Iron Man 2 Verdict

A highly enjoyable flick.  Not quite as tight as the first one was, but it definitely didn’t jump the shark.  The two-villains thing works fine when one villain is paying the other, rather than a cheesy team-up.   And the Black Widow wasn’t so much a love interest as an extra special effect that flirted with Tony Stark and did some secret-agent ass-kicking.  So most of my fears proved to be unfounded.

Of films of the man-pain genre, it’s one of the better ones.  The fact that Tony Stark is dying from the start of the movie gives him a deeper reason for his man-pain and makes some of his more extreme acting-out seem a bit more reasonable.  There’s just a touch of the Demon in a Bottle story from the comic, and the  scene where Tony gets drunk in the Iron Man suit is well-executed and quite appropriately uncomfortable.  And it was fun having Rhody in the suit as well as Tony.   More than anything else, the movie proves that Robert Downey Jr was born to play Tony Stark.  And Gwyneth Paltrow rocks as Pepper, who’s so much more interesting than the standard damsel in distress.

All in all, a fun movie.  And the fanboy in me can’t help but get excited about the upcoming Avengers movie….

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Five Signs a Superhero Movie Franchise Has Jumped the Shark

I didn’t catch the opening of Iron Man 2 yet, but several things I’ve read about the movie have got me worried.  I have no expectation that it will be as good as the first one; I’d be happy with merely decent.  My worry is that the Iron Man movie franchise has already completely jumped the shark.  To assess the situation, I’ve identified five signs that a superhero sequel has gone to very bad places.

(Note: My main focus here is on superhero movie series that start out at least decent and become quite indecent.  So there is no place for, say, Fantastic Four in this analysis, since that series had nowhere to go but up after its frightful start.)

1. Supervillain Proliferation

As a franchise goes on for one or more sequels, some brilliant producer inevitably gets the idea, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if there were two supervillains in this movie?”  Alas, it is rarely cool.  Mostly it just leads to a crowded cast and a crowded script, and lots of cornball moments.  An early example is Batman Forever, when the Riddler finds Two-Face in his lair and basically says, “Hey, we’re both supervillians with weird fetishes and a shared hatred of Batman.  Let’s team up!”  Jim Carey’s over-the-top humor almost makes it work.

More recently, Spider-Man 3 had a major supervillain overdose, with Sandman, a new Green Goblin (Harry Osborn), and Venom all crammed into one plot.

There are notable exceptions to the rule, of course. Batman Begins worked perfectly fine with both the Scarecrow and Ra’s al Ghul – but in that case, Scarecrow was working for Ra’s al Ghul from the start – very different from an awkward team-up or a jigsaw puzzle of disparate plots.  And, of course, at least two X-movies did okay with a team of super-villains.

Things don’t look great for Iron Man 2 on this count, with both Justin Hammer and Blacklash/Crimson Dynamo taking the stage.

2. The Hero Goes Bad, Often for Silly Reasons

The superhero going bad seems to be a low-hanging fruit for comic-book sequels, often for fairly contrived reasons, and almost always with disastrous results.  The first superhero sequel to go this route was probably Superman 3, wherein Supes goes bad after exposure to faulty kryptonite mixed with cigarette tar. But, without a doubt, the most painfully egregious offender on this score is Spider-Man 3, in which possession by the black suit makes Spidey go evil, exposing millions of unsuspecting fans to Tobey Maguire dancing awkwardly to disco music.  A lesser offender is X3: the Last Stand, with Jean Grey transforming into the evil Phoenix.

Also of note are the clever visual cues directors use to indicate the hero’s new, evil-fied persona:  evil Phoenix’s veins pop out of her skin; evil Superman is unshaven, has a tan, and a costume that looks like it hasn’t been laundered in a while; and, most frighteningly of all, evil Peter Parker has bangs.

I’m not sure how they’d depict an evil Iron Man, since Tony Stark already has a beard and what-not, but it does sound like Stark is a bit of a jerk in Iron Man 2, but far from full-on evil.

3. The More Plots the Merrier

This one is a close corollary of indicator #1.  As villains proliferate, so too do the number of plot convolutions.  Many storylines are crammed together – some of them even interesting! – but none are explored in-depth because the script is just too crowded.  Witness Wikipedia’s sad attempt to briefly summarize the premise of Spider-Man 3:

The film begins with Peter Parker basking in his success as Spider-Man, while Mary Jane Watson continues her Broadway career. Harry Osborn still seeks vengeance for his father’s death, and an escaped convict, Flint Marko, falls into a particle accelerator and is transformed into a shape-shifting sand manipulator. An extraterrestrial symbiote crashes to Earth and bonds with Peter, influencing his behavior for the worse. When Peter abandons the symbiote, it finds refuge in Eddie Brock, a rival photographer, causing Peter to face his greatest challenge.

Yikes.  A more distressing example was X-Men: The Last Stand, which took two awesome storylines directly from the pages of the comic books (Chris Claremont’s classic Dark Phoenix Saga and Joss Whedon’s more recent “mutant cure” story), and then put them in a blender to make one awful mess of a movie.

No one seems able to summarize the plot of Iron Man 2 in three sentences or less, which has me worried.

4. Awkward Love Sub-Plots

At some point in any superhero series, the standard superhero love interest gets boring, and convoluted love sub-plots often ensue.  And so we have Lana Lang attempting to fill in for Lois Lane’s absence in Superman 3, Cyclops getting killed off so that Wolverine and Jean Grey can have more sexy screen time in X3, and a lazily undeveloped love triangle between Peter Parker, Mary Jane, and Gwen Stacy in Spider-Man 3.

With both the Black Widow and Pepper in Iron Man 2, this may be yet another sign of danger…

5. The Title Has a “3” in it

As you may have noticed, I’ve picked quite a lot on Batman Forever, Spider-Man 3, X-Men: The Last Stand, and Superman 3.  All four represented turns for the worse in series that, up until that point, had produced movies that were at least decent, if not excellent.  One final thing they all have in common is that they were all the third in the series.  So perhaps there’s still hope for Iron Man 2!

Recommended Fantasy & SciFi On the Screen from 2009

Part 3 of my recommendations of great SF from 2009 – fantasy & scifi on the screen, including film, television, and other miscellaneous forms of dramatized entertainment. (Just wait until you see the miscellaneous.)  These are the works that I’ve nominated for the Bradbury Award (basically, the Nebula Award for Dramatic Presentation – technically not a Nebula, but it’s pretty Nebula-like since it’s nominated on voted on by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America).  Some of my recommendations pretty much follow the mainstream, others less so:

  • Up: One of my favorite Pixar movies to date, write up there with Wall-E and The Incredibles. So many things I loved about this.  The fact that a cranky old guy is the hero (not just a colorful supporting character).  The fact that many laws of physics are defied but no one cares because it’s awesome.  (E.g., I’m no expert, but you probably can’t walk around pulling along a house held aloft by hundreds of balloons as if it were a giant balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.)  And the fact that the metaphorical, character, and plot arcs all come together so beautifully.
  • Doctor Who – “The Waters of Mars”:  I’m a recent convert to Doctor Who and this special was one of the strongest from the show.  I love that they’re pushing David Tennant’s Doctor to such challenging new places before he takes his final bow. And, as they’ve done in many Doctor Who episodes, they’ve taken something ordinary – water – and made it disturbingly horrific.
  • Pontypool: This independent film is sort of a sophisticated zombie apocalypse story.  The premise is that you are infected with insanity not by a blood or saliva, but by the English language itself – certain words carry the virus.  Wonderfully original surreal science fiction horror.  If you can find a way to see it, then do so.
  • District 9:  Despite some drawbacks, this was one of the most sophisticated and thought-provoking pure science fiction movies to come out in a while.  Broke a lot of new ground for SF on screen. 
  • Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” Music Video:  Yes, Lady Gaga.  This is a ground-breaking pop music video akin to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” and like “Thriller” it is firmly rooted in the SF genre, drawing on traditions of horror, science fiction, and surrealism.  In five minutes Lady Gaga makes a stonger artistic statement than James Cameron does in 162 minutes of Avatar. I know I’m going out on a bit of a limb here, so I may need to write an entire post on this one…

So those are my personal top five dramatic presentations in SF from 2009.  The new Star Trek movie was also entertaining, but not much more than that – and I do hope for more than just entertaining when it comes to Trek.  Despite my swipe at Avatar, I found that entertaining too, and I was very happy any time I was watching luminescent alien landscapes in 3D.  But the story and characters were just not interesting enough to put it in my personal top five. This year’s Harry Potter movie was my favorite to date and probably would have made my top five if there weren’t such other good contenders this year. 

 I also am waiting to catch up on Season 4 of Doctor Who before watching David Tennant’s final appearance, otherwise that one might have made it too.  Similar note for Torchwood: Children of Earth and Moon – heard they’re both excellent but haven’t seen them yet.   And, lastly, oh how I wish the last episode of Battlestar Galactica had been even worth considering for a nomination, because it was a really awesome show up until that disappointment…

Still to come: recommended books, and possibly a note on why we should enthusiastically embrace Lady Gaga as a member of the science fiction community.

E.T. Rewatch

Last night I was hanging out with my cuz, searching for a movie to watch amidst the labyrinth of on-demand menus, and he mentioned he’d never seen E.T.  And I was all, “You’ve never seen E.T.!?” and so we immediately ended our search and purchased it for the very reasonable price of $1.99.

I was probably 7 or so the last time I saw the full movie, and it was fascinatingly familiar yet new.  I remembered most of it in surprising detail, but my experience of it was through entirely different eyes – kind of like going back to your old elementary school as an adult.  To pick an obvious example, I remembered Eliot’s high-school-age brother and his friends as being “big kids,” unknowable giants to my 7-year-old eyes.   As a kid, I was completely terrified by Eliot’s first meeting with E.T. in the backyard, when they both get scared of each other and run off.  I also think I completely missed the whole divorce theme that looms over the whole story – or at least I didn’t remember it at all until re-watching.

Mostly, though, I was just amazed at the storytelling – so emotionally powerful, effective – and economical!  Not one minute of the movie is wasted: Spielberg spends a few minutes setting up that E.T.’s stranded and establishing the characters in Elliot’s family, and then goes straight to their first encounter, and while he’s building their friendship makes sure he also plants the seeds for the confrontation with the scary guys from the government.  As soon as he’s established that E.T. and Elliot have a psychic link and that E.T. wants to phone home, the bad guys show up and E.T. gets *really* sick *really* fast and we jump straight to the satisfying climax. 

They just don’t make movies that tight anymore.  I feel like if E.T. were made today, it would be three and a half hours long, would start with several scenes presenting a detailed picture of life on E.T.’s homeworld, and would also include a romantic subplot for Elliot. Plus at least three epilogues of E.T. and his buddies in space and Elliot and his family having dinner and God-knows-what-else.

In any case, this one holds up, to say the least. If you haven’t seen it since you were a wee lass or lad, it’s definitely worth seeing again – it’s a different but equally wonderful experience.

Thoughts on District 9

Saw District 9 the other day and I think I liked it. It’s one of those movies that takes a while to sink in, that requires some marinating before you can really be sure how it tastes.  The clearly-cool thing about it is that it’s totally different from any SF movie ever made.  It has a certain gritty realism to it that makes it compelling and, at times, appropriately horrifying.  I love the central premise of aliens being refugees on earth, facing all the prejudices that humans tend to have, even when it comes to things that are much less alien than, well, aliens. 

The movie combines a gritty documentary realism with a more standard Hollywood narrative – which is understandable, since it is a Hollywood movie after all. But as the movie progressed it shifted more and more toward the Hollywood end of the spectrum, which was less interesting to me and also felt a bit clunky at times. I also generally liked the choice of South Africa as a setting, but the depiction of the Nigerians felt like it strayed into a colonialist view at times.  E.g., do we really need subtitles for Nigerians when they’re speaking English?  Despite those disappointments, overall it’s an engaging movie charting new territory for scifi on the screen.

The novel is progressing very well – I’ve written a total of about 4,700 words since I started the marathon four days ago, which puts me only a few hundred words behind schedule.  I’m skipping around quite a bit, jumping ahead to the parts that are clearer in my mind or that come to me with a burst of enthusiasm.  Which has been working well, because then it’s fairly easy to go back and fill in the gaps.

Zombies Take Over Prom

danceofthedead

A couple weeks ago, Hassan and I were at Blockbuster, on the neverending quest for a good movie to rent, and we stumbled across the recently released “independent zombie comedy” Dance of the Dead.  I know there are some zombie-lovers out there, and I thought you might be into a movie where zombies invade a typical American high school prom, making quick work of all the cool kids, leaving only the geeks and outcasts to save the day.

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Twilight: Questions and Concerns

Okay, so last weekend, Hassan and I went to see Twilight.  We’d already seen High School Mtwilight-picusical 3, so we didn’t really have any choice.

Wait, no, I need to start earlier.  This past summer at the life-changing, high-altitude Taos Toolbox writing workshop, Kelly Link (amazing writer and mindblowing instructor) provided a fascinating, detailed description of the “sparkly vampire” genre. And it made me think, “OMG, I have got to go check out this sparkly vampire stuff!” So I went out and read Twilight.

In retrospect, I should have realized that Kelly Link’s description of a thing is very likely to be far more interesting than said thing itself.

For those of you unfamiliar with the plot (of both movie and book), the short version is below the fold.  Spoilers abound, if such a thing is possible.

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