even when he was literally a demonic zombie, he still moved more and had more character than this!

It’s awful, that’s all I can say; the way they portray Godzilla here is awful.

It’s not a waste of time, and I am glad I saw it. The action is kind of cool, the ideas are somewhat interesting, and there are some nice scenes. I especially like when they first arrive back over the Earth and everyone rushes to the windows to exclaim over the sight, especially the people who had been born in space who are seeing the planet for the first time. Then there’s a very interesting and kind of touching conceit involving the ruins of cities.

I suspect I’ll watch the next two films when they come out, since I am interested to see where they go from here. But I’ll go in with lowered expectations: I’m much more looking forward to the second Legendary Godzilla film.

Thoughts on ‘Gravity Falls’

Gravity Falls is one of those shows that I’d heard raved about from several different quarters as being a very smart, very funny, and very mature kids’ show with a lot of dark, creative imagery. So, when I had some extra time (read: was procrastinating again) I watched through it.

My reactions were surprisingly pretty mixed. I enjoyed a lot of it; when it’s good, it’s very good. The trouble is that, like the little girl with the little curl, when it’s bad it’s horrid.


The set up is that two twin siblings, Dipper and Mabel, are going to spend the summer with their great-uncle (‘Grunkle’) Stan; a grouchy con-man who runs a tourist trap ‘mystery shack’ in the rural town of Gravity Falls, Oregon. The town, as the two kids soon discover, is a nexus point of everything weird, supernatural, and unexplained, and they try to uncover the mysteries of the place while dealing with the pressures of growing up.

So, a good set up with lots of potential. Now what else is good about it? Well, first of all, the characters are pretty fun. I can’t say I was especially engaged by any of them (with one exception), but they’re interesting and pleasant company for the most part. The story arc of the two kids growing into adolescence is pretty engaging and realized through some nicely drawn subplots. The relationships are really good too; between the siblings, between the kids and their uncle, between Dipper and Wendy the girl who works the counter, and so on.

The stand out, for me, was the uncle, who’s a fantastic character. When I look back on the show, his scenes are chiefly what I remember and his relationship with the kids was probably the best thing about it. He’s an unabashed crook, grump, drinker, and scoundrel, but nevertheless you know he loves his kids and would do absolutely anything for them. His interactions with the two kids, especially with Mabel, are the most emotionally gripping elements of the story and actually brought a lump to my throat once or twice.

The atmosphere of the show is great as well. There’s a constant underlying sense of secrecy and uncertainty, playing into the mystery element. You’re almost never sure quite what’s going on, who to trust, or what’s going to happen next.

I also like the creativity shown in the creature designs and the supernatural effects (my favorite being an island that turns out to be a floating head). As that indicates, it’s often very dark and pleasantly frightening: sure to give sensitive young viewers nightmares. I liked how it was willing to push the scary and disturbing imagery, and that they weren’t afraid to place the kids in real danger, making for an unusually harsh tone for a kid’s show.

Speaking of danger, the main villain is fantastic: kind of like Freddy Krueger if he were a used car salesman. The exact rules of what he could and couldn’t do were kind of vague, but that’s kind of the point, and he was wonderfully evil in a delightful way.

Oh, and the show is often very funny, with a gloriously dark sense of humor. For instance, an early joke is that Stan’s last outing with the kids involved them helping him counterfeit money (“The county jail was cold”). Basically, any time we see one of his schemes, it’s pretty much hilarious. Mabel’s pretty funny too with her super-cheery, not-quite-all-there perspective, and Dipper gets some great reactions as the nearest-to-sane character present.

Okay, so the show has good characters, great atmosphere, it’s creative, funny. Sounds good. And a lot of the time it is. But the rest of the time…

The first problem is that, though the show has great atmosphere, the animation is kind of hideous. The characters are all lumpy and distorted, and there’s a dreary, unpleasant tone to the art style. And it’s not a matter of being stylized either: a lot of the characters in Phineas and Ferb have much weirder designs than this (Phineas’s head is a triangle), but they don’t create the same impression of ugliness. Maybe it’s because the characters there are done in broad geometric shapes, or because the colors are brighter, but the animation is much more pleasing to the eye than anything here. Gravity Falls is kind of unpleasant to look at, especially the more you watch of it.

Another thing is that I found the writing oddly slapdash. For instance, sometimes plotlines are more taken for granted than actually established. Grunkle Stan supposedly doesn’t believe any of the kids’ stories about the strange goings on. I may have missed something, but I recall maybe one or two scenes of him reacting this way, and both very early on. Then in the opening of the second season it’s suddenly a twist that he knew all along. But…they hadn’t made anything of his supposed incredulity. It didn’t affect the story in any way, at least not that I can remember (contrast in Milo Murphy’s Law, where Bradley’s status as a jealous sourpuss is well-established even though he’s not in very many episodes). And there are a few things like that; elements that are just kind of assumed, but not really established and which don’t affect the story in any way until the writers just decide to resolve them.

Also, the characters don’t always behave believably. There’s a Halloween episode where the twins end up menaced by a Halloween spirit that threatens to eat them if they don’t give him a certain amount of candy by the end of the night (downing a passing child just to prove it’s serious). Dipper spends the night embarrassed to be trick-or-treating and wanting to ditch the effort to go to a party with Wendy. Even in cartoon terms, that’s not believable behavior: he could be entertainingly irritated at being frightened into doing something he’d rather not, but he can’t be just shrugging off a death-threat from a supernatural monster. In other words, there has to be at least an element of fear in his behavior if the scenario is going to work, but there isn’t; he’s just annoyed and trying to find away to blow it off. The way they defeat the monster is stupid as well; just a cheap joke that feels like they were stuck for an ending.

That’s a problem that kind of keeps coming back throughout the show; as I said, the writers are willing to put the kids in real danger, but they don’t always act like they’re in real danger, or even in a cartoonishly inappropriate way. Half the time the characters just don’t seem to be taking their own predicament seriously: and not in an amusingly careless “I’ve seen it all” kind of way, but in a weird “doesn’t matter to me” way. This sort of thing rips me right out of the story: you can’t be both flippantly careless and darkly frightening at the same time because the two tones cancel each other out. It hits the right balance sometimes, but misses badly at others.

Again, contrast this with Phineas and Ferb. It’s a much brighter and cheerier show, and the characters there are very rarely in any danger, or even faced with serious consequences, but whenever they are they act like it. They still joke and banter, but when they need to be serious they get serious. For example, when Candace realizes her brothers have been abducted by an alien poacher, she immediately forgets all about ‘busting’ them and rushes to their rescue. Even as goofy and surreal as the show is, the characters consistently act in a believable fashion. The characters on Gravity Falls don’t, or at least not consistently.

Ironically this means Phineas and Ferb actually does a better job at creating a sense of danger and dread on the rare occasions it tries than this one does as a major part of its makeup. When zombie pharmacists are scarier than child-eating scarecrows, something has gone very wrong with the latter.

This is probably connected with another problem; the show is very cynical, which isn’t necessarily bad in itself, but it leads the characters to have kind of a myopic worldview. The thesis seems to be ‘the only good thing you can do is be there for your friends and family,’ which plays out in some very strange and kind of nasty scenes. There’s a bit near the end where one character can literally save the world with a single gesture…but he holds off because he’s angry that another character hasn’t shown him enough appreciation. Then the choices the kids make towards the end are likewise kind of…wrong. I can’t get into it without spoilers, but the overall point seemed kind of self-centered to me. Basically, the leads are very loyal to each other, which makes them likable, but it doesn’t seem to translate into either care for others in general or any sense of value for its own sake.

Related to this is that the show often rewards the characters in unearned ways just because the writers decide they should be rewarded. There’s a really stupid episode where Dipper and Mabel are hunting down a centuries-old conspiracy, and Mabel’s random, goofy behavior turns out to be the key to solving each riddle, because the guy who set the puzzle was just as goofy and random as she was, and “being silly is good.” No. Just…no. The hand the of the writers is brutally obvious throughout, rewarding Mabel for no other reason than that they wanted her to be right.

Again, contrast this with a similar situation in a better show. There’s an episode of My Little Pony where Rarity has to solve a mystery on Rainbow Dash’s behalf and apparently spends most of her time changing costumes and getting distracted by irrelevancies. But it turns out everything she focused on was vital to the case (the costumes not so much) and that, in classic detective fashion, she knew what she was doing the whole time. You see, Rarity was able to solve the mystery because she’s both intelligent and very attune to details: traits that obviously lend themselves to solving mysteries. On Gravity Falls, Mabel solves the mystery because she’s ‘silly’ and because her random, goofy behavior just happened to correspond with the mystery author’s random, goofy behavior, which only works because it was specifically set up that way. That’s the difference between an earned solution and a contrived one.

And there are quite a few episodes like that, where the writers are obviously just forcing things to go their preferred way, either because they’ve written themselves into a corner or because that’s just how they want it to be. So between that, the false-seeming behavior, and the often slapdash plotting, I don’t think I can call this a well-written show.

Then there are just stupid things: I praised the main villain, but the secondary one is just dumb and neither a consistent character nor a very entertaining one. There were a fair number of episodes that just plain didn’t work, or had a great set up that they completely undermined for a cheap gag.

In all this I think the central problem is the mindset behind the show. I don’t know anything about the creators, but the show seems to come from a very cynical, almost nihilistic point of view. I may be reading too much into it, but that’s the impression I was left with, though accompanied with some strong emotional connections to and between the characters and a lot of good humor and creativity.

I’ve spent a lot of time describing what’s wrong with Gravity Falls because its flaws are mostly structural, down under the surface and tricky to pin down. The show is superficially very strong, but it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny very well. Shows like Phineas and Ferb and My Little Pony are not only fun to watch, but get better the more you think about them. I’ve seen Phineas and Ferb all through at least three or four times and I’m still finding new things to like about it and new ideas to draw from it. Gravity Falls is generally fun to watch, but it doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny. The more I think about it, the more I see the flaws, the gaps, and the wrongheadedness in it, all the more so because it does have such a superficial shine to it that makes me annoyed to find it’s not as good as it tries to be.

I’m an inveterate re-watcher, so one of my main rubrics for judging just about any work of fiction is whether I want to see it again. Phineas and Ferb I wanted to re-watch as soon as it was over, since it left me so emotionally satisfied that I wanted to go back and see the whole thing again knowing where it was leading. Danny Phantom left me appreciative for the good parts, but with absolutely no desire to watch it again. Gravity Falls is somewhere in the middle. I don’t want to watch it again anytime soon, but I feel like I may at some point in the future. The good parts may just be good enough to tempt me back once more, at least to some episodes. It’s certainly a good show in a lot of ways, but I can’t say I liked it very much.

So, in the end, I have very mixed feelings about Gravity Falls. I liked a lot of it, and I disliked a lot of it, and on the whole it left me glad that I had seen it, but with a bit of a bad taste in the mouth.