Monday, June 30, 2008

Summer Movies 2: Iron Man, Hulk

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably already realized that this is the summer of superheroes. If you’re not a fan of the genre, your best bet is to grab a book, head to the beach, and wait for September and the rollout of this year’s crop of Oscar baiting flicks. And if you are a fan of the genre and want to catch The Dark Knight at a midnight showing, well, you’d better buy your tickets soon or you may be consigned to a 3 a.m. - or, worse, 10:35 a.m. - showing with the other plebes. This week we’ve got Wanted and Hancock, two movies that tweak the supergenre’s nose. But before digging into the postmodern dismantling of the supermythos, I want to talk about those other summer superhero movies, the ones that don’t tweak the genre but rather exemplify it, to varying degrees of success.

I don’t think of myself as a superhero movie fan, probably because I lack appreciation of the genre. I’m not comics averse, mind. I grew up reading Archie and Betty and Veronica, think Maus is a masterpiece, was recently introduced to the awesome that is Preacher, and I’ve kept up with the Buffy and Angel spin-off comics for years. In fact, there’s every good chance I would have gotten into comics long ago, if the whole culture wasn’t so damned girl unfriendly. With the exception of St. Mark’s Comics and maybe Forbidden Planet, I’ve never walked into a comic book store and not been made to feel like a) a brain-addled bimbo, b) a nuisance, c) I’d ignored a hand-painted No Girlz Allowed!! on the door. And so it goes. But I do love a good action movie, especially if it’s wonderfully comedically tinged, and in recent years I’ve enjoyed Spider-Man 1 and 2 and Batman Begins.

Last week, I saw Iron Man for the second (wonderful) time and The Incredible Hulk for the (ambivalently enjoyable) first, and seeing them in such close proximity allowed me to note the differences, and, worse, the similarities, between the two.

It’s no secret that Robert Downey Jr. made Iron Man what it was (awesome), and for me, it was refreshing to see a superhero having a blast rather than angsting over their predicament. I get that heroes should be conflicted. Gilgamesh, one of the earliest literary heroes, has all sorts of angst going on after his BFF Enkidu kicks it, and that set the tone for the thousands of years that followed. But just once, I wanna see someone going, “Woo, I can fly!” (Yes, Peter Parker had that “Wahoo!” swinging-through-the-city moment in Spider-Man, but that’s like two minutes in an otherwise angstalicious movie.) And sure, Tony Stark has his share of angst, but mostly he’s about having fun, which makes for a damned entertaining movie. (That he’s charismatic as hell doesn’t hurt.)

But then of course we get Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk. Not only is he all angsty and conflicted because of his powers, but the movie drops us into the middle of angstland right out the gate. We don’t get to see the pre-everything-goes-to-shit Bruce, which is kind of a bummer, and worse, lowers the stakes in the movie. We don’t know if we should root for him to get back to normal because we don’t know exactly what it is he’s lost by becoming the big green meanie. For all we know, before he went all gamma-a-go-go, he spent every night eating macaroni and cheese while watching reruns of The Hills in his underwear. “If he doesn't find a cure soon, he may entirely miss the Spencer/Heidi reconciliation!”

Hulk also suffers from some odd pacing. It hits the same beat (Bruce is chilling, the army types ambush him, chaos ensues) over and over. It almost seems to be dipping its toes into the episodic structure that Sex and the City employed, so that by the time the actual climax rolls around, I’ve already gotten my fill of “Hulk smash!”

The climax, however, is a problem I have with a lot of action movies. It’s hard to feel suspense over what the outcome will be and whether our brave hero will save the day. Spoiler alert: the titular hero is gonna win. Action-driven television series have the same problem for me. Too many episodes of Buffy and Alias wanted me to bite my nails wondering if Buffy Summers or Sydney Bristow was going to be killed horribly in a way that you don’t come back from. And aside from the series finales (where anything goes), it was hard to muster up any real fear. So the least you can do is make the climactic fight interesting. Despite knowing Nic Cage wasn’t gonna bite it since that would endanger a third installment in case the second achieved box office domination, National Treasure 2’s climax scene was pretty cool and visually interesting, with rising water and crumbling temples and stuff. As another option to spice up a climax, you can always endanger a loved one or otherwise show that the hero has something to lose besides their life. But both Iron Man and Hulk were pretty standard smashfests. I also thought it was odd that both fights were between the title character and what amounted to a bigger, badder version of the title character, created using the title character’s own designs/bodily fluids. Way to monitor content overlap, Marvel.

That said, I did enjoy The Incredible Hulk. Norton and Tyler give stellar performances. It’s no Iron Man, but it has solid franchise potential. I did find the Tony Stark cameo interesting. From the way it was cut and the scene preceding it, I’d bet money that cameo was originally intended to be post-credits like the Nick Fury scene in Iron Man. If that is true, I wonder whether it was re-cut after Iron Man kicked box office ass, or if something else triggered the change.

It will be interesting to see where these two franchises go (or if Hulk goes at all, after a disappointing post-opening drop-off) and what it will be like when they merge in The Avengers in, what, three or four years? Oh well, at least we’ve got the genre nosetweakers to tide us over until then.

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