Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Oh boy oh boy oh boy! It’s here! It’s finally here! We’re in the Endgame now. All good things must come to an end, after all.

Speaking of all good things, remember how that was the title of the series finale for Star Trek: The Next Generation? And how that episode showed our dearly beloved Captain Picard visiting the past and the future, solving a mystery that spanned decades and giving the audience a chance to revisit where that series had started and where it could go in the future, while also putting a nice little bow on the journey of Picard and his cohort? Going into Endgame, I had the same feeling, and as it turns out, this was intentional, going as far back as last March, when Marvel Films bigwig Kevin Feige cited “All Good Things … ” as an influence on this latest (last?) Avengers picture. So for once, I’m not just inserting a Star Trek reference where it doesn’t belong; it’s relevant.

Here there by spoilers! You have been warned! There’s virtually no way to talk about this movie without them, so saddle up buckaroos.

The film opens exactly as Infinity War ends, with Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) at a family picnic teaching his daughter archery. He turns his back for a moment and looks back, only to find that his entire family has been raptured turned to ash as part of Thanos (Josh Brolin)’s stupid, stupid plan to end scarcity across the universe by killing half of all living things. (This is also the plan of Kodos the Executioner from the classic Star Trek episode “The Conscience of the King,” because you should know by now that you can’t trust me not to insert Star Trek references were they don’t belong from time to time as well.) Three weeks later, the devastated remains of the team, Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and War Machine/Rhodey (Don Cheadle) are joined by the only surviving Guardian of the Galaxy, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) in their existential depression. Luckily, Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and his companion Nebula (Karen Gillan) are found in deep space by Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) just in time to prevent their suffocation, and she brings the two back to earth. With Nebula’s help, they locate Thanos’s little retirement farm and head straight there to retrieve the Infinity Stones and bring back everyone who was raptured dusted. When they get there, however, they learn that Thanos has already destroyed the Stones to prevent exactly this thing; Thor beheads the mad titan unceremoniously.

Five years later, people are still struggling. Struggling with depression, struggling with moving on. Cap goes to group counseling meetings. Natasha keeps the mechanisms of the Avengers in place, coordinating efforts to keep the peace, overseeing outreach and relief. Captain Marvel’s in deep space, helping the planets that don’t have the benefit of superheroes looking after them. Banner has managed to reconcile his two selves and lives full time as an intelligent Hulk. Tony has retired to a lakehouse with wife Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) and adorable daughter Morgan. And Ant-Man/Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is still stuck in the Phantom Zone Quantum Realm until his equipment is accidentally reactivated, popping him back out into the regular world so that he can have a tearful reunion with now-teenage daughter Cassie (Emma Fuhrmann) and heads to Avengers headquarters, where he tells Cap and Natasha that it’s only been five hours for him, not years. With help from a hesitant Tony, the team works out how to use the Ant-Man equipment to stage an elaborate “time heist,” plucking the Infinity Stones out of time to recreate Thanos’s gauntlet and undo the damage he wrought. It’s “All Good Things … ”! But Marvel! And I cried! I really did!

You don’t need the ins and outs of how all this shakes out. There’s that Marvel house style of comedy that you’ve come to know and (probably) love, coupled with the emotional devastation that you would expect in a world where half of the population has disappeared. Clint’s taken on the Ronin persona from the comics (although this codename is never used on screen), tracking down and murdering criminals as the result of having no moral tether after the loss of his family. Scott’s headlong run across San Francisco to try and find his daughter only to discover a memorial to the lost, which he searches frantically in the hopes that her name won’t be there. Natasha puts on a brave face, but you can tell that she counts every life lost as red in her ledger (she clears every crimson drop by the end of the movie, and then some). An unnamed grief-stricken man in Cap’s support group recounts a first date with another man; they both break down in tears over the course of the evening, but this is the status quo now, so they’re seeing each other again (so, you know, the post-snap world isn’t all bad).

The time travel premise lets us revisit past events from new perspectives, which makes for a lot of fun to counterbalance all that drear. This includes contemporary smart Hulk having to act like his brutish past self, much to his embarrassment and consternation. Tony’s interactions with his daughter are adorable, and went a long way toward making him more relatable and likable, especially after I’ve been pretty anti-Iron Man for a while. One of the most moving parts of the movie also comes as a result of its comedic elements; we learn that the remaining refugees from Asgard have set up a “New Asgard,” where a broken Thor has retired and let himself go (he’s got pretty standard dad-bod, but the internet has reacted as if he looks like Pearl from Blade, just in case you were wondering if bodyshaming was still a thing). Once the heist kicks off, this means that Thor and Rocket have to travel to the time of Thor: The Dark World to get the Aether from Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), giving our favorite Asgardian hunk a chance to have an affirming heart-to-heart with his departed mother Frigga (Rene Russo), retroactively adding more depth to her character in a lovely way.

I’m burying the lede, though, since what really matters about all these time travel shenanigans is that we get to see Peggy (Hayley Atwell) again. PEGGY! As soon as there was a wrinkle in the time plan and they mentioned having to go back to the seventies, I knew where we were headed and could barely contain my excitement. If I remember nothing else from this movie on my deathbed, I will remember the thrill of seeing Peggy one last time (and then again). That doesn’t even include the fact that Tony gets to have a nice moment with his father (John Slattery), too, and that there are appearances from every character.

Look, this is the perfect capstone for this franchise. If there were never another MCU film, it would be totally fine, because as a finale, this is pitch perfect. Every important and semi-important character (other than Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, because she was presumably busy shooting Us) gets a moment to shine, as the Snap is undone (come on, you knew it would be). There’s even a moment where every living lady hero from the entire MCU is onscreen at once, and it is delightful, although I’m sure the internet is already full of comments about how it was “forced” or “cheesy,” but I don’t feed trolls and I try not to cross the bridges that they live under, so I wouldn’t know. But, as the people behind the MCU have noted, this is a finale, not the finale. We get to say our goodbyes to many of our favorites, but the future is in good hands with Falcon/Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) taking up the mantle and shield of Captain America, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) taking her place as the new leader of the Asgardians in diaspora, and the possibility of future adventures of Pepper Potts as the heir apparent to Iron Man. The future is now, and it couldn’t be brighter.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Miles Ahead (2016)

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fourstar

“When you’re creating your own shit, man . . . even the sky ain’t the limit.” –Miles Davis, supposedly

After watching Miles Ahead in its entirety it’s difficult to tell if the above quote, which appears on an opening title card, was actually something Miles Davis said or if it’s something in the spirit of what Miles Davis would say. Either way, first-time filmmaker, longtime badass Don Cheadle holds onto the sentiment of that quote like a mission statement or a war cry. Miles Ahead is dressed up like a Miles Davis biopic, but functions much more like an expressionistic gangster film, mirroring the way Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song falls just on the art film side of blaxploitation. This Don Cheadle passion project (starring, written, and directed by Cheadle himself) pursues an over the top dedication to creative license with his subject’s life story that makes for a disjointed, but controlled variation on biopic conventions and, wouldn’t you know it, the result feels a little like jazz. I could see how someone could find Cheadle’s many eccentric decisions silly, but I found myself impressed by his cavalier ambition. In the end I believe your enjoyment of Miles Ahead boils down to whether or not you think its choices & attitude are, for lack of a better word, cool. Personally, I was buying all of the cool cat absurdism Cheadle was selling with very few reservations.

Instead of following the traditional cradle-to-grave narrative of biopic tedium, Miles Ahead focuses on two distinct points in its jazz legend’s career. In one storyline he’s the famous jazz world equivalent of a rockstar, struggling with typical music giant clichés you’d see ripped to shreds in spoofs like Walk Hard & Popstar: intense recording sessions, pressure to succeed, hedonistic lovemaking with strangers, trouble with a too-understanding spouse, etc. This lens is mostly a glimpse into the tame, by the numbers biopic Miles Ahead could’ve been. The other fixed temporal point is a highly fictionalized down period where Davis is a strung out, Howard Hughes style loner, except trading in germaphobia for depressive squalor. In this 1970s spiritual low point he teams up with a Rolling Stone reporter charged with writing his supposed comeback story to go on a guns & coke-fueled caper to maintain control of his latest unreleased recordings in the face of the record company execs & thugs desperate to rip him off (by satisfying his contract), including an eternally underutilized Michael Stuhlbarg among their ranks. This bifurcated structure recalls the genre subversion of last year’s Love & Mercy, except that Cheadle chooses not to keep his two halves separate. The haze of memory & drug fueled hallucination allow the walls of reality to break down and the two timelines bleed together, mixing the action thriller absurdism & glory days revisitation into a highly explosive cocktail that might be more interesting than essential, but is certainly much more entertaining that it would’ve been if Cheadle played the material straight.

A lot of viewers have been turned off by Miles Ahead’s gleeful tampering with its subject’s life story (with curmudgeony critic Rex Reed being the biggest whiner/detractor out there, which is usually an automatic sign of greatness), but I think the film’s gambles pay off just fine as soon as you separate the real life Miles Davis from the fictional, gun-wielding drug addict Cheadle brings to the screen. This is not a biographical portrait so much as an attempt to capture Davis’s energetic spirit in the weirdly cool & inherently tragic shape of an action cinema anti-hero. Where I find this experiment brilliant is in Cheadle’s willingness to trade in one genre’s flat, uninteresting, trope-laden formula for the much more exciting, much trashier energy of an entirely different kind of picture, one audiences usually have a much easier time focusing on. The writer-director-star has even admitted that he constructed Ewan McGregor’s Rolling Stone writer character merely because he needed a white face onscreen to sell more tickets & secure better funding, which is obviously fucked, but incredibly practical. Cheadle obviously holds tremendous adoration for Davis and wanted his film, which he believes captures the artist’s spirit, to reach the widest audience possible, presumably to spread that adoration.

Ultimately, though the results in Miles Ahead are too strange for wide commercial appeal, mirroring too many eccentric energies from Davis’s work, whether funk or jazz or subculture cool, for any hopes of runaway commercial success. The movie’s similarly unlikely to win over a large chunk of the art film crowd either, since they can be less kind to experimental, but messy debuts from actors-turned-directors, as we saw with Ryan Gosling’s better-than-its-reputation Lost River last year. I don’t want to suggest that Miles Ahead is 100% successful in capturing spirit instead of truth or bringing jazz’s idiosyncrasies to cinematic life. I do think, however, that it’s a surprisingly fun & playful marriage of fine art technique with trash genre thrills, which is more or less my favorite kind of movie magic formula. The only time Don Cheadle’s gambles don’t particularly work for me is in a closing concert sequence that bleeds into the end credits. I’m willing to overlook that discomfort, though, and mileage may vary there since, truth be told, I don’t really like jazz (sorry y’all). I mostly showed up for Miles Ahead’s dangerous, iconoclastic experiments with action-packed absurdism. Cheadle’s debut did not disappoint there. I hope he gets more chances to step behind the camera & deliver more work this confidently strange in the future, despite his first film’s muted reception.

-Brandon Ledet

Dr. Strange, Marvel’s Race Problem, and Conscientious Objection

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Marvel has a race problem. There’s really no arguing with that, unless you’re just not paying attention. So far, black men in the MCU have largely been relegated to secondary roles; Anthony Mackie’s Falcon and Don Cheadle’s James “Rhodey” Rhodes are great characters who play important roles in their respective films, but they’re still essentially sidekicks for the white main characters. Even in Age of Ultron, white newcomers Wanda and Pietro get more screentime than Falcon or War Machine; the two black characters are stuck on the second string. Idris Elba is awesome in the Thor films, but he’s still consigned to staying out of the action and isn’t treated with the same kind of importance in the rest of the MCU as other members of Thor’s supporting cast (like Stellan Skarsgård’s scientist or Loki, both of whom appeared in Avengers, with Dr. Selvig even making his way back to the action for Age of Ultron*). I understand that Gamora is green in the comics, but that doesn’t change the fact that Guardians of the Galaxy featured the biggest role so far for a black woman in this franchise but also saw her ethnicity being erased in the most literal sense imaginable. The problem isn’t that they kept Gamora green, it’s that it  took that long for a black actress to feature so prominently in one of these films. How many Asian characters can you count in the films? There’s Hogun, whose appearances in the Thor films maybe add up to ten minutes of screentime, and there’s Helen Cho, the doctor from Age of Ultron. But that’s pretty much it, isn’t it?

Frankly, it’s kind of pathetic that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has managed to have more POC in major roles than the MCU proper has (with superpowered characters like Daisy, Jiaying, Giyera, Joey, Yo-Yo, and Raina along with non-powered people like Mack, Mike Peterson, Melinda May, Blair Underwood’s Andrew, Edward James Olmos’s interim SHIELD director, and others). It would be easy to say that, for instance, Jessica Jones has thirteen episodes a season and thus more time to develop the character of Luke Cage, or that Daredevil has more time to focus on Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple, but that’s essentially making the argument that white characters are of primary import, and non-white characters need only be included “if there’s time.” I can already hear the objection that there’s a Black Panther movie coming out soon, so can’t I just be happy about that? And, hey, I am! But I can’t ignore that it took over a dozen films to get to the point where Marvel was willing to “take a risk” on developing a film about a black superhero. This is especially ironic given that the MCU wouldn’t exist were it not for the surprise success of Blade, which we’ve been talking about over in Agents for a while now (it’s not surprising that Blade’s importance has been largely erased from film history; how many articles have you read talking about how Deadpool is “the first R-rated comic book movie”?).

All of this is a long-winded introduction to say that Brandon and I will not be doing an Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. feature for Doctor Strange while the film is in theatres. He might take the opportunity to review the film independently, but I can’t in good conscience contribute to the box office for this movie. Batman v Superman was not a good film (rants from defensive fans aside), but there will be sequels because of what a financial success it was. Even though the contribution that I made to that success with my ticket fare is largely negligible, I cannot divest myself of some sense of responsibility. Doctor Strange’s whitewashing of the source material, and the blatant monetary reasons for doing so, are not something that I can condone or participate in, so I will not be seeing the film in theatres. Brandon may view the film in order to review it, but readers should not expect an Agents point/counterpoint review until after I have the opportunity to view the film without contributing to it financially.

If you’re upset about this, decrying that Doctor Strange has never been depicted as a POC in the mainstream Marvel continuity and therefore the MCU is not beholden to make him non-white in the adaptation, then my guess is that you are already in the comments section letting everyone in the world know that you’re a low-key racist. But if you’re still with me, here are a few things to bear in mind. First, the argument that characters who are white in the comics should remain so in any and all adaptations because it stays “true” to the original vision of the creators ignores the history of representation (and the lack thereof) in entertainment history. The reason that there aren’t that many black or Asian or Latinx characters in comics isn’t because this is a natural result of reader interest. The reason that the Jay Garrick and Barry Allen Flash characters aren’t white in the comics is because they are of a different era, when accepting that white maleness was the default was the status quo; we live in the future, and it’s time to accept that. When you’re looking at a medium that is 95% white characters, expanding the number of characters who are non-white from 5% to 10%, 15%, or 20% is barely progress, and yet there are people who will fight tooth and nail to keep Johnny Storm, Wally West, and Stephen Strange white.

Secondly, it’s important to look at who is being left behind. Stephen Strange and Danny Rand (of the upcoming Netflix Iron Fist series) in particular are characters that would benefit from solidifying their ties to the Asian cultures that are relevant in their narratives (or, in Iron Fist’s case, connecting the character to something real rather than a fantasized fictionalized Asian culture). Iron Fist exists as a character because Marvel writer Roy Thomas caught a kung fu movie and thought it would be fun to do a kung fu storyline in the comics; Danny Rand’s basically a character that exists because of seventies films that reduced all cultures of the East into a single monoculture for the purposes of exploitation, just as Luke Cage was born out of the popularity of blaxploitation flicks. Yes, the character of Danny Rand is a white guy who is trained by the inhabitants of fictional K’un L’un, but he’s such an obvious choice to diversify the MCU that it boggles the mind that the powers that be chose to cast white actor Finn Jones instead of an Asian actor (off the top of my head Osric Chau comes to mind, or Godfrey Gao if you want to skew a little older). The Netflix adaptations up to this point had actually been somewhat radical in that they focused on characters who exist in marginalized spaces: the handicapped (Daredevil), women in general and abuse survivors specifically (Jessica Jones), and African American men (the upcoming Luke Cage). Casting a white actor as Iron Fist is a total fumble and isn’t even internally consistent with the other Defenders programs.

But when it comes to Doctor Strange, it’s not just a matter of severing ties to an exoticized and fetishized “Orientalism” that was the ground from which Iron Fist sprang. Stephen Strange, in all adaptations, is a conceited surgeon whose fine motor control is lost due to an accident resulting from his hubris, ending his medical career. Confronted by his limitations, he must be apprenticed to the Ancient One, a centuries-old magic user who trains young sorcerers; he is drawn to Strange because he believes that the younger man will one day become the new Sorcerer Supreme, the most powerful wielder of magic of this generation. The history of the Ancient One is that he was born in a Himalayan community known as Kamar-Taj, in what is now Tibet. And that’s where Marvel runs into a problem.

It’s a natural end result of globalization (and cultural colonialism as American  media is distributed around the world) that the international market be taken into consideration with regards to marketing and distribution. Films can live or die these days on the international box office, and China is one of the largest consumers of American film as a consumer good outside of the domestic sphere. As much as we hear complaints these days from regressive pedants about media “pandering” to “SJWs” because of the inclusion of gay, trans*, queer, and POC characters (you know, like people who live in the real world), the most obvious example of pandering in film is the way that films set themselves up to play to the Chinese market. For the most obvious example, just look at the most recent Transformers film, which relocates its action to China in the final third of the film’s runtime, including product placement for Chinese companies that have no foothold in the U.S. You don’t have to pay that much attention to the news to know that Chinese citizens live under an information embargo, with strict censorship laws and an inarguably totalitarian government (unlike the U.S., where we live under a totalitarian economy that controls the government, but the internet is open enough that even flat earthers and anti-vaxxers can voice their absurd beliefs). Transformers 4 went so far as to actually prop up the Chinese government, which is, frankly, amoral. Can you imagine if The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was made in 1940 instead of 1953 and featured a 40 minute finale sequence set in Germany, with characters asking if they should contact Der Fuhrer for help fighting off a monster, because he’s such a good leader? Yeah, mull that over for a minute.

What does that have to do with Doctor Strange? Well, sweet summer children, the mythos of the comic is strongly tied to Tibet, which was annexed by China and placed under the control of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in 1951. Ostensibly, the PLA wanted to leave Tibet to operate autonomously, even guaranteeing the people of Tibet the right to religious freedom, but this was a colossal falsehood (the PLA was particularly anti-religious, and the Tibetan monks’ willingness to provide asylum and safe haven for rebels fighting against the oppression of the PLA made them particularly vilified). Tibetan sovereignty essentially died with the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when Chinese officials destroyed monasteries, temples, and religious icons in an act of inarguable cultural genocide. Religious leaders and highly educated people were forced to undergo re-education, and exposure of these atrocities to the public eye (most notably with the famous photo of the protestor in Tienanmen Square) brought some attention to the plight of the Tibetan people, but the fervor of Western support was shallow and ultimately short-lived.

References to Tibet in media are, obviously, strictly censored in China. The government bans pretty much any person or piece of media that mentions Tibet at all; the possession of a Tibetan flag is a criminal offense in China. The Communist Party of China (CPC) has effectively destroyed an entire culture and is actively working to erase the history of their atrocity and the people affected by it from the face of the earth, which is sickening. My problem with Doctor Strange is not merely that Marvel cast Benedict Cumberbatch instead of a non-white actor, or that they cast Tilda Swinton as the Tibetan Ancient One, which is basic whitewashing of the character and problematic in its own right. My major issue is that, in doing so, Disney/Marvel is actively participating in the erasure and cover-up of a cultural genocide against the Tibetan people, all for the sake of ensuring that they can continue to see high profit margins on the international (and specifically Chinese) market. Marvel has changed their source material not to keep up with the times, but in order to cowtow to a regime. I am but one man, and a very privileged one at that, but I can recognize that this is amoral at best, and as such I will not be purchasing a ticket to see Doctor Strange. I hope that you will stand with me and do the same.

*I didn’t forget that Idris Elba is also in Ultron, but only in a dream sequence Thor has, which hardly counts.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Iron Man 3 (2013)

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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 & had, at the start of this project, 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: In 2014, director Jon Favreau released the indie critical darling Chef, in which he appeared as a man who tired of the world of elite haute cuisine that values style over substance, a man who forsakes that world to fix up an old food truck and take a more “back to basics” approach to food. As has been pointed out by other critics, this can be seen as a metaphor for Favreau’s fatigue with the Iron Man franchise, as he bowed out of directing the third film, although he reprised his role as Hogan (if spending 80% of the film comatose can be considered a reprisal). Instead, the reins were handed over to Shane Black, whose resume as a writer includes Lethal Weapon, Monster Squad, and The Long Kiss Goodnight, and as such was already well-regarded before he began directing with 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

In 2007, British TV producer Drew Pearce created the cult hit No Heroics, a sitcom focusing on the downtime of troubled British superheroes, and the series aired in late 2008. The surprise cult following of the show led to some interest in an American adaptation during the shaky post-Heroes years in which many stations were looking to ride the superhero wave to the top. An American No Heroics pilot was shot, but ABC ultimately passed on the project (although they greenlit No Ordinary Family, a show that should have gotten a hard pass, just a few years later). Still, this had been enough to bring him to the attention of stateside production companies, and Pearce was initially hired to write the film adaptation of Marvel series Runaways. Although that film’s production stalled out, he was invited to co-write IM3 with Black. The resulting story took large chunks from Warren Ellis’s work on the popular “Extremis” arc from the Iron Man comics (homage is paid in the film by naming the president, played by William Sadler, after Ellis).

Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, and Paul Bettany(‘s voice) reprise their roles from previous films, and the post-credits gag features a cameo from Mark Ruffalo as Dr. Bruce Banner. New faces include Ben Kingsley as Mandarin, Guy Pearce as Aldrich Killian, and Rebecca Hall as Maya Hansen. As the lead-in to what Marvel Studios called “Phase Two,” IM3 follows up on the events of The Avengers, showing a Tony Stark who is traumatized and living with the aftereffects of the Battle of New York. And, since Shane Black is involved, the film is set at Christmastime for no real reason.

Brandon, what did you think?

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twohalfstar

Brandon: Because I had heard that director Shane Black had taken over Jon Favreau’s directoral duties for the third Iron Man installment, I had gotten my hopes up that it might be the turning point where I started liking the Iron Man franchise at large. Black’s darkly comic work on properties like Lethal Weapon, The Last Action Hero, and The Monster Squad seemed to position him as a perfect fit for taking the Iron Man films into a new, more purposeful direction. I can recognize flashes of that newfound sense of purpose straining to break through this feature’s bogged down mess of a narrative, but ultimately Iron Man 3 felt like just as much of a mixed bag as Iron Man 2.

The film opens with America’s Favorite D-Bag Tony Stark tooting his own horn to Eiffel 65’s “I’m Blue” & referring to the absolute worst era in popular culture (the late 90s, *shudder*) as “the [good] old days” (which, appropriately enough, is when his bad boy schtick & awful facial hair might’ve actually felt fresh). Things get worse from there. The film’s completely-besides-the-point Christmastime setting allows Stark to move on from his previous soundtrack of AC/DC dad jams to dance club remixes of Yuletide carols, which is, musically speaking, my worst nightmare. Tony’s snarkiness has also gotten worse, since the success of the character had apparently lead Feige & company to believe that what the world wanted more of was exchanges like [from a pretty lady] “Where are we going?” “To town on each other,” [to a lady on fire] “I’ve dated hotter chicks than you,” and [to a boy who’s been abandoned by his father] “Guys leave. No need to be a pussy about it.” There are other ways in which the Iron Man franchise has improved in a general sense, but its billionaire playboy protagonist might be a bigger piece of shit than ever here and the worst part is it still feels like the movies are asking its audience to celebrate him for it.

The frustrating thing is that there’s so much of Iron Man 3 that does work, especially elsewhere in the cast. I was a little dubious at first about the series’s return to its War on Terror roots, but Don Cheadle’s transition from toeing the water as The War Machine to full-blown superhero status as The Iron Patriot was encouraging to see. Ben Kingsely’s villain, who I’m pretty sure he was told was supposed to be named Osama Bin Nixon instead of The Mandarin, also has some entertaining moments in the film. I particularly enjoyed the following monologue that accompanied one of his terrorist-funded propaganda films: “True story about fortune cookies – They look Chinese. They sound Chinese. But they’re actually an American invention, which is why they’re hollow, full of lies, and leave a bad taste in the mouth.” The MVP for me, though, believe it or not, was Gwyneth Paltrow as the surprisingly endearing Pepper Potts. I don’t have any particularly strong opinions about Paltrow as an actress, but get the sense that her performances in these films aren’t especially popular among diehard MCU fans, which is a shame. Iron Man 3 allows Potts the opportunity to try on one of Stark’s mech suits, which made for a kinda awesome (and on a personal note, oddly sexy) moment when she gets to save the day for a change. Better yet is her climactic freakout moment, which releases a feral side to Paltrow’s screen presence I didn’t know she had in her (although it was teased in her line-reading of “Are you out of your mind?!” in Iron Man 2).

Speaking of the suit-sharing, Iron Man 3 features more Iron Man suits than ever, which, when combined with remote-controlled automation, makes for some absolutely killer action sequences involving an Iron Man army, some ludicrously complicated suit-hopping/exploding choreography, and a sublimely corny, parachuteless freefall rescue that played nicely into the film’s comic book origins. It’s a shame that none of these charming moments or character beats ever amount to a satisfying whole, though. Repeating the exact same mistakes of Iron Man 2, the film splits its time between two villains, a formula that bogs down its plot, only to make a third act decision to follow the least interesting of the pair to the conclusion. Iron Man 3 even takes this mistake a step further and retroactively ruins its most interesting threat, reducing Kingley’s monstrous terrorist from an Osama bin Nixon to a buffoonish Russell Brand archetype. What a waste. And to think, they casually kick him aside in favor of a fire-breathing version of Val Kilmer’s generic Dieter Von Cunth villain from MacGruber. It’s not a good sign when your film’s lead antagonist most closely resembles a character meant to spoof the genre you’re working in.

Once that shift occurs, Iron Man 3 devolves into generic superhero action cinema. The last 40 minutes of the film feel like a total waste, despite the suit-hopping heroics & Pepper Potts silliness mentioned above. Every now & then Iron Man 3 would throw out a fistpump-worthy moment or two (Stark taking out a helicopter by hurling a grand piano comes to mind), but for the most part the film felt like a mess of compromises & disappointments with half-cooked references to A Christmas Carol that went more or less nowhere & an entirely unnecessary performance by series-vet Jon Favreau as The World’s Shittiest Comic Relief. At best, it’s a generic mixed bag of an action film that almost gets its shit together before completely losing track of what makes it special. At worst, it’s a disappointingly low entry to Shane Black’s catalog, whether or not it helped him gain some notoriety for the strange body of work he had quietly put together prior.

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fourstar

Boomer: A lot of people really disliked this movie when it came out, citing the appearance of a kid sidekick character and the purported ruination of The Mandarin. Personally, however, I have to say that this is probably my favorite of the Iron Man flicks. I’ll admit that the kid sidekick character doesn’t really bother me in the slightest (and he appears onscreen for such a short period of time that his presence is virtually negligible). As for the way that the film used The Mandarin… I actually think that it was a bit of an ingenious move. I understand that this is a character into whom a lot of people have invested time and emotional energy, and I can understand the outrage because I felt much the same way when Star Trek Into Darkness sprang a whitewashed terrible Khan on the audience. The difference, however, is that the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch’s character is Khan contributes nothing to the film other than a familiar name, whereas the Mandarin reveal in Iron Man 3 actually serves to further the plot in an interesting way, and the film does well to play that reveal close to the chest up to the point where we finally meet Trevor Slattery. This was a neat twist that played on expectations of comic book fans and mainstream filmgoers alike, and I think a lot of people were simply caught off guard by the revelation and overreacted to it.

As for other issues viewers took with the film, I don’t really lend a lot of credence to what could be called the Avengers Problem, or, more loosely, the Shared Universe Problem. For some, once a shared universe is established or canonized, there is a need to ask why such-and-such character doesn’t appear in so-and-so’s film. I don’t really understand this impulse on the part of the audience to criticize this element of a work; it’s not as if every character spends all of their downtime together, nor is it a far-fetched idea that a person like Tony Stark who is accustomed to self-reliance would, in a period of self-doubt, try to fix all of his problems without calling on his superfriends. It’s not a problem for me that Banner shows up after the fact and only for a chat, and I feel that a lot of people were looking for elements of the film to complain about, as the honeymoon patina of the MCU was starting to wear thin. All of this is to say: this is a movie about a man who is pried loose from his moorings and forced to confront both his mortality and his potential for failure, and ends up being the least cliche of the Iron Man movies as a result.

There are problems, of course. The film is smart to focus on Tony and his one-man journey, but Paltrow and Cheadle end up underutilized this time around as a matter of consequence. Although Kingsley’s performance as both Slattery and The Mandarin is fantastic, Hall’s botanist character ends up feeling underdeveloped, and we never get a real feeling for her motivations. Pearce’s motivations are also less than perfectly defined, but he stands out as still being a better villain than either Hammer or Whiplash from Tony’s last solo outing. The deus ex machina elements of Pepper’s superheroics at the end of the film are a little on-the-nose, but it was nice to see her get to have more agency this time around, especially since her appearance early in the film painted her in a less than stellar light.

Still, I liked this one. The film largely restrains its elaborate set-pieces to the film’s back half, instead focusing the first half on character building and establishing the new relationships between all the characters, new and old, and the film benefits greatly from this structure. The humor here isn’t derived solely from trying to elicit envy of the Tony Stark way of life, which is a refreshing change of pace. Furthermore, making Stark more vulnerable provides Downey with additional ways to approach the character, which makes both actor and character come off as more likable than in previous installments. It’s a different approach, and the non-standard format of the film’s narrative sets a good example for the way that this film and the five that followed it would change the tone of the MCU at large.

Lagniappe

Boomer: It’s super weird to me that the MCU has a white president. It’s something that felt strange the first time I saw it; normally, I wouldn’t bring it up, but with recent news that Marvel bigwig Ike Perlmutter donated a hefty chunk of money to the Trump campaign, it does raise some questions. Also, it’s a bummer that we don’t hear about Extremis or see any of the fallout in the films that follow. Pepper’s newfound superherodom doesn’t even get a line of dialogue in Age of Ultron, even though she is mentioned. It’s strange, given the fact that the movie seems to set her up as a new power player–not that we needed another character in Ultron gumming up the works.

Brandon: Here’s where I praise Iron Man 3 for what it gets exactly right. Part of what’s been bugging me about the MCU as a cohesive unit of films is that outside of the Avengers crossovers the individual properties haven’t interacted with each other in any significant way. Iron Man 2 was better than most MCU properties on that front, mostly in the way that it gave outside characters Black Widow & Nick Fury something more significant to do besides popping up for a post-credits cameo. Iron Man 3 finally works the Marvel Universe at large into its core narrative, though, which posits it as the most well-integrated MCU property yet (well, outside The Avengers, which is integration by nature).

In the film, Tony Stark is suffering from PTSD after the “gods, aliens, other dimensions,” and robots caused so much mayhem at the climax of The Avengers. He confesses to Potts, “Nothing’s been the same since New York” and in a nice change of pace his ego is put into check by nightmares & panic attacks that can occasionally become life-threatening, especially once he begins operating mech suits in his sleep. I love this sense of progression. It finally feels like a standalone MCU property is actually, significantly affected by the preceding films outside its realm. I look forward to seeing more of the franchise function this way.

Curiously, although Iron Man 3 is the most well-integrated, non-Avengers MCU film so far, it feels like it brings its narrative to a close by the end credits. Everything feels thoroughly wrapped up, finite, as if Tony STark’s time with the franchise were over. If I didn’t know any better, I’d believe that “I am Iron Man” would be Starks’s final word to tie a neat little ribbon on his entire d-bag story arc. What’s even weirder is that after all this finality & integration, the film reverts back to a meaningless post-credits cameo for Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner. Again, the film is the definition of a mixed bag.

Side note: Did anybody else find it strange that this film found time for references to Joan Rivers, Downton Abbey, and the Home Shopping Network? I don’t know what to make of those nods other than to say they felt bizarre in this context.

Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Iron Man 3 (2013)

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three star

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

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Iron Man 2 (2010)

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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: After the somewhat surprising success of Iron Man and the mostly tepid response to The Incredible Hulk, Marvel Studios allowed their product line to lie fallow for 2009. Instead, they spent most of their behind the scenes time conceptualizing and drafting the growing interconnected universe and putting forth just enough information to whet the appetites of the general public. Iron Man 2 in 2010! Thor and Captain America (which would later have the silly, unwieldy subtitle The First Avenger added to it) in 2011! Avengers in 2012! Iron Man 2 was heavily marketed in the U.S., but there was a distinct decline in the attention from film and comic trade papers compared to the whirlwind of publicity that surrounded the first picture. If anything, most of the hard copy from trade journals was less about the film itself and more about notable lunatic Terrence Howard’s exit and replacement by prestige performer Don Cheadle. Howard has claimed on separate occasions that he left the film of his own volition and that he was let go, the former statement having only recently become part of his repertoire of stories. Lately, his claim is that his departure was due to a vast pay discrepancy between himself and Robert Downey, Jr., but Howard is also infamously difficult to work with—just look no further than the madness that was his September Rolling Stone interview for proof. Imagine what it must be like to work with someone whose conceptualization of mathematics makes Time Cube seem straightforward in comparison. I would prefer working with class act Don Cheadle, too.

There’s not as much backstory about the history of this film, but the expansion of the cast is noteworthy. Of the four main actors appearing in the first film, only Gwyneth Paltrow and Downey reprise their roles, due to Howard’s exit and the death of Jeff Bridges’s character. Samuel L. Jackson’s role was expanded, and Mad Men actor John Slattery was cast to play Tony’s father Howard Stark in file footage. Sam Rockwell joined the cast as rival weapons mogul Justin Hammer, and Mickey Rourke, of all people, was cast as unrepentant Russian ex-con Ivan “Whiplash” Vanko. Even stranger, likable comedian Garry Shandling was brought on board to play blowhard politician Senator Stern. Most notably, the film introduced Scarlett Johansson as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow, in a role that raised the profile of both actress and character significantly. Director Jon Favreau returned to helm the film and appear as Tony’s driver, “Happy” Hogan, and screenwriting duties were handed over to Justin Theroux, who is more recognizable as an actor in films like Mulholland Drive and American Psycho (and as the current Mr. Jennifer Aniston) than a writer. He also played the villain in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, following on the heels of Rockwell’s villainous turn in the first Angels film. Can the two of them working together make a decent Iron Man film? Read on for our reviews!

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twohalfstar

Brandon: Are we back to this dude already? Seems like just two films ago I was complaining about Tony Stark’s obnoxious rich boy D-bag fantasy fulfillment horror show of a personality. And here we are again, watching The Last of the Famous International Playboys work the crowd in his expensive suits & Guy Fieri sunglasses/goatee combos. As much as I would love to say I hated it even more the second time around, Jon Favreau’s second Iron Man film wasn’t nearly as bad as the first. Despite insistent warnings from friends that this would be the worst entry under the MCU brand to date, I found myself enjoying a great deal of the film, especially in moments where Mr. Stark was nowhere to be seen. Even though I could feel myself being won over, though, I think it’s much more that the MCU is growing on me & coming into its own than it is that this individual property is worth anything more than mixed praise.

The major improvement in Iron Man 2 is in the strength of its cast. Don Cheadle was a huge get in replacing Terrence Howard as Col. James Rhodes & it was super cool to see him fly around in a spare Iron Man suit, effectively establishing himself as the MCU’s first non-white superhero. Jon Slattery is as amusingly smug as ever in his role as Iron Dad. Gary Schandling & Sam Rockwell are always-welcome faces, even if the latter was asked to do such undignified things as blabbering about super-“cool”, super-deadly weapons to an obnoxious blues rock soundtrack. Scarlett Johansson is a refreshing glimpse into a better, future MCU in her kickass performance as the (undercover) Black Widow. Even the much-complained-about Gwyenth Paltrow gets a couple great moments in there, especially in her delivery of a particularly passionate line-reading of “ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND?!”

The real MVP here, though, is Mickey Rourke. I suspect that Rourke’s performance as the oddly grandmotherly supervillain Ivan “Whiplash” Vanko wasn’t universally beloved by fans, but I was personally won over. I can’t be too objective about Rourke in this film because I’m pretty much on board with everything he’s done on film in the past 15 years or so. Even in dire properties that I have no patience for like Sin City & The Expendables, Rourke’s weird, hardened, subdued energy is a breath of fresh air. It’s hard to tell how much of this is leftover goodwill from how much I love him in Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, but it’s true all the same. Rourke’s softened, heavily tattooed Russian terrorist of a villain is easily the most deliciously over-the-top aspect of anything I’ve seen in the first three MCU entries. I loved everything about him, from his dumb girl’s-first-year-at-Burning-Man dreds to his fetish-inspiring lightning whips. When the film opens with Rourke’s oddly gentle brooding I was expecting to fall for Iron Man 2‘s charms . . . a feeling that lasted only briefly, as it was promptly interrupted by Iron Man flying around to AC/DC dad jams & my Iron Man 1 deja vu kicked in.

The problem with Iron Man 2 is not in the villains, but in Iron Man himself. I wasn’t convinced that Tony Stark’s reformed bad boy act in the first film outweighed his more unpalatable impulses as a rakish dick & he indeed dismisses his moral salvation in that film (an interest in renewable energy sources instead of military grade weapons) as a “liberal agenda” that he now finds boring here. I guess his new path to salvation is in his evolving romance plot with Pepper Potts. I’ll admit that I find the characters’ chemistry fairly compelling (way more than Ed Norton & Liv Tyler’s chemistry in The Incredible Hulk, at least), but there’s too much else working against Stark’s personality for it to save the movie for me. It’d be one thing if Stark’s go for broke narcissism were played as villainous, but it’s largely celebrated in the film. He’s applauded for “successfully privatizing world peace” without a trace of irony. He sexually objectifies the MCU’s first female superhero at first glance, joking “I want one of those” in ScarJo’s first scene, and the audience is supposed to think “Heh, heh me too”. And then there’s his love of a expensive-looking version of European NASCAR, Iron Gams chorus girls, and – worst yet – scratching records like an idiotic RoboDJ. Ugh. I’m surprised they stopped short of giving him a backwards baseball cap & a skateboard.

I could probably get behind Tony Stark’s persona if he were played as a villain, but he’s just too openly celebrated in the film for it to work for me. When he jokes about a beautiful woman standing next to his ride, “Does she come with the car?” we’re supposed to think “What a cool dude!” instead of “What a vile pig!”, which is the film’s main problem in a nutshell. Perhaps as his relationship with Potts develops the more grotesque aspects of his personality will soften, but for now I mostly find Stark to be a source of embarrassment. This isn’t helped at all by director Jon Favreau’s now-extended glorified cameo as Stark’s personal driver, since it confronts the viewer with the film’s oddly conservative power fantasy looking us in the eye, desperately hoping some of his creation’s supposed cool will rub off on him.

There’s so much going on in Iron Man 2 that had me rooting for the film – mostly in the superhero/villain antics of ScarJo, Rourke, and Cheadle. It’s just a shame that Iron Man had to get in the way of what makes Iron Man 2 work. When one character warns Stark, “The device keeping you alive is also killing you” I found myself thinking, “Would his death really be so bad for this franchise?” I doubt that was the desired effect.

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three star

Boomer: When Brandon told me that he had watched this film, I expressed my sympathies and referred to IM2 as the nadir of the MCU. Upon rewatch, however, this film was a lot better than I remembered, and outpaces The Incredible Hulk easily. The problem, I think, is that I had never actually sat through the entire film from beginning to end without commercial interruption, which bloats the already overlong film out to an interminable three hours and exacerbates the film’s pacing problems as well. It’s not great, but there were a lot more fun elements present than I remembered. Unfortunately, those moments are buried under a mountain of bizarre acting choices, miscast roles, and about 50% more subplots than any film should try to support.

How many subplots are there? Do we define the main plot as “Tony Stark attempts to find the cure for the blood toxicity problem caused by his arc reactor,” given that this would presuppose that “Tony faces off against the son of a man from whom his father may have stolen ideas” is not also the main plot? Of course, that would also further presuppose that “Tony faces off against the spoiled, rich weapons manufacturer who he could have been (and kinda is)” is not also the main plotline. Right away, the fact that all three of these ideas are primary narratives in their own right means that the film is overloaded. Then there are all the subplots: the Senate subcommittee hearings, the tension between Tony and Rhodey as the latter is pressured by the government to obtain an Iron Man suit, Pepper’s promotion to CEO of Stark Industries, the introduction and integration of Black Widow and the reveal of her true alliances, the uneasy alliance between Vanko and Hammer, Tony coming to understand his father’s real legacy and accept their emotional distance, and Tony forging a new element (“LOL” -everyone who paid even the barest minimum attention in high school chemistry). Every time the film changes scenes, you find yourself thinking “Oh, right, these people are doing things in this movie too; I forgot.” There are too many sequences in the film, and by the final act, there’s such a sense of narrative fatigue that you can hardly bring yourself to care.

A lot of the performances are flat and, frankly, terrible. ScarJo’s Black Widow had a lot of presence in the first Avengers film, and her appearance in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is far and away one of the best things in an inarguably fantastic film, but here, she’s wooden and unlikable. There are a few moments in which her emotionless seems like a façade (the way she drops her smile when Happy makes dismissive and sexist assumptions about her physical prowess is a nicely underplayed moment, actually), but it’s obvious that she had a hard time finding this character. Of course, given that her character seems poorly thought out on paper as well, this is hardly a surprise. Paltrow’s Pepper is also more of a damsel in this film than she was in the last, which is a disappointment, and Cheadle’s Rhodey is written as decisive in his actions but easily swayed in his motivations; both of them feel like they were written down in this installment in praise of the almighty Tony Stark.

Speaking of which, Tony Stark is a self-important blowhard who lacks humility, not entirely unlike Downey (who’s basically a white Kanye with an ego that the general public doesn’t police as heavily because of his whiteness); in order to make him more likable, his villains have to be utterly devoid of any redeeming features that could accidentally render them sympathetic. Ivan Vanko can’t just be a prodigal son seeking revenge on the child of the man who he believes stole his father’s legacy, he has to be a criminal who sold uranium to terrorists, and his father must also have been involved in wartime espionage. Senator Stern can’t possibly be presented as someone with reasonable objections to Tony Stark’s self-described privatization of worldwide peacekeeping; he has to be a barely-competent parody of fear-mongering, war-hungry senatorial arrogance. And Justin Hammer can’t just be a rival industrialist who wants to experience the successes that seem to come so easy to Tony Stark; he has to be a spoiled brat infatuated with his own decadent lifestyle and possessed of the misconception that he is capable of being intimidating, with occasional bouts of impotent rage.

Everyone in this movie feels like they’re slumming it, and the bad performances I mentioned earlier really show through in regards to the villains. Sam Rockwell is particularly terrible. I mentioned above that this movie has a longer running time than is necessary or warranted, and the film doesn’t have to be as long as it is, either. It’s unusual to feel a film’s length because of performative choices, but a good five percent of this film consists of Rockwell (and, to a lesser extent, Downey) repeating and repeating their lines, not for emphasis but as filler. Every scene that Rockwell is in feels interminable, and it only gets worse once he breaks Vanko out of prison and enlists him to make Hammer’s failed experiments moderately functional, with Rourke’s choices as the Russian criminal/mechanical genius almost (but not quite) working based purely on their sheer audacity. Without these two characters, almost nothing of substance would have been lost (less the Monaco racing/action sequence, which was a better set piece than the overloaded finale and a highlight of the film). Further, more time could have been spent focusing on the way Tony’s self-destructive behavior pushed his friends away, rather than abbreviating that plot point.

Overall, Iron Man 2 is a film that is overburdened by too many ideas, only half of which should have made it past the first draft. Returning characters are marginalized in lieu of introducing two major villains, when the plot of Tony’s poisoning and his completion of his father’s legacy would have been sufficient to carry a grounded and compelling film. Instead, those interesting narratives become so lost in the shuffle that by the time Tony invents his new element (LOL) you’ve already forgotten why he needs to. Still, I’d put it on nearly the same level as the first film, even if it doesn’t come together as coherently in the end.

Lagniappe

Brandon: Iron Man 2 feels like the MCU finally coming into its own. I get frustrated when the individual movies include references to other MCU properties with no in-the-moment consequence besides promoting The Next Big Show. There are indeed a few MCU calling cards left on the table here with no purpose for the task at hand – Captain America’s shield, Thor’s hammer, an envelope that reads “The Avengers Initiative” – but they’re isolated moments in a more general push to truly get the ball rolling. The biggest change here is that the characters of Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury & ScarJo’s Black Widow are given more to do than just to pop in & acknowledge their own existence. A move away from brief cameos toward active involvement is an important one. When Black Widow gets her hands dirty kicking nameless goons’ asses towards the film’s climax the crossover potential of MCU properties finally, excitingly sees some payoff. If it weren’t for Mickey Rourke’s lightning whips weirdness it would’ve been my favorite moment in a film that almost worked for me (when its titular “hero” protagonist wasn’t getting in the way).

Boomer: This film is really the first one in which a larger universe feels like it’s beginning to unfold, as evidenced by Nick Fury’s exasperation at having to deal with Tony Stark’s emotional problems when he has bigger fish to fry. Hammer and Vanko are distinctly disposable villains in a way that Obadiah Stane was not, which makes the decision to kill him off in the first film even more shortsighted; theoretically, we could see Hammer reappear, but it hasn’t happened yet, and I’m glad for it. Johansson will have solidified Natasha’s character by the time of her next appearance, and she definitely goes on to be one of my favorite things about the MCU as a whole. Even though I complained about the paper-thin characterization of Senator Stern above, I’m looking forward to his later appearances. Finally, one of the things that I really disliked about this film is that Tony, even when he is staring his mortality in the face, never seems to feel the weight of his impending death in a way that matures him; I’m looking forward to rewatching Iron Man 3, which I remember having the most depth of character of all three, despite its poor reputation.

Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Iron Man 2 (2010)

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three star

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