Modern Superhero Movies: Iron Man 2, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and The Incredible Hulk

Iron Man 2

Another day, another ho-hum superhero film, although at least this one has Robert Downey Jr. smirking up the place with levity, breathing a dose of sarcasm into a generally too-aimless sequel. Iron Man 2 feels like it is just coasting on its existence and passing the time. The whole “advertisement for another movie” trend of the Marvel Studios movies is in full effect, which is less of a shame than the fact that Iron Man 2 isn’t a particularly good advertisement.

Downey Jr. as Iron Man/ Tony Stark pays for a great many sins, but Jon Favreau’s increasingly mercenary direction is not among them, nor is the endless tepidity of the screenplay which forces everyone’s favorite resident bad-boy billionaire with a suit of gold …well, iron … up against Whiplash (Mickey Rourke), a hurting victim of Stark’s company’s history of violence, and a fellow weapon industrialist played by Sam Rockwell. Unfortunately, the talented Rourke is saddled with a one-note character and given even less time to play that note effectively. Rockwell is given little more to do, but his buoyant snark and charisma shines through nonetheless, and he makes a capable foil for Stark precisely because of how much Stark exists within him.

Few other additions prove meaningful though; Favreau does nothing bad but even less good, and even the should-be zippy action dose – to fight back the gloom and glum of the other comic book films turning all morose and tiring around this time – is largely tempered and sedate here. There’s a brutal, lacerating early beatdown at Monaco, but the rest of the film feels aimless. Ineptitude is an experience, but going through the motions…that is a shame.

Score: 6/10

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

A generalization, if you will: as a rule, avoid films with the following subtitles: “origins”, “genesis”, “genysis”, “genesys”.

A follow-up: as a rule, avoid X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

It is a corporate film, and in that respect, it perfectly justifies its soulless, mercenary, sequel-baiting title. It is also a tired film that at least tries to be a relatively personal, intimate revenge story rather than a grandiose piece of pop-culture opera. But, for an actual success on that streamlined front, you’d have to look to the follow-up, James Mangold’s The Wolverine (which also boasts a title that is fitting of the film’s blunt, terse thrills and hard-hitting efficiency).

As for Origins, the best thing it can say is that it is a merciful less than two hours long (remember when movies were actually nice and short?). It is always in the business of being bad, but it is not in business for long. It clearly wishes to be a leaner, more animalistic, bone-crunching superhero film, or, to put it another way, a superhero film that doesn’t feel like a superhero film, and at the very least it positions the work closer to a mid ’80s action thriller (a bad one, but what can you do?) than a gluttonous, ungainly modern exercise in corpulent over-zealousness. And, although, it is not a great opening credits sequence, at least it has the nerve to bring back the form in a way that the film finds to be interesting (as a rule, we ought to bring back opening credits sequences, even if the accompanying film is bad). Plus, there is a decent amount of green in the film, very definitively a welcome thing in the modern era of gray and brown. It doesn’t do much with that green, but at least the green is green.

Elsewhere, director Gavin Hood’s film is spoiled by an endless parade of cameos and side characters in the series-conscious screenplay by David Benioff and Skip Woods. Not that he tries to better it as a director, moving from perfunctory action to perfunctory talking heads scenes and back again in this too-cluttered assemblage of B-tier mutants. The worst thing is that it doesn’t even have the perspective or the identity to be bad in any notable, differentiated way (even the halfhearted, meandering rumination on revenge and the animal side of man’s discontent comes and goes without any real claws of its own). The film just sort of exists on screen for 100 minutes, nothing more, and nothing less.

Score: 4/10

The Incredible Hulk

In 2003, Ang Lee put his all into his psychoanalytic, grandly tragic rumination on human identity masquerading as a superhero film. He pained and labored over his existential work, tackling so many themes in so many ways that the film couldn’t but crumble under its own weight at some level. It didn’t “work” per-se, but it was ruthlessly fascinating and exotically, palpably pulsing while it was not fully working. It was an intellectual superhero film, an emotional superhero film, a quixotic superhero film, and primarily a passionate superhero film, even if it was a somewhat mixed-up superhero film, and maybe even not a superhero film at all. It boasted all manner of stylistic tricks and an even greater quotient of subtext and text intersecting and dissecting and cascading and combating one another.

In 2008, Louis Leterrier smashed some stuff. He aimed for nothing else, and he succeeded at less. Re-casting Edward Norton in the title role (a conceptual improvement from Eric Bana, but not one that bears out in their respective films), he dials down the mumbo and the jumbo and focuses purely on the hustle and the bustle, not an inadequate decision if he actually intended to turn the film into some variant of gruesome non-stop punisher a la The Bourne Ultimatum or The Raid. But the action here is too insistent, too loud, and too ostentatious to actually hurt and pummel…

Largely because the action comes part and parcel with a dreary, brooding fatalism and false mystique that do absolutely nothing but take up time in a film that is already hurting for well-managed minutes. If Leterrier really only wants to get to the smashing, Zak Penn’s turgid screenplay forces him through a trapeze-act of rungs of world and character building (franchise building, more like it, for this was the very early days of the Marvel Cinematic Universe). All rungs that Leterrier is plainly disinterested in, and he directs all that talky, broody material with a great big bore on his face.

Ultimately, none of the action pays dividends (an early horror-infused segment works well, but that’s it), and the script is indignantly concerned with recreating some of the drama of Lee’s film without the writing or the commitment to back it up. When it all devolves into a big brutal smackdown between one green guy played by the visage of Edward Norton and one bigger, slightly less green guy (think nuclear toxin vs. decaying flesh) played by the visage of Tim Roth, all of the drama feels hollow and dishonest after all of the blasé soul-searching that comes before it. The middling, inessential cinematography does nothing to boast up this suburban tale of everyday filmmaking, and it is, if not an adamantly bad film in any way, a wholly lacking, clinical one.

Score: 4/10


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