‘Hellboy II: The Golden Army’ Has Del Toro and Perlman Up To Their Old Tricks

Hellboy II The Golden Army movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2008.

Darn it, I was not able to get around to seeing the original “Hellboy” before checking out its sequel, so I hope I am not missing much. When all is said and done, however, I was able to follow along with “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” and its characters with little, if any, confusion. I would like to know how the fish character, Abraham, breathes outside of the water, but I guess I’ll have to watch the original to find this out. With this sequel, we do get some back story of how the title character came to be, so the uninitiated shouldn’t feel too alienated from what is going on here.

Hellboy II,” like its predecessor, comes to us from the infinitely inspired cinematic mind of Guillermo Del Toro whose work here proves to be endlessly imaginative on a visual level. In the last few years, he has proven to be one of the most original and creative directors working in movies, and his 2006 film “Pan’s Labyrinth” was one of the very best of that year. While this sequel doesn’t reach the creative brilliance of that movie, it doesn’t matter much because this time around Del Toro is just out to give us a fun time. “Hellboy II” is definitely a lot of fun, and there is plenty of creativity on display here which you don’t see from your average movie studio looking to cut down overall budgets wherever and whenever they can.

Hellboy himself is played by Ron Perlman, and there is no one else who could have inhabited this demonic superhero anywhere as effectively. Seriously, I can’t think of one. Perlman previously worked with Del Toro in “Blade II” which was another great sequel, and he is also best known for his roles in “The City of Lost Children” and the television series “Beauty and the Beast.” His imposing height and rough demeanor fit perfectly with this comic book character who has a lot of Casper the friendly ghost inside of him as he wants to get along with people instead of them fearing and hating him. Hellboy is kind of like Snake Plissken from “Escape From New York,” except he does care about more than himself than just staying alive.

The prologue lets those who haven’t seen the original know how Hellboy was actually created by the Nazis, but he was soon rescued by the Army and raised to be one of the good guys instead of becoming a villain. On Christmas Eve, he is told a bedtime story by his surrogate father, Professor Trevor ‘Broom’ Bruttenholm (John Hurt). This allows Del Toro to set up the story of the Golden Army and of how they waged a war against humanity to rule the earth. The truce between the mythical world and humanity, however, is about to be broken as Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) seeks to restore the rule back to the mythical world.

The world of “Hellboy” is much like the one we saw in the “X-Men” movies as it deals with characters rejected by society for being different. Hellboy, while being hurt by the rejection of the humans, seems to have a strong sense of humor about the whole situation. While doing his duty against his and the world’s enemies, he always finds the time to drink a couple 6-packs of imported beer and take care of an unusually high number of cats (how does he keep track of them all?). The other characters around him are just as alienated from humanity, and this is mainly because the majority of them look anything but human. One of the other main characters, Abe Sapien (played by Doug Jones), is a fishlike character who has to wear a special breathing apparatus filled with water wherever he goes. One of the other ingeniously created characters in this movie is Johann Krauss, an ectoplasmic being who lives in a containment suit. While the characters of the “X-Men” movies may stand a chance of having seemingly normal lives, the ones in the “Hellboy” franchise don’t look to be as lucky.

I enjoyed some of the music choices Del Toro made here, and I’m not just talking about Danny Elfman’s score which is the same kind of score he gives to Tim Burton movies. There is one point where the song “Beautiful Freak” by the Eels (one of my favorite alternative bands) is used to help illustrate the strong relationship Hellboy and his girlfriend Liz (Selma Blair) have. No one can love Hellboy the way Liz does, and it certainly not a perfect love to put it mildly. There is also a funny and strangely touching moment between Hellboy and Abe where they start singing to a Barry Manilow song as they seek to find the elusive magic of love.

Selma Blair proves to be terrific as Liz, and she gives her character a don’t mess with me attitude as well as a vulnerability which makes us care about her all the more. You never doubt that she is ready and willing to risk her life and even the fate of humanity to save Hellboy for reasons which are made abundantly clear at this sequel’s start.

I also really admired the character of the Johann Krauss and of how he was created. There is also a hilarious fight scene between him and Hellboy where he ends up fighting the hornless devil boy in the least expected way possible. That scene was one of my favorites, and it also helps that Johann is voiced by Seth MacFarlane, the creator of “Family Guy.”

There’s nothing truly original about the story of “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” but Del Toro still manages to make it feel original in a way only he can pull off. Right now, he is one of the few directors I can think of who has a really unique filmmaking style. Even if this sequel doesn’t prove to be one of his best works, it still has a wonderful level of creativity missing from many mainstream films.

In the end, “Hellboy II” proves to be a fun ride, and it does make me want to catch the original at some point in my lifetime. Better yet, I should also check out “The Devil’s Backbone,” “Cronos” and “Mimic.” I have a lot of catching up to do.

* * * out of * * * *

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‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ Takes the Webslinger to New Heights

Spiderman Into The Spiderverse poster

Alongside Superman and Batman, Spider-Man is one of my most favorite comic book characters. Peter Parker was an ordinary teenager before he got bit by a genetically modified spider, and from there he was gifted with super powers anyone would be envious to have. But in the process, he learns that with great power comes great responsibility, and this includes leaving the love of his life, be it Mary Jane or Gwen Stacy, at a distance in order to keep her safe from his devious enemies. While it must be very cool to be Spider-Man, it is also a very lonely existence as he needs to keep the people he is closest to in the dark as their safety will always be at risk once his identity is revealed to all.

One of the real joys of watching “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is realizing Peter Parker’s existence is not as lonely as we believed it to be. While attempting to thwart the efforts of Wilson Fisk/Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) who is using a particle accelerator to access parallel universes in an effort to bring back his deceased wife and son, we learn there are many different versions of Spider-Man here, there and everywhere, and there is something very reassuring about Peter realizing he is not the only one of his kind.

The main character here is Miles Morales (“Dope” star Shameik Moore), an African-American teenager who is at ease in his inner-city neighborhood, but struggles to fit in at the elite boarding school he was enrolled in following a well-received essay he wrote. Miles wants to fulfill the expectations of his police officer father Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) and his nurse mother Rio Morales (Lauren Valez), but he looks to his beloved uncle Aaron Davis (Mahershala Ali) to encourage his creative side more than anyone else.

As you can expect, Miles also gets bitten by a radioactive spider and becomes the superhero he admires, Spider-Man, but he is of course not the least bit ready to take on such a part. Who would be anyway? But when the real Peter Parker is eliminated with extreme prejudice by Kingpin, Miles has no choice but to take his place even as he passes off the changes in his body as being a part of puberty. If such things were easily explainable, the realm of adolescence would be easier to live through.

Miles does however get help from Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), but being a Spider-Man from an alternate universe, he is not the equivalent of the one portrayed in previous movies by Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland. This Peter has gained a lot of weight and is hopelessly alone after a painful divorce from Mary Jane, and he is not quick to help Miles on the superhero journey he himself has taken, but he slowly becomes enamored at Miles’ spirit and determination to where he ends up helping him put an end to Kingpin’s evil and selfish reign.

With the many parallel universes exposed, we get introduced to the different incarnations of the webslinger which include Gwen Stacy and her spunky alter-ego Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), Peter Porker and the gleefully animated Spider-Ham (the hilarious John Mulaney), the young Japanese girl Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) who hails from an anime universe where she pilots a biochemical suit with a radioactive spider, and the dark and monochromatic Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage in a truly inspired voiceover). Seeing them all interact with one another here adds more heart and laughs to an already highly entertaining film.

The late Stan Lee, who does have an animated cameo here, once said Peter Parker should always be white, but that he wouldn’t have minded if the character were originally “black, a Latino, an Indian or anything else.” What this movie shows us is how anyone can be Spider-Man, and there’s something truly inspiring about that as superhero roles can at times feel ridiculously limited. It also helps that this animated movie comes on the heels of the brilliant “Black Panther” and “Wonder Woman” as the role of superhero is no longer, and never should have been, limited to one gender or ethnicity, and this was especially the case when it came to battling Thanos in “Avengers: Infinity War.”

I was not sure what to expect when walking into “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” as the thought of an animated “Spider-Man” seemed a little far-fetched and seemed like another attempt by Sony and Columbia Pictures to create a cinematic universe a la “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” and we all know how that one turned out. In a way it is satirical as it plays around with many comic book tropes and has fun dealing with the web-slinger at his best and worst. The filmmakers even take a hilarious dig at the character’s emo-dance from “Spider-Man 3” which Peter Parker is quick to distance himself from (can you blame him?).

But what makes this movie so good is how deeply it invests us in this particular Spider-Man’s life. Miles Morales is not just another Peter Parker clone as he still has his mom and dad, and he is forced to live in two different worlds the same way Amandla Stenberg’s character had to in “The Hate U Give.” While I have long since grown tired of origin movies which deal with a superhero’s beginning as we know they will eventually accept their anointed role, this one rings true emotionally as we watch Miles be understandably hesitant about becoming the next Spider-Man, but his transition from someone blaming his body changes on puberty to a young man eager to save his universe from the devious acts of Kingpin is never less than compelling.

It really feels great to see Spider-Man on a roll right now. Following the much-too-soon reboot known as “The Amazing Spider-Man,” the webslinger made a terrific rebound in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and had one of the most achingly emotional moments in the “Empire Strikes Back” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Avengers: Infinity War.” In a time where the franchises of “Star Trek” and “Halloween” seek to alter the timelines of their iconic characters to take things in another direction, it’ll be interesting to see where Spider-Man will go from here. “Spider-Man: Far from Home” is arriving in theaters next year, and I imagine we will see him again in “Avengers: Endgame.” Whatever the case, it puts a smile on my face to see Peter Parker and his alter-ego continue to be infinitely popular in pop culture as this is a hero blessed with super powers as well as with the foresight of the importance of responsibilities. Regardless of whoever takes on the role of Spider-Man, we come out of this movie with the solid belief said person will take it seriously, and we have to be thankful for that.

And yes, there are post-credit scenes for you to enjoy and, like “Once Upon a Deadpool,” this one features a thoughtful tribute to Stan Lee. May his legacy never be forgotten.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Once Upon a Deadpool’ Has Subversive Delights But Feels Largely Uneven

Once Upon a Deadpool poster

Well, it turns out we didn’t have to wait too long for another “Deadpool” movie to make its way to theaters everywhere. But as I’m sure you know by now, this is actually “Deadpool 2” rechristened as a Christmas movie and diluted down to a PG-13 rating, and it comes with the amusing title of “Once Upon a Deadpool.” This version comes with the added bonus of Wade Wilson/Deadpool reading the story of this sequel to Fred Savage who finds himself trapped in a painstakingly recreated set of his character’s bedroom from “The Princess Bride.” Is it worth the price of admission? Well, yes and no.

What makes this modified version of “Deadpool 2” worth seeing is the interplay between Ryan Reynolds and Savage who still looks like he has only aged so much from his child actor days. As much as Savage tries to convince Wade of how he has long since become an adult and, in addition to acting, also works as a writer and director. It’s also doesn’t help things that Wade has kidnapped Savage and taped him to the bed. But as Wade sees it, this is just “unsolicited location advancement.”

One thing “Once Upon a Deadpool” will forever make you remember is a certain comic book trope known as “fridging.” This refers to a female character, a girlfriend or spouse, getting killed off as a plot device to forward the main character’s actions and evolution. Many criticized “Deadpool 2” for being quick to kill off Wade’s girlfriend, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), as she was one of the most memorable characters from the original. This was complicated by the sequel’s co-writers, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, freely admitting they were never aware of this trope. Well, at least everyone credit here as Savage confronts Wade about this and describes it as “lazy writing.” Even now, he everyone involved in the “Deadpool” franchise is quick to have a sense of humor about the criticisms made about the movie. Whatever the writers’ intentions, it is good for a big laugh.

Even with a PG-13 rating, this revised version takes no prisoners as those in front of and behind the camera lay waste to Nickelback, the fact Deadpool is a Marvel character subsidized by 20th Century Fox and not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and of the number of F-bombs which can be included in a version, excluding of course the 4-letter words which are bleeped out. Then again, those bleeped out words may not be the ones you are thinking of.

As for Nickelback, I’m not sure if I have ever listened to any of their songs. All I know is everyone seems to think they suck. I wonder how they feel about all the derision they get for their music. Maybe the fact they are mentioned in this movie will raise their record sales a little. Remember, any publicity is good publicity.

In many ways, the whole of “Once Upon a Deadpool” is a send-up of the PG-13 rating in general. When you look at what is left of “Deadpool 2” after the removal of certain words and the copious amounts of blood, we are still left with a motion picture which is still pretty violent and features, among other things, characters getting run over by cars, Deadpool exploding into pieces, and T.J. Miller whom I figured would be removed from this version the same way Kevin Spacey was removed from “All the Money in the World.” Besides, we already know this actor will not be around for “Deadpool 3.”

This PG-13 rated version also serves as an amusing reminder of the hypocrisy of the MPAA as they are clearly more comfortable with violence than they are with sex. Imagine if there was a scene of Vanessa getting oral pleasure from Wade. The MPAA would flip over that more than any scene of ultra-violence this sequel has to offer and would be quick to give it an NC-17 for all the wrong reasons.

Having said all this, I have to say “Once Upon a Deadpool” is undone by this rating as scenes are excised and others added, and it throws off the whole rhythm of the film. The narrative feels severely uneven, and what was funny before now feels stilted and out of place this time around. “Deadpool 2” was one of the best times I had at the movies in 2018, but this version makes me wonder why I enjoyed it so much in the first place. If nothing else, it proves how the “Deadpool” movies work better in R-rated territory. When the first one came along, it was a cinematic grenade the realm of comic book/superhero movies needed as many of them were playing it safe. This made the first “Deadpool” all the more welcome as it shook things up and gave us something not all PC, but it was still filled with a lot of heart and taught everyone a great lesson about loving someone from the inside out and not the outside in.

So overall, “Once Upon a Deadpool” is a mixed bag. I loved the scenes between Savage and Reynolds as they add another subversive layer to the proceedings, but the rest of the movie feels off-balance. If you can handle that, then it is worth checking out, and a dollar from your ticket will be donated to the Fudge Cancer charity. It is actually known under another name, but again, we are in PG-13 territory and only so many F-bombs will be tolerated along with onscreen violence.

And yes, there are some enjoyable post-credit scenes to enjoy including an honorable tribute to the late Stan Lee. Yes, he was 95 years old, but he still left us way too soon.

* * ½ out of * * * *

 

‘Venom’ is a Mixed Bag But Never Boring

Venom movie poster

My feelings about “Venom” are decidedly mixed. On one hand, I came out of it thinking a better movie could have been made out of this material. On the other, I cannot deny I found what ended up onscreen to be very entertaining. There are times where I wanted filmmakers to realize how less is more and how silence can be golden, but you don’t go into a comic book movie like this expecting a Terrence Malick film, and its tagline of “the world has enough superheroes” serves as a way to make it stand out among others of its genre. With this one, we can expect a little more nastiness than usual, albeit of the PG-13 variety.

The character of Eddie Brock and his alter ego of Venom has been begging for a proper cinematic treatment ever since he made his debut in the highly disappointing “Spider-Man 3.” In that ill-fated sequel, Venom was introduced almost as an afterthought to where it seemed like the bosses at Sony and Columbia Pictures forced Sam Raimi to add the character into a movie which was already overflowing with them. Well, this time Venom gets his own movie which feels long overdue, and he is played by the great Tom Hardy who has played his share of larger than life characters to where he is right at home with this one.

“Venom” starts off like the average “Predator” movie does, with a spacecraft of some kind crashing down violently on planet Earth and introducing a foreign organism, in this case a symbiote, which will soon wreak havoc on humanity. This, however, doesn’t stop Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a brilliant inventor, from experimenting on them with the help of desperate human subjects who just want a place to sleep and food to eat.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to Eddie Brock, an investigative journalist who is infinitely determined to get to the truth no matter what the cost. Eddie has a nice apartment in the great city of San Francisco and a loving girlfriend in district attorney Anne Weying (Michelle Williams, who looks lovelier in each movie she appears in), but all of this disappears when he goes after Carlton in an effort to expose his corruption. But with greed taking precedence over ethics, Carlton succeeds in ruining Eddie’s life and gets him fired from his job, and Anne breaks up with him upon learning he got into her email which contained confidential information. It makes you want to smack Eddie for not realizing he could have clicked on the “mark as unread” button to cover his tracks.

“Venom” then moves to several months later where Eddie is now living by himself and lamenting his present state where, when someone asks if he is Eddie Brock, he responds he used to be, a cliché which has been used one too many times. However, he gets a chance to be an investigative reporter again when the ethical and concerned Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate) informs him of the experiments Carlton is doing with the alien symbiotes. But when Dora sneaks Eddie into the Life Foundation which Carlton oversees, he ends up getting infected by a symbiote and inherits superpowers no mere mortal can easily handle.

It takes a bit for “Venom” to get things going as the filmmakers are not quick to see Eddie get infected by a symbiote. Once he does get infected, it provides Hardy with an interesting acting challenge as he has to play someone inhabited by another personality. Steve Martin did this to perfection in “All of Me,” and it is never as easy as it looks. As Eddie struggles to maintain some semblance of sanity while Venom seeks to dominate his body and soul, Hardy illustrates this uneasy balance with believability and a good dose of humor. Seeing him dive into a lobster tank in a restaurant just to bring down his temperature is a gas, let alone watching him eat constantly and not look like he’s gaining weight.

I was also surprised at how good Hardy’s American accent is here. The trailers for “Venom,” which did not do this movie many favors, made Hardy’s accent sound bizarre and out of place, so it’s a relief to see him pull it off without any hitches. In addition, the actor provides a perfectly ominous voice for Venom which comes close to equaling the one he gave Bane, and it is fun to watch Hardy essentially talk to himself as he races through the streets of San Francisco and reaching heights Steve McQueen never did in “Bullitt.”

The story reflects present day events as we have watched the most ethical of reporters get hammered by certain people who have made the terms “fake news” and “alternative facts” unforgivably popular. Fake news may just be smoke, but for some it is thick enough to hide behind. It’s also interesting to see Riz Ahmed play his villainous character of Carlton Drake as if he were a variation on Elon Musk. Ahmed portrays Carlton not so much as an evil mastermind, but instead as someone whose ambition cannot be reigned in, and it gets to where all sense of morality is lost to him as he convinces himself he is the one to save humanity from certain destruction.

“Venom,” however, does get bogged down a bit by needless clichés which I could have done without. As we watch Eddie drink away his sorrows in a lonely bar, someone asks if he is Eddie Brock. His answer of “I used to be” is a piece of dialogue I have heard far too many times. After watching “The Predator” in which Shane Black laid waste to a number of action movies clichés, I came into this one hoping Ruben Fleischer, the director of “Zombieland,” would inject a bit more freshness into these proceedings than he did.

Also, is it just me, or does Scott Haze, who plays evil henchman Roland Treece, look like Billy Corgan? Haze doesn’t get much of a chance to make Roland more than the average bad guy, and I kept waiting for Eddie to tell Roland he liked him better as the lead singer of Smashing Pumpkins. No such luck though.

The movie climaxes in a chaotic fashion with loud noises and explosions, and there are a couple of post-credit scenes which do deserve your attention. One of those scenes promises a follow-up with a character who aims to be as brutal as his name. There’s also a kick ass theme song done by Eminem in which the artist continues to spit out rhymes at lightning speed, although it might have been cooler to see it put at the movie’s beginning instead of being played during the end credits. I also could have done with more of Jenny Slate in the movie. She disappears from it way too soon.

Again, I left “Venom” with mixed feelings as I felt a better version of this material could have been brought to the silver screen. Still, what I did see was never boring, and watching Tom Hardy taking on such an iconic role was alone worth the price of admission. How you feel about the movie may depend on how familiar are with this comic book character. I myself never really read many comic books as a kid, so I am unsure how the most die-hard of fans will react to this finished product. My hope is more of them will get a kick out of it than not, but they can be infinitely critical to no end.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’ Provides Marvel Fans with a Much-Needed Lightweight Adventure

Ant Man and the Wasp movie poster

After the one-two punch of “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War,” I figured the masterminds behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe would give themselves a break for the rest of 2018. Even “Deadpool 2,” which features a Marvel Comics character  not a part of the MCU (not yet anyway), showed how dominant these comic book/superhero movies are no matter which studio puts them out. Surely, Marvel Studios and Disney would want to keep themselves from oversaturating the market, right?

Well, now we have “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” a sequel which proves to be one of the MCU’s more lightweight adventures. Whereas “Avengers: Infinity War” was the “Empire Strikes Back” of this infinitely popular franchise, this one has a simple aim which is to entertain you and leave you laughing hysterically. It could not have come at a better time as us movie buffs are still recovering from the damage Thanos wrought on our heroes, and this one is removed from his wrath as it is keen to pick up things following the events of “Captain America: Civil War.”

After helping out Captain America to where he violated the Sokovia Accords, Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) has been placed under house arrest, and Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) have cut ties with him and gone into hiding. With only the occasional visit from his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) to keep to keep him company, his days are marked by loneliness and desperate attempts to keep himself entertained with various activities like drumming, karaoke and business meetings with his former cellmate and business partner Luis (Michael Pena).

As with any superhero movie, these characters have to deal with mommy and daddy issues because heaven forbid any superhero experiences a trauma-free childhood. It turns out Hope’s mother, Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) had partnered with Hank’s Ant-Man as the Wasp in the past, and she was later presumed dead after becoming trapped in the microscopic quantum realm after disabling a nuclear missile. Scott, however, receives a message from Janet who is still alive and, like Kevin Flynn in “Tron: Legacy” has long since been imprisoned in a realm which offers no easy escape. This forces him to team up with Hank and Hope, who is now the new Wasp, in an effort to rescue her, and it comes with the usual obstacles of bad guys and inescapable scientific facts.

The first thing I have to say about “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is how much I enjoyed the opening which has Scott going on a make-believe adventure with Cassie in his house as they have constructed a simple yet imaginative maze which they travel through with great enthusiasm. This scene reminded me of the wonderful imaginary worlds we created for ourselves as children, and it gets this sequel off to a terrific start as the filmmakers look to indulge in the same childlike imagination which they thankfully never outgrew.

The second thing worth pointing out is how this sequel is the first in the MCU to feature a female superhero in the movie’s title. While the DC Extended Universe can only catch up with the MCU in terms of quality and box office success, they are certainly ahead in terms of battling superhero sexism thanks to the brilliant “Wonder Woman.” It is only now Marvel is getting up to speed with the Wasp, and this is long overdue. It also helps how the Wasp is inhabited a pair of terrific actresses, Evangeline Lilly and Michelle Pfeiffer. Both provide this film with strong heroic characters who overcome their internal and external conflicts to make the world a better place for everyone including immigrants, legal and illegal.

Paul Rudd is one of the most likable dudes in the public eye right now, so it is hard to think of another actor who could inhabit Scott Lang to where we are more than willing to forgive his criminal trespasses. His wonderful sense of humor infects every scene to where he sneaks in jokes we do not see coming. Rudd also has a terrific moment where Scott’s body is inhabited by another, and it is almost as inspired as when Lilly Tomlin invaded Steve Martin’s body in “All of Me.” More power to you Mr. Rudd.

However, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is almost stolen from Rudd by Michael Pena who returns as Luis. After suffering through the cinematic misfire which was “CHiPS,” Pena gets to use his comedic talents to much better effect here as he speeds through his dialogue with crazy energy while his character gets to experience what it is like to be a superhero with great glee. He is a riot here as he is forced to confess to a wide series of events under duress, and seeing him paint a vivid, if not entirely accurate account, of things past, provides this sequel with fantastic moments.

This time, Ant-Man and his companions have not one, but two antagonists to deal with. One is Ava Starr, a.k.a. Ghost, who has the power to phase through objects which was the result of being afflicted with molecular instability. Ava is played by Hannah John-Kamen who creates a complex portrait of a person whose affliction was not of her own doing, and as someone who acts out of desperation as her life, which has been filled with more pain than pleasure, looks to be cut short. While her goals conflict with those of Ant-Man and the Wasp, Kamen makes us see how Ava can be devilish as well as a victim of circumstances, and she gives a very strong performance as a result.

The other antagonist is Sonny Burch, a black market criminal eager to exploit Hank Pym’s technology for his own benefit. Sonny is played with great relish by Walton Goggins who has shown a flair for delivering dialogue with a special panache in Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” and “Inglorious Basterds.” Goggins brings this same flair to “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” and it is fascinating to watch his portrayal throughout. Even as Sonny fumbles about in his attempts to steal what does not belong to him, I could not take my eyes off of Goggins as he makes this villain into more than what he must have seemed like on paper.

Peyton Reed, who directed “Ant-Man,” returns to the director’s chair for this sequel, and I got the feeling he had a little more fun here. No long burdened by having to portray this superhero’s origin story or the inescapable question of how the first movie would have turned out had Edgar Wright not walked away from it, Reed gets to indulge his inner child with “Ant-Man and the Wasp” to where this sequel could almost pass for a children’s movie. Having said that, there is plenty for adults to enjoy as we watch these characters battle the bad guys and change the size of things and themselves to an amazing degree. Are there lapses in logic? Sure, but who cares?

Many in Hollywood like to talk about counterprogramming as studios are always carefully looking at when they can release the smaller indie movies in the wake of all these big budget blockbusters. In a sense, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is Marvel’s way of counterprogramming against itself as it positions this sequel as an easy going alternative to “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Black Panther.” Whereas those two were among the biggest films in the MCU, this one is more like a nice rest stop where we can enjoy ourselves for a few hours and not worry too much about the other Avengers whose fates have yet to be permanently sealed. Some may consider this a disposable Marvel movie, but after ten years, it is clear how none of them can be the least bit disposable.

And yes, there are a couple of post-credit scenes, and if you are curious to see where this Marvel movie takes place in comparison to “Avengers: Infinity War,” one will answer this question in a way which will leave you with a great deal of anxiety. This anxiety ends up increasing with the movie’s coda which adds a question mark to the proceedings in the same way “Flash Gordon” did back in 1980. Yes, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is designed to be a fun time at the multiplex, but it is in no position to leave any of these Avengers off the hook.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

‘Deadpool 2’ Ups the Ante and Leaves You Begging for More

Deadpool 2 poster

I want to say that when “Deadpool” was released, it was a breath of fresh air in a time of endless comic book/superhero movies, but this description doesn’t do it justice. The air coming from the 2016 box office hit was filthy, and we loved how Ryan Reynolds, Tim Miller and company refused to play it safe with this Marvel Comics character to where a PG-13 rating just wasn’t going to do it for them. But in addition to being so gleefully profane, the movie also had a big heart as it ended with a message of loving someone inside and out instead of just admiring what is on the surface. If there ever was an R-rated movie for today’s teenagers to sneak into, “Deadpool” was it.

Now we finally have its long-awaited sequel, “Deadpool 2,” which was preceded for the longest time by a pair of jokey trailers which didn’t have much in the way of new footage, but instead put its wisecracking hero in situations which didn’t always put him in the best light, and we laughed our asses off all the same. Surely this sequel couldn’t match the inventiveness and comedic genius of the original, right?

Well, I am very happy to report that “Deadpool 2” proves to be just as funny and entertaining as its predecessor, and in some ways, I thought it was even better. While this one looked as though it would suffer from overkill as the recent “Kingsman” sequel did, everyone in front of and behind the camera keeps the energy level high and the laughs coming in rapid succession. With Reynolds constantly breaking the fourth wall and a plot which refuses to make clear right away of where this sequel is heading, I was never sure of what would come next. As a result, I could never take my eyes off the screen.

So, what has Wade Wilson/Deadpool been up to since his last expletive-laden adventure? Quite a bit actually, and it has thrust him into a realm of despair he doesn’t see himself escaping from. What ends up giving him a reason to live is helping to protect Russell Collins (“Hunt for the Wilder people’s” Julian Dennison), a young mutant who goes by the name of Firefist for reasons which become immediately clear to where Pyro’s penchant for lighting everything up pales in comparison. But in the process, they are both met by Nathan Summers/Cable (Josh Brolin), a time-traveling cybernetic mutant soldier who is looking to right a terrible wrong, and his main target might not be who you think.

The amount of pop culture references is countless in “Deadpool 2,” and you may need to watch this sequel twice to catch all of them. Right from the start, Wade wastes no time in skewering popular icons like Wolverine who made his swan song in last year’s “Logan.” From there, we watch as this particular comic book character lays waste to gangsters to the tune of Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” gleefully provides a spoof of the James Bond opening titles which include such classics as “directed by one of the guys who killed the dog in ‘John Wick,’” and he makes you look at Barbara Streisand’s song “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” from “Yentil” in a very unnerving way. Also, he is quick to call you out on obvious references such as a line from “Robocop,” and by that, I mean the original, not the remake. Whether it’s a good or bad guy you are talking about here, at least they have great taste in movies.

However, the laughs and action come at us so quickly in “Deadpool 2” to where it takes longer than usual to figure out what the movie’s main plot is. At times, it seems like the filmmakers are geared towards throwing jokes, action scenes and filthy jokes and the expense of an actual story, and it looks as though we won’t find a story until the third act. Even Wade at one point says if he and his newly-appointed X-Force achieve their goals, there won’t even need to be a third act. Of course, I was having too much with this sequel to criticize this point all that much, and a story does indeed emerge.

Reynolds has come a long way from his “Van Wilder” days to get to this point. He’s given memorable performances in “Buried” and “The Proposal,” but his career has been overshadowed by having starred in one of the worst comic book movies ever, “Green Lantern.” “Deadpool” served as his redemption for that cinematic misfire, and his dedication to staying true to Wade Wilson and his alter-ego has been commendable considering the ill-fated debut he made as this character in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” Watching Reynolds here is a reminder of what a gifted comedic actor he can be when given the right material, and it is impossible to picture anyone else in this role instead of him.

Tim Miller stepped out of the director’s chair for “Deadpool 2,” and in his place is David Leitch who assisted Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron in their path to ass-kicking glory in “John Wick” and “Atomic Blonde.” I was impressed at how he managed to keep this sequel’s energy and laugh quotient up and running throughout as I kept waiting for the whole thing to burst at the seams. It’s no surprise “Deadpool 2” lacks the freshness of the original, but it does have the same level of insane energy and even more to spare beyond it.

And there’s Josh Brolin who appears in his second Marvel movie in two months as Cable. Just as he did in “Avengers: Infinity War,” he gives this iconic comic book character a wounded humanity which makes especially complex and threatening throughout. Even when Cable undergoes a change of alliances which is almost as unbelievable as any in “The Fate of the Furious,” Brolin keeps a straight face throughout the proceedings which become increasingly over the top. It’s also great to see how Brolin has a good sense of humor about himself as he endures barbs relating to “The Goonies,” and looking at his scared face here made me want to say, “Who do you think you are, Thanos?”

It’s also nice to see a variety of new and familiar characters here like Karan Soni whose character of taxi driver Dopinder has developed a bit of a blood lust which Wade is not quick to take all that seriously. Stefan Kapičić gets a bit more to do as Colossus in this sequel as this character does what he can to make Wade a better person. The character of Peter, a regular person with no superpowers, is an inspired addition to this series, and I would love to have seen Rob Delaney play him in more scenes here. T.J. Miller also returns as bar owner and Wade’s best friend, Weasel, but considering his penchant for making fake bomb threats, I believe this will be the last time we see him in this role.

Deadpool 2” could have been too much of a good thing, but I had so much fun with it to where it didn’t matter if it was. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard at a movie, and it is nice to watch a movie where the jokes hit far more often than they miss. Reynolds, like Ben Affleck, have a strong sense of humor about his past mistakes in the world of cinema, and its fun seeing a movie star crack a few laughs at their own expense However, I am curious as to why he did not lay waste to “Blade: Trinity.” That misbegotten sequel was every bit as bad as “Green Lantern.”

And as always, be prepared for a post-credit sequence which is by the funniest of its kind since “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” It is too damn hilarious to spoil here, and you have got to see it for yourself.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Avengers: Infinity War’

Avengers Infinity War poster

You know how many advertisements for movies say how “everything has led to this” from time to time? Well, for once, this statement makes perfect sense with “Avengers: Infinity War” which is, thus far, the biggest Marvel Cinematic Universe movie yet as it gives us their most threatening foe yet in Thanos. This particular Marvel character, an intergalactic despot from the planet Titan, has been hinted at in post-credit sequences from Marvel movies past, and now he is here to take center stage in a never-ending franchise which typically sees its greatest heroes get the majority of attention.

Thanos longs to get his hands on the Infinity Stones, six incredibly powerful, not to mention beautiful, gems which will allow him to impose his will on all of reality. Clearly, this is a character determined to gain unlimited power at any cost, and he is determined to re-balance the universe in the process. Thanos is looking to create his own version of Year Zero, and this means many characters will die whether we want them to or not.

Not only does “Avengers: Infinity War” arrive with a wealth of anticipation and expectations, but we also come into it with a sense of dread as we know some of our favorite characters may not survive this particular adventure. Then again, these Marvel movies do exist within the science fiction genre, and you can never be sure if anyone can ever truly stay dead. Spock died in “Star Trek II,” but he did come back to life in “Star Trek III.” Knowing “Avengers: Infinity War” will get a sequel, I can’t help but believe we will see some of these superheroes again. Besides, many of them have sequels in pre-production, so their fate is not exactly sealed. Who will live and die for certain? Well, we will find this out in the summer of 2019.

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo, both responsible for the “Captain America” sequels which rank among the best of the MCU, have a near impossible task with this “Avengers” movie as it features dozens upon dozens of main characters we have been introduced to in the past. The fact these characters are not all equally represented here is not a surprise, but what surprised me was how well the Russos were able to balance things out to where it felt like everyone had a good dose of representation throughout. Perhaps certain characters get more screen time than others, but I was too wrapped up with what was going on to really analyze this movie all too closely.

It is also worth noting how while these characters all inhabit the same cinematic universe, they do exist on different tonal levels. Some Marvel movies like “Iron Man” and “Thor” have their moments of levity, but they are generally serious adventures as their heroes are faced with obstacles both physical and psychological. Then again, there is “Guardians of the Galaxy” which came out at a time where Marvel movies in general were threatening to become as deadly serious as anything coming out of the DC Comics Extended Universe. James Gunn’s film of Peter Quill and his merry band of Han Solo-like bandits proved to be a comedic blast from start to finish, and it proved to be much lighter than the average superhero/comic book movie.

I bring this up because “Avengers: Infinity War” could have ended up being a very uneven motion picture in terms of tone as John Krasinski’s “The Hollars” was (granted, Krasinski did score a rebound with “A Quiet Place,” but still). The Russos, however, make everything blend together in a satisfying way to where nothing felt completely off-balance, and this is very commendable.

The way I see it “Avengers: Infinity War” gets off to a good start, but things feel just a little bit off to where this movie threatens to be more episodic than its filmmakers intended. But as it goes on, things improve to where the Avengers are given a real depth which reminds us they are as vulnerable as anyone else. Sure, they may be endowed with tremendous powers, but when faced with their greatest foe, they become as mortal as anyone else, and this makes their latest adventure all the more perilous.

There are many performances worth noting here, and this Marvel movie is overflowing with strong ones which would take forever to point out. Robert Downey Jr. continues to revel in the evolution Tony Stark/Iron Man as he gives his most soulful performance yet as this iconic comic character which got the MCU off to such a strong start. Zoe Saldana gets to take Gamora to an even more epic level as her character has a much closer relationship to Thanos than she would like to admit. The same goes for Chris Pratt who, as Peter Quill/Star Lord, finds even more depth than in the previous “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies to where it makes me look forward to the third movie in that franchise more than ever before.

But the one performance worth singling out above all others is Josh Brolin’s as Thanos. This could have been the typical one-dimensional antagonist bent on obtaining the most power any individual could ever obtain, but the “No Country for Old Men” actor makes him into an almost tragic figure who has yet to discover what price he has to pay for his quest for power, and it is a heavier one than he could ever expected. As a result, Brolin forces this character into the center stage in a way audiences could not have easily expected, and the final scene he has is a frightening reminder of the prominence Thanos has in the realm of Marvel Comics. Seeing this makes me believe no other actor could have portrayed Thanos as effectively as Brolin does here.

“Avengers: Infinity War” ends on a cliffhanger, and it feels like a bold move on the part of the Russo brothers and Marvel Studios to do so as it concludes on a note which truly left me breathless. We do get the typical post-credits sequence and the message of how so-and-so will return, but both these things take on a different meaning to where you almost wish this Marvel movie ended without them. In a year from now we will see the follow up to “Infinity War,” but until then we will be reminded of how our heroes will not always be there for us. Can they return for another round? We have yet to find out.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Iron Man 3’ Fares Better Than the Average Threequel

Iron Man 3 poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2013.

Robert Downey, Jr. is back as Tony Stark/Iron Man in “Iron Man 3” which finally made its way to movie theatres after an endless advertising blitz. Then again, it hasn’t been long since we last saw him as he was in “The Avengers” which came out last summer. It makes you wonder if Downey, Jr. might be getting a little sick of playing Tony Stark and his alter ego as this role has monopolized his time over the past few years. But in “Iron Man 3,” the actor finds a fresh way to portray this iconic comic book character as he becomes afflicted by something I know more about than I would ever care to: panic attacks.

That’s right, ever since his near-death experience in “The Avengers,” Stark has been having serious anxiety problems and is constantly worried he won’t be able to protect the love of his life, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). But there’s an even bigger problem on the horizon for him and it comes in the form of The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), an unrepentant terrorist who leads an international terrorist organization known as The Ten Rings. The Mandarin is out to punish America and its President, Ellis (William Sadler), for their crimes against humanity, and also for trying to adopt Chinese culture in such a ridiculously fake way.

In addition, Stark has to deal with his ex-flame Dr. Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) and Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a scientist he arrogantly rebuffed back in 1999. In the present, Killian has become a brilliant scientist who has developed the Extremis virus which cured him of his own physical disabilities, and we soon find it also gives those exposed to it superhuman strength and the power to generate extreme heat. Will it be used as a weapon for bad against good? Is this a superhero movie?

The big news about “Iron Man 3” is Jon Favreau who directed the last two installments has stepped out of the director’s chair, and in his place is Shane Black, the same man who wrote the screenplays for “Lethal Weapon,” “The Last Boy Scout,” “The Long Kiss Goodnight” and who eventually directed one of his screenplays with “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” Black seems like an unusual choice to helm a summer blockbuster, but the change in directors proves to be a good thing as Black focuses on character as much as he does on the spectacle. It’s a darker entry than the last two films, but Black still injects a lot of humor into the proceedings.

Now where “The Dark Knight Rises” was more about Bruce Wayne than it was about Batman, “Iron Man 3” is more about Tony Stark than his alter ego. In fact, we don’t see Iron Man in action as much as we did previously or in “The Avengers” for that matter. Some might see this as a serious flaw, but I think it benefits the story greatly. Being Iron Man has become a serious addiction for Stark to where he can’t sleep and function normally unless he’s working on one of his darn suits, and he’s never been the easiest guy to be around. Clark Kent and Peter Parker struggled greatly with their alter egos, but Stark’s position proves to be far more precarious.

Downey, Jr. could almost walk his way through this iconic role of his, but he still captures the different sides of Tony Stark beautifully. Even when he is a bit too dismissive to 10-year old Harley (Ty Simpkins), we still love the actor to death. Come to think of it, is there another actor in Hollywood who can make arrogance look sexier than Downey, Jr.? I think not.

Kingsley is the kind of actor who can play any role, and this has been the case for a long time. As The Mandarin, he creates an ominous presence in “Iron Man 3” which makes you believe he can be a nasty threat anywhere and everywhere. My only frustration with him was, even before I saw this sequel, I knew he wouldn’t be able to top the most malevolent prick he has ever brought to life in the movies: Don Logan from “Sexy Beast.” Then again, when “Iron Man 3” reaches a certain point, it becomes very clear why this is the case.

Pearce can go from playing a good guy to a bad guy with relative ease, but his last few movies have had him portraying the slimiest of villains (check out his performance in “Lawless”). He succeeds in making Aldrich Killian both an unfortunate victim and a selfish bastard all in one, and you have to give Black and his co-screenwriter Drew Pearce credit for giving us more than your one-dimensional baddie. Pearce always knows how to create a nemesis we just love to despise.

Paltrow gets her biggest role yet in the “Iron Man” franchise this time around, and I could tell you why but this would be giving away far too much. The important thing is she looks to be having a blast playing Pepper Potts this time around, and her fun is contagious.

Hall is, as always, a very appealing presence, and she is terrific as Dr. Maya Hansen. James Dale Badge makes Eric Savin, one of The Mandarin’s henchman, a ruthless bastard you want to see taken down ASAP. William Sadler seems like an unlikely choice to play the President of the United States after seeing him play the bad guy in “Die Hard 2” and the Grim Reaper in “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey,” but he sells himself in the role with no problems. And while I still miss Terence Howard as Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes, Don Cheadle still gives an excellent performance as that character.

Everyone who reads my reviews knows I usually expect the third movie in a trilogy to be the one which destroys a franchise, but “Iron Man 3” doesn’t do that. I liked it more than “Iron Man 2” which had far too much going on in it, and the change in directors serves this franchise well. Black has made an entertaining and compelling film which brings closure to this particular Marvel Studios trilogy. But then again, it’s highly unlikely this will be the last time we’ll see Downey, Jr. as Iron Man.

As always, be sure to stay through the end credits for the return of another Marvel Comics character.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

‘Iron Man 2’ is Overloaded but Still a lot of Fun

Iron Man 2 poster

It was too easy to expect “Iron Man 2” to be better than the original. Many comic book movie sequels in recent years have blown away their predecessors to where you struggle to remember what the previous films were about. “Spider-Man 2,” “X-Men 2,” “Blade II” and “The Dark Knight” made us believe it was mandatory for sequels to be more enthralling because all the origin stuff was finally out of the way to where things could become a whole lot more interesting.

I was worried “Iron Man 2” would end up being like “Spider-Man 3,” a film whose massive disappointment still irks me years after its release. That sequel had far too much going on in it to where I quickly lost interest, and it was such a comedown from the brilliant “Spider-Man 2.” You’d hope the filmmakers and studios would remember how these movies do best with just one villain for the superhero to deal with. Sometimes you can get away with two, but you may be asking for trouble if you go beyond that.

With that said, “Iron Man 2” is still a lot of fun. Regardless of the flaws and clichés this time around, it is still the kind of experience you hope to have with a summer movie like this. Director Jon Favreau is back as is the always entertaining Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, whose heroics prove to be every bit as big as his ego.

This sequel starts six months after Tony has come out to the world as Iron Man, feeling no need to disguise himself in some geeky disguise like Clark Kent or Peter Parker. He makes a grand entrance at the Stark Expo which has since been relocated to Flushing, New York, and he resists the urge to make his technology available to the U.S. military. Regardless of the demands of smarmy Senator Stern (Gary Shandling is great fun to watch here) to make Tony turn over the Iron Man suit over to him, Tony stands confident in telling everyone he has successfully privatized world peace.

As always, success breeds enemies, and you can only go so high before you get knocked off your pedestal. The vicious knock down comes from Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a deeply embittered and heavily tattooed Soviet physicist who is led by his father to believe Tony’s father, Howard Stark, had betrayed him by deporting him from America. Ivan eventually puts together his own arc reactor which allows him to use these electrified whips to inflict serious damage on objects and especially humans foolish enough to come within 20 feet of him. Clearly, Ivan has spent at least a decade in prison, and he has tattoos covering just about every section of his body. It made me think about what Robert Mitchum said about Max Cady in the “Cape Fear” remake:

“Jesus! I don’t know whether to look at him or read him!”

Rourke is a lot of fun to watch in this role which has him doing a pretty good Russian accent, and it’s a vast improvement over the crazy Irish brogue he tried to pull off in “A Prayer for The Dying.” Like the best actors, he focuses on the pain which drives his character, giving us something much greater and more fearsome than your typical one-dimensional villain. The only downside of his performance is that we don’t get to see enough of him. After one great fight scene on a race trick, we have to wait for Ivan’s electric whipping act to return in the film’s final act. Still, this is Rourke we’re talking about, and he gives it his all here like he did in “The Wrestler.” If there is one thing which hasn’t changed, it’s that Rourke still plays characters who never take the time to shampoo their hair.

Tony’s other chief nemesis is Justin Hammer, a business rival looking to create his own line of Iron Man suits since Tony is unwilling to share his. Plus, Hammer is looking to get into the Pentagon, a place Stark cannot see himself partying at. Hammer is played Sam Rockwell who provides a good dose of comic relief while still giving his character a nasty edge. You can feel the relentless resentment Hammer has for Stark and how it spills over into bringing Ivan on board not so much out of respect, but as a chance to tear down the empire Stark Industries has built up over the years. Rockwell continues to be one of the most interesting actors working today, and I loved how he tried to mimic Tony’s dance onto the stage at his own show to little avail.

The other big addition to “Iron Man 2” is Scarlett Johansson who plays Natalie Rushman, Tony’s new personal assistant. But eventually she is revealed to be a spy for S.H.I.E.L.D. named Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow who is flexible in ways her enemies only wish they were. The coolest fight scenes in “Iron Man 2” belong to Johansson, and she dominates the screen every time she’s onscreen. Her cool confidence combines with an irresistible sexiness. Like Rourke, she is underused here, but she is fantastic to watch throughout.

And of course, we have returning characters such as Pepper Potts played by Gwyneth Paltrow, and Pepper ends up inheriting more responsibilities such as becoming the new CEO of Stark Industries. Samuel L. Jackson is also back as Nick Fury, having appeared in the post credits sequence of “Iron Man.”

Also returning to Tony’s side is Lt. Col. James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes, only this time he’s played by Don Cheadle. Cheadle is a fantastic actor and it is fun to see Rhodey try on one of those Iron Man suits, but I miss Terence Howard in the role. Howard brought a gravity to Rhodes which balanced out perfectly with Stark’s uncontainably egocentric personality. It’s no fault of Cheadle’s that Rhodes is not as strong a character this time around.

Watching “Iron Man 2” quickly reminded me of how good the first one was. Yes, it was an origin movie, but it was also one of the better ones in how fresh it felt and of how invested it was in the characters as well as special effects, something other summer blockbusters could learn from. We were left wanting more, but we also didn’t leave the theater feeling partially or completely unfulfilled. “Iron Man” left us patiently waiting for the sequel instead of craving for it in record time. Considering how good the first one was, we wanted the filmmakers to make as good a follow up as humanly possible.

“Iron Man 2,” however, is somewhat undone by putting too much into one movie. There are too many characters and bad guys here to where some don’t get enough of a chance to develop into something more interesting than usual. But Favreau keeps everything moving at a swift pace, and the cast is perfectly chosen as each one gets their moment to shine and bring their own uniqueness to their character.

But the one guy who really holds this franchise together is Downey Jr., and not once does he try to compromise Tony Stark/Iron Man and make him easily likable. Whenever Tony ends up acting like a jerk, we know what fuels his character; a despair over knowing how that the thing which saved him may also kill him sooner than he would prefer. I’m also thrilled he didn’t turn Tony into another superhero who constantly whines about the responsibilities they are forced to deal with. Tony wants all those responsibilities, and you know that with Downey Jr. playing the role, he will never shy away from what is expected of him.

I’m glad to say “Iron Man 2” is no “Spider-Man 3” thank goodness, but it could have been had Favreau and company not kept things going at the right pace. In the future, let’s hope Marvel sticks with one villain instead of two or more as it will make for a more effective motion picture. Still, all we ask from a summer movie like this is for it to be a lot of fun, and this one gives audiences a very entertaining ride.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Iron Man’ Got the Marvel Cinematic Universe Off to a Strong Start

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The 2008 summer movie season started off with a bang with the long-awaited release of “Iron Man” which starred Robert Downey Jr. as the egocentric weapons maker turned world protector, Tony Stark. It also marked the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe which brought its many characters to the silver screen with great success, and this one still remains one of the best to come out of it.

“Iron Man” starts with Tony traveling through the Afghanistan desert with a military convoy that gets attacked by terrorists. Tony flees the hummer transporting him and almost gets killed by one of the missiles he designed. When he comes to, he is being held captive in a cave and kept alive by an electromagnet attached to his torso which keeps the shrapnel inside his body from going to his heart. The terrorists, led by Raza (Faran Tahir), force Tony to build them one of his most destructive missiles on pain of death, but he instead takes the parts they give him and creates a bulletproof suit which allows him to escape in spectacular fashion.

When he gets back to America, he has a press conference where he states he will turn his company from a weapon making factory into one that doesn’t promote endless destruction. Having seen the damage he has done to others, he is now determined to protect those from the weapons he created. As for the iron suit which saved his life, he works at perfecting it into something strong and indestructible. On top of giving him the ability to fly, it also allows him to get back at those who took advantage of his destructive creations.

“Iron Man” is a tricky movie to make because it is the type meant to set up this particular superhero and then move on to the inevitable sequels which never come out soon enough. It is a credit to director Jon Favreau that the characters are as interesting as the action is exciting. Unlike other comic book adaptations, this story feels much more grounded in reality and doesn’t have characters that don’t seem real. Unlike Peter Parker in “Spider-Man 3,” here we have a superhero who doesn’t waste his time feeling sorry for himself on a regular basis.

But the real masterstroke of “Iron Man” is the casting of Downey Jr. as Tony Stark. He is without a doubt one of the best actors working in movies today, and it is impossible to picture anyone else in this role. When he first appears, he clearly acts like the man Weird Al Yankovic sang about in “I’m Such a Groovy Guy.” Both brilliant and sexy, it’s tempting to believe Downey Jr. is playing himself, but that assumption would be unfair. He makes Tony’s transition from selfish egomaniac to world protector almost seamless and never less than believable. Inside that cool and ever so confident exterior, there lies a man who is taking his life and company in a direction which may completely kill it.

Seriously, Tony is one of coolest comic book heroes to appear in movies for the longest time. Most of the comic book heroes we have grown up with are emotional wrecks and understandably so. Batman saw his parents murdered in front of him, Superman only got to see his parents at that Crystal Palace as he lost his human father earlier than he should have, and Spider-Man lost his uncle when he was murdered. But Tony isn’t necessarily waylaid by emotional disasters the way those characters were. While many of us want to spit on those who look like they had everything handed to them on a silver platter, Tony more than earns his place in society and you never doubt his abilities to create extraordinary things.

Also, Tony has quite the lifestyle most guys envy. He has one hell of a mansion up in the hills of Malibu that has the most incredible view, and his personal jet is equipped with a pole that comes out of the floor for his very lovely stewardesses to take advantage of. I saw this movie in a theater with some friends of mine, and one of them leaned over to me and said, “This is the only way to live!”

In retrospect, this character is a relief after watching those other male superheroes who turn into whiny crybabies that remind me too much of myself. Female superheroes don’t fall into this category much, so that should make you wonder which gender is truly the stronger one.

The rest of the “Iron Man” cast is perfectly chosen. When the movie came out, Jeff Bridges was one of the most underappreciated actors working in movies (this has since changed). His character of Obadiah Stane, one of the main heads of Stark Industries, is a slimy corporate executive whose outer exterior projects a man of kindness and trust Tony relies on. That trust is utterly betrayed when Obadiah files an injunction against Stark to gain control of his company and put it back in the direction it was going before Stark started changing his ways.

Unlike Tony, Obadiah has no creativity or brilliance to rely on. All he has are selfish desires and a misplaced loyalty to Stark’s father who helped build the world’s first atomic bomb. Although he has the makings of another villain whose sole interest is world domination, Obadiah represents those who are too easily threatened by the winds of change. Bridges, like Downey Jr., gives Obadiah dimensions you wouldn’t necessarily expect a character like this to have. This is not just some one-dimensional bad guy like others, and it is a credit to Bridges’ brilliance that he makes this very clear.

Also, on board is Gwyneth Paltrow who is a wonderful presence as Tony’s longtime assistant, Virginia “Pepper” Potts. While it might seem weird for her to play someone’s assistant, she imbues Pepper with beauty, smarts, intelligence and heart which Tony more than depends on his life for. She also shares great chemistry with Downey Jr., and their relationship is key as those inevitable sequels would prove. Paltrow also has one of the movie’s best lines as she meets up with a Vanity Fair writer Tony made out with the night before:

“So, you just spend your time taking care of everything Tony asks you to do?

“I take care of all duties that Tony asks of me to do. That includes taking out the garbage.”

We also have Terence Howard as Tony’s military consultant and close friend, Jim Rhodes. Jim is the one who tries to keep Tony grounded in reality, but he never quite succeeds. Howard is great here if he a bit underused here, and this is the second movie I have seen where he plays a character constantly giving press conferences (“The Brave One” was the other one).

The movie has many great action scenes which you come out of feeling justified in saying, “that’s cool man!” When Iron Man fights off terrorists in a war-torn country, he finds very creative ways to dispatch his enemies that are too good to reveal here. Also, there are scenes where Tony is testing out different parts of the suit. This can usually be seen as the boring set up part for the superhero, but these moments make you jump out of your seat because you find yourself laughing harder than you usually do.

With “Iron Man,” Downey Jr. who gives us something more than the average super hero. He gives us one with brains, smarts and, most importantly, a soul. It doesn’t matter if you have great special effects if you don’t have the story or the characters to match up with it. “Iron Man” has that, and it set the bar high for the comic book movies which followed in its wake.

* * * ½ out of * * * *