‘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 * * * *

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‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ Gives the Web-Slinger a New Lease on Life

Spiderman Homecoming poster

The thought of another “Spider-Man” reboot had me rolling my eyes as this comic book character has already gotten through one too many versions already. But after watching Tom Holland portray him in “Captain America: Civil War,” I found myself getting excited about where the character could go from there. So, it’s my relief and delight to tell you all that “Spider-Man: Homecoming” proved to be a really good movie which successfully breathes new life into a franchise suffering from misdirection and too many chefs in the kitchen. With Holland, we also get the best incarnation of Spider-Man/Peter Parker yet as he gives the role a spirited turn full of youthful energy and boundless enthusiasm.

Director Jon Watts and the screenwriters, too many to name here, wisely avoid regurgitating Peter Parker’s origin story the way “The Amazing Spider-Man” did, and they instead hit the ground running. Peter has received a new Spidey suit courtesy of Tony Stark (the always welcome Robert Downey Jr.), but he is not quick to welcome Peter into the Avengers fold. Instead, Peter has to spend his days at high school like any other teenager and with his equally intelligent best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon). But when a new villain who even the Avengers don’t see coming called the Vulture starts wreaking havoc in Queens, New York, Peter finds himself too impatient to just sit on the sidelines and let him get away with his felonious deeds.

Holland really hits it out of the park here, and his boundless enthusiasm is set up perfectly through a home movie Peter Parker makes which encapsulates his time with the Avengers and battling Captain America. While the character remains the conflicted superhero who has trouble balancing out his school life with his crime stopping job, Holland makes the role his own and brings such an infectious spirit which makes the proceedings endlessly entertaining. Whereas Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield made Spider-Man too emo for his own good, Holland doesn’t go the same route, and his interpretation is much closer to the character we grew up reading in the comic books. I was frightened he might become too enthusiastic for Spider-Man’s own good, but his performance never becomes ingratiating and he also shows us a vulnerability which feels genuine and not easily achieved.

Of course, comic book movies need a good villain, and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” has one and, thank goodness, only one. The Vulture is an interesting choice as the person who inhabits him, Adrian Toomes, is as regular a guy as Peter Parker is a regular kid. Adrian is not so much a bad guy as he is a man who feels betrayed and left behind by those who have it all. His belief is that those in power couldn’t care less about the little man or anything he could possibly contribute to society, so he does many villainous things for his own benefit. But unlike many James Bond villains, he is not out for world domination. He just wants to provide for his family like any parent does.

It is a great pleasure to see Michael Keaton return to the world of comic book movies, and he arrives here just as “Batman Returns” celebrates its 25th anniversary. As Adrian Toomes/The Vulture, Keaton renders him into someone all too human even as he lays waste to Queens, New York and anyone foolish enough to get in his way. Even as the character sinks deeper and deeper into the criminal life, Keaton gives Vulture a humanity, albeit a corrupted one, which makes him seem more threatening and morally complex.

The rest of the cast is excellent, and it’s great to see Jon Favreau here as Happy Hogan gets more screen time here than he has in previous Marvel movies. One of the last scenes he shares with Holland is especially good as Hogan comes to see just how much attention he really should have paid to Peter. Downey Jr. continues to bring a sharp attitude to Tony Stark/Iron Man, but he also allows the character to evolve as Tony finds himself becoming a father figure to Peter, albeit a reluctant one. Even Chris Evans shows up in a cameo as Steve Rogers/Captain America, and he steals every scene he is in.

There has been a lot of talk of how Marisa Tomei was too young to play May Parker in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” but that’s ridiculous. If May Parker is the sister to Peter’s mother, she wouldn’t be as old as Rosemary Harris now, would she? Either way, she brings a wonderful sass to this role, and she remains an enormously gifted actress after all these years. All the same, I wished we got to see more of her here as she has a wonderful chemistry in her scenes with Holland. I kept waiting for Tomei to be the Yoda to Holland just as Harris was to Tobey Maguire, but I guess we will see this come about in the inevitable sequel.

Watts previously directed “Cop Car” which was about two young kids who steal a police car from a corrupt sheriff. Essentially, that movie was about kids getting into the kind of trouble they would be smart to avoid, and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” has the same thing going on. Peter eventually comes to see he is in over his head to where Tony has to take away his Spidey suit. This sets up the third part of the movie where Peter has to see there is more to being a superhero than having a really cool suit. With great power does come great responsibilities, but this Spider-Man comes to see how great power needs to come from within as it cannot simply be co-dependent on nifty gadgets.

Some of the action scenes are a little too frenetic to where it’s hard to tell what is going on, and I was hoping for a little more in the way of emotional gravitas which highlighted Raimi’s first two “Spider-Man” movies. Still, it is a surprise to see how wonderfully inventive “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is as it gives us what appears to be a formulaic story, and yet it keeps giving us one surprise after another, all of which are too clever to spoil here. Just when you think you know how things will play out, the script veers in another direction you don’t see coming, and it makes the movie more interesting as the conflicts become increasingly intense.

I came into “Spider-Man: Homecoming” believing it could never top “Spider-Man 2” which has earned its place among the best comic book/superhero movies of all time. This one doesn’t, but it lands at number two among the “Spider-Man” movies as it is endlessly entertaining and wonderfully cast. My hat is off to the filmmakers for breathing new life into this franchise during a summer where so many others are suffering from fatigue, and I am infinitely eager to see where Spider-Man will go from here. For now, Columbia Pictures appears to have learned from the mistakes made with “Spider-Man 3” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” as this iteration is neither an overstuffed bird or a 2-hour long trailer for movies which never materialized. Here’s hoping the filmmakers keep from making those same mistakes in future installments.

And yes, there are two post-credit sequences, and both are worth sitting through the end credits to get to. The second one is priceless and brilliant. Trust me, you’ll see.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

Captain America: Civil War

Captain America Civil War poster

It’s tempting to call this latest Marvel movie “31 short films about The Avengers” as “Captain America: Civil War” manages to cram in so many characters and various storylines into its nearly two and a half hour running in a way which has one wondering why it didn’t burst at the seams. But despite that, it still works as directors Anthony and Joe Russo (who also helmed the superb “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”) manage to balance everything out as they combine tremendous superhero action scenes with thought provoking storylines. Whereas “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” didn’t leave much of an aftertaste, “Civil War” proves to be one of Marvel Studios best offerings to date.

Actually, this really should be called “The Avengers Part 2.5” as many of the Avengers are reunited here with the exception of the Hulk, Thor and Nick Fury. “Civil War” starts off a year after “Age of Ultron” as Captain America and company take on the bad guys but, as usual, cause a lot of collateral damage in the process. As a result, U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) informs them the United Nations are working to establish a panel which will oversee and control The Avengers from here on out. Because of these superheroes’ activities, it’s a good guess many insurance companies went bankrupt while cleaning up what’s left of their mess.

What’s interesting about this is the dynamic it sets up between each superhero character. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is quick to accept this accord as he is still smarting from his creation of Ultron and the destruction caused in Sokovia. However, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) refuses to sign on as he feels any government interference will hinder what he sees as the right thing to do. This sets up an interesting conundrum as the need to control the Avengers is understandable, but with limits set on what they can and cannot do, this could severely affect their ability to save the world, and we know they will need to save it again sooner rather than later.

In the midst of all this, the United Nations building is bombed and the chief suspect is revealed to be Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). But Steve remembers the last time he saw Bucky up close and isn’t sure he’s the evil man everyone else sees him as, and he becomes determined to bring in Bucky himself. But as the movie’s trailers have shown, this will soon erupt into a major conflict for the Avengers as they are forced to take sides to where alliances may be torn apart forever.

We have been submerged in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since 2008 when “Iron Man” was released, and the filmmakers have smartly allowed the characters to evolve from one movie to the next. As much as this is Captain America’s movie, it is also Iron Man’s as we watch his alter ego Tony Stark change his ways, to a certain extent anyway, as he believes the Avengers have done a lot of bad things in the process of saving the world. While he still thinks all too highly of himself, Tony believes the team does need some supervision in order to keep it in line, and this is something he never would have suggested in the previous “Iron Man” movies.

When “Captain America: The First Avenger” first came out in 2011, many expected that the character would be the dullest Avenger as the comics showed him to be a straight arrow and overly patriotic. But with “The Winter Soldier” and “Civil War,” Captain America has become the most interesting character in this cinematic universe as his morality remains strong and unbreakable. A lot of that is thanks to Evans who invests the character with an unshakable pride and thoughtfulness which makes Steve Rogers more authentically heroic than other superheroes currently occupying your local multiplex.

In addition to Iron Man, the other Avengers who turn up include Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie), James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), Vision (Paul Bettany), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd). The Russo brothers are smart not to waste time introducing these characters as we have long since gotten to know them and need no explanation as to who they are. It’s great to see them here, and the actors portraying them continue to do excellent work.

As for the new superheroes in “Civil War,” each makes a memorable impression. Chadwick Boseman comes onboard as T’Challa, prince of the African nation of Wakanda who is later revealed to be Black Panther. Boseman imbues his character with a wounded pride which threatens to get the best of him, and he ends up in the middle of the Avengers’ conflict to where he might lose himself in anger and bitterness. The wonderful Elisabeth Olsen also shows up as Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch whose powers include harnessing magic and engaging in hypnosis and telekinesis. Olsen shows us a superhero slowly coming into her own as she is conflicted on how to use the abilities she has been gifted, or perhaps cursed, with, and she makes the character both flawed and sympathetic.

But make no mistake, the big addition in “Civil War” is Peter Parker and his beloved alter-ego of Spider-Man. After the abominable cinematic mess that was “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” the character has been rebooted yet again, but this time it may prove to be a good thing. Tom Holland now takes on the role of this web slinger and, like Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield before him, succeeds in making it his own as he creates a character who is wonderfully cheeky and super enthusiastic. Spider-Man isn’t onscreen a whole lot, but Holland is a big delight as he leaps all over the place with great abandon. Suffice to say, this bodes very well for this character’s future.

“Captain America: Civil War” is what “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice” promised but failed to be: a riveting motion picture featuring two superheroes who are prepared to fight to the death. It is also an improvement over “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” which, while not bad, failed to live up to expectations. The Russo brothers revel in showing these superheroes doing battle with one another, and they also provide them with a dramatic scenario which will forever test their relationships. I can’t wait to see how the events here will affect the next Marvel movie as the cinematic universe now enters a new phase which looks to be more interesting than what came before. Captain America and Iron Man don’t have mothers named Martha, so it may take a lot for them to get back on the same page.

* * * ½ out of * * * *