Assembling the Avengers #3: Iron Man 2

Over the past few days, I’ve been blogging about all the Avenger movies before watching the Avengers movie, even though I never read any of the Avengers comics. But the Avengers movie is apparently very good. Avengers!

Perhaps keen to recapture some of the golden rusty magic (and not inconsiderable box office) of the first Iron Man, Marvel Studios were quick to rush out a sequel within two years of their debut, and Iron Man 2 is much more of the same from Iron Man 1. Returning director Jon Favreau deems his metallic megastar not broke, so does not fix him. Instead he is multiplied. Stark’s sidekick Colonel Rhodes (now played by Don Cheadle) is given a beefed-up role with his own Iron suit, and together they fight buggerloads of Iron drone copycats, plus Iron Mickey Rourke as the baddie. It’s Iron Man to the power of 50!

Too often, though, it is as if Stark’s onboard computer JARVIS is at the reins, pre-programming the action to a carefully calculated formula. As before, Tony Stark acts the rich playboy, goes off the rails, and realises his wayward indiscretions in time to save the world. The final act explodes but does not adequately dazzle, adhering to the structure of a final mission of a video game, complete with big boss (Rourke, who commits most of his evil deeds via a laptop).

Still, it has its moments. Marvel’s films seem to have minor characters stealing the show – in the Incredible Hulk it was Tim Blake Nelson, and here it’s Mad Men’s John Slattery as Howard Stark, an actor seemingly born to play old-timey sharp-suited Americans and doing a damn sight better job of it than Captain America’s Dominic West does in the same role. The scene where Tony discovers the secret his father has hidden is wonderful (if laboured).

And with Downey Jr leading the pack, a healthy spoonful of charm and humour is seldom far away. It’s a curious quirk, and credit to the original Marvel writers, that a spoilt weapons manufacturing billionaire could be among their most likeable creations.

All in all, it’s fine. A by-the-numbers entry, sure, but it’s reassuringly hard to care with numbers this entertaining. And we have Shane Black’s threequel to look forward to next year. Perhaps we’ll see ol’ rustbucket bowing out, or indeed, “gettin’ too old for this shit”. Also, fun fact: Iron Man 2 was written by Justin Theroux, aka Adam from Mullholland Drive and cousin of Louis. The more you know!

Previously: The Incredible Hulk; Iron Man.  Tomorrow: Thor. 

Assembling the Avengers #2: The Incredible Hulk

It’s kind of ‘Avengers Week’ here on The Nuge, whereby I watch all the previous Marvel movies in a barefaced attempt to drive geek traffic to the blog whilst everyone’s talking about the Avengers. Yes, it’s shameless. I don’t care, ok?  

Coming just one month after Iron Man in the summer of 2008, The Incredible Hulk reboots the mean green smashing machine, following Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003). Less thoughtful, less value-neutral (‘incredible’, eh? let me be the judge of that, thank you very much!) and generally more enjoyable than its predecessor, this second attempt at a big screen green giant is perhaps the most complex of the Avengers, and the trickiest to portray. How do you take a troubled genius scientist and a raging alpha-male monster with no regard for human life, and make him a hero?

The first act, largely set in Brazil, is great. It sensibly decides that everyone knows the Hulk backstory, and so condenses the character’s origins into a lightning-fast pre-credits sequence, before spending an enjoyable first hour pitting Bruce Banner on the run, chase-movie style, from some grumpy US special forces.  Undoubtedly enjoying the benefit of Ed Norton’s rewrites, the script is relatively cliché-free, and there are some delightful moments. Tim Blake Nelson nearly steals the show in his brief appearance as scientist Samuel Sterns.

It struggles to leave a mark, though. Marvel have been brave with some of their director choices (Whedon, Branagh, Black) but with Louis Letterier, they went for the safe route. His career spans the full Meh gamut, from OK, I Guess (The Transporter) to Definitely Shouldn’t Have Bothered (Clash Of The Titans). So whilst The Incredible Hulk is very capably directed, and looks fine, it’s tremendously difficult to get excited about. It’s powerfully unmemorable, too.

And ultimately, the problematic elements of the original character become ever-present. Yes, Hulk Smash, but Hulk Wisecrack? Hulk Reflect On The Nature Of His Identity? Hulk Able To Appear Without The Use of CGI? Sadly not. As thoughtful and considered an actor as Norton is, he basically stops acting when transforming, and his presence is keenly missed as ILM take over the reins. Hulk is a blunt knife of a character. It will be interesting to see what Ruffalo does with him in the Avengers. Because you know what, Bruce? You’re right. I don’t like you when you’re angry.

Previously: Iron Man. Tomorrow: Iron Man 2.

Assembling the Avengers #1: Iron Man

Listen, I’m not really a comic book kind of guy, ok? What I don’t know about superheroes could reasonably fill a bumper anthology – but the old-school spectacle, event movie sparkle, and near-perfect reviews, have got me all excited for the upcoming Avengers movie (or Marvel Presents A Movie In Which The Avengers Are Variously Assembled For Your Delectation And Enjoyment as I understand it is officially known in the UK), out today. With this in mind, I’m going to watch all the “origin story” films that introduce our heroes – Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and The Incredible Hulk – before watching all the characters together in the same film, presumably surrounded by nerds in the throes of excitement-induced anaphylactic fits.

First up, then, is the first film from Marvel Studios, 2008’s Iron Man, which gave the ailing superhero genre, if not a kick, then certainly a well-placed nudge, on the arse. Yes, 2008’s other big comic book movie The Dark Knight won the box-office war, and admittedly also the which-is-the-better-film war. But whilst Christopher Nolan went for twisty noirish dramatic realism, director Jon Favreau reminded audiences that comic book movies could be – whisper it – fun. From the moment the thundering riffs of Back In Black introduce our hero in the opening seconds, we know this origins story is up for a bit of a laugh, unwilling to take itself seriously and boldly willing to puncture the ludicrousness of comics with humour.

If you weren’t sure of the tone, then Downey Jr quickly dissuades any doubts. His wisecrack-per-minute ratio is astounding, radiating electro-magnetic charisma even when held hostage by evil terrorists in a cave. The fit with the character is glove-tight. As one of the least troubled of superheroes he’s easily the most entertaining, and with the buckets of cash to mess around, he’s very much like a non-grumpy Batman.

Look, Iron Man was hardly going to win the Award in Plot Originality Excellence, nor the Gold Cup for Dramatic Depth And Character Development.  But it’s a film set apart by a director and leading man both supremely confident in their abilities, and in the power of their source character, and it set a strong blueprint for further Marvel adventures to come. A good start.

“Join me” tomorrow when I  move onto the next of the Avengers, The Incredible Hulk. “See you there!”

Three people who misjudged the iPhone, badly

Just the like guy who supposedly said in 1900 that “everything that can be invented has been invented” (actually a famous misquote, but let’s not let facts get in the way of a good opening gambit), there were plenty of short-sighted commentators in 2007 whose crystal balls were on the blink when Apple launched the iPhone. Whatever your opinion of the ubiquitous smart phone, it was an irrefutable game-changer, leaving one-time market leader Nokia’s shares tumbling, and Motorola split in two and ultimately bought by Google.  The iPhone changed the mobile industry, but not everyone saw it that way from the beginning.

1. In this now infamous interview, loud-mouthed Microsoft exec Steve Ballmer (now CEO) laughed off the iPhone’s prospects with the kind of condescension that could only come back to bite him in the arse years later. These days, the market share for Windows Phone 7 (a fully touchscreen OS, by the way) is so tiny that research firm Nielsen doesn’t even list it.

2. It wasn’t just Apple’s rivals: supposed ‘business analysts’ were deeply cynical at Steve Jobs’ apparent gamble, entering a market with no experience or help from seasoned veterans. “The iPhone is nothing more than a luxury bauble that will appeal to a few gadget freaks,” predicted Bloomberg’s Matthew Lynn. With iPhone sales expected to reach 100million this year, that’s a lot of gadget freaks.

3. Many were writing the iPhone off before it was even confirmed as a reality. The usually reliable Bill Ray of The Register decided in 2006 that an Apple phone was doomed to fail, and curiously also thought it would bring the iPod down with it. “Apple will launch a mobile phone in January…After a year a new version will be launched, but it will lack the innovation of the first and quickly vanish.” In fact, iPhone had its best quarter in the first three months of 2012, selling 37 million units, almost double the previous quarter, as this astonishing sales chart shows. A poor showing for Bill ‘Nostradamus’ Ray, there.

King of Kong

All documentary makers pray for a fertile subject. I once lived with a wannabe filmmaker who could barely walk down a street without becoming positively mercurial when faced with potential subject matters for his next nonfiction masterpiece. (“Has anyone ever made a film about drains?” he would typically ask, and I would respond with something weary and noncomittal.)

First-time director Seth Gordon could surely not believe his luck when stumbling upon the world of competitive video gaming. Priceless moment follows priceless moment in King of Konghis 2007 documentary on the race to hold the world’s top score in Donkey Kong.

Like many nail-biting docs, it shares DNA with sports movies.  Life – and, no doubt, a talented editor – generously imitates art, following the carefully-structured blueprint of a Rocky or a Mighty Ducks (Eye Of The Tiger makes an appropriate appearance on the soundtrack), to devastating effect. Somehow, Gordon manages to render heroes and villains so gleefully black-and-white they might be dismissed as unrealistic in a fictional setting.

In the protagonist corner: Steven Weibe. He’s the underdog, an outsider, an impudent challenger to a long-established throne.  Helpfully for the narrative, he’s also a person of genuine integrity – a family man whose friends speak of highly, yet dogged by near-autistic obsessions (music, sports, video gaming), frequently down-on-his-luck, never quite achieving his potential, never quite being the best at anything, and, when we join him, recently laid off from his job.  In other words: the prototypical embodiment of ‘the little guy’.

And then there’s Billy Mitchell. Riddled with Brent-isms, smug, preening and quietly manipulative, the ‘Player of the Century’ is effectively the anti-Weibe, or as Gordon described him in an interview, “the personification of evil”.  His mere physical appearance provokes laughter and alarm. Sporting a meticulously trimmed beard and a fearsome mullet, he is the stock conception of a serial killer, the kind a tabloid would charge as guilty before proven.

The battle lines are perfectly drawn. In just 79 minutes, Mitchell vs Weibe becomes a Liston vs Clay for the Pacman generation and we find ourselves screaming at the screen like our life’s savings are invested in the fight.

King of Kong‘s charming execution and dorkish subject matter made cult status preordained from its Slamdance premiere onwards. But it is more than simplistic geek fodder – it’s a supremely well-executed piece of dramatic work, more thrilling and emotionally powerful than most scriptwritten dramas.

We can but imagine what else Gordon might gone on to offer, had he not turned his back on documentaries in favour of studio comedy meh-fests like Horrible Bosses. And with that, he tragically denied the world the seminal documentary on drains it so desperately yearns.

Achieving musical perfection: a vague theory

I have a vague theory I’d like to share. The great thing about vague theories is there’s no evidence or research to back it up, so nobody minds too much if it doesn’t make any sense.

This theory came to me, of all places, whilst listening to the theme from Newsnight.  A while back I somehow wangled a ticket to see Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra, the comedian’s sublime classical music/comedy evening.  Even in the cavernous wasteland of the O2 arena (as Bailey joked, “there’s heckles coming from a different postcode”), the majestic power of a full orchestra was something to behold. Among the classical standards he enlisted the BBC Concert Orchestra to run through was the venerable theme to BBC2’s flagship current affairs show.

It sounded incredible: the stab of urgent, authoritative horns demanding your immediate attention, as if to say “this is important, yeah? Pay me heed!” But what struck me more was how oddly perfect it sounded. This, after all, was music I was utterly familiar with, from within the furthest alcoves of my very soul. Like any TV theme it seemed omnipresent, ever since the days of staying up late for the sake of staying up.  I’d heard it innumerable times before and now here it was, live in front of me, performed flawlessly, every inch of the music re-confirming what I already knew about it, chiming with memories past. It could only have been more perfect if Paxman himself turned up and started interrogating me about my policy on immigration.

My theory runs thus: we can (and frequently do) achieve a level of perfection in music through familiarity. I know this sounds a little trite, especially given perfection is an impossible state to reach, but it’s more about perception of perfection. You could try to improve the Newsnight theme, but at this stage it would be impossible. We know exactly how it sounds, every contour and every beat, and our familiarity with it becomes as much a part of why we love it as anything. It’s perfect, exactly as it is.

(I’m talking about ‘popular’ music here as well, by the way, not just television theme tunes.)

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