*Spoiler alert, Iron Man 3D. But really, you haven’t seen it already?
It’s a cheap thrill to rail on the easy target, so I will now belatedly upbraid the latest installment of the Iron Man trilogy for a few of its weaker plot points. For one, the super villain in this movie lacks any discernible motive for his dark deeds, which makes him the least interesting kind of super villain. For two, we have the always- adorable Robert Downey Jr. (a.k.a, Iron Man) pitted against nebulous inner demons that periodically draw his focus from the urgent ass-kicking tasks at hand. And this Kryptonite is not so highbrow as an existential crisis or as dramatic as an un-requited love, oh no no…Iron Man is plagued all movie with a series of loosely explained “anxiety attacks” avec a side of general restlessness. A throwaway line attributes hero’s ennui to emotional fall-out from his last adventure, but I know better: Shane Black doesn’t really care about story. He does not expect me to ask questions about why things are the way they are in his (adapted!) alternate universe, I am merely asked to take on faith that all the tropes of the superhero action movie are working, only in ways not worth getting in to. Look over here at this building collapsing – battle scene, commence! Someone is crying, regard the denouement! Can’t I tell by the music cues? Doesn’t it all look so smashing in 3D? Only, the Emperor has no explanation. Don’t you try to tell me that Iron Man’s Achilles’ Heel can sufficiently be “anxiety attacks.” We get anxiety attacks. We take medicine for them.* I have a brain.
Given: it’s something of a useless hippie exercise to rage against the machine when it comes to the Hollywood epic. A lot of whiny critics have spent the last decade and a half lamenting the erosion of movie quality in general and the soulless money factory that is the epic adaptation (and it’s sequel, and it’s prequel, and it’s grand finale…) in specific. Wanted men in this war – if you can call it a ‘war,’ when one camp is winning in a x billion dollar landslide – include Michael Bay, James Cameron, Christopher Nolan. George Lucas, since he somehow managed to misappropriate his own material with those first three Star Wars movies we no longer speak of. It’s reductive to criticize all of these filmmakers as special effects driven wampum-grubbers who think they can trick me into thinking I’ve seen a whole movie via twenty breathtaking minutes of CGI, but then again… While I want to give these gentlemen due credit for being techno-wizards in the age of fantasti-spectacle on screen, dear Hollywood: I think people always crave a good story, and no amount of glitter and magic can fully distract us when it’s not there or riddled with holes. Here’s looking at you, Baz Luhrmann?
“ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?!” –Russell Crowe, a movie
So Shane Black is no David Lynch or Shakespeare, and that’s okay, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone…still. I used to think the world needed blocs like the anonymous twelve person screenwriting team behind, I dunno, Death Slayer Sevenfold 877 – we all like to like epic action thrillers, and entertainment for entertainment’s sake is nothing to shun. I just wonder if we’re still really being entertained, when asked to both suspend all of our disbelief and pay fifteen greenies for 3D goggles we use for a fraction of a movie’s length. I’ve witnessed the rise of CGI replacing crucial elements of even the simplest, most didactic stories: take your basic comic book narrative.
Correct me if I’m wrong, higher sources, but as I understand it, in the typical comic book narrative there is a plain good and a plain evil and a hero with inherited personal conflicts. There’s usually a city on the edge of destruction. This city might remind you of your own closest urban center, but its probably called something else. Likewise, these urban center’s problems might echo our tidy Real World’s, beginning to hint at social commentary – think of Bane’s occupied downtown “Gotham” in the most recent Nolan Batman, or the frightening anti-mutant campaign of right-wing Senator Kelly in 2000’s X-Men. Now Iron Man 3 does make such gestures towards our intelligence – namely with the addition of Sir Ben Kingsley in perhaps the least dignified role of his life – but as the movie’s jingoistic bin-Laden-y terrorist, The Mandarin, he proves the reddest of red herrings. The Mandarin kills innocents on live television and purports to be on a grisly anti-American revenge rampage, yet the movie cuts its own legs off on this plot-line when we discover the dark cult-leader is somebody’s puppet, entirely sans agenda. So demi-bummer, so quibble: it’s kind of nice to see the high morality of a superhero flick reaching out to remark on our reality. The opportunity was squandered here, and I don’t think it was just oversight.
“I know it when I see it.” –Justice Potter Stewart, a ruling
David Foster Wallace made the old action movies-are-always-getting-dumber point nicely (as he always seemed to do) in an essay about James Cameron’s 1991 Terminator 2. There is a clear difference concerning intent and execution when earlier Cameron work like Aliens is placed besides Terminator 2, another blockbuster notorious for its plot holes and general un-subtlety. Aliens is still trotted out by diehard genre fans for the argument that a good thriller can be challenging, intelligent and entire while also rocking one’s socks off. But Foster Wallace goes so far as to compare the later iteration of Cameronworld to pornography: “just like hard-core cheapies, movies like Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park aren’t really ‘movies’ in the standard sense at all. What they really are is half-a-dozen or so isolated, spectacular scenes – scenes comprising maybe twenty or thirty minutes of riveting, sensuous pay off – strung together via another sixty to ninety minutes of flat, dead and often hilariously insipid narrative.”
Yet we fill the theaters, yet something in our 300-million-dollar-opening-weekends is telling Hollywood to churn out thinner and thinner sequels to a story until a series’ latest installment is parodic of any quality in the first. Some of us clearly are being entertained, so I’ll rephrase the question – are we being entertained at the movies? Are we really watching movies anymore, with characters and settings and ideas at work? What if I can’t suspend my disbelief enough to even map the fate of a fake world onto my own, to muster any care for the folks on (green)screen? And if it’s not a story, is it all just a sludge of eighth grade boy fantasia? And one can hardly say that, as eighth grade boy fantasia done well is a really good comic book.
Watching Iron Man 3, it occurred to me that one (read: any banner-waving goofus) might be insulted twice over: once on behalf of the diehard fans who once cherished this material in paper form, and second as a person with a fully functioning brain who’s willing to make some and certain leaps in the name of spectacle, but not ALL. As our culture’s capacity to be shocked has spiked, it’s not a revelation that CGI has come to dominate the action film. But at a curious cost, no?
“Fiction is both artifice and verisimilitude and…there is nothing difficult in holding together these two possibilities.” -James Wood, a book (OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND DECIDE THAT PETER JACKSON IS BETTER THAN ALL OF EVERYONE AND HELM’S DEEP IS STILL THE COOLEST SHIT EVER)
I want to hone this diatribe in on the adaptation, specifically. Adaptations are an interesting recent phenom, as most of them purport to honor old, good material while in practice incensing all “true fans” with wild inattention to canon. Now, of course not everyone in the theatre gets mad when Spider-Man or Batman end up with the wrong villain or the wrong chick in a certain storyline yadda yadda, but it behooves we viewers to think about Hollywood’s intention when they mess with a structure that is already proven to be good, and beloved by many. I submit for your consideration the grand exception: The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Some indisputable facts about the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy: 1) the battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers is about the coolest action battle sequence of the last fifteen years BAR NONE despite now appearing slightly dated to our 8D TVs. 2) Peter Jackson, that reverent super-fan, took an incredible amount of care and consideration into these movies. All of the orcs have FAMILY CRESTS. In the twelve hour full extended version of the series, treats for the Tolkien scholar abound via missable references to wizarding hierarchy or Dunedain lore. Note that people have criticized every single director of every single Harry Potter movie for the conspicuous absence of these kinds of fan-nods. Note also that Jackson’s recent The Hobbit, which has been confusingly hacked up into three separate adventure stories despite being only 320 pages, has made a number of people mad as one can only assume PJ’s in the stretching business for goblin gold. Also, the 48 frames per second CGI in The Hobbit is so overblown some have called it distractingly creepy. Silmarillion, indeed.
We notice and responds to the details in a story, to the story in a story. We cannot stop caring about these things. The Return of the King was at heart a thrilling action movie; it won Best Picture in 2003. Even those of us who shamefully had not read the series before seeing all of the movies could enjoy The Lord of the Rings, and why? Because it’s got all of those predictable tropes of all of the fantasy stories we know (although it’s arguable that Tolkien did most of these first and best) yet it’s watertight, and therefore exemplary, in its form. And people still love these movies not just because they’re so badass-looking, but because they love Elrond and Gandalf and Pippin and Merry. They love the Shire. I love Aragorn.
On the flip side…
J.J. Abrams has begged reviewers to avoid spoilers in their discussions of his Star Trek: Into Darkness, so I’ll need most of you to go see it before we can go to the mattresses on this one. Suffice it to say that in Into Darkness, there are some blatant moments of homage to Gene Roddenberry’s original characters and situations, some of which are very well done. At other times, in these tributes there is that whiff of parody, and one gets the feeling this is unintentional. Mr. Abrams simultaneously gave himself a hard time and a hall pass with the introduction of a time warp that’s allowed him to restructure the whole original series canon for his own narrative designs; he’s got all these templates for what could (SHOULD.) happen, yet he can also do whatever he wants. This movie only flounders in moments where Mr. Abrams takes it on faith that people will connect fast-paced action sequences into what is in summation a slightly convoluted plot. He asks the Trekkies to believe in the characters we know so well (each remarkably rendered, I think, great casting…) to distract us from a few holes in the hull. It’s hard to be more detailed without giving away certain plot-twists, but you might also like to know that both super-fans and newbs took note of the cheek at work in the movie. According to my friends. I direct you also to A.O Scott’s review, which calls attention to what it is J.J. Abrams seems to be missing about real Star Trekian lore. I’ll give you a hint: it’s a feeling, not a fight scene. AND THE VIOLINS SWELL!
“There is only one recipe – to care a great deal for the cookery.” -Henry James, a book
We notice! We care! A good movie is always a good movie, across any genre! The things that make a movie good tend to be detail, manifest in respect for the material, especially if the material’s good (which it need be for the movie to be good, by and large). Exceptions abound: Transformers wasn’t half-bad, while being as genre-conscious and cool-looking as your basic major blockbuster. A good James Bond movie is good, and its good while being uncomplicated plot-wise and chock full of bad-ass special effects. A good James Bond movie also doesn’t prey on my coin like a greedy dwarf or scoff my intelligence like a power-mad wizard. (…)
Is this about recognition? Should re-inventors with big pockets just be trying to flatter the egos of original fans? No, of course not. P. Jackson makes elegant edits while J.J. Abrams leans a little too heavily on character. Movies for a wide audience are just that. Yet if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. Comic books are cultural artifacts with a long and interesting history in this country, and they really are excellent stories which might theoretically rock the world on a silver screen (Dark Knight Dark Knight Dark Knight). If it is broke, hire that one bright-eyed kid from Yale to script supervise and make something that looks awesome while also, you know, being awesome. Better yet, write something new! James Cameron has almost literally built a whole world on camera. It would be so nice if a really good storyteller was around to help him see it through.
My mother pointed out that people still love the original Star Trek series not because but in spite of its “special” effects, which amount to a lot of the world’s worst stunt doubles and people jumping in concert to signify a space ship in the thick of war. We love it because it’s bright, character-driven, and sure, because its delightfully predictable in half hour packages. But that formula – and it is a formula, going all the way back to whichever mythology you like – sings when it’s airtight. There’s a shred of truth and empathy in the explosion. And that’s entertainment. And I know because that’s what’s endured.
*Note – manfriend informed me that there is in fact an installment of the Iron Man comics in which Mr. Stark’s alcoholism is his biggest obstacle in vigilante crime-fighting. Now this is an interesting idea because it’s complex and rooted in conscience and weakness. The vague ‘anxiety attack’ is only so irritating a hex because it’s never given a root.