Aquaman (2018)

There are two distinct, directly opposed routes to take in adapting Aquaman to the big screen. My preferred angle would be to lean into the inherent absurdity of the character’s underwater superheroics, having deliriously over-the-top fun with the various sea creatures & Lisa Frank waterscapes that environment invites. The lesser, cowardly route would be to poke fun at that absurdity, to make Aquaman a gruff macho bro who wouldn’t be caught dead swimming with dolphins in bright superhero tights (at least not with a smartass quip about the indignity). The confusing thing about the DCEU’s Aquaman film is that it chooses both of these routes, embracing & rejecting the inherent silliness of Aquaman lore in what has to be the most perplexing mixed bag experience offered by a blockbuster since . . . the last film in the DCEU. Aquaman is a film that deals only in extremes. Its soundtrack must feature the ethereal beauty of Sigúr Ros and the obnoxious corporate party anthems of Pitbull, nothing in-between. It has to take the regal lineage & mythology of its underwater sea kingdom dead seriously and feature a cutaway gag of an octopus playing the drums. It has no qualms exploiting the cartoon energy of its setting as if it were an underwater Ferngully or an extended version of the “Under the Sea” number in Disney’s Little Mermaid, but it also feels compelled to cast Jason Momoa in the titular role as the broiest bro who ever bro’d, lest Aquaman come off as an uncool seafaring pansy. In the hands of an over-the-top Asian action spectacle craftsman like a Steven Chow or a Tsui Hark this all-over-the-place quality might have felt controlled & intentional, but coming from an American studio (with negligible influence from Furious 7 & Dead Silence schlockteur James Wan) it mostly plays like a confused jumble of self-conflicting ideas.

Jason Momoa puts in the exact same Aquabro performance here that he delivered in Justice League, except now there’s more of it. So very much more. Instead of popping in for an occasional, cute bro-liner like his much-memed “My man!” in the previous film, he’s asked to anchor a sprawling mythology about the regal lineage of the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, which is on the verge of civil war. Legitimate actors Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, and Patrick Wilson admirably play the material straight as if there were actual stakes to this middling franchise entry and it wasn’t just a lavishly expensive, underwater episode of Wishbone. Momoa’s jockular, beer-pounding frat boy has a much more difficult time of it, especially in scenes where he’s asked to generate genuine chemistry or pathos with the sleepwalking Amber Heard (in one of history’s all time worst big screen wigs). It’s a shame that the mythology is so inert & self-serious, both because Momoa’s sex-idiot boytoy persona struggles to carry the weight and because the various underwater creatures that define the world are so pitch-perfect in their absurdity. Aquaman is packed to the gills with mighty sea horse steeds riding into battle, mounted laser sharks roaring in ferocious defiance, stingray-shaped submarines zipping around like underwater UFOs, a pissed-off Nicole Kidman hurling tridents in Burning Man drag, etc. I was often bored with the villain’s quest to become “Oceanmaster” (whatever the fuck that is), the hero’s search for the almighty trident McGuffin that would stop him, and the overall conflict of “uniting the two world’s” of Land & Sea, but every time I was about to give up on the movie entirely some mutated Lisa Frank monstrosity would emerge to reel me back in. For every shot of Momoa mugging to pure-cheese guitar riffs in embarrassing attempts to transform Aquaman into a badass, there’s equally weighted flashes of pure nerd-ass shit that accepts the character for the uncool goof that he is. I have no idea what to make of the result except to say that it’s exhausting.

There were moments of divine absurdity that had me thinking Aquaman might be the best film in the DCEU (a low bar to clear, but still). They were usually followed by 20 minutes or so of excruciating boredom before that pleasure resurfaced, choking on the flood of narrative glut. My disinterest in Momoa’s bro-flavored charms might have been what sunk my appreciation of the film to an extent (although I wouldn’t fault anyone for prurient interest in watching him get wet for three hours). Mostly, though, I think my inability to fully embrace the film’s live action cartoon energy resulted from its own half-commitment to its over-the-top, nerd-ass tone. When the evil sea creatures of Aquaman off-handedly cite land-dwellers’ pollution of the ocean as a reason to declare war, I couldn’t help but think of the more fearlessly committed overfishing politics of The Mermaid or the birds’ rights activism of 2.0, Asian blockbusters that are unembarrassed of their ludicrous premises. Aquaman, by contrast, constantly apologies for the frivolity off its underwater Ferngully by having a mugging macho class clown reassure the audience that everything onscreen is a joke and the hero is actually super cool, not nerdy at all. You can feel James Wan pushing for weird surreal touches in the background but the cultural monolith of the modern superhero blockbuster has a way of smoothing everything out into a routine monotony. The result is a picture at war with itself, like so many power-hungry Atlantians. A few years ago I might have rated this film a half-star higher for the moments of unbridled goofiness that do shine through the studio system muck, but I’m just finding the weight of this genre too exhausting to afford much more of my energy. A version of Aquaman that was an hour shorter and entirely relegated to the underwater sea creature civil war might have been something truly remarkable, but franchise filmmaking requirements constantly pull it out of the water so that another macho man can mug for the camera in all his heroic buffness and the repetition of the schtick is getting punishingly dull.

-Brandon Ledet

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Deadpool 2 (2018)

Although they’re clearly not made for me, I’m starting to become fascinated by Deadpool movies as a cultural curio. There usually isn’t any fun to be had from sitting through a comedy you find thoroughly unfunny and the reference-heavy Family Guy irreverence of Deadpool seems custom-built to create a laughter-free vacuum of punishing bro humor around me. What’s fascinating about these movies to me is watching them in the theater anyway, where laughter is a constant, thundering flood. To watch a Deadpool movie in public is to feel as if I am from a different planet than the rest of the room. Edgy hack jokes about suicide & child rape, lazy references to vintage pop culture ephemera, and mater-of-fact namedrops of unrelated comic book characters all land as if they’re carving out previously undiscovered, revolutionary forms of comedy the world has never seen before. Audiences gasp, involuntarily muttering “Wow” and “Oh My god” after every supposedly transgressive gag in total disbelief of the films’ comedic brilliance. Jokes that have been run into the ground though months of being repeated in advertisements somehow earn belly laughs so deep it’s a wonder no one vomits. Just as I was with the first Deadpool movie, I was befuddled throughout Deadpool 2 by why everyone around me though it was hi-larious that this “annoying prick” of a lead character (the movie’s words, not mine) broke kayfabe by saying “Patrick Stewart” instead of “Professor X” or suffered sub-Rickles insult comedy routines form real-life shitbag TJ Miller or celebrated a weapon’s forcible insertion up his enemy’s ass. I felt partly like a land mammal attempting to swim with the fish, partly like the only person in Jonestown with concerns about the Kool-Aid. I was surrounded by creatures I didn’t understand: true nerds.

Although my outsider’s discomfort watching Deadpool in public continued into this sequel, it was a marginal improvement on the first film, which barely feigned a superhero origin story around its bro-friendly meta humor. Directed by Atomic Blonde/John Wick vet David Leitch and afforded a more legitimate big studio budget, Deadpool 2 feels a little more authentic to the action genre it’s spoofing. When Deadpool himself isn’t sucking all the oxygen out of the room with his constant flood of “Ain’t I a stinker?” metacommentary, the movie manages to stage a few halfway decent gags, such as an early yakuza-themed sword-fighting montage set to Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” (even though that exact song was already similarly employed in Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, of all lowly places). Romantic tragedy, conversion therapy anxiety, and existential self-loathing are all taken more seriously here than they probably even need to be as the movie builds a time-travelling revenge plot around Deadpool’s sudden desire to have a family and the threat of X-Men antihero Cable. Genuinely entertaining performances from James Brolin (as Cable), Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s Julian Dennison (as Deadpool’s troubled, unwanted ward), and Atlanta’s Zazie Beetz (as Domino, a superhero character who much better deserves her own franchise) all helpfully distract from the Ryan Reynolds/Deadpool-shaped hole at the film’s self-corrupted center. The comedic payoff to a team-building montage spoof was lifted directly from a better-executed bit in MacGruber, but comes awfully close to achieving legitimately well-crafted humor. The film even finds ways to make Deadpool himself occasionally funny, against all odds, by pausing his dialogue to focus on the physical horrors of his superpower: a body that stubbornly refuses to die. If you generously squint at Deadpool 2 from a flattering angle in just the right light, it almost resembles a mildly amusing, ZAZ-style action spoof. Deadpool himself is always on hand to deflate that balloon, though, ruining any and all good will he can with as many child molestation quips or referrals to Cable as Thanos as necessary to spoil the mood (or bust a gut, depending on your POV).

I should probably be grateful for the minor details that break up Deadpool 2’s oppressive stench of Gen-X comic book bro humor, like the years-late inclusion of a (barely onscreen) same-sex couple in a major Marvel release or the fact that is a macho superhero who isn’t afraid of high heels or pegging. Fixating on those touches or the welcome presence of Domino & Super Ricky Baker feel like sifting though the scraps for momentary joys, however, an exercise that’s only occasionally rewarding in the few blissful moments when Deadpool himself is not cracking wise. The most the Deadpool franchise offers me, personally, is the experience of sitting in a room full of people from an entirely different planet, cowering from the deafening horror of their baffling laughter. Deadpool 2 is a slight improvement on its predecessor, but I almost wish it were much, much worse, so I could get as much out of that alienating experience as possible. The movie isn’t quite decent enough to earn genuine enthusiasm, so I’d almost prefer if I didn’t see anything of value in it at all. That way the absurdity of sitting quietly in a cinema packed with guffawing space aliens might hold more novelty for me as a cultural experience. A worse Deadpool 2 might even deter me from tuning back in for the inevitable Deadpool 3, where I’m sure to relive this comedic alienation all over again—confused, scared, and alone in a crowd.

-Brandon Ledet

 

X-Men vs. The Avengers: Determining the Worst No-Stakes Offender

Avengers: Infinity War offers an interesting conundrum for a movie critic, as it defies consideration as an isolated piece of work. Overall, the film felt to me like the MCU in a microcosm; there were some aspects I really liked mixed with some I couldn’t care less about. Like with the MCU at large, I could’ve done without Stark & Strange, the CGI spectacle could be really numbing, and its absurd length felt paradoxically too short to fully serve its myriad of storylines & too long to maintain constant, undivided attention. The bizarre critical dilemma it presents is that it can’t be separated from the MCU at large at all. Not only does it represent both the highs & lows of its franchise, its impact is meaningless without 18 previous films informing its in-the-moment significance. Considering the merits of Infinity War as an isolated work of art would be like critically assessing a randomly selected episode of a soap opera, a single pro wrestling match from a months-long angle or, perhaps most appropriately, a mid-stream issue of a comic book series. It’s a tough thing to evaluate in isolation, as it’s built on a structure that requires both knowledge of its characters’ previous arcs and acceptance of its medium’s need to never truly wrap up a storyline. This type of storytelling’s endless self-propulsion requires always leaving a door open for The Next Big Show. The tagline for Infinity War is “An entire universe. Once and for all,” but we know as consumers that a more accurate descriptor would be “Once or thrice a year.” It’s difficult, then, to invest any emotional response in the film’s at-the-moment consequences, since they convey a kind of finality that we know will inevitably be undone in the next summer’s sequel(s). Adapting a comic book story structure to blockbuster cinema has created a never-ending franchise that can’t afford to introduce actual stakes to its everlasting gobstopper “plot.”

That’s not necessarily a bad ting, though. I love pro-wrestling. Millions of people watch soap operas every day. Comic books are at least popular enough to have justified this franchise’s launch in the first place. Like with consumers of all kinds of serialized storytelling, MCU fans are entering these films recognizing that their storylines can never fully reach a satisfying conclusion. At the very least, they can assume that the death of a major character who’s already scheduled to appear in an announced sequel will inevitably be reversed through supernatural shenanigans. There’s a surplus of dubious character deaths in Infinity War that anyone familiar enough with the film to be watching it as the 19th entry in a series is going to be skeptical of, if not outright dismissive. The one aspect of the film that helps distinguish it as an isolated work, however, is that it does not acknowledge that inevitable impermanence. It commits to its own tragic consequences by ending on a disaster of mass death & mayhem. All signals of an optimistic future for its doomed characters are extratextual, based entirely on those deranged Disney press conferences where the corporate bully claims future weekend release dates for their bottomless wealth of sequels planned centuries into the future. We can fully expect as an audience that Infinity War’s damage will be undone by the end of the next Avengers sequel, but the film ends without any indication of that impermanence. I mention this because I’ve seen plenty of comic book movies (both in the MCU and outside it) do the exact opposite in the past, to their own detriment. For instance, if Infinity War were an X-Men sequel, its mass death downer of a conclusion would have wrapped up tidily at the climax, then immediately been undone by a convenient, quick denouement. I know this because I’ve seen the X-Men movies do it more than once, most egregiously in its two most recent entries.

I’m about to vaguely spoil two recent-ish X-Men movies, but don’t worry; nothing really matters in that franchise. In just two pictures, X-Men has become the authority on the comic book Reset Button, assuring that its individual battles have no stakes in the context of franchise-wide storylines. The current trajectory of the X-Men series has been a decade-by-decade nostalgia trip. The prequel X-Men: First Class plays like a swanky 60s spy picture. Days of Future Past deals largely in 70s political thriller genre beats. Apocalypse functions as a Ready Player One-style indulgence in 1980s aesthetic. The next film on the docket will presumably push through to touch on 90s grunge or pogs or whatever. Even beyond these temporal divisions, X-Men movies typically feel more independent from each other than MCU entries, with each individual episode resetting the rotary dial for the next adventure to arrive with a mostly blank slate. The most backlash I’ve seen to this repeatedly mashed Reset Button plot structure was in the reaction to The Days of Future Past’s ending. Days is a sci-fi time travel movie that splits its efforts between a possible future reality and an alternate version of the past. The movie largely concerns preventing a grim future by nipping past evil in the bud, which the heroes inevitably accomplish to no one’s surprise. What was surprising is that, after victory, omnipresent series favorite Wolverine awakes in a timeline that ties together both the First Class prequels & the early 00s series that preceded them, undoing many major character deaths through an afterthought shrug of time travel shenanigans. I understand why this tidy conclusion rolled many viewers’ eyes when the film was first released, but I was personally much more annoyed by a smaller moment in the next picture. There’s a scene late in X-Men: Apocalypse where characters with mutant powers stand in an open field with their arms extended, palms open, while their destroyed home base magically reassembles itself. Every broken brick & board smoothly floats back to its proper assembly in a low-rent CGI spectacle, not an inch of the once-destroyed structure out of place or conveying damage. It’s maybe a 20 second clip, but there was something about its magical ease that really irked me. I’ve never seen the impermanence of consequence in comic book movie storytelling represented so succinctly in a single scene before or since.

For better or for worse, the massive, sustained success of the MCU means that more of this serialized blockbuster storytelling is on its way. I found myself watching a trailer for an upcoming Star Wars prequel this past weekend that ends on an action sequence cliffhanger teasing that Chewbacca may or may not die in the film. Everyone who’s ever seen any Star Wars movie before (read: everyone) knows that Chewbacca will not die in that prequel. That momentary crisis has no potential consequence in its larger series, but that’s just how these kinds of stories are told (including the old-timey radio serials Star Wars was originally inspired by). All we can do, if we’re going to continue to tune in for the next episodes in these ongoing series, is celebrate the examples that commit to their consequences in the moment. Avengers: Infinity War might not ultimately mean anything in the grand picture of individual characters’ fates, as it will likely be undone by its successor next summer. At least it committed to its own consequences, though, instead of undoing them on the spot. In X-Men: Infinity War, the mass character deaths would’ve been a climactic crisis immediately undone by the surviving superheroes standing in an open field, arms outstretched, putting their friends’ pieces back together again with their mysterious powers. I only mildly enjoyed Infinity War overall, the way I only moderately enjoy the MCU overall, while recognizing that there are individual elements I’m really into: Captain America, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor, Black Panther. I do respect that it didn’t reset its own consequences we know through extratextual means to be impermanent the way a more traditional comic book series entry would have. When I first reviewed X-Men: Apocalypse I asked, “What’s the point of any of this if it can all be fixed & rebuilt with the light shake of a CG Etch-a-Sketch?” By saving its own magical reset for a later date (which I’m sure was announced at a press conference five years ago), Infinity War sidestepped that annoyance completely, even if its in-the-long-run storytelling amounts to the same general effect as what’s undone in Apocalypse: no effect at all.

-Brandon Ledet

Logan (2017)

I don’t like Wolverine.

This has been a topic of much contention with my fellow comic book nerds for a long time, but there are a host of reasons why he doesn’t appeal to me as a character. First, it’s never made much sense to me that Professor X has a spot on his peace-oriented team for a man whose powers and enhancements make him a perfect assassin or soldier. I’ve also never seen myself reflected in Wolverine the way that I see aspects of myself in Kitty Pryde, Emma Frost (under Joss Whedon’s pen), and (especially) Beast; nor do I see something I could aspire to be in Wolverine the way that I did and do in Storm’s serenity or Nightcrawler’s happiness in spite of a lifetime of abuse. I certainly understand the allure of a character without a past and the desire for redemption (although the importance of this desire was intermittent), but Wolverine never worked for me as a character.

I think that this is mostly because, despite his meager origins, the character of Wolverine evolved into a straight white male power fantasy, especially among the more self-pitying members of the nerd subculture of the eighties and nineties. Macho Wolverine gets the girl, takes no shit, and leaves his enemies shredded to ribbons: he’s the ultimate enviable hero of the platonic nineties nerd before Hollywood came along and turned comic books and superheroes into the hottest trends on Earth. Following this popularity explosion, the character was inescapable, which is probably my foremost issue with him. Don’t like Angel, or Jean Grey, or Psylocke? No problem: there are plenty of Marvel comics without them, including long periods of time in many X-books. Don’t like Wolverine? You’re out of luck, bub: try to find an X-Men comic from 1985 to 2014 where he’s not a presence (give or take an Excalibur here or there), and if you turn to another Marvel book for a Wolverine-free reading experience, you better not want to check out Avengers, or New Avengers, or even Power Pack. It’s essentially the same reason that, despite my long and storied love of Star Trek, I don’t like Data (a crucifiable offense in many circles): both he and Wolverine are such pets of vocal fans and some creators that they become the entire focus of what is supposedly an ensemble, to the detriment and derision of other characters*. You can even see this in the way that he was not only the de facto star of the X-Men films in which he appeared, but also got his own film franchise.

That franchise reaches what claims to be its final film in the recently released Logan, a gritty neo-western masquerading as a superhero film. The plot finds the titular Logan (Hugh Jackman) caring for an aging and increasingly senile Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) with the help of Caliban (Stephen Merchant) in the Mexican desert in 2029. The combination of a cataclysmic event and genetic suppression has rendered them among the last mutants on Earth, until Logan is drawn back into the world of heroism by Gabriella (Orange is the New Black‘s Elizabeth Rodriguez), a woman who begs him to help save a child named Laura (Dafne Keen) from Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), a cybernetically enhanced mercenary. Their redemptive road trip also features appearances from Eriq La Salle and Elise Neal as world-weary farmers who provide shelter for the group.

My apathy and weariness about Wolverine aside, this is a good movie. Sure, it makes no logical sense within the confines of the different timelines that the other films in this franchise have provided without a conspiracy theory board of newspaper clippings, post-it notes, and red string, but 20th Century Fox doesn’t care anymore, so why should you? The one problem I’ve never had with the film version of Wolverine is Hugh Jackman’s consistently strong performance regardless of the variable quality of the material available, and this is his best work as the character to date. This is despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that, for once, we’re not reflecting back on his mysterious past as we have in literally every movie in which he appeared in this franchise and are instead seeing a man at the end of his career and, perhaps, his life. Logan deals with the more mundane aspects of growing old, like obsolescence in a changing world, the dementia of an elderly father (figure), and the betrayal of his own aging body and the disease thereof, despite his much-touted healing factor. This is not a character who is obsessed with learning about (or altering) his past, but one for whom the past is prologue to a slow, painful existence in an all-too-real dystopian future.

This is not the Sentinel-ruled technicolor hell of Days of Future Past, nor is it the candy-coated “corrected” timeline in which Jean, Scott, and Hank are alive: this is a dusty, economically depressed future in which life is cheap, crossing the border into Mexico is an ordeal, and Canada provides asylum to those on the run from an authoritarian government that hates them because they are different, all while said government not only condones but supports the imprisonment of and experimentation on children of color and treats Mexico like its dumping ground. This film has been in development for a while and takes a great deal of inspiration from graphic novel Old Man Logan, but it is particularly fascinating that the first X-film released following the election paints such a realistic picture of a dark future in comparison to the optimistic ending of Days of Future Past, which was released solidly in the middle of Obama’s second term, when the tide of freedom and progress seemed to flow ever-forward.

Logan never becomes explicitly political, however, instead allowing this interpretation to emerge from its subtext. This is, first and foremost, a story about a retired, past-his- prime gunbladeslinger who has long since lost what little place he had in the world before being brought back in for one last stand. You’ve seen this movie before, but dressing it up in these clothes puts a spin on the material that is fresher than I expected, in the same way that Winter Soldier was reinvigorating as both a government conspiracy thriller and a superhero flick. I’d love to see more movies like this, to be honest: James T. Kirk and Company as the Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai, Black Widow having to Die Hard her way out of a building, or, hell, even Steve Rogers trying to save the old community center from being torn down to make way for those awful condominium/shopping center hybrid abominations.

Where the film doesn’t work for me is in its insistence on defining Logan’s little group as a family. The discovery of the genetic connection between Logan and Laura and the latter’s decision to help her does not necessarily an intimate connection make, and Xavier’s “This is what life looks like” moment rings falsely sentimental for the character, given all that we’ve seen him do and accomplish over the course of these films. For such a bloody and violent flick (which, make no mistake, Logan is), a fair amount of the emotional resonance that the film seeks to create works, but the occasional references to Laura and Xavier as Logan’s family work better when they’re subtle (like when he passes them off as his father and daughter) than they do when characters explicitly state that they are family. That aside, however, this serves as a fitting swan song for Hugh Jackman’s contribution to the franchise, especially if you’re  willing to forgive stilted dialogue and the occasionally unearned moments of pathos.

*Here’s the part where I admit that I love the Wolverine and the X-Men animated series, despite my general apathy towards the character; although Wolverine is the title character, WatX was much more of an ensemble piece that gave every character plenty of development and attention. He’s also cast in an unusual role as the reluctant leader with the atypically angsty Cyclops serving as the team’s loner. The show also has one of the darkest storylines ever constructed for what is ostensibly a show for children; it’s definitely worth checking out.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

You Can Now Purchase Swampflix Zines @ Crescent City Comics on Calhoun St. Uptown

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Attention, Swampflix readers in the New Orleans area! We’re now selling the zines we printed for last year’s NOCAZ & N.O. Bookfair exhibitions at the new Crescent City Comics location @3135 Calhoun St. Uptown. This includes print versions of our “Marabunta Cinema“, “Lugosi Vs. Karloff“, and “Wrestling Cinema” pieces, as well as 2015’s Movie of the Month conversations in their entirety. They all feature dozens of new illustrations & hand-transcribed text from the site and the Movies of the Month zine is a ~90 page whopper featuring work from everyone who contributed to the site last year.

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For more info on Crescent City Comics check out their website and follow them on Facebook. Or, better yet, just drop in on them sometime (Monday-Saturday 11am-7pm, Sunday Noon-6pm @3315 Calhoun St.), because they’re by far the best comic book shop in the city.

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-The Swampflix Crew

The Phantom (1996)

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Common wisdom seems to be that the film market is currently flooded with so many comic book properties that mainstream audiences will soon be experiencing a wicked case of “superhero fatigue” and the whole Marvel/DC empire will crumble. So far I seem to be experiencing the opposite effect. All of these rampant comic book adaptations have sent me on something of a superhero tangent and I’ve been finding myself looking back to comic book cinema of the past for smaller titles I might’ve missed over the years. Sometimes this urge is a blessing, like when it lead me to Sam Raimi’s goofily masterful Darkman. In the case of The Phantom, however, I’m not so sure I’m on the right path.

Based on a comic strip that’s been running continuously to this day since the 1930s, The Phantom is a starring vehicle for 90s pop culture artifact Billy Zane. While dressed as his superhero alter ego The Phantom, Zane is decked out here in skintight purple spandex, black leather mask & boots, and a handgun he rarely touches. He also rides an immaculately white horse & keeps a gigantic wolf for a pet. Raised by Mongolian pirates 400 years in the past or some such nonsense, The Phantom is rumored to be an immortal ghost who protects the sanctity of the jungle from white archehologists & businessmen looking to plunder its resources. In the comics he does this through practical real world means (including some martial arts shamelessly designed to show off Zane’s fanny in purple spandex). The movie adds a supernatural element to the mix in some black magic skulls that can be exploited to bring on world domination. This addition threatens to make The Phantom entertaining as a campy trifle with half-assed old-world mysticism backing up its comic strip charm. Nothing significant comes of it, though, and after the novelty of seeing Billy Zane dressed up as a handsome, but deeply odd superhero wears off the rest of the film is a total bore.

The main problem with The Phantom is that it lacks any strong creative voice or soulful eccentricity required to make a comic book movie really work. Just match up your very favorite scene from this film to an 15 seconds of Darkman & you’ll see what I mean. There was a time when the legendary Joe Dante almost helmed The Phantom as a tongue-in-cheek camp fest and another where the delightfully sleazy Joel Schumacher could’ve dragged it down to the same so-bad-it’s-great depths he brought Batman & Robin (the one with the bat nipples & ice puns). Sadly, neither of those versions of The Phantom were meant to be and the film wound up in the dull, uninspired hands of the director of Free Willy & Operation Dumbo Drop. It’s easy to see how The Phantom could’ve swung in a more interesting direction. If nothing else, the slightly off performances of the spandex-clad Zane, O.G. Buffy Kristy Swanson, and a deliciously evil Catharine Zeta-Jones all feel like they belong in a much better movie (or at least a less boring one).

As with everything in criticism, my boredom with The Phantasm might’ve had a lot to do with personal taste. Once the wackier introductions to the film’s central scenario were out of the way, the movie would up playing like a second-rate version of the Indiana Jones franchise, especially in the way it mimicked the “Tune In Next Time!” structure of old, serialized action programs on the radio. There are Indiana Jones junkies out there who might be aching for more similar content to tide them over until the next inevitable reboot and those might be the only folks I’d recommend The Phantom to. Anyone who’s looking for an eccentric comic book movie here is a lot more likely to feel let down. The aspects of The Phantom that wound up fascinating me the most were more or less all related to its comic strip source material. The Phantom is credited as being the first superhero shown wearing the skintight jumpsuit that has become pretty much the standard for the genre and is often seen as a direct precursor to superhero titans like Batman, Superman, and Captain America. The artwork & narrative of the strip also has a distinct echo of the work of madman outsider Fletcher Hanks to it, especially of his character Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle.

It’s never a good sign when an adaptation is outshined this much by its source material and it seems audiences at the time of The Phantom‘s release shared wholeheartedly in my boredom. The film bombed at the box office and, despite strong VHS & DVD sales, never earned the two sequels in its originally-planned trilogy. I wouldn’t call this effect “superhero fatigue”, however. It’s more of a boring movie fatigue, as the superhero source material was the only interesting thing going for this slog, an effect that fades fast once the novelty of the live action comic strip wears off.

-Brandon Ledet

Darkman (1990)

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I’ve never been much of a Sam Raimi fan. His Spider-Man films felt like the height of superhero cinema mediocrity to me in their heyday. The Evil Dead series was never really my thing, mostly because of the rapist tree & my contention that Bruce Campbell is a second-rate version of Jim Carrey’s worst tendencies. As far as I knew until recently, Raimi’s greatest contribution to the cultural zeitgeist was as a producer on the television show Xena: Warrior Princess, with his directorial work not mattering much to me in any significant way. I appreciated the over-the-top cartoonishness of his aesthetic, but it never connected with me in the same way that the work of, say, Peter Jackson did. Darkman changed all that.

A comic book-inspired noir riding on the coattails of Tim Burton’s Batman, Darkman is a masterfully goofy work of genre cinema. Its comic book framing, over-the-top performances, and stray Ken Russell-esque freakouts were all perfection in terms of trashy entertainment value, pushing the lowest-common-denominator of trash media into the realm of high art. Darkman is not only the finest Sam Raimi film I’ve ever encountered, it’s also one of the most striking comic book movies ever made . . . which is saying a lot considering that it wasn’t even based off of a comic book. Given our current climate of endless adaptations, remakes, and reboots, it’s bizarre to think that Darkman was made from an original idea of Raimi’s & not from bringing a pre-existing character to the screen. The film’s two superfluous, direct-to-video sequels would fit in just fine with our current trend of endlessly returning to the well, but the original Darkman really went out on a limb with its central idea & it’s a risk that paid off nicely.

Tim Burton’s Batman (a film Raimi had actually once been considered for as a potential director) seems like the most obvious point of reference for Darkman‘s cultural context. Released just one year after Batman‘s release, Darkman was a similarly dark, gritty, noir-inspired comic book landscape that even brought longtime Burton-collaborator Danny Elfman in tow for its score. The original idea for Darkman had nothing to do with the Caped Crusader at all, however. It wasn’t even conceived as an homage to comic books. Raimi had first conceived Darkman in a short story meant to show reverence for Universal Studio’s horror classics of the 1930s. It’s very easy to see the mad scientist ravings of characters that would’ve been played by folks like Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff in an earlier era (or both in the case of The Invisible Ray) in Darkman‘s DNA. The outfit the anti-hero uses to hide his face even more than closely resembles that of The Invisible Man. The combination of this monster movie pedigree & the newfound comic book seriousness of Burton’s Batman were a great start for Darkman as a launching pad. Add Sam Raimi’s particular brand of cartoonish camp to the mix & you have a perfect cocktail of violently goofy cinema.

Liam Neeson stars as Darkman‘s titular anti-hero, a brilliant scientist & kindhearted boyfriend working on the secret of creating new body parts for scratch with the world’s first 3-D printer (of organic material, no less). The doctor’s girlfriend, played by Frances McDormand, inadvertently gets him mixed up with some rough mobster types who burn down his lab with the poor man inside it & through some shaky-at-best comic book/monster movie shenanigans, he emerges alive, but forever altered. Horrifically scarred, unable to feel pain, and freakishly strong due to an increase in adrenaline, the doctor emerges as the masked vigilante Darkman & sets out to exact his revenge on the Dick Tracy-esque mobster villains who destroyed his life. His masks alternate from the Invisible Man get-up mentioned above to temporary organic faces contrived from his pre-mutation scientific research & his revenge tactics go beyond basic vigilantism into full-blown, cold-blooded murder. Instead of struggling with the inner conflict a lot of violent superheroes deal with regarding which side of the law & morality they stand on, Darkman truly enjoys exacting revenge on the goons who wronged him in the cruelest ways he can possibly devise.

It’s not just remarkable to me that Sam Raimi happened to direct a movie I enjoyed. What’s most surprising is the ways that Darkman couldn’t have been made by any other auteur. Raimi’s personal aesthetic is what makes the film work and although he could’ve easily allowed the formula to go off the rails (he really wanted Bruce Campbell in Neeson’s role, which would’ve been a disaster), it’s his own cinematic eye & sadistic sense of humor that makes it such an iconic accomplishment. With Batman, Burton had brought comic book movies out of the dark ages, proving that superhero media wasn’t just the goofy kids’ media of Adam West yesteryear. Raimi combined both those extremes, the gritty & the goofy, in Darkman in an entirely idiosyncratic way (as Burton also would in the similarly masterful Batman Returns). The film indulged in some Batman-esque brooding, especially in its noir lighting & in introspective lines like “The dark, what secrets does it hold?”, but those elements are all so over-the-top in their inherent ridiculousness that there’s never any sense that Raimi is doing anything but having fun.

Although Darkman isn’t technically a comic book adaptation it exudes comic book media in every frame. Darkman‘s onslaught of drastic Dutch angles, 1st person shooter POV, Oingo Boingo circus aesthetic, Alterted States-esque hallucinations, and wild tangents of practical effects gore all feel both like classic comic book imagery & classic Sam Raimi. I can’t speak too decisively on the entirety of Raimi’s catalog since there are more than a few titles I’ve intentionally skipped over, but I can say for sure that the director has at least one certified masterpiece of goofball cinema under his belt: Darkman. It’s a work that not only surprised me by becoming an instant personal favorite, but also by inspiring me to consider giving Raimi’s catalog a closer second look to see if he ever repeated the trick.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #4 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Devils (1971) & Seven Decades of Batman Cinema

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Welcome to Episode #4 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our fourth episode, James & Brandon discuss all ten actors who’ve played Batman on the silver screen since the 1940s with illustrator Jon Marquez. Also, James makes Brandon watch the sacrilegious Ken Russell epic The Devils (1971) for the first time. Enjoy!

Production note: The musical “bumps” between segments were provided by the long-defunct band Trash Trash Trash.

-James Cohn & Brandon Ledet

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

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I’ll start out saying this: I didn’t hate Batman v Superman … as much as I thought I was going to. I certainly didn’t hate it as much as I hated Man of Steel, for starters. Further, despite the fact that I found co-writer David S. Goyer’s script for the final Christopher Nolan Batman flick to be patronizing and transparent in its privileged take on income inequality, this film wasn’t quite so morally bankrupt in its presuppositions about audience attitudes. I even had a few positive takeaways from the flick, although some of those things were probably in spite of the filmmaker’s goals and not because of them.

I’m not a Zack “The Hack” Snyder hater, either. I know that hating on him is popular and easy, and he certainly deserves some of the criticism that is leveled at him. I’ve heard mixed things about Sucker Punch (although never anything that enticed me into watching the whole thing), and I find that the director’s cut of Watchmen is a decent adaptation of the source material. The problem with Snyder is that he knows and understands that film has a language, but he doesn’t know how to make that language work for him. Snyder just doesn’t grasp how to handle pacing and tension, so, instead of having rising action that grows at a steady rate up to a film’s denouement, everything is metaphorically cranked up to eleven at all times. Snyder knows how to make things look “epic,” but he uses that same technique in every shot; as a result, every action has the same dramatic weight, be it people fleeing in terror from collapsing buildings, potential warnings from the future, nuclear deployment, or uneventful board meetings.

Not all of this is Snyder’s fault, really; it’s the audience’s. The general public took 300, a film that revels in its consistently over-the-top nature and (arguably) succeeds as a narrative within that paradigm, and made it Snyder’s first real mainstream success. We taught Snyder the unfortunate lesson that this style was laudable and commercially viable when it’s actually exhausting. He’s like that classmate of yours who misunderstood the definition of a word from context clues and then proceeded to use it incorrectly all the time because it sounds good to their ear. It’s not that Snyder doesn’t have experience; he’s got several films under his belt now, each one more popular (or at least profitable) than the last. Snyder is simply living proof that sometimes a person can create a worthwhile piece of media without grasping the reason that it works. He understands that using a particular visual rhetorical strategy is something that filmmakers do to elicit a response, but he doesn’t seem to know why they do it. As a result, you can’t really say that there are any “quiet moments” here in Batman v Superman, just scenes and sequences that would be treated with some deftness and gravitas in another, more sensitive movie, a film in the hands of a more mature filmmaker.

Ironically, the audience is expected to assume that the immature Superman of the previous film has grown into a true-blue hero after a short montage of him rescuing people in scenes that appropriate the images of real-life disasters. Just as Man of Steel relied heavily on 9/11 imagery, so too does this film co-opt the images we have seen of the victims of Hurricane Katrina waiting for rescue on their rooftops. What’s more, it seems that the criticism of the previous film’s inappropriate use of this visual rhetoric resulted in an increase in it this time around, which is horrible. The audience is supposed to believe that Superman has learned his lesson about accountability and the value of life despite the fact that, metatextually, Snyder certainly didn’t. Further, he couldn’t figure out how to communicate that idea visually; you know, like making Metropolis a warmer looking place, or subtly lightening the blue of the Superman outfit in order to make him stand out as a beacon of hope in contrast to Batman’s more fear-mongering approach.

Of course, just because their names are in the title doesn’t necessarily mean that either Batman or Superman is really the main character in this film; Lex Luthor is. I wasn’t keeping track of the exact number of lines that each says in the film, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Jesse Eisenberg’s character had as many as Henry Cavill’s and Ben Affleck’s combined. Luthor’s actions kick off the plot, Luthor is behind the false flag operation in Nairomi (which provides the final catalyst for Bruce Wayne to come out of retirement), Luthor kidnaps Ma Kent in order to force Superman’s hand, Luthor creates Doomsday, etc. Luthor even collates the data about potential powered individuals for Bruce to later stumble upon. Every other character is reacting to Luthor’s manipulations, but Eisenberg’s performance doesn’t have the requisite gravitas to make the character work. Eisenberg has been in a few things that I’ve enjoyed and a fair few others that I have not. He’s not necessarily a bad actor, but he is one with a fairly limited range, and, in fairness to him, I don’t know that any performer could have played this role and pulled it off. Luthor is framed as some kind of wunderkind, but any menace that he could possibly embody is undercut by the character’s shrill, foppish affectations. I don’t know if that was a character choice made by Eisenberg or on his behalf, but it’s distracting and obnoxious. Overall, Luthor ends up as a non-threatening villain despite the heinousness of his actions.

Clocking in at just under three hours, Dawn of Justice seems interminable at times, and the above-cited problem with a lack of variation in intensity is only one factor. There are abundant issues with pacing as well. Something like 10% of the film’s 166 minutes, including the very first scene, is taken up with dream sequences (and dream sequences within dream sequences, and imagined conversations with dead relatives). I don’t want to go into too many details in case any of you reading this want to maintain some surprise when/if you get around to seeing it, but there’s a prolonged scene that occurs near the film’s climax which interrupts the preparation for battle to focus on a character watching a series of video files. This sequence exists solely for the purpose of planting the seeds for DC’s attempt to create a Marvel-style interconnected film franchise, and its placement  in the film is utterly baffling. There’s a basic misunderstanding of narrative at play here with DC’s embarrassing attempt to play catch up with the House of Ideas. I can’t tell if it’s a blatant attempt to differentiate their business model from Marvel’s or a stubborn unwillingness to take the time and effort to give individual characters the needed breathing room for an audience to get to know them before forcing an Avengers style team-up with the upcoming Justice League (Part I… ugh). Either way, Batman v Superman doesn’t work as a cornerstone for the building of this larger universe or as a notable film in its own right.

There are occasional hints of a better narrative throughout (for instance, having Lex act as both a corrupt businessman and a bit of a mad scientist, as he has been portrayed as both in the past/comics, was a good idea that was poorly executed). I would even go so far as to say that the first half of the film works surprisingly well, especially with Holly Hunter acting circles around every other person onscreen in her performance as Senator June Finch. It’s really all downhill once she’s no longer present, with the second half feeling like a completely different movie. Amy Adams’s Lois Lane spends most of the climax struggling to retrieve a kryptonite spear from an underwater location that she herself threw it into in an earlier scene; that’s a first draft plot problem if I ever saw one. In one particularly noteworthy scripting problem, Lois’s Senator informant tells the President that the monster Bats and Superman are fighting only gets stronger each time that they attack it. This occurs after they attack Doomsday only once; sure, the knowledge that Doomsday gets stronger with every defeat is something that certain parts of the audience will know because of a familiarity with the source material, but why does this character have this knowledge?

I am sure that defenders of this film will find ways to justify the problems with the narrative, just as there were many who bent over backwards to make excuses for Man of Steel and its poor choices. We live in a world where there are people who will look you in the eye and defend the Star Wars prequels, so there’s no possibility that I could ever again be caught off guard by individual tastes and perceptions, no matter how alien they seem to be to me. This is an objectively bad movie, but I’m certainly not here to judge (I’m writing this next to a DVD shelf that contains both Dead Heat and Astro Zombies, after all). I will say, however, that I cannot fathom getting sufficient enjoyment from this movie to merit dealing with the long swathes in which there is nothing that could offer the smallest amount of filmic pleasure.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should cite the film’s good elements. I mentioned Holly Hunter’s strong performance above, but Gal Gadot does good work here with the limited screen time they give her, and there really is nothing quite like finally seeing Wonder Woman on the big screen for the first time (not counting The Lego Movie), and I gave the movie an extra half star for her appearance alone. The guitar-heavy track that serves as WW’s leitmotif is strange, but it does effectively differentiate her musical arrangement from Clark’s and Bruce’s even if it is an unusual choice. I also appreciated that the film trusts the audience to infer that Bruce was once the Batman and has since retired, even though Snyder apparently felt the need to show the Waynes getting gunned down in an alley for approximately the millionth time, complete with falling pearls, as if this wasn’t the most well-known origin story on the planet other than the birth of Christ. There’s a fun cameo from a Major Ferris (i.e. Carol Ferris from the Green Lantern comics) as well as some other Easter Eggs, and I’m always happy to see Lauren Cohan (Mrs. Wayne) getting work.

If you were already planning to see this movie (or not), one more negative review on top of all the others that are floating around isn’t going to make much of a difference to you. Still, even if you (like me) are enticed solely by the prospect of Wonder Woman, don’t waste your money trying to catch this flick in theaters. Like the Luthor character, Dawn of Justice is less interested in being clever than it is in investing time in making itself seem more clever than it really is, and ultimately ends up being incoherent for all its effort.

Random Remaining Questions (spoilers for both this film and Man of Steel):

● In the trailer for the film, we see Bruce getting a piece of hate mail that says “You let your family die,” and we see this same scene in the film. In context, this makes no sense, as no members of the Wayne family were killed during the showdown that ended Man of Steel, just Wayne Enterprises employees. So what was the point of that, other than to mislead people with the trailer?

● At the end of the film, Lois is hanging out in a bedroom in the Kent farmhouse. From the look of it, it seems like it’s supposed to be Clark’s room from before he left for college. So did Ma Kent really have the house recreated so exactly after its destruction in the first film that they duplicated this room, right down to its rural teen aesthetic?

● When will TV and films realize that an atmospheric detonation of a nuclear weapon is exponentially worse than one that occurs on the ground? Heroes got called out for doing this same thing ten years ago at the end of their first season; was no one listening?

● This one was pointed out to me after the fact by my friend who saw the film with me: was Luthor intercepting Wally’s mail for eighteen months before he used him to infiltrate the senate subcommittee? My reading of the situation was that Wally was returning his checks to Wayne Enterprises for all that time and then came to Luthor’s attention following his public arrest for vandalism of that hideous Superman statue, at which point Luthor approached Wally to help him. But later Luthor seems to admit that he sent the final piece of mail to Bruce personally, implying that he was behind the returning of checks this whole time. So which is it?

● I know that the locations of Metropolis and Gotham City are not fixed and as such they sometimes are close to each other and sometimes further apart, but putting them across the bay from each other really bothers me for reasons that I can’t quite put my finger on. I guess I feel that you shouldn’t be able to see one city from the other? Like, if any random person in Metropolis could look toward the waterfront and see the Bat-Signal in Gotham City, it really strains credibility that these two characters would have never interacted previously.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Iron Man (2008) & The Rise of the MCU

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Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & has thus far seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.

Boomer: It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when superhero films were considered box office poison, and Marvel wasn’t even thinking about producing live­action adaptations of its material for the big screen. I won’t get into all the gritty details of the rise and fall of the House of Ideas here, but suffice it to say that political machinations behind the scenes and creative differences abounded, meaning that one of the most recognizable brands in the world nearly went bankrupt many, many times. If you’re looking to take the equivalent of a capstone class in the history of Marvel Comics, I recommend a viewing of Chuck Sonnenberg’s “Rise and Fall of the Comic Empire” video series on his website SFDebris, which offers a fair and concise outlining of Marvel’s corporate shenanigans and infighting over the past four decades, and that series still clocks in at thirteen segments ranging from ten to thirty minutes in length. I’ll try to be more succinct here.

Considering that Marvel consistently has the creative edge over the more staid DC Comics, it’s ironic that DC is usually the first to enter new realms of media. DC put two live action television series on air (the Adam West Batman in the 1960s and Wonder Woman in the 1970s) before Marvel ever got a TV show off the ground, and they beat Marvel to theatres by two solid decades (not counting the Republic Pictures Captain America serials of the 1940s and George Lucas’s 1986 Howard the Duck, which is best forgotten). Richard Donner’s Superman took the world by storm in 1978 and was followed by three sequels and an attempted spinoff. As a result of the increasingly diminished returns on the Superman film series, the general public largely fell out of love with film adaptations of comics, before the genre was briefly reinvigorated in 1989 following the success of Tim Burton’s Batman and that film’s first sequel. That franchise also devolved into garbage, with the DC’s box office domination effectively being murdered in 1997 by the dual death blows of the notoriously terrible Batman & Robin and the stunningly unimaginative Shaquille O’Neill vehicle Steel. Finally, it was Marvel’s turn.

Although the X-­Men were unquestionably Marvel’s most lucrative property in the eighties and nineties, and many people would credit the success of the X-­Men film series (alongside Sam Raimi’s Spider­-Man films) as creating the modern zeitgeist of superhero saturation, bringing Beast, Storm, and Nightcrawler to life in a film was considered prohibitively expensive at the time. The real catalyst for this revolution was the surprising success of 1998’s Blade (budgeted at $45 million but earning over $131 million worldwide). Blade proved that superhero movies didn’t necessarily have to be created by committee to appeal to a wide audience, and that a comic book adaptation could be financially successful even if it eliminated the merchandising potential of toy sales (which tied the hands of the creative teams involved; in order to prevent watchdog and advocacy groups from causing a stink about inappropriateness of toys, films had to be made not only safe for children, but to appeal to them as well). Blade was an R-­rated movie that brought in tons of new fans for Marvel, and kick­started the company’s interest in features. The problem was that, to save itself from going under following the Comic Speculator Bust of the Nineties, Marvel had sold off the film rights to its most noteworthy properties in order to get funding to keep the lights on and the presses printing. Japanese film company Toei produced a (notably ridiculous) live action Spider­Man series in the 1970s, and the character was the most popular Marvel property in that country; as a result, his film rights ended up in the hands of Sony. Twentieth Century Fox ended up with the rights to the X-­Men, the Fantastic Four, and Daredevil. Marvel pictures were making money, but the comic company itself was still struggling.

This diaspora of character rights didn’t leave Marvel many characters or franchises to choose from, and the company made the logically sound but ultimately detrimental choice to make its first foray into film production with Marvel icon The Incredible Hulk. The television series based on the character had run for five successful seasons in the seventies and the gamma­-irradiated antihero had long been a mascot for Marvel as an instantly recognizable figure and a representative of Marvel’s introspective approach to storytelling in contrast to DC’s implacable supermen; investing in a film adaptation seemed obvious. Unfortunately, Ang Lee’s 2003 film Hulk was a mess, and it would take years before Marvel started co-­producing films in a meaningful way again. With the further failures of forgettable fare like 2004’s The Punisher and 2007’s Ghost Rider, it became apparent that a new approach was needed.

Kevin Feige was a Marvel exec who actually cared about the stories and characters, and he came up with a plan of creating a movie franchise that would function in much the same ways as the books did, allowing characters to cross over, team up, and occasionally come to blows. Since Hulk had been such a disaster, the newly founded Marvel Studios (with Feige at the helm) decided to move forward with an adaptation of Iron Man first, hitching the fledgling production company’s wagon to Robert Downey Jr.’s unpredictable star. And the rest, as they say, is history. In the seven years since that film’s release, the studio has moved from co­-producing features with Paramount to releasing directly through Disney (Marvel’s decades of questionable solvency having ended with the decision to allow the media demigod to buy them out) and churned out two “phases” of films, with Phase II having concluded with Ant­-Man, which was my first review for this site. With Phase III set to take off in a few months with the release of Captain America: Civil War, and with Brandon’s Russ Meyer project and my Dario Argento project winding down, we’ve decided to go through all twelve official Marvel Cinematic Universe films in order and review them, from the perspective of an old hand (me) and a newcomer (him). We’re calling it Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X..

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Boomer: I’ll be as upfront about this as I possibly can: I never really cared much for Iron Man as a character. I didn’t dislike him, I simply remained utterly apathetic to him for most of my life. Of all the Marvel cartoons that aired during the nineties, his was the most forgettable and (to my memory) the most cheaply animated. On the Marvel side of the comic aisle, I loved the X­-Men most of all, but I also liked the titular Thor beginning with J. Michael Straczynski’s run, the recently popular (and I love it) Jessica Jones, and Captain America, who represented, to me at least, the purest ideals of true ethical and upright citizenship. Then, in 2006, along came Marvel’s Civil War crossover event, which pitted Steve “Captain America” Rogers against Tony “Iron Man” Stark. To keep it simple, the narrative of Civil War was instigated by a deadly event that led Iron Man and Cap to fall on opposite sides of a political issue, the Superhuman Registration Act; the SRA would be a government mandate requiring all superpowered individuals (which in the comics is a huge but socially vulnerable minority) to reveal themselves to the government and be registered (and basically submit to the superhero version of the selective service, if the selective service had a 100% drafting rate, but I digress). Marvel’s editorial mandate was that Iron Man’s weirdly conservative Pro­Registration side be depicted as being “right,” with Cap’s more individualistic and liberal Anti­Reg side being shortsighted and “wrong.” This was despite the fact that a proposed Mutant Registration Act had been a topic of plots in the X-­Men comics for literally decades, with such a missive being treated (and rightfully so) as a gross civil rights violation. (The trailer for Captain America: Civil War that was released last week seems to show that the film version will have a more balanced approach.) I won’t discuss how that comic arc played out for fear of potentially spoiling the viewing experience for Brandon, but I will say that I found Iron Man’s choices to be unconscionable and eventually came to hate Tony Stark the way that the blogosphere hates Gwyneth Paltrow. Of course, I was super pissed a year later when I read a copy of Wizard Magazine and learned that a character responsible for so much that I hated would be the face of Marvel’s new cinematic initiative.

I still watched it, though. Eventually.

I saw the first fifteen minutes or so of the film while hooked up to a centrifuge at a plasma “donation” center, literally selling part of my blood for an extra $40 a week because I suffered from the distinct but common misfortune of coming of age in Bush’s America and the accompanying recession. The center had a small collection of DVDs they would play in the donor area to pass the time, and someone must have rented Iron Man since it was screened only once (as opposed to the dozens of times I watched their copy of Miss Congeniality, a movie I can recite backwards and forwards, much to my own embarrassment). I have to admit, Iron Man didn’t leave much of an impression on me at the time, but after nearly a decade to get over my sophomoric and hormone­-addled (if well­-founded and still totally justified) feelings about Civil War, I found this viewing to be much more enjoyable, even if it errs on the side of disbelief a bit too often.

By the way, has this review seemed a little overly political to you? That’s intentional. Iron Man is a strange movie in the way that it is paradoxically both steeped in and independent of the politics of 2008, especially with regards to the othered “foreign” antagonists. White businessman Obadiah Stane and his vaguely country accent have a clear narrative arc: Stane likes money, and he wants to keep making money, and if he has to play both sides to keep raking in the dough, he has no moral or ethical qualms about doing so. The motivations of the vaguely Middle Eastern group (who are obviously modeled after Al Qaeda but have an English language group name and live in an unnamed desert country) are never explained and implicitly irrelevant. The script takes great pains to dance around the word “terrorist” when discussing the Ten Rings, instead opting for “warlord,” but it clearly utilizes visual rhetorical strategies to evoke that image. But to what end? Why are they rounding people up? Is Stane complicit in an ethnic genocide? A bloody border dispute? The film expects you not to think too hard about it, or anything else, for that matter, especially not matters of narrative convenience.

For instance, Stane confronts the leader of the terrori—I mean, the Ten Rings, and obtains the suit Tony built “in a cave(!) with a box of scraps(!)”; in the next, Pepper visits Tony and he asks her to go to Stark Industries and steal files using his magic flash drive; in the very next scene, Pepper finds plans for a finalized Iron Monger suit on the desktop before Stane walks in. Everything that happens off-­screen happens instantly. It’s so ridiculous that it would be insulting if the film didn’t make up for its inadequacies by being so much fun. The intermix of horror tropes that seem to come out of nowhere (in the scene of Tony’s escape at the end of Act I, and when Pepper is startled by Stane in the Monger suit, for instance) somehow don’t feel tonally inconsistent, and there are scenes that are, frankly, exhilarating; in fact, I think the fighter jet set piece is probably one of the best sequences that Marvel has done to date, and easily out-paces the finale. A lot of that fun comes from the tightness and polish to the script, which reads like an exemplary if basic lesson in successful planting­-and­-payoff, with regards to things like high-­altitude freezing points, magic nuclear pacemakers, and the sonic paralyzer (I have no idea if that device has an actual name). It’s easy to go along for the ride if you can accept it for what it is: a comic book movie.

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Brandon: Full disclosure: A large part of the reason I’ve been avoiding catching up with the dozen or so MCU movies & TV shows I haven’t bothered with is my distaste for Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. The four hours I’ve spent with the character in the two Avengers films has been more than I would’ve ever asked for. He just hits this annoying little anti-hero sweet spot that always gets on my nerves: the “lovable” jerk. The philosophical opposite of characters like Kenny Powers & BoJack Horseman, who ruin everything they touch, the lovable jerk is a character you’re supposed to celebrate for their asshole tendencies. If you want a concrete example just look to just about any character Vince Vaughn has played since Old School. Or, better yet, look to Tony Stark, a womanizing drunk whose reformed bad boy act is never quite as convincing as his grotesquely egotistical beginnings.

I’m admitting to all of this prejudice early because it was highly unlikely that I was ever going to be able to get on Jon Favreau’s Iron Man‘s wavelength. As soon as the dad rock licks of AC/DC play Tony Stark into the frame so he can crack smarmy, chauvinistic jokes in the back of a limousine in the film’s opening scene my worst fears about Iron Man were confirmed  & the next two hours left me with the distinct feeling of taking my medicine so that I can enjoy better MCU titles down the line. Everything from the stewardess-banging to the US-Iraq War context to the throwaway transphobic joke in the airplane hangar to Stark’s horrific Guy Fieri sunglasses & facial hair combo were huge turn-offs for me. By the time our hero suffers the irony of being attacked with the very weapons he pushed as an arms dealer & gets the liberal bug, all of a sudden super stoked about renewable energy sources instead of getting laid, it registers as too little too late. Too much of the film reads as a being-a-rich-dick fantasy fulfillment for me to focus on anything else.

Speaking of which, I’ve  been so wrapped up in ranting about Iron Man’s Lifestyles of the Rich & Douchey aspects that I forgot to mention that it’s also a superhero movie. The few elements of Iron Man I appreciated were distinctly non-Tony Stark related. Jeff Bridges was deliciously evil & barely recognizable in his role as the film’s Big Bad, who was giving off an unignorable daddy bear vibe (especially in a bedtime Skype session). Gwenyth Paltrow had a gloriously uncomfortable surgery scene that has inspired a new fetish in me: chest-fisting. I also liked a good deal of the film’s gadgetry, especially J.A.R.V.I.S. the sassy robot, the car battery heart Stark carries around like a lunch box, and the crude Iron Man suit prototype he builds in a terrorist cave to take advantage of the gullibility of his unintelligent brown people captors (ugh). And, you know, there’s always plenty of mindles surface pleasures to be found in watching two dudes in mech suits fighting it out. By the end of the film, even the flying-through-the-air superhero antics were exhausting to me, though, especially in the relentless suiting up montages & the empty spectacle of the climactic battle.

I’m promising myself & anyone else who’s interested that I’ll be more open-minded about future MCU outings, especially since the select few I’ve already seen (the two Avengers films, Ant-Man, and Guardians of the Galaxy) were all very enjoyable, Tony Stark content notwithstanding. I just couldn’t commit to what Iron Man was selling me & I expect that it’ll probably stand as one of my least favorite entries in the MCU franchise. I also suspect that it’s probably a crowd favorite among George W Bush & his supporters, since it feels distinctly tied to the tail end of their era of American thinking.

Lagniappe

Boomer: As to where Iron Man fits into the rest of the MCU, I have to say it’s a pretty good place to launch, and it was probably a smart decision to focus the first Marvel pic on an entirely human character whose gimmick is combining wealth and mechanical genius, rather than going straight for the Norse gods, sentient robots, and super soldiers. Regarding plots left to unfold, I think the fact that this film was only responsible for sowing a few seeds of the larger universe contributed to the movie’s more laid­back feeling. As someone who spent his childhood obsessing over Star Trek and his adolescence reading comics and Kurt Vonnegut books, I’m used to the idea of maintaining an elaborate, intersectional fictional universe in my head; I don’t generally think too much about accessibility, but, looking back, Iron Man is refreshing in its simplicity in this regard. S.H.I.E.L.D. is present throughout but only tangentially, with the first appearances of fan favorite Phil Coulson and Nick Fury’s post­-credits scene comprising the organization’s entire role in the plot. It actually made me a little nostalgic for the early days of the MCU, when things were less complicated and not all villainy had to link back to Hydra somehow. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Brandon: When I was watching Jessica Jones last month I found nearly every element of the series enjoyable except for its gestures to tie itself into the MCU at large. Fans already tuned into the MCU were likely tickled by offhand references to the Hulk & the loose ends of Luke Cage’s storyline, but I found they were mostly wasted efforts, weakening some of the the series’ strengths as a self-contained property. Iron Man’s Nick Fury & S.H.I.E.L.D. nods work sort of in the same way. I get the feeling that the MCU’s formula is going to play out the same way as pro wrestling or soap operas or, hell, comic books: always promising to deliver on the next spectacle instead of focusing all efforts on the task at hand. I’m not entirely opposed to letting the story arcs build toward a larger goal, but as a moviegoer unfamiliar with the comic book source material, it can be a little frustrating to not know where this whole thing is going or if it even has a final destination to begin with.

Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Iron Man (2008)

EPSON MFP image

twohalfstar

-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.