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X-Men: Dark Phoenix
The superhero genre groundwork was laid by the Superman and Batman franchises, improved by Blade, and received its first fully formed incarnation with 2000’s X-Men. The subsequent 19 years delivered a further eleven films, ranging from the highs of X-2 and Logan to the lows of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. X-Men: Dark Phoenix is, sad to say, another low. There are many familiar features, from visual renderings of telepathy to energy blasts from eyes, but there is little that’s new or interesting. Writer-director Steven Kinberg displays little flair or innovation, making the viewer pine for the stylistics of Bryan Singer (controversy notwithstanding) or Matthew Vaughn. Action set pieces on a space shuttle and aboard a train pale in comparison to earlier entries in the franchise as well as those in Marvel Studios’ output. That said, Kinberg does manage to evoke a sense of atmosphere, fitting for the steady and dangerous increase of power in Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). At their heart, superhero films are always about power and its appropriate use, and Dark Phoenix does continue this conceit in relation to Jean, and also Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), but without any significant depth. Indeed, much of the early part of the film is fairly bland, despite potentially shocking moments, though it does pick up slightly when Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) appears. Despite the best efforts of the cast, and a prominence of female characters, the strongest element of the film is the score, with Hans Zimmer at his most Hans Zimmer. Crashing synths and booming Braaaaaaahms abound, adding to the atmosphere even if the end result is somewhat hollow. As a chapter in the franchise, Dark Phoenix feels conclusive, and it is a damp squib for this long running series to go out on. But then again, you can never keep a good (or bad) mutant down.
One of the interesting aspects about superhero cinema is the development of particular franchises, as subsequent instalments take the set-up of the origin stories to new places. When Deadpool was released in 2016, its irreverent, self-aware and achingly postmodern stance demonstrated there was still plenty of stretch left in the spandex. In the case of Deadpool 2, this same spandex gets stretched again, largely to the same places. As a result, David Leitch’s film, working from a script by Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick and star Ryan Reynolds, largely feels like a re-tread. Swear-tastic dialogue? Check. Fourth wall breaks? Check. Comically gruesome violence? Check. Anything that feels fresh? Not so much. This is disappointing because the first Deadpool felt fresh and vibrant, but Deadpool 2 is largely more of the same. Deadpool/Wade Wilson (Reynolds) continues his mercenary ways, Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) tries to make Wilson into a superhero while Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) makes snarky comments, Dopinder (Karan Soni) idolises DP’s violent approach in disturbing ways. New arrivals Russell (Julian Dennison) and Cable (Josh Brolin, in his second Marvel appearance of 2018) add some additional concerns over destiny and consequence, but their arcs as well as those of the other characters feel stretched and almost redundant. The most interesting aspect of the film is frustratingly underdeveloped – a potentially disturbing aspect that does develop an ongoing conceit of the X-Men franchise as a whole. X-Men has repeatedly dramatised concerns over prejudice and intolerance, and in Deadpool 2 we see the DMC (presumably Department of Mutant Control/Containment) as well as a mutant ‘rehabilitation centre’, complete with creepy headmaster (Eddie Marsan). Annoyingly, these institutions and their draconian practices are largely relegated to the background. It may seem churlish to criticise a film for what it isn’t, but agencies such as these are ripe for satire and snubbing authority, exactly what Deadpool is famous for. Therefore, when the film resorts to the same flippancy towards dramatic stakes as its predecessor, there is little to get excited about. Deadpool 2 does succeed on the action front, including one bravura sequence featuring a long take centred on Domino (Zazie Beetz). In addition, the cast are all game and amusing, especially Reynolds whose charisma and devotion to the character ensure that Deadpool is still fun to spend time with. There are plenty of laughs too, but they probably won’t linger any longer than the injuries of our indestructible protagonist.
Amidst the problems of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, one pinnacle of wisdom, class and super-powered kick-assery stood tall above everything else – Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman/Diana Prince. Despite this appearance and over 70 years of comic book history, the world’s most famous superheroine has waited until 2017 for a solo big screen appearance. Happily, Wonder Woman is worth the wait, as director Patty Jenkins delivers a dynamic, inventive and witty superhero adventure of duty, will, the pervasiveness of evil and the power of love. From the wraparound story in modern day Paris to childhood and training among the Amazons of Themyscira, Jenkins, Gadot and screenwriter Allan Heinberg draw the viewer into Diana’s world, sharing her joys, fears and discoveries.
Rather than following the dour example of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and BVS: DOJ, Wonder Woman is more reminiscent of Captain America: The First Avenger with its period setting and also Thor with its dramatisation of myth, and shares a sense of fun thus far lacking in the DC Extended Universe. Diana becomes aware of the wider world when American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) arrives with WWI German soldiers in hot pursuit. From here we embark on a ride to London and thence to the Western Front, a ride that is jaunty, gripping and at times powerfully moving. Jenkins strikes a fine balance between fish-out-of-water comedy, both for Steve among the Amazons and Diana among the British, grim moments featuring the impact of war on civilians and the ruthless aggression of General Ludendorff (Danny Huston), and some truly magnificent action set pieces. These set pieces constitute major developments of the drama: the first exhibits the skill and power of the Amazons; the second demonstrates Diana coming into her own as a warrior and had me welling up with emotion; the third begins with a gritty physicality before escalating to truly epic proportions. A common criticism of superhero films is that the final act succumbs to CG overload, but in the case of Wonder Woman the onslaught of visual effects expresses narrative development and the characters’ discoveries.
This climactic sequence also features the film’s greatest strength: acknowledgement of the pervasiveness of evil. Throughout the film, Diana believes that it is her mission to destroy Ares, the god of war, because this will end the Great War, a belief that Steve and the rest of their notably diverse team find naïve. A central villain is common to superhero cinema and often the purpose of the narrative is to defeat him (or occasionally her), but the more challenging entries in the genre such as X-Men, The Dark Knight and Logan do not locate evil quite so easily. Diana’s journey of discovery is also that of the viewer in realising that this film is doing something a little different, and the joy of this difference alongside the electrifying action makes the film into something special.
Furthermore, Wonder Woman makes good on its gender politics. Diana is a superb character, defined not as a woman but as a warrior for justice. The film therefore manages to present that elusive thing called equality, where men and women unite for a common cause because they all care. Furthermore, the absurdities of patriarchy are highlighted, such as when Diana encounters the British high command in London and is dismayed by their lack of compassion, in stark contrast to the nobility of the Amazons. Some might find the romance between Steve and Diana clichéd and disappointing, but it is important to note that their relationship is part of a larger conceit of love that pervades the entire film, from the bonds among the Amazons to those between Steve’s fellow soldiers, and the compassion and empathy that drives Diana throughout. Superhero movies are often concerned with hope, but Wonder Woman goes further, Jenkins crafting a thrilling and moving tale of the compelling and invigorating power of love for all humanity.
X marks the spot and, by all accounts, the end. James Mangold’s Logan concludes Hugh Jackman’s seventeen years playing the Wolverine, and it serves as a fitting finale to the hirsute one’s cinematic adventures. Shot through with bitterness, regret and melancholia, Mangold’s film in a bold, mature character study that balances pathos and dark wit with more grounded and gritty action sequences than we have seen previously in this franchise. Dispensing with world-shattering events, Logan follows the eponymous mutant along with fellow long-term player Sir Patrick Stewart as Professor Charles Xavier, and newcomer Laura (Dafne Keen), as they attempt to escape from armed men working for a mysterious company. There is little in the way of super-powered battles, as the action consists of physical fracas of fists, feet and claws, as well as bullets and bombs. The adult rating is well deserved as F-bombs and claret fly with wild abandon, and the bloodletting especially demonstrates how sanitised the earlier X-Men films were. Here, limbs are severed, heads are pierced, bodies erupt and blister. The violence is far from gratuitous, however, as pain and injury is not restricted to the faceless adversaries of our heroes. Logan is at his most vulnerable, bearing scars and wounds, coughing throughout the film and easing his pain with a near-constant flow of alcohol. Charles is worse, suffering from a degenerative disease that causes telepathic seizures. Both men are also deeply troubled by their pasts, some of which we know from previous films but others are only referred to in passing. The fruity language is integral to this burnt-out masculinity, since Logan and Charles have largely given up caring. Mangold maintains the conceit of world-weariness throughout the film, with a measured visual style that often captures the characters in wide shots of the unsympathetic landscape, making the film more like a western than a standard superhero movie (although the Shane references are a bit too neat). Perhaps most bleakly, there is little sense of redemption in the film, as animosity and prejudice remain prevalent, but crucially are not located in any single evildoer. The X-Men series has always been interested in prejudice and difference, but this was simply reiterated in recent entries. Logan reinforces that prejudice and fear of the different are systemic issues deeply imbricated in society, despite supposed progress. This makes Logan not only a fitting farewell to a beloved character, but a highlighting of contemporary issues that demand attention and the effort for change.
Take the frank, profane humour of Judd Apatow and mix with the explosive and gory violence of Matthew Vaughn. Add the superhero trappings of costumes, digital effects, and tragic origin story. Mix with knowing humour and regular breaks of the fourth wall. Simmer for 108 minutes and you’ll have something approaching Deadpool, Tim Miller’s rendering of Ryan Reynolds’ labour of love to bring one of the least conventional costumed adventurers to the big screen. Deadpool pulls off the remarkable feat of both following the superhero formula while also sending it up, in a way that is satirical but never mean-spirited. The profane humour and explicit violence are sometimes shocking but far from gratuitous as they perfectly express the film’s conceit of de-sanitising superheroes. In Deadpool, people are hurt and killed in gruesome manner, a vast amount of property is destroyed, and a powerful individual with an axe to grind acts in complete flagrance of the law. Furthermore, Wade Wilson/Deadpool’s (Reynolds) motivations are rather less noble than your average X-Man, and the film contrasts him with two actual X-Men, Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead [no, really!] (Brianna Hildebrand). The contrast between Colossus’ goody-goofy rhetoric and Deadpool’s glibness perfectly encapsulates the film’s send-up of its genre, while Miller’s directorial style is fluid and paces the action, humour and satire just right. Deadpool is gleefully distinct from a conventional superhero film, and its development of the genre demonstrates there is plenty of stretch left in the spandex.
eXpanding and Continuing Part Two: X-Men: Days of Future Past
X-Men: Days of Future Past pulls off the remarkable feat of being sequel, prequel and reboot all at once. It continues plotlines of X-Men: First Class, while also referring to the events of X-Men, X2, X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Wolverine. But it also performs a remarkable piece of internal resetting, making an alternative title X-Men: Restoration. Whereas other franchises have delivered reboots that simply play out as though earlier incarnations never happened (see Batman Begins, The Incredible Hulk, The Amazing Spider-Man, Man of Steel), X-Men: DOFP uses its time travel conceit to have its cake and eat it, featuring elements that, in any other narrative, would never work. In doing so, it echoes Star Trek (2009), which also created an alternative timeline to run parallel, rather than separately, from that established in earlier instalments.
Much of the pleasure of X-Men: Days of Future Past comes from its knowing engagement with the franchise’s established history. Most obviously, we see new and old versions of familiar characters, especially Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy as Professor Charles Xavier as well as Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender as Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto. The differences between the young and old versions of Xavier are highlighted in a sequence that sees McAvoy and Stewart play against each other, McAvoy a burned-out drug addict who has given up, Stewart a grizzled war veteran who, despite everything he has seen, still has hope and urges his younger self to rediscover his hope. Hope is perhaps the central conceit of all superhero movies, and is especially important given the bleak future that occupies the film’s early scenes (reminiscent of Terminator 2: Judgment Day), including a genuinely shocking battle sequence between Sentinels and mutants. In a previous post, I criticised The Wolverine for the low stakes of its drama, and that problem is easily avoided in X-Men: DOFP as Stewart’s ominous voiceover informs us that mutants cannot win this war. On an intimate level, we see familiar characters cut down mercilessly, demonstrating that everyone is at risk in this grim vision of the future.
At times, the grim seriousness of the future sequences does not gel with the humour of the 1973 portion of the narrative, which leaves the film feeling rather flimsy overall. However, the intertextual/intra-franchise references are a lot of fun and well-judged as the film never tips too far into wink-nudge territory. Furthermore, director Bryan Singer shows the same flair for visualising superpowers on screen that made his earlier X-Men films such a delight. A much celebrated scene features Quicksilver (Evan Peters) literally moving faster than a speeding bullet as he darts around a shootout scene, while Magneto’s manipulation of metal as well as Xavier’s telepathy continue to provide visually arresting scenes, as do the abilities of Blink in the future. Overall, the film is like the X-Men themselves – a motley assemblage of disparate elements that do not always harmonise, but an assemblage that is nonetheless engaging and compelling.
I recently had a conversation with a friend about recent films that we had different responses to, Kick-Ass 2 (Jeff Wadlow, 2013) and The Wolverine (James Mangold, 2013). I found both of these disappointing and my friend thought they were alright. In the case of Kick-Ass 2, my fellow conversant knew that it would not surprise or shock them like the first, and that the only way it could have done would be to change the style of the film. Therefore, the film was enjoyable as an extension to the first, but nothing more. The absence of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) was felt, and my friend commented that the story did not have enough suspense, unlike Matthew Vaughn’s original.
Both of us agreed that Hit Girl/Mindy McCready (Chloe Grace Moretz) was the best thing in Kick-Ass 2, so for me, it was disappointing that she was underused and spending time becoming a ‘regular girl’, only for her to abandon that and re-embrace Hit Girl. It is a common trope in superhero narratives that heroes renounce their super identities (see Superman II [Richard Lester, 1980], Spider-Man 2 [Sam Raimi, 2004], The Dark Knight Rises [Christopher Nolan, 2012]), but it tends to be more traumatic and a crisis of identity. Had Kick-Ass 2 focused on that element, it would have been more effective, even as an identity crisis within high school. High school is fertile ground for dramas about identity and finding oneself, so a high school action comedy about Hit Girl would have a lot of potential.
Unfortunately, with Mindy/Hit Girl side-lined, Kick-Ass 2 lacks not only suspense but emphasis, wavering between Dave Lizewski/Kick-Ass and his ongoing ambition, as well as Colonel Stars and Stripes’ (Jim Carrey) Justice Forever band, and the increasing villainy of Chris D’Amico/The Motherfucker (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). The film therefore lacks focus and a coherent theme, essentially trying to play off the original’s feature of having superheroes swear and get badly hurt. But in Kick-Ass, that was a point rather than a gimmick. In Kick-Ass 2, it’s just a gimmick. There are some good sequences, including the final battle and indeed most scenes involving Mother Russia (Olga Kurkulina), and I liked the suggestion of a romance between Mindy and Dave, but overall, the film felt lightweight and uncertain of its meaning.
It used to be the case that sequels were never as good as the originals. Superhero films especially buck that trend, with Spider-Man 2, Blade II (Guillermo Del Toro, 2002), X-2 (Bryan Singer, 2003), The Dark Knight, maybe even Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer (Tim Story, 2007) improving what came before. Sadly, it seems that Kick-Ass 2 is what we used to expect from sequels.
The Wolverine is another matter. The X-Men franchise has been very patchy, at its best striking a balance between personal dramas, thrilling action and wider ramifications. The wider ramifications was the major missing feature from The Wolverine, as it is the most intimate and personal film of the franchise thus far. Director James Mangold has a talent for intimate, down-to-earth drama, whether that be the biopic melodrama of Walk The Line (2005) or the terse psychological thrills of Identity (2003). The Wolverine demonstrates that he can still deliver the necessary action spectacle (although perhaps that should be credited more to second unit director, editor and the special effects team), but despite the bullet train sequence and the final battle with Silver Samurai, The Wolverine is remarkably unremarkable, because there seems to be little reason for what is going on. It is essentially the further adventures of Logan, revisiting an old friend, making new ones including a requisite new romance, and I was left thinking ‘So what?’ The spectral presence of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) was unconvincing, and the most moving moment was Logan’s early communion with a wounded bear. It could have been refreshing to see Logan more vulnerable, like those mentioned above it is an instance of the superhero losing their powers, but the trope of him having to adapt to being hurt was not given enough variety, swiftly becoming repetitive.
To make matters worse, the villain of The Wolverine was very uninteresting, Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) little more than a mutant riff on the vicious beauty, which was done far more interestingly with Mystique (Rebecca Romijn/Jennifer Lawrence) and Emma Frost (January Jones) in previous installments. Perhaps if she had been in a position to fight Logan herself, like Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu) in X-2, it might have been interesting, but instead she is far from a worthy adversary. The final clash between Wolverine and Silver Samurai was flashy but felt more like an obligation than an organic development, while the sudden reappearance of the bone claws was overly convenient.
Overall, The Wolverine felt lightweight, nothing attached to what was going on. For me, the X-Men films have been most enjoyable when the stakes are high, which they have been previously:
X-Men – the irradiation of the world leaders
X-2 – the death of all mutants and, subsequently, the death of all humans
X-Men: The Last Stand – the ‘cure’ for mutation
X-Men Origins: Wolverine – more personal, but still a campaign against mutant-kind
X-Men: First Class – the Cuban missile crisis and World War Three
The Wolverine – dying man wants to live forever and will steal Logan’s ability to heal so that he becomezzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
The stakes of The Wolverine are too low and, therefore, the film lacks drama. Ironically, the biggest problem with The Wolverine is the best thing in it – the mid-credits sequences featuring Professor X and Magneto. I had read that Patrick Stewart was going to cameo, but I was not expecting Ian McKellen to show up as well. In addition, the foreshadowing of Trask Industries is another nice detail, demonstrating economic storytelling and raising expectations. I eagerly anticipate X-Men: Days of Future Past (Singer, 2014), combining the elements established in earlier instalments into something both new and familiar. But when the best thing in a film is a scene with no connection to what went on before, then the film as a whole is clearly doing something wrong.
Man of Steel – SPOILER WARNING
I recently posted on my top five of the year so far, and placed Man of Steel at number 4. This puts it ahead of Oblivion, After Earth, Iron Man Three and Star Trek Into Darkness as the finest blockbuster I’ve seen in 2013, a film I would describe as swell, and it is a film that swells. This might be a controversial choice, as Man of Steel has been met with very mixed reviews, some disappointed over its treatment of beloved comic book elements (which always happens with adaptations), others complaining that it is too dour and not enough fun, and the standard criticism of blockbusters that plot and character get left behind in the midst of all the destruction and special effects.
For me though, Man of Steel provided everything I want from a blockbuster and a superhero movie. There are others later this year, including The Wolverine and Thor: The Dark World, but the standard set by Man of Steel (as well as Iron Man Three) is pretty high. I have never been as big a fan of Superman as I am of Batman and Spider-Man, because Superman can be too powerful to be relatable – if he is invulnerable, there is no drama. Man of Steel avoids this pitfall of the character, making Kal vulnerable, relatable and human. At the same time, director Zack Snyder delivers enthralling and enveloping action sequences that allow the viewer to experience the thrills and pains of super powers, which is a key ingredient in the superhero genre.
Movie of Swells
The trope of swelling recurs throughout Man of Steel, apparent from the very beginning as Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) gives birth, her screaming and panting swelling along with the music. As we subsequently learn, Kal is the first Kyptonian to have been born this way in generations, so his very existence is a swelling of resistance. Rebellion swells across the opening sequence on Krypton, as Jor El (Russell Crowe) faces the senior council and urges evacuation as the planet itself swells with tectonic forces. The swelling menace erupts as General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts a coup, and the sequence culminates with the explosion of Krypton.
Swelling continues as the adult Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) travels north in search of answers, and his memories demonstrate his swelling confusion and inner turmoil. Man of Steel’s flashbacks echo Batman Begins, with the young adult developing his hero persona through current events, like saving men aboard a burning oil rig, and those from his childhood, such as lifting a school bus out of a river. Finally, when Clark reaches a crashed Kryptonian scoutship and learns the truth of who he is, the swelling of his potential continues through a montage, once again reminiscent of writer/producer Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. The suit that Kal El will wear, the history of Krypton, the philosophy that Jor delivers to him, are all intercut with Kal striding out of the ship, cape billowing behind him, until he stands in the sun and crouches, ready to take flight. His first flight comes one hour into the film (just like “I’m Batman!”), which has been swelling towards this point. When I saw Kal ascend, less like a speeding bullet and more reminiscent of a bolt of light, the hairs rose on my arms as I felt myself vicariously hurtling up with him. The greatest moments in movies are often those that transport us, and for that moment, I felt myself transported with him.
Not that the first flight goes too well, as Kal crashes into a mountain and takes some time getting used to his abilities. This is one of Man of Steel’s great strengths, showing the confusing effect of superpowers as well as their glory. Superpowers are often presented as exhilarating, such as Peter Parker’s discovery of his ability to climb walls and jump great distances in both Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man. Powers can also be presented as dangerous, as in the emergence of Jimmy Logan’s bone claws in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Rogue’s ability to suck energy in X-Men, or the first emergence of the Hulk in both Hulk and The Incredible Hulk. But these are presented as dangerous to the viewer, in the position of a bystander. In Man of Steel the frightening element of superpowers is presented from the perspective of the super being himself. An impressive instance of this appears in an early flashback, as Clark becomes disorientated and scared at school because he can see and hear too much. The scene begins with extreme close-ups of pencils, the edges of desks and other classroom clutter, culminating in his teacher and classmates appearing as moving skeletons. This visual and aural cacophony overwhelms the viewer much as it does Clark, who hides in a closet until his mother Martha (Diane Lane) can talk him out, soothing him with the recommendation to make the frighteningly large world smaller. He may have super powers, but they are no protection against fear.
Man of Steel works for me because it conveys consistently and convincingly the experience of super powers. As Kal grows in confidence, so do we follow his progress. Subsequent scenes of flight are both beautiful and compelling – the tagline for the original Superman: The Movie was “You’ll believe a man can fly”. Man of Steel, oddly, has no tagline, but it could easily be “You’ll believe a man can fly, and you with him”. Not only fly, but fight, as the final act, when Kal battles the forces of Zod, yanks the viewer right into the action. This sequence has been a major target for criticism, described as nothing but mindless action in the vein of Transformers, rendered in such a way that you cannot see what is going on, and with insufficient attention paid to the inevitable death toll of such extensive destruction.
I did not have these problems, as not only could I see everything that was going on, I also felt it, the kinetic force of Snyder’s camera, not to mention the cacophonic soundtrack, had me sharing every swoop, collision and explosion. As mentioned above, a key ingredient for me in a successful superhero film is the cinematic expression of superpowers, and Man of Steel delivers both on the intimate scale in the flashbacks, and the epic grandeur of the almighty Kryptonian smackdown. In addition, the stakes of this climactic battle are abundantly clear, as Zod’s mission is to preserve the Kryptonian race, to the extent of terra-forming Earth into a new Krypton. The impact of this mission is illustrated in a dream Kal shares with Zod, in which Earth is re-shaped and Kal sinks into a pile of skulls, this grim horror serving as perfect motivation for the climax.
Man of Steel is not without problems. Shaky cam in the opening sequence is an unfortunate distraction because Krypton is a glorious creation that cannot be fully enjoyed. Also, while the climax is spectacular, it takes too long to get going, initial skirmishes between Kal and Zod’s forces proving to be false starts that become tiresome as they are clearly preludes. That said, these skirmishes do continue the film’s interest in power as disorientating, as Zod and his troops also have to adjust to seeing through their own hands. The alien element of Man of Steel is well-handled, but the early scraps fail to add drama, although it is effective to see Kal getting his ass kicked by trained soldiers.
Once the final battle really kicks off though, it is as spectacular as anything I’ve seen in a cinema this year, rising above Iron Man Three and Star Trek Into Darkness to name a couple (although at the time of writing I am yet to see Pacific Rim). Kal’s desperate attempt to save Lois Lane (Amy Adams), his struggle to destroy the world engine and his eventual return of the Kryptonian ship to the Phantom Zone are all enveloping action sequences, the slightly grainy film quality and detail of the production design and effects creating an absorbing and enthralling cinematic experience.
Best of all is the final clash between Kal and Zod, as Zod fully embraces the power that Earth’s sun imbues him with, mocking Kal with his warrior background while ‘Superman’ was raised on a farm. A true clash of the titans, Kal and Zod’s titanic duel is literally out of this world, as the two hurl each other out of the atmosphere and collide with satellites (amusingly branded as Wayne Enterprises, perhaps foreshadowing a Justice League movie). But the culmination of their clash is a perfect encapsulation of inner and outer conflict, as Kal must kill Zod in order to save innocent bystanders. I had a debate over the importance of this killing, as it seems did the director, writer and producer. For Superman to kill was shocking, as I had never seen that before. Apparently there are comic book stories in which he has killed, but these are outside the accepted canon. Either way, that moment in Man of Steel was superb because it was genuinely shocking. I’ve barely read a Superman comic book, but the film and TV versions I have seen emphasise Superman’s moral compass and restraint. Therefore, seeing him kill someone was a huge surprise and clearly a massive emotional blow, demonstrated by his scream of anguish and collapse into Lois’ arms. We now know how far Kal-El can go, and to have him traumatised makes him all the more interesting.
It is probably no coincidence that the superhero genre has been so embraced in the aftermath of 9/11, and much like Spider-Man, The Dark Knight and The Avengers, the shadow of the infamous terrorist attacks hang over Man of Steel. The devastation of Metropolis is reminiscent of images of New York from 9/11, as buildings collapse and debris falls from the sky. Some have criticised the sanitisation of this destruction – surely thousands of people must have been killed – and while this is valid I think the criticism misses the point. In a crucial moment, Jenny Olsen (Rebecca Buller) is trapped under debris, and Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and Steve Lombard (Michael Kelly) struggle to free her. They are themselves in danger, and indeed they would all have died had Kal not arrived in the nick of time, but the moments of Perry and Steve doing what they can to try and free Jenny is a wonderful illustration of ordinary heroism. Perhaps they have been inspired by Kal’s example, willing to surrender himself to Zod’s forces, or they were already brave and selfless, but whatever their motivation, it is a powerful moment, mixing the terror of the attack with a positive vision of humanity. It is post-9/11 romantic wish-fulfilment, to have a superman come to the rescue, and I find it satisfying because of the recognition and catharsis stimulated by this fulfilment.
I recently had a long debate over what superheroes are ‘doing’, beyond blowing stuff up and acquiring/achieving. I found the argument rather odd, because saving the world, in style, blowing stuff up and taking us along for the ride seems exactly what superheroes are there for. My fellow debater was being unfairly judgemental, I thought, as they seemed to have a sense that superheroes should do something more, but it was unclear exactly what that more would be. In the case of Man of Steel, I think the film is doing exactly what Jor El tells his son – that he will give the people of Earth something to aspire to. Superpowers are not necessarily a blessing, and they are not a prerequisite for doing good and helping others. The young Clark may have the strength to lift buses out of rivers, but one of the boys Clark saves offers his hand to help Clark up when bullies have knocked him down, but he has not struck back at them. Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) sacrifices his own life to save others, including telling Clark not to use his powers to save him. Perry and Steve must use their own strength and resourcefulness to try and save Jenny, and Lois proves her mettle in Zod’s ship with timely advice from Jor. Repeatedly in Man of Steel, heroism is shown to be a choice, not a destiny, and a choice that we can all make. Perhaps, in time, we can all join Kal El in the sun.
Freshness and Familiarity Part One – Iron Man/Men
To those (like me) who have watched and enjoyed the Avengers franchise since its inception in 2008 with Iron Man (Jon Favreau), Iron Man Three offers both variation and familiarity. It has the obligatory action sequences, including the pinnacle of the Iron Man movies at its climax as multiple Iron Man suits battle the super-powered minions of Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). These build upon the technophilia established in Iron Man, with protracted shots and sequences emphasising the sleek technology and mutable digital images. These are sometimes at odds with the vague social critique that the first film performed – as one viewer described it, “Michael Moore pimps my ride”. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Junior) is not only a master builder, or “tinkerer” as he calls himself, but also handles information and images with perfect ease.
Iron Man Three features plenty of witty repartee between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), as well as between Tony and his computer Jarvis (Paul Bettany). There is also great banter between Tony and Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), which echoes the previous film directed by Shane Black, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which also starred Downey, Jnr. as well as Val Kilmer (Iron Man and Batman together!). Here is where the variation comes in, as much of Iron Man Three focuses on human exploits. This links to the darker element in the film, which is a change from the previous instalments. Since the superhero cycle began in earnest with X-Men (Bryan Singer) in 2000 and swung to dizzying heights in Spider-Man (Sam Raimi, 2002), there was a consistent presence of “darkness”, with superheroes suffering from relatable problems and sometimes going to sinister places. The peak of this tendency was Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, which went so far as to feature an anarchic psychopath, scenes of torture and the repeated failure of our favourite Caped Crusader.
In contrast to the grim exploits of the X-Men, Spider-Man and Batman, Marvel’s Avengers have been light, frothy fun. Humour has been a constant presence, especially with RDJ’s razor sharp performance of Tony Stark, but also with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) as a fish out of water and Captain America (Chris Evans) being a laughing stock. Best of all, The Avengers featured Joss Whedon’s trademark wit and irreverence, making it possibly the funniest superhero film to date.
Iron Man Three is also humorous, especially in its banter but also in character responses, such as when Rhodes says with deadpan incredulity (something of an oxymoron): “You breathe fire?!” after Killian does just that. Furthermore, the character of the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) provides very significant humour, to which I return later. But alongside the humour, there are some grim moments that make Iron Man Three the darkest entry in the Avengers franchise.
The presence of the Mandarin as the film’s big bad begins this, as the propaganda videos with his threats are reminiscent of Al Qaeda videos. These threats come home to roost when Tony’s friend and former bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) is badly injured in an explosion linked to the Mandarin. The aftermath of this attack, in which Happy is shown hooked to monitors in a hospital bed, swathed in bandages, is a very poignant scene that fuels Tony’s anger.
Of course, Tony’s anger makes him reckless and stupid, and his TV interview in which he invites the Mandarin to a confrontation results in his Malibu home being destroyed. Tellingly, several Iron Man suits are destroyed, demonstrating Iron Man’s vulnerability, which continues as Tony himself falls into the sea and is then automatically flown away, before his remaining suit loses power and crashes (startling a digital deer as it falls). Cut off from his equipment, Tony must rely on his own wits and ingenuity. Yet his mind also poses a problem that he must confront.
A significant development of Tony’s character is his post-traumatic-stress-disorder. The entire film features voiceover, some of which echoes the meta-cinematic voiceover of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and the (very funny) post-credits scene shows us Tony talking with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who is woefully ill-equipped to offer therapy for Tony’s psychological problems. These problems permeate the film, as Tony is, plagued with nightmares about his experience in New York in The Avengers, when he travelled through a portal to destroy an alien armada and almost died. Tony’s PTSD is consistently demonstrated as he suffers panic attacks whenever New York is mentioned, his trauma casting a sombre pall over much of the film. Nor is the trauma limited to Tony, as the Mandarin’s previous victims leave behind grieving family and literal impressions, as Tony finds in Tennessee, where an explosion left both a crater and seared shadows on nearby walls. The soldiers of Killian, infected with Extremis, are shown to be suffering agony as the nanoprobes reformulate their bodies, and Pepper herself is also tortured in this way. Trauma cuts deep, and cannot be hidden from in a metal suit.
Iron Man Three brings Tony out of the suit, having him build more modest devices so that he can save Pepper, the US President and half the world. At times, he seems more like 007 (or MacGyver) than Iron Man, using a gun, homemade tazers and other improvised weapons. This creates variation from the previous films, which never quite got the balance right between super-techno-heroics and human ingenuity and interactions. Whereas Iron Man and Iron Man 2 made abrupt shifts from Tony tinkering to mechanical mayhem, Iron Man Three escalates its action. Once Tony invades the Mandarin’s secret headquarters, using his various improvised weapons, he has some success but is eventually taken prisoner and only breaks free when the re-charged Iron Man suit arrives. Even then, the suit arrives one piece at a time and operates at less than full power so the ensuing battle is more comical as spectacular, featuring the very funny line from one of Killian’s minions, “I don’t even like working here. They are so weird!”
The spectacle comes later, as Tony powers the suit completely and flies after Air Force One to save President Ellis (William Sadler). He fails, but succeeds in disposing of Killian’s head henchman, Savin (James Badge Dale) and, in a spectacular aerial sequence, he rescues the passengers as they tumble towards their deaths. This sequence, like others, contains a surprise as Tony is operating the suit remotely, which emphasises his distance from the suit, which is less cocoon and more human-shaped coffin. It does not detract from the visceral excitement of the action set piece, which is spectacular and involving. Furthermore, the final spectacular battle of Iron Man Three feels like a natural progression, as multiple Iron Man suits battle Killan’s minions and Tony himself fights Killian. Whereas the action set pieces in Favreau’s films felt like departures, Black’s are escalations, making the film coherent and satisfying, with a continual focus on Tony’s personal journey.
MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW
This can also be the film’s detriment, as it is more a Tony Stark movie than an Iron Man movie. This is further demonstrated by the licence taken with the Mandarin, a major character from the comic books and Iron Man’s classic foe. Most superheroes have these – for the Fantastic Four it’s Doctor Doom, for the X-Men it’s the Brotherhood of Mutants, for Superman it’s Lex Luthor and for Batman it’s the Joker. Iron Man’s greatest nemesis has long been the Mandarin, and for many viewers the prospect of having these two great adversaries clash was one of the most exciting elements of Iron Man Three. Imagine the surprise and (in some cases) disappointment when the Mandarin turns out to be an actor playing a role devised by Killian. Some viewers were very disappointed by this, which indicates the importance of the Mandarin within Iron Man lore.
For my part, I was genuinely shocked by the revelation of Trevor Slattery, to such an extent that I didn’t believe it initially. I was waiting for Slattery to be a decoy and the real Mandarin attack, or at least be somewhere else. But instead, we get an actor whose Lear is the “toast of Croydon” (very funny for a British viewer). But the surprise worked, and Ben Kingsley’s hilarious performance meant that I was carried along for the ride.
Furthermore, it is actually a relief that the Mandarin turned out to be a fiction within the film. The original character is a Chinese stereotype and somewhat racist, and the casting of Kingsley raised questions of why such a role should be played by a white actor (not forgetting Kingsley’s Oscar-winning role in Gandhi). The film avoided the Fu Manchu territory by making the Mandarin more of a Bin Laden figure, and in “his” propaganda videos he had an American accent (replaced with a British one when he was discovered). These elements in his character serve several functions. Firstly, it avoids racism, because the Mandarin never seems Other. Secondly, it avoids the fantastical nature of a character that possessed “power rings” in the comic books, either magical or derived from alien technology. While Thor managed to incorporate science and mythology very nicely, Iron Man has been somewhat grounded in practical science (however fanciful) and the inclusion of power rings would have jarred with the overall possible world. Thirdly, and most importantly, for the Mandarin to be a smokescreen, and the real enemy to be Killian the power-mad weapons manufacturer emphasises the contemporary concern over internal threats. Killian recognises the opportunity in giving people a figurehead to fear, in order to legitimate arms manufacture, and uses it to great effect. Tony’s discovery of Slattery demonstrates the conceit of true danger often being less exotic but no less dangerous.
As with much of the film, the climax had its surprises, both with the multiple suits and Tony, not to mention Pepper, proving to be able combatants in their own right. For Killian to be in league with the Mandarin was not surprising; for him to actually be the Mandarin is a masterstroke, as it maintains the conceit of military contractors being a threat. This may not be original, and indeed forms the conceit of more “realistic” films as Snake Eyes, The Manchurian Candidate and The Ghost Writer, but it works, maintaining the critical eye on the military-industrial complex that has characterized the Iron Man franchise since it began in 2008. Tony Stark may have learned the error of his ways, but other arms manufacturers still pose a threat.
For Killian to be the true locus of the film’s threat serves as the external version of Tony’s internal conflict – he needs to address the trauma he suffered and face up to danger, which he does by doing his fighting himself. Except that Killian is far more powerful and without his suit Tony would be finished, but fortunately Pepper is there to save the day. When Pepper fell into a fiery explosion, I thought she had been killed, and was delighted when she re-appeared, reconstructed by Extremis. While it was gratuitous to have her in a bra at the film’s climax, it was very pleasing for a woman to save a man and put down the bad guy for a change. But Tony faces up to his demons and succeeds in overcoming them, demonstrated by the destruction of all his suits and the removal of the arc reactor and shrapnel from his chest, as these defences are no longer needed.
By reworking the characters of the Mandarin and Iron Man himself, Iron Man Three departs significantly from the comic books. None of this hurt it at the box office, as its current take stands at $1,077,068,034 worldwide. It is easy to be protective about the texts we love, but reinterpretation need not devalue the original. There are multiple versions of Iron Man to enjoy, in comic book, animation and feature film. Iron Man Three builds upon the strength of what has come before, and does a very fine job of being its own model.
Action Has Fallen
Olympus Has Fallen was a better experience than I anticipated. Antoine Fuqua’s film received mediocre reviews so I was not prepared to pay for it; fortunately I got a free ticket and it turned out to be good fun. As is often the case, low expectations led to a pleasant surprise as the film is far from awful. It is no masterpiece and has plenty of problems, but it is an entertaining piece of action cinema.
I would summarise this film as the missing link between Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988) and Air Force One (Wolfgang Peterson, 1996). As in Air Force One, the President of the United States and senior members of his cabinet are taken prisoner by VERY EVIL terrorists. As in Die Hard, only one man stands between the VERY EVIL terrorists and even greater disaster. Air Force One had the conceit of this man being the President himself; in Olympus Has Fallen, the lone hero is Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), while President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) must the inflictions of Korean supremacist, Kang (Rick Yune). None of this is a spoiler as it’s all in the trailer.
Olympus Has Fallen is very much Die Hard in the White House, due to its confined setting and internal/external conflict. Banning used to be on the President’s security detail, but was removed when he saved President Asher but allowed the First Lady (a momentary Ashley Judd) to die – saving Asher is Banning’s redemption as well as his duty. Further parallels appear as Banning moves through crawlspaces in the walls, has to contend with a helicopter attack mounted by his supposed allies outside, the VERY EVIL (I’ll stop now) terrorists’ heavy artillery, some interchanges with Kang that (poorly) echo Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman’s banter in Die Hard, and even a moment when he encounters an enemy who pretends to be an ally. If the last two Die Hard films hadn’t been larger scale it would be easy to see John McClane in Banning’s position. This does appear to be the premise in 2013’s other film about the White House going down, entitled, imaginatively enough, White House Down. In Roland Emmerich’s film, Channing Tatum is a Capitol policeman touring the White House when it is taken over by terrorists and only he can save President Jamie Foxx. Perhaps it’s best that Willis never got there, there’d be nothing left for Tatum and Butler.
Not that Banning is simply McClane with a vaguely Scottish accent and a quarter of the wit (like Fuqua’s previous efforts Training Day, King Arthur, Shooter and Brooklyn’s Finest, Olympus Has Fallen is very serious). Part of Banning’s arsenal is his familiarity with the White House and its security, so the required suspension of disbelief is not as big as it could be. It is still pretty big though, as the terrorists (who know everything) target a secret nuclear strategy to unleash hell on earth; the Pentagon action committee (headed by a rather wasted Morgan Freeman) make every wrong decision except to occasionally trust Banning; a heavily armed plane opens fire on Washington, gunning down the jets sent after it as well as dozens of civilians on the ground.
I enjoy action movies very much, and indeed rate Die Hard as one of my favourite films of all time. There is a thrill in the spectacle of blazing guns that only just miss our hero, and generic conventions give us confidence that he will save the day. Despite this confidence, action cinema only works if there is tension and suspense. We may be confident that the hero will survive, but how? When Banning needs to get Connor Asher (Finley Jacobsen) away from the terrorists, will he wait them out or fight his way through them? How many of the hostages are expendable, and how many are necessary for Banning’s redemption? There are also stylistic considerations. As I argued in relation to Safe House, constant shaky-cam completely undercuts any tension. Fuqua favours steady cinematography; pans, whips, and tracking shots propel the action, while close-ups and fast editing convey the danger. Suspense like this invests the viewer in the action, which is heightened whenever a significant character dies.
How people die though is interesting. Many of the deaths in Olympus Has Fallen are very bloody, as civilians as well as numerous Secret Service agents are gunned down, many of whom we have got to know a little. Indeed, during the assault Banning is left alone as his friends die around him, and close-ups on his face allow us access to his grief. There are scenes of pain and suffering, as we see blood-stained bodies and several victims dying in agony. Kang obtains vital information from his hostages through torture, including a very ugly scene in which he punches and kicks Secretary of Defence Ruth McMillan (Melissa Leo), whose injuries and agonised screams of defiance are palpable. The physical emphasis of Olympus Has Fallen begins in the opening scene with Asher and Banning boxing, and many of the interpersonal clashes are brutal, not least the final, largely unarmed, fight between Banning and Kang.
This emphasis on physical action with associated embodied pain and suffering seems less common than it used to be. Historically, when movie characters were shot they coiled into a ball with a pained expression and then collapsed. Under the Hays Code, this was an acceptably sanitised way to present death on screen. With the withdrawal of the code and introduction of the MPAA rating system, New Hollywood saw more explicitly violent movies gain prominence, such as Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch, The French Connection, Dirty Harry, The Godfather and Taxi Driver. These were not action movies per se, more westerns and crime films, but their success demonstrated the audience’s appetite for destruction.
The model for modern action films was fine-tuned during the 1980s, with the high concept approach favoured by producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson. Directors like Tony Scott and James Cameron as well as actors such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis became household names as a result of various loud, flashy, high concept action movies which could earn revenue through ticket sales, video rentals and, perhaps most importantly, merchandising. Many of the action films from this era were very violent, such as The Terminator, Commando, Predator, Lethal Weapon, Tango & Cash, Cobra, Nico and Hard To Kill as well as, of course, Die Hard. I knew these were violent because I saw them in video rental shops in the 90s and they all carried 18 certificates. In the US they were R, but the more stringent BBFC would have no thirteen or fourteen year-olds seeing such things (my first 18 certificate at the cinema was Se7en, and I was sixteen at the time).
Many of the prominent action films of the 90s, such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day, True Lies, Speed, Die Hard with a Vengeance and The Matrix, only warranted a 15 in the UK (although there were exceptions, such as Face/Off). Stronger stuff was needed to qualify for an 18 certificate, which was largely the province of gangster films, such as Casino, The Usual Suspects, L.A. Confidential, and in the 21st century other titles including The Departed, Training Day and Drive, as well as horror films like Saw and the torture porn cycle. Action films were largely embraced by the 12A category, especially with the growth of the superhero genre. The X-Men, Spider-Man, Avengers, Dark Knight and Hellboy franchises largely received 12A certificates, as did other blockbusters including Transformers, Inception, Avatar and Oblivion, not to mention contemporary-set action films like the Jason Bourne and Mission: Impossible franchises, and the seemingly unstoppable James Bond.
I was keen to see Olympus Has Fallen because it was awarded a 15 certificate, which seemed unusual for a film like this. Why would it be unusual, I thought? Is this level of violence and profanity that rare? Reflecting on the last decade of Hollywood action cinema, I realised it was, since the introduction of the 12A certificate in the UK. Recently, A Good Day to Die Hard was submitted to the BBFC and awarded a 15 certificate. The studio recut the film and resubmitted it in order to receive a 12A certificate, which increased the size of its audience. The same happened in 2012 with The Hunger Games as well as Taken 2. As a result, in recent years there has been a dearth of a certain kind of macho action film. In order to reach a wider audience, films are distributed with little explicit violence or strong language and minimal sexual content.
What is striking about these films is that, while they feature plenty of action, the emphasis is more often on the spectacle of scale than of death. Characters certainly die, but our attention is quickly drawn to something larger, often a digital creation such as a giant robot or an alien creature. We marvel instead of recoil, the action aesthetic has moved in the direction of “Wow” rather than “Ow”.
This change of direction has marginalised the macho action movie, where MEN are manly in their swearing, shooting and fighting. Nostalgia for 80s-style action has fuelled The Expendables franchise, as well as Sylvester Stallone’s return to Rambo and Schwarzenegger’s The Last Stand. These films emphasise guns and bodies, rather than technological spectacle, and seem quaint and curiously niche.
Olympus Has Fallen emphasises physicality, yet much of the action is digital, especially the aerial assaults both by the terrorists and the Navy SEALs who attempt to retake the White House. This is clearly practical – create a completely digital Washington and you can have as much destruction as you like without having to pay or wait for the disruptions you cause in the city. Yet this sits uneasily with the emphasis on down-and-dirty physicality. In an interview with the BBC, Butler commented that he was left very sore after filming the climactic fight scene, which seems at odds with the CGI sequences.
Olympus Has Fallen falls into a peculiar niche of action films for non-family audiences. Action cinema has moved away from the graphic spectacle of pain, as this restricts audiences. That said, there is clearly still a market for harder action, which need not be serviced by Hollywood – the most intense action film in years was 2012’s The Raid from Indonesia. The Raid is a little different for being a martial arts film, where the emphasis is still very much on physicality and digital sequences are less frequent. For Hollywood action movies like Olympus Has Fallen (and perhaps White House Down), there remains a tension between the grit of physical action and the wonder of digital animation.