Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

My relationship with Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is very similar to an ill-considered, last-call hookup at a dimly lit dive bar. I’ve always caught a grotesquely macho vibe from the advertising for Marin McDonagh pictures that has made me avoid each one no matter how lauded, as I was immediately turned off at first sight. The barrage of negative think pieces picking at McDonagh’s latest film’s mishandling of American race relations made it even more of an unappetizing prospect, something that somewhat validated my initial instinct to avoid it. There’s a kind of desperate, ticking clock effect to Oscar Season, though, an arbitrary deadline that often pressures me into taking chances on movies I’d typically avoid. With the last couple Best Picture nominees I hadn’t yet seen looking like they’d immediately put me to sleep (apologies to diehard fans of Darkest Hour & The Post), the incendiary divisiveness of Three Billboards stated to look a lot more attractive as an Oscars catch-up prospect. Of course, as most desperate last-call hookups go, the experience was exactly the total disaster I expected & should have known better to avoid.

Frances McDormand stars as a grieving mother who lashes out at her local Missouri police force for not thoroughly investigating the rape & murder of her teenage daughter. Much to the frustration of her son (Lucas Hedges), her not-so-secret admirer (Peter Dinklage), the local sheriff (Woody Harrelson), and everyone else in their small, everybody-knows-everybody community, her vengeful rage is largely misplaced & unproductive. The most dangerous sparring partner she finds in her crusade to shame the local police into action (through inflammatory messages advertised on the titular billboards) is a racist, idiot cop with a reputation for “torturing black folks.” Most of Three Billboards’s cultural backlash has focused on this dangerous small-town cop archetype (performed competently enough by so-much-better-than-this Sam Rockwell), whom many critics believe to have been afforded more empathy than deserved, given his violently racist past. Much like with Andrea Arnold’s awkward portrait of American poverty in American Honey, this redemptive arc for an undeserving racist cop is just one symptom of a larger problem the movie suffers: a British outsider estimating an ill-informed view of American race relations. A long-respected playwright, McDonagh attacks this narrative with a tunnel-vision approach that values dialogue & character work over cultural context. To an American audience, it’s absolutely baffling to set a 2010s narrative about a violent, dysfunctional police force near Ferguson, Missouri without directly dealing with lethal, systemic racism in modern American law enforcement. “Black folks” are mentioned by name periodically throughout, but are largely nowhere to be seen, only checking in occasionally to encourage McDormand’s grieving mother with lines like “You go, girl. You go fuck those cops up.” McDonagh gets so caught up in telling a neo-Western revenge story about the meaningless, self-perpetuating nature of violence (a lesson we’ve had explained to us onscreen countless times before) that he doesn’t notice how many thematic cans of worms he’s opening & leaving unattended in the process. The empathetic portrait of the film’s most flagrantly racist cop is just one small part of that cultural-outsider obliviousness.

To be honest, I had soured on Three Billboards’s tone long before its American race politics naivete could fully sink in. Being willfully unfamiliar with McDonagh’s past works, I can’t claim to know if this film is indicative of his usual style, but I found it to be overwritten & under-directed in a consistently frustrating way. It felt like watching libertarian blowhard Bill Maher attempt to bring his Politically Incorrect brand of social commentary to the world of live theatre. When I say I’ve always caught a whiff of grotesque machismo from the look of McDonagh’s works, I should probably specify that it’s a pseudo-intellectual machismo – the kind of darkly comedic, overwritten tone that would appeal to Philosophy-major college freshmen who waste countless hours on Reddit & worship at the altar of The Boondock Saints. Indeed, even while featuring a “strong female” lead, Three Billboards feels like a grotesquely macho echo of the worst aspects of the highly-stylized, post-Tarantino dialogue that poisoned indie cinema for much of the 90s. I’m not fully convinced by the argument that Tarantino writes grimy genre throwbacks specifically to create an excuse to use racial epithets, but that exact criticism nagged me throughout Three Billboards. The performative, in-your-face way the film discusses fat people, “retards,” “midgets,” “wife-beaters,” a few more hateful terms I’d rather not repeat, pedophilic priests, rape, cancer, and suicide in a “transgressively” “humorous” tone was, to put it kindly, exhausting & juvenile. Women are lovingly addressed as “bitch” & “cunt” as pet names in a way that feels initially phony, then gratuitous in repetition. It got to the point where even the inciting incident of a teenage girl being “raped while dying” numbed me into not caring about the objectively horrific act’s revenge, since it was written in such a crassly flashy tone. Given Three Billboards’s Oscar nominations for Best Picture & Best Original Screenplay (among others), I suspect many audiences read this “non-PC” demeanor to be bravely truthful about “how things really are” in the American South. I personally found it to be empty, pseudo-intellectual macho posturing, like watching an #edgy stand-up comedian get off on “triggering snowflakes” in a two hour-long routine that supposedly has something revolutionary to say about life & humanity, but is covertly just a reinforcement of the status quo.

The worst movie experiences are always the comedies that fail to make you laugh. I haven’t felt as isolated in a laughing audience watching Three Billboards since I allowed myself to be culturally pressured into watching the similarly #edgy Deadpool. The only comedic bit that got a chuckle out of me was a brief scene where Frances McDormand talks to her house slippers, which feels like a nice glimpse into a much better screenplay. The discomfort of the film’s failed dark humor is only intensified by its demand to be taken (very) seriously. The suddenness of the brutality and the omnipresent somber country music feel like hallmarks of a dead serious drama, but there’s an awkward stage play sheen to the dialogue that doesn’t allow that tonal sobriety to sit right. References to Oscar Wilde and unprompted questions like “Do birds get cancer?” feel entirely foreign to a film that’s supposed to capture the Ugly Truth of the American South. McDormand gets by relatively unscathed in her central role, but the stage play quality of the dialogue forces most actors in the film into awful, flat performances we already know for a fact they’re better than (talented youngsters Lucas Hedges, Caleb Landry Jones, and Samara Weaving are especially embarrassing here). Sam Rockwell’s teetering between comedic buffoon & explosive threat is a microcosm of the film’s problems balancing #edgy dark humor with overwritten stage play drama, so it makes sense that his character would draw most of the film’s backlash. He’s just one detail indicative of larger, deep-seated issues, though, a mascot for the film’s many ills.

I’m going to tell you an open secret: we’re unpaid, non-professionals here at Swampflix, so we don’t often see moves we have zero interest in. There’s no one to assign them to us with a monetary reward attached, so there’s really no reason for us to seek out movies we know we aren’t going to like (which helps explain why the vast majority of our reviews are rated three stars or higher). Awards season attention & high critical praise (or at least extensive critical conversation) are among the few factors that can lead us outside our comfort zone, which often means our lowest-rated movies are among the most critically lauded titles of any given year. I’m admitting all this to reiterate that I had no business watching Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. The early advertising convinced me I would dislike it, the second-wave critical backlash confirmed that suspicion, and then I allowed its high profile within the Oscars Conversation to convince me to give it a shot anyway. I can’t honestly say it’s one of the worst films of 2017, because I had the non-professional’s freedom to avoid moves I likely would have found to be worse. I can only report that it was one of my least favorite screenings of a high-profile movie from last year and I owe that experience to last minute desperation, FOMO, and The Academy.

-Brandon Ledet

The Five Most Surprising Comedic Actors Lurking in Galaxy Quest (1999)

 

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As a full-length ode to what made the original Star Trek television series such a joy to watch, you can’t do much better than 1999’s sci-fi comedy Galaxy Quest. I guess you could argue that there’s a little influence from the The Next Generation incarnation of Star Trek mixed into the film’s DNA, considering that the spoofy homage was contemporary with titles like Nemesis, particularly noticeable in the design of the space crew’s alien enemies, but for the most part it feels true to the original Star Trek run. I suspect our resident Trekkies Alli & Boomer could do a better job explaining exactly how Galaxy Quest captures & lovingly mocks the post-Lost in Space philosophical ponderings of Gene Roddenberry’s 1960s cultural landmark, but I can say for sure that it’s difficult to think of an example of an homage that does old-line Star Trek better than Galaxy Quest. The depressive black comedy Space Station 76 might come close and JJ Abrams’s reboot of the franchise might nail a few stray details, but Galaxy Quest is more or less the pinnacle of lovingly farcical Star Trek sendups.

Besides the film’s accomplishments in capturing the spirit of its obvious, but unspoken source material, what always strikes me about Galaxy Quest is the strength & likeability of its ridiculously stacked cast. The film follows the actors who played characters on a Star Trek-esque sci-fi show as they’re misunderstood to be a real deal spaceship crew and unwittingly recruited by an alien species they mistake for enthusiastic fans of the show for a real, life-threatening outer space adventure. The casting of the Galaxy Quest crew has always struck me as inspired. The sadly deceased Alan Rickman is perfectly pitched as a Leonard Nimoy surrogate: a self-serious stage actor who’s annoyed by his genre nerd celebrity, yet still wears his prosthetic alien makeup around the house as he glumly performs simple chores. Tony Schalhoub turns “phoning it in” into his own artform as an in-over-his-head engine room technician amidst a constant state of crisis. Sam Rockwell’s role as a bit part actor justifiably paranoid about dying on the mission because he played a one-line, no-name character on the show is great meta humor. Similarly, Sigourney Weaver’s space bimbo with no real purpose on the crew besides displaying her breasts is a great subversion of her resilient, insanely competent role as Ripley in the Alien series. Even Tim Allen is a joy to watch here, bringing his iconic role as Buzz Lightyear to full live action glory as the crew’s self-important ass of a captain. Once Galaxy Quest hits its narrative groove each of these crew members helplessly find themselves slipping into their scripted roles and lift tactics from old episodic plot lines to problem solve their way back to Earth, much to the delight of their extraterrestrial fans/kidnappers.

Those famous actor crew members are largely what makes Galaxy Quest such an iconic work in the first place. It was on my most recent watch, however, where I discovered that they’re far from alone in terms of recognizable faces in the cast. It’s been a good few years since I’ve revisited Galaxy Quest, which always struck me so one of the heights of easy, pleasant viewing, and I was surprised by how well both its humor & its CG special effects have held up in the past couple of decades. What really surprised me, though, was the number of familiar faces lurking behind the film’s main flashy space crew. Here are the five Galaxy Quest supporting players that most caught me off-guard, listed form least to most exciting.

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5) Enrico Colantoni

I really shouldn’t be surprised that Colantoni is in this movie because as a kid I probably knew him just as much for his role here as an alien nerd as I knew him as the chauvinist photographer from Just Shoot Me (I watched a lot of trash television as a youngster). In the years since its release, however, memories of Colantoni in the role had faded thoroughly to the point of vague déjà vu and I’ve come to think of the actor solely as Keith Mars, one of the great television dads (from the cult show Veronica Mars, in case you’re unfamiliar). Colantoni is damn funny as the lead alien kidnapper/nerd here, bringing a distinct Coneheads vibe to the performance. However, I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that I was waiting for him to say “Who’s your daddy?” at some point during the production, a moment that obviously never arrived.

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4) Missi Pyle

The eternally underutilized character actor Missi Pyle probably shouldn’t surprise me by popping up in a bit role as one of Colantoni’s alien underlings. Pyle’s career has long been relegated to supporting player parts on TV comedies & straight to DVD/VOD farces (she’s actually pretty phenomenal in her role as a drunken loser in the mostly unseen Parker Posey/Amy Poehler comedy Spring Breakdown, a part that seemed tailor made for Jennifer Coolidge). I think I was mostly surprised by Pyle’s inclusion in the Galaxy Quest cast because I had mentally placed Milla Jovovich in the role as I reflected back on the film. Her character’s space goth visage recalled amalgamation of Jovovich’s roles in Zoolander & Resident Evil and her super geeky, posi, genuine vibe in the role recalls Jovovich’s most iconic performance as Leeloo in Luc Beson’s ludicrous space epic The Fifth Element (a film Galaxy Quest resembles in a few production details, especially in the design of its alien weaponry).

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3) Justin Long

Much like Missi Pyle, Justin Long has been in almost-famous purgatory for decades, never quite breaking out of bit roles in low profile comedies while his friends & collaborators “make it big” without him. Outside a few standout parts in comedies like Idiocracy & *shudder* Tusk, he’s mostly a background player who’s asked to allow other comedians to take the spotlight. That small potatoes status is still true in his diminished role as a geeky, convention-going superfan in Galaxy Quest, but looking back I had no idea he was in this movie at all. It’s no wonder that I didn’t recognize Justin Long in 1999, since Galaxy Quest is listed on IMDb as his first credited roe, but I was still surprised to see him onscreen here, all bright eyed & babyfaced. His few scenes as the Galaxy Quest crew’s #1 (human) superfan, the kind of dweeb who obsesses over decades-old plot holes that don’t quite match the blueprints of a fictional spaceship, is more serviceable than scene-stealing, but he was still a pleasant addition to the cast. It’s a status I’m sure he’s used to filling.

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2) Rainn Wilson

In case you’re not noticing a pattern here, a lot of the more surprising supporting players in the Galaxy Quest cast are the alien kidnapper/fans that kick the film’s plot into action. Although the presence of Pyle & Colantoni caught me off-guard, what really threw me off was that Rainn Wilson was lurking among them. Much like with Long, Galaxy Quest was a kind of a career-starter for Wilson, who had only appeared in an episode of a soap opera before joining the ranks of this sci-fi comedy’s geeked-out aliens. As an unproven newcomer (this was obviously years before Wilson’s star-making turn as Dwight Schrute on The Office), Wilson mostly lurks in the background as a stealthy member of the extraterrestrial superfans. However, he fits in perfectly with his compatriot dorks & the film stands as an early glimpse at the total-weirdo energy he’d later bring to his iconic television role, as well as the strange diversity in his choice of projects, which include recent strange outliers like Cooties & The Boy.

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1) Kevin McDonald

Speaking of the ridiculous range of underutilized talents lurking in the film’s geeky alien troupe, I spent a lot of Galaxy Quest asking myself “Is that Kevin McDonald? No, it’s not. But is it, though?” while watching character actor Patrick Breen fill out their ranks as a Spock-like superfan of Rickman’s eternally inconvenienced personification of nonplussed stoicism. Patrick Breen, it turns out, is not Kevin McDonald. They are two separate people. Imagine my surprise, then, when the Kids in the Hall vet did show up in the film’s closing minute in a thankless, jokeless role as a sci-fi convention MC who announces the arrival of each crew member as they make their inevitable return to the Earths’ surface. Just when I thought Galaxy Quest could hold no more room for further casting surprises, Kevin McDonald swooped in at the last second, as if the film were reading my mind.

I guess that’s to be expected in a movie where Sam Rockwell plays a full-length tribute to the very nature of a thankless bit role actor, but how could Galaxy Quest’s casting director Debra Zane have known that all of those supporting players would eventually become such big names in the first place? Her intuition seems to have been just as futuristic as the film’s sci-fi setting and her work of gathering up all of these strong personalities is a large part of what makes the film such an enduring delight.

-Brandon Ledet

Don Verdean (2015)

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I can’t blame everyone else for not caring, but I personally want the best for Jared & Jerusha Hess. The married couple/filmmaking partners started their career as something of a novelty act with the titles Napoleon Dynamite & Nacho Libre, but their third film, Gentlemen Broncos, is a personal pet favorite of me. It’s a nerdy, delightfully misshapen work that found the Hesses embracing their inner strange in a seemingly authentic way and I’ve made it something of a personal mission of mine to shepherd the too-easily discarded film into cult classic territory. The Hesses recently seemed poised to top that success with a pair of talent-stacked comedies going into wide release the same year. Unfortunately, their Zack Galifianakis/Kristen Wiig bank heist comedy Masterminds suffered a blow when its distribution company financially collapsed & its release was shelved indefinitely. The other movie, Don Verdean, made not even the smallest splash at the theaters and quietly slipped onto streaming on Netflix with no apparent fanfare. It seems the Hess heyday is still somewhere ahead of us (unless it began & ended with the “Vote for Pedro” t-shirt craze, which seems just as likely).

Again, I can’t exactly blame critics & audiences for not falling head over heel for Don Verdean. For a comedy this deeply strange & off-kilter it’s also oddly subdued, as if the Hesses were aiming to make a lowbrow version of a Coen Brothers film. Don Verdean is a screwball comedy about four snake oil-selling religious hucksters trying to make a dishonest buck in the faith industry: Sam Rockwell as the titular “archeologist” (read: artifact thief); Danny McBride as the living “miracle” Tony Lazarus (whom The Good Lord decided brought back to life so that he could marry the hooker he overdosed with & start a ministry); Will Forte as a competing minister/former High Priest of the Church of Satan; and Jemaine Clement as a con artist producer of religious artifacts both real & forged (in an unfortunate bit of Middle Eastern Jew racial caricature). All four of these dark souls are condemnable in their exploitation of religion as a racket, which may be an indication of the Mormon filmmakers Hesses’ disgust with certain, cynical factions of Evangelicals within the Christian community. The film never aims to be a satire about gigantic institutional shortcomings within organized religion’s opportunistic hucksters, however. It’s more of a character study of a small, oddly specific group of barely human weirdos who sometimes allow their thirst for financial gains & notoriety outstrip their faith in God.

I don’t think going small & narrowly focused is necessarily a problem for Don Verdean, but it’s definitely not a comedic style that’s going to grab much attention. Sam Rockwell’s quiet, oddly undignified portrayal of a past-his-prime archeologist seemingly plucked from a Chuck Norris promo VHS scrounged up by Everything Is Terrible isn’t flashy or over-the-top in any particular way. His quiet convictions, both religious & self-serving, are hilarious in their absurdity, however. His company Holy Land Investigations is in the business of searching for artifacts like the scissors that cut Samson’s hair, Lot’s wife’s salty remains, and Goliath’s rock-cracked skull and bringing them to the “USA where they belong” in order to prove that The Bible is “true”. He may not go full living cartoon at any particular moment in his performance, but there’s plenty of unreal amusement is his statements like “Finding treasure in the Earth is meaningless unless it helps someone get to Heaven who wouldn’t get there otherwise” & “What makes you think you can carbon date the wrath of the Almighty?”

Don Verdean may not be a far-reaching satire of Evangelical opportunism or an over-the-top riot of wild caricature, but I do think Jared & Jerusha Hess have a lot to say about outsized hubris and the divisions that arise between faith & financial gain in the more theatrical wings of Christianity. Their point is just quietly grounded in a muted character whose soul is just as grey-brown as the earth tone colors of his Chuck Norris cosplay. The movie only falters when it loses focus on this troubled antihero & instead follows the larger-than-life characters that color his outdated, insular world. They did a much better job of sticking to a grounded, focused POV in Gentlemen Broncos, which may help explain why that film was more artistically successful (to me anyway; neither movie was received especially well), but I still enjoyed most of what goes down here. My uncontrollable urge is to again recommend that you give Gentlemen Broncos a fighting chance, but if you already have & enjoyed what you saw, Don Verdean‘s not too shabby of a follow up. I wouldn’t be surprised if Masterminds plays out much the same way (if it ever sees the light of day in the first place). Here’s to hoping.

-Brandon Ledet

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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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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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)

EPSON MFP image

three star

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