Thor: Ragnarok – Giving Thor a movie he deserves

Okay, this movie is a little different. Unlike the previous Thor movies that were grim in their tone, Thor: Ragnarok is an out and out comedy and a full-blown entertainer. From the very outset, the film demands that the viewer buy into this premise to fully immerse himself/herself into the film. This took me a while to get used to. For instance, in my first two viewings of the film, I couldn’t quite get used to Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song in the background during the first and final battle scenes. Battles, after all, are supposed to be serious affairs with a few light moments peppered in to ease the audience. The MCU has established that. Ragnarok breaks this mould. And once you buy into its tone, you really appreciate the difference. You even enjoy Immigrant Song and play it on a loop for days after the fact. Ragnarok is supposed to be the end of worlds. But there is no time for doom and gloom here. The movie leaves you feeling satisfied. A large part of this has to do with the development of the two central characters in the movie – Thor and Loki.

Let us start by analysing Thor. Until this movie we have seen him transform from a brutish fighter who would punch his way into and out of dangerous situations to a man who understands the purpose of governance, understands that he isn’t interested in taking on that responsibility and continuing to work as a soldier for the nine realms. But so far, we don’t really understand who Thor is. In trying to write this review, I was struggling to write about his journey. I kept taking breaks, disappointed that I hadn’t completely understood my favourite superhero. In one of those breaks I happened to watch a YouTube video about the movie. It made me realise that Thor doesn’t really have an arc so far. Ragnarok tries to remedy that by stripping the character of his paraphernalia – the throne of Asgard, Jane, his hammer – and exploring the man underneath. In an interview, director Taika Waititi said that he saw the story of Ragnarok as that of a man trying to find his way home. That man just happens to be a demi-god trying to stop the Goddess of Death from taking over his country. In the process, he discovers who he is and what it is that he values.

The first thing we notice in Ragnarok is that Thor seems much more human this time around. He no longer speaks in an archaic manner like a king from the past. He is funny, a bit stupid at times and sees himself as part of a social group outside of the palace (Remember when he calls the Hulk a “friend from work”)? Thor’s interactions with the Avengers have humanised him over the years, and the changes in his personality aren’t out of place. As the film goes on, we understand this character more. Unlike when the character was first introduced, Thor doesn’t seek out conflict. But he is essentially a fighter. Even without Mjolnir to help him, Thor is determined to break out of Sakaar and return to Asgard to try and save his home. This is perhaps best exemplified in the battle between Thor and the Hulk in Sakaar. When he realises that Banner isn’t going to recognise him and his only way out is to fight the Hulk, Thor puts up an impressive fight for his life and for the chance to leave the planet. This is also the scene gives a new layer to Thor the superhero.  When he shoots lightning at the Hulk, we see a new version of Thor who is ready to kick ass. But the audience and the character don’t realise the significance of this moment until much later in the film. Only after receiving counsel from his father (and losing an eye) does he realise that he is the God of Thunder, and as the God of Thunder he can harness lightning. He doesn’t need Mjolnir or anything else to defend himself and Asgard. This is a pivotal moment in the character’s arc. From being a warrior prince who chose Mjolnir as his coronation present and didn’t seem to amount to much without the hammer to a fighter who realises who he truly is, Thor has finally come a long way.

Furthermore, the film explores the meaning of home and nation in a much more significant way than any of the MCU films before it have done. The movie begins with Thor trying to stop Ragnarok. According to Norse mythology, Ragnarok is the end of everything. It is when entire worlds are destroyed and the gods are killed. At the beginning of the movie, Thor believes he can stop Ragnarok, and the audience believes him. But when the Goddess of Death seems unstoppable even after Thor realises his might, Thor’s character takes yet another turn. First, he is confronted with his limits despite his significant powers. He realises that he cant defeat Hela. And the only way to do so would be to destroy his beloved Asgard along with Hela by causing Ragnarok. Second, he realises that the essence of Asgard was never the planet, but the people who live on it. If Asgardians live anywhere in the universe, he will have saved Asgard. At this point, Thor has learnt much about governance. He has stopped seeking out war (unlike Odin in his early years, whose actions ultimately cause Ragnarok.) He is powerful enough to protect the universe from threats. And he understands what his kingdom really is. When he takes his place as king – in the Grand Master’s spaceship with a rotating chair as his throne – we know he is worthy.

Let us now look at Loki. Unlike Thor, Loki has had a pretty well-defined character arc. In the first Thor movie, he realises that he has been raised by his father not as the prince of Asgard but as a pawn for political gains. His resentment for his father and brother comes to the forefront in The Avengers when he tries to take over the Earth by force. In Thor: The Dark World we that he became the trickster after his mother took him under her wing to teach him tricks so that he can stand up to Thor and his peers, who are physically stronger than him. We see him consumed by revenge after he breaks down when his mother dies (he unintentionally aids the murder of his mother.) He is easily one of the most interesting Marvel villains (really, one of two great Marvel movie villains – the other one being Thanos). He has certainly been one of my absolute favourite characters in the MCU. And it is not hard to see why. He is such a well-written, layered character. We feel his pain and want desperately for him to abandon his villainous pursuits, and every time he does just enough to keep us rooting for him, but also just enough to squarely place him in the villain category. I think the discrepancy between writing Thor and Loki comes from the original source of this material – Norse mythology. After watching the movie, I ended up reading Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. It is a collection of fables in Norse mythology and it tells us the stories of the Aesirs (gods and goddesses), frost giants, elves, dwarves and Asgard. It focuses primarily on the stories in the court of Asgard – stories of Odin, Thor and Loki. It is certainly an interesting read. Even in those stories, Loki is featured far more prominently than possibly any other character. His actions are described in great detail, as is his impact on Asgard. Loki is even painted in a somewhat sympathetic light where Thor is portrayed as boorish and thick. Even in the Thor movies, where he is the supporting character, Loki has a far superior arc to Thor. His story in Thor: The Dark World and the chemistry between Thor and Loki is perhaps the only reason I like that movie.

In Ragnarok we see yet another layer to this character which helps us understand him further. Unlike Thor, when Loki lands on Sakaar, he doesn’t try to fight his situation. Instead, he wins over the Grand Master and starts building a life there. Even when he goes to see Thor when the latter is captured, he describes to him a plan where the two brothers could take over the position of the Grand Master in time. We see that while Thor is a fighter, Loki is a survivor. Loki’s fraught relationship with his father coupled with the sense that he didn’t quite belong in the land he previously called home (the previous films show Loki as standing apart from Thor’s peer group) left him with little attachment for Asgard. Since his emotional needs were left unfulfilled, Loki uses his charm and cunning to keep afloat (albeit comfortably) rather than fight to get back what he lost. It is only when Thor tells him that he thought the world of him and that he imagined them fighting side by side does he feel the need to go back and fight for Asgard, and ultimately to join Thor on the spaceship to create a new Asgard.

Thor films have always been about excess. This film is no exception. But this is excess done right. Ragnarok develops what is integral to the Thor movies – a family saga – by helping the two central characters in the movie shine. Thor helps us understand the political responsibilities of the family, while Loki (over three films) showcases the family’s dysfunctional dynamic. But the film doesn’t stop there. It adds excellent supporting characters in the Hulk, Valkyrie and the Grand Master who take away from the grimness of a Shakespearean-style drama. Granted, Hela’s character could have been better developed. She was also a victim of Odin’s awful parenting, and could have been developed into a good villain like Loki. But honestly, I am satisfied enough with Thor, Loki and the absolute madness of the film to let this bit go.

I am so happy that Ragnarok turned out the way it did. Thor is my favourite superhero, and so far, he was left stagnating in the MCU. This film brings him into the forefront as a cool superhero, something the Russo brothers take forward in Infinity War. But more on that later. Right now, I am just going to sign off, satisfied knowing that my two favourite characters got a movie they always deserved.

 

 

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Spider-Man: Homecoming – A Good Balancing Act

This is the first standalone Spider-Man film in the MCU. Spider-Man was previously introduced in Captain America: Civil War where he fought alongside the other Avengers. Before that he was simply a local crimefighter whose superpowers were spider-like abilities to crawl walls, superhuman agility and enhanced mobilities and the ability to shoot high-tensile strength spiderwebs at his enemies. In Civil War, his abilities are further enhanced with the help of a brand-new high-tech suit by Tony Stark. This Spidey film explores the character following his adventures with the Avengers. The film must now contend with two challenges. First, it must prevent Spider-Man from becoming a gimmick. With many of his advanced capabilities coming from Stark’s technology, it is easy for the character to over-rely on technological features and lose his essence. Second, previous movies have seen set the precedent for conflicts that involved saving the universe. A movie that is setting up the “friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man” cannot possibly have stakes that high. At the same time, this film needs to be interesting enough to hold up after a number of awesome films.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is able to overcome both these challenges. Even though Parker has the new and improved Spider-Man suit he got from Tony Stark, the film isn’t about the suit. Despite having every advantage, for instance, Spider-Man’s able to survive and defeat his enemies because of who he is as a fighter on the inside, and not what the suit provides him. He almost drowns in his high-tech gear, but successfully beats Chitauri technology in an old pair of red tights.  Furthermore, it manages to keep the film interesting by using the technologies that have come from the Chitauri in the aftermath of the first Avengers’ movie. The challenges are still formidable – after all, it had taken a team of six Avengers, much older and much more established than Spider-Man to defeat them the last time. But the context is much more local. The film basically uses what is exciting about villains from outer space without having to involve them at all. So, Parker can be the “friendly, neighbourhood Spider-Man” and still be a total bad-ass about it.

There were two other note-worthy things about the form of the film. First, since our protagonist is only 15 years-old, the film needs to feel young. Tom Holland certainly does his part by playing the role to perfection. But beyond that, the film conveys levity and freshness through the use of music. Particularly in the first half of the film, when Spider-Man is established as a superhero, the accompanying music shows that this development is light and fun, rather than serious or epic. But the music doesn’t try to occupy centre-stage like it did in Guardians of the Galaxy (that film did it perfectly, but we don’t want that to become a hack, do we?) It is much subtler, and complements the developments on screen rather than highjacks them.

Second, the film made me think about how movies use flashback. In the scene when Spider-Man has almost been defeated by Vulture, and he must find the strength to get back up and fight, Parker stares at his reflection in a puddle of water that showed his mask as being only a part of his face. As a viewer, I can see that Parker’s dilemma in that moment is about whether he can do what is right when he doesn’t have his suit. This visual is also accompanied by Parker remembering Stark’s words, “If you are nothing without the suit, then you don’t deserve the suit.” In my opinion, this made an otherwise powerful scene too loud. I don’t understand why directors and editors choose to insert scenes or lines we may have previously heard/seen in the film as flashbacks in later scenes. If the film is engaging enough, the audience is already clued in to its tone. Adding extra dialogue is simply unnecessary and leads me to believe that the director considers his/her audience stupid.

In conclusion, Spider-Man: Homecoming can retain all of the charms of being a teenage superhero film while still holding up against the weight of the movies that have preceded this one.

 

 

Thor: The Dark World – A film struggling to trim the fat

I really liked Thor: The Dark World, but I wanted to like it some more. Not unlike the last Thor movie, this one also suffers from overindulgence. It also suffers from poor imagination. And these two factors cast a shadow over an otherwise superb movie. Thor: The Dark World is the only film so far that has made me rewind and watch my favourite parts again. Honestly, if they would have trimmed the rest, this could have been one of the best movies in the MCU.

Why makes the great parts of this film so? I’ve said this before and I will say it again, Thor works so well as a family drama. It has all the right ingredients for it – squabbling siblings, parents playing favourites and keeping secrets from their children and a struggle for space within the family. In this case, the stakes are higher because the brothers are fighting for the throne of Asgard. The film takes the time to explore the personalities of Thor and Loki, their relationship as brothers and their relationships with their parents. And this translates into engagement with the audience. For instance, I felt Loki’s rage and grief when his mother died and he appeared a broken man. Similarly, in the scene wherein Loki and Thor fight the Dark Elves in Svartalfhiem, I felt the brothers being united in avenging their mother’s death even though they completely distrusted each other.

I wish they had only stuck to the family drama, though. Like Thor, this film also suffers from overindulgence. Here too, the love story between Jane and Thor feels forced. I forced myself to forget the utterly unconvincing notion that these characters fell in love in the previous movie. I tried to just take as a given that they’re in love. But even so, the love story simply doesn’t work. I think that is because Jane’s character is so underwritten. Yes, she has a lot of screen time, but I still didn’t get a sense of who she was. She is simply there to be rescued by Thor or to give Thor depth. Compare this to Frigga, who gets a lot less screen time, but I know everything I need to know of that character. I make this comparison to demonstrate that there was much potential for Jane’s character that was left unexplored. I also found Dr. Selvig’s research and his device to manipulate gravitational waves to provide a shortcut to a different realm like Svartalfhiem too far-fetched. In fact, Thor’s time on Earth made absolutely no difference to the film. Had the film just been set in the other realms and the changes caused by the alignment of the realms used as catalysts for the final action scene, the plot would have been much tighter.

In addition to overindulgence, the film also suffers from poorly imagined worlds. I understand the challenge of imagining an entirely new universe. And I am not mad that Asgard is so much like Earth. In fact, I even thought to myself that Asgard (for the most part) is so well imagined that I thought maybe it was Earth who borrowed Asgardian dress, customs and language. But this quickly falters when it comes to the army of the Dark Elves. There is no reason for that army to be brandishing gun-like weapons or wearing masks that look like spoofs of characters in superhero movies. For a race that is so unlike that of the human race, their weapons should have been different. Asgardian air force is also very poorly imagined. The rest of Asgardian military is equipped with swords and shields, but they have an air force that’s oddly similar to that on Earth? I wish they had come up with a new and creative look for the armies.

These negatives certainly bring the film down. But the good parts of the film simply shine. A good part of that has to do with the fact that Loki was given a much bigger part in the movie. So, while Thor: The Dark World does not come close to the top MCU movies, please excuse me while I go and re-watch the scenes between Loki and Thor for the fifth time.

The Avengers: A Lesson in Continuity

Unlike most superhero movies, The Avengers is one of two movies I seen twice before. The previous two viewings had been when I hadn’t watched the preceding Marvel movies. I had watched it as a standalone film and I had liked it. After re-watching the movie now, however, I understood the movie much better. What’s the verdict on this movie now, you ask? Up until the very end the film is fun and believable. The climax showing Iron Man carrying a missile with a nuclear warhead into outer space through a wormhole and making it back alive? Not so much. Regardless, what I really admired about the movie was its ability to take a story that weaves through different films and tie it all together without alienating any audiences. Basically, if you like me watched the movie as a standalone film with no prior knowledge of the universe, you would still be able to understand and enjoy it.

The director, Joss Whedon, did a great job recapping the five previous movies into one film. The way he does that is by not rushing to make the viewer comfortable right away, but by taking his time to firmly establish the plot of this movie before filling us in on details. For more than an hour into the movie, the film provides references to recap the stories of each of the superheroes through dialogue and flashbacks. Furthermore, the interactions between the characters also help the viewer understand their essential nature and therefore engage with the film. Thus, rather than a mishmash of different people with cool powers, the film becomes cohesive – one of a team banding their forces together to serve as the protagonists against a group of powerful antagonists.

Let us first look at how the film fills the viewer in on the backstory. The Avengers’ challenge is that the story of the film deals with the Tesseract, an energy source that has been important in previous movies. A large chunk of the audience is also familiar with the stories of four out of the six Avengers in the movie as well as their relations with other characters in the film. But placed together, the events and timelines can be confusing. Before the film takes off, it needs to jog everyone’s memory. Since the Avengers don’t know each other, the film uses introductions and initial interactions as a way to sneak in the story line thus far. For instance, we learn about the conditions that transform Bruce Banner into the Hulk – high-pressure environments and pressurised containers like aircrafts and submarines are triggers that can unleash the Hulk – when Banner is trying to explain to SHIELD why he shouldn’t be on the team. We also learn that the Hulk cannot be controlled or killed. This information is important for the viewer to understand what a character (in this case the Hulk) can do. Similarly, we learn about the Tesseract (which was introduced in Thor and was explored further in Captain America) when Natasha Romanoff tries to explain it to Banner. The uninitiated audience gets a sense of what this object is, why so many parties are interested in it and why they need a team with a specific skillset to get it back since it’s been stolen. In doing so, the audience gets a sense of what the catalyst in this intergalactic conflict is. Using characters to introduce themselves, their stories and their interests gives the audience context about the story that is unfolding.

What I admired about the movie (and about Marvel as a whole) is that it didn’t stop at recapping the stories of characters and giving us a glimpse of their powers. It tells us about the nature of these characters. Marvel takes character profiles very seriously. A character’s actions are motivated by his/her personality. So, an action-packed superhero movie is not just a bunch of characters performing antics. The films tell a cohesive story whose dynamics are shared by the personalities of the characters, not just by their powers. And as the films progress, their personalities also evolve. This means Tony Stark is still an arrogant prick, especially when he condescendingly tells Thor that he has a ‘mean swing’. But the death of a beloved SHIELD agent compels him to put his ego aside and work with the other Avengers. Similarly, Thor isn’t just an alien who can swing a powerful hammer. In the previous film we saw him transform from a brute to a king. Here the trajectory continues with him wanting to use his strength to ensure good governance on Earth. But he actually takes it a step further, by realising that he needs allies in his quest and working together as an equal with other heroes on his mission. The Thor from the previous film wold have led his friends into battle or taken on the enemy alone. Working with others is new for the character.

Regularly recapping the story and focusing on the nature and personalities of the characters lend continuity to The Avengers. Without them, the film could have quickly descended into mindless action that would leave the viewers dissatisfied and confused (like Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald did. But that rant can wait).

Before I end, I express a few thoughts on Captain America’s espousal of the Idea of America. Given as this movie is about an intergalactic war that is not being fought by the American state, the writers try to steer the Captain away from engaging in any explicit propaganda about the US. Much of his old-fashioned behaviour is explained away by reminding the audience that he was asleep for 70 years and hasn’t been in keeping with the times (like when he dismisses Thor as being a God – even though he’s a Norse God – by saying that “there is only one God, and I am pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.”) Even so, he is America. This means that when Thor and Iron Man are fighting, he is the voice of reason that tells them to cut it out. And when the Avengers assemble for their final fight of the movie, it is he who calls the shots. But I guess that is just who the character is, and writing him any differently would do him disservice.

Lastly, a couple random thoughts. First, how great is Loki? He’s good looking, sassy, formidable, and in Iron Man’s words, a “full-tilt diva”. He commands the screen and owns the narrative like no one else. Second, how great was the action scene in Germany set to wester classical music? Who knew fighting and Franz Schubert went so well together? And lastly, I’m so glad the film introduced Black Widow and Hawkeye and I cannot wait for these characters to get their own individual films.

There you have it, the end of Phase I. Now on to Phase II.

Captain America and the Idea of America

At the very outset, let me start by stating that Captain America is probably my least favourite superhero. He is too overly patriotic and too old fashioned for me, and his fighting prowess doesn’t do much to make up for his personality. That said, Captain America: The First Avenger is actually a good movie. Set in the early 1940s, Captain America is an experiment by the US government to develop a supersoldier in order to help win World War II. The period and setting of the plot explain the patriotism and the predominance of male characters. This stopped me from rolling my eyes and actually concentrating on the protagonist.

Captain America has all the trimmings of a traditional superhero, but he is different in one crucial aspect – the character was written as a part of US propaganda during World War II and hasn’t been able to shake off the remnants of propaganda since. This is because Captain America isn’t just another superhero or even just a great soldier. He represents the Idea of America. He is the image of the US that the latter wants to portray to the world. And the writers have kept this in mind while constructing the character for the film. Georg Lofflmann, a professor of US Foreign Policy and American Politics at the University of Warwick, has expressed this idea in his PhD thesis, “The Fractured Consensus: How competing visions of grand strategy challenge the geopolitical identity of American leadership under the Obama presidency.” He argues, “Captain America [in his costume of stars and stripes] doesn’t just fight for America, he also is America (emphasis mine).” Therefore, a close observation of the movie can help us get some insight into how the US wishes to be seen in the world.

Let us start with Captain America’s origins. Steve Rogers is the literal embodiment of the American Dream. Before he became Captain America, Rogers was just another kid from Brooklyn. He wasn’t born with Tony Stark’s privilege or didn’t grow up with Black Widow’s training. He certainly wasn’t a god like Thor. Rogers was written as a man who believed that he had the ability to become whatever he wanted if only he went after it and worked hard enough – the literal definition of the American Dream. In the film his passion and perseverance turn a scrawny kid into the light-haired, light-eyed supersoldier who had the potential to win the war for the US.

Next, let us look at the supporting cast. When he realises that he needs to assemble an army to fight the Nazis, particularly to defeat their deep science division, Hydra. The Captain’s army comprises of people of different nationalities, cultures and races. People who otherwise would have been treated as refugees, having just been freed from an enemy camp. But Captain America takes them all under his wing and they become a part of his team. The banding together of different peoples is a metaphor for the US being a melting pot of different cultures domestically, and a capable leader of different nations internationally. These are both images that the US wants to project about itself (at least in part), and the film does that effectively.

Lastly, Captain America’s superpowers are an explanation for American exceptionalism, the idea that the US is not like every other country in the world. The idea, according to Lofflmann stresses the “singularity, superiority and essentiality of the United States in the international system.” Captain America has his powers because he got injected with a serum, but the serum only amplified what was already true of Rogers, that he was a good man and a strong soldier. The same serum when injected in the body of America’s enemies turns them into monsters, like Red Skull, the principal antagonist of the film. Captain America’s powers are therefore a justification for maintaining American military superiority because it perpetuates the idea that the US has the values to handle power, unlike its enemies that will only use power for destruction.

So where does that leave us? Clearly propaganda cannot be separated from Captain America. What will be interesting to watch in subsequent films (particularly after this viewing and analysis) will be how the character who is the personification of America interacts with other characters with different motivations. In the films that follow, I will be paying particular attention to this factor.

Thor: The Importance of Restraint

Thor is an indulgent movie. It’s the first intergalactic movie in the MCU and director Kenneth Branagh wants to make sure that the experience is unforgettable. And it is. Thor’s world, Asgard, is fantastic and believable. I must make a special mention of the music that implored me to play closer attention and delve deeper into the scenes. The villain is both endearing and formidable. The movie is funny without being campy. Thor tries to combine elements of a family drama, science fiction, action and romance. And that is where the film goes too far. In trying to be everything, the writing falters and stops Thor from reaching its full potential.

First, the positives. Much of the film is extremely well written. This includes the family drama, much of Thor’s time on earth and the characters of the protagonist and antagonist. Thor (played by the oh-so-gorgeous Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (played by Tom Hiddleston) have layers to their characters and well-defined character arcs as the film progresses. Thor starts off as brutish and thick. But as the film progresses he understands that governance cannot be carried out with muscle. Throughout the film, Loki is the master manipulator. As the film ends, however, he is shown as vulnerable, when he fails to prove himself to his father. Such changes mean that these two principal characters are well-rounded and therefore believable and relatable. Thor and Loki also share an easy chemistry which works great for a family drama. I need to say this about Loki before I move on – he is easily the best villain so far by a mile. The writers made his character just so damn charming. Unlike any other villain in the MCU, he makes me happy when he’s on screen.

Now for the negatives. The love story in the movie is wholly unnecessary. Jane (played by Natalie Portman) plays no role in carrying the story forward. Thor and Jane meet on earth for just a few days. It is entirely unrealistic that in that time she would believe Thor is an alien from Asgard, fall in love with him, and endanger herself and her friends in trying to protect him by lying to a top government agency. Her scientific research, rather than love, would have been a much stronger motivator for helping Thor find Mjolnir and go back to Asgard. Similarly, Thor’s desire to protect Jotunheim could simply have been the result of the empathy he learnt while on Earth. There was no reason to suggest that love for a woman he had known for three days had anything to do with it. Add to that, Hemsworth and Portman (both great individually) share no chemistry on screen. The scenes between them distracted me from an otherwise engaging movie.

Thor left me feeling both elated and disappointed. Elated because other than the love story, this has been the most enjoyable movie I’ve seen so far. And it could have been a much better film had the writers exercised restraint. Rather than making the movie a hotchpotch of every popular genre, it would have been better to stick to drama and action, because those were the most well developed. Ah well… I’ve heard it gets better in Thor: Ragnarok. Can’t wait for that.

Iron Man 2: Solving the Villain Problem

Day 3, Iron Man 2. Overall, a fun, slightly cheesy movie. Honestly, all I could think of while watching this film was how they had managed to solve the villain problem from the first film. From the very outset, the villain, Ivan Vanko (played by Mickey Rourke), is introduced as formidable and having a stake in dethroning Iron Man. He understands the Stark Industries’ arc reactor and has the knowledge to make the miniaturised version that Iron Man uses to power his suit. More importantly, he has nothing to lose. This makes for a gripping story, but the writers, director and editor have gone a step further to also make it a good cinematic experience.

They have done this in two ways. First, the writing has made sure that the antagonist is the protagonist’s equal. If Stark developed the miniaturised arc reactor while in captivity in Afghanistan, Vanko did so while living in poverty in Russia. Stark may have a suit, but Vanko wreaked havoc on Iron Man even without one. Both Stark and Vanko inherited the knowledge required to build the arc reactor from their fathers (who worked together on the project). Stark has a legacy to protect. His motivations are driven by what has name represents. While Vanko isn’t acting out of the desire to protect the Vanko name, he too wants to honour his father’s legacy by taking forward the work he did. Vanko’s vitriolic hatred for Stark translates into him developing sophisticated technology that can challenge the latter. The film couples that with shattering the myth of invincibility around Iron Man. Iron Man has a powerful suit that can help him fly around the world and dodge attacks from powerful weapons. But the suit can’t prevent palladium poisoning and unless Iron Man can replace palladium in the arc reactor keeping him alive with another metal (hello Vibranium), he is going to die. This raises the challenge for the protagonist and keeps the audience from getting comfortable in the movie.

The second device the director and editor use to engage the audience is to intersperse the protagonist’s and antagonist’s actions. So, as we are watching Iron Man indulge in silly antics or worry about palladium poisoning, we see Vanko becoming stronger. Unlike in Iron Man, the antagonist’s gradually increasing power and Iron Man’s vulnerability reach a crescendo. Now the protagonist can only win if rises to the antagonist’s challenge. Iron Man proves himself to the audience which keeps them invested in him as the film ends. Even though Iron Man 2 isn’t as highly rated as the first part in the series, I personally enjoyed it more because of these storytelling techniques.

Aside from techniques, what also impressed me about Iron Man 2 was that it gave Stark’s character more layers. In the first film, Stark was arrogant, pompous and erratic. You don’t learn anything more about the character. In this film, confronted with the enormity of his creation and his own impending mortality, we see the character have questions about his work, where he is heading and what he wants. His descent into debauchery is out of frustration at not arriving at straightforward conclusions to existential questions rather than carelessness. Even though I still find Stark’s character insufferable, I understand him a bit better and have more empathy for him.  This makes the character richer, more relatable and sets him up for the role he will play in subsequent movies. And that is a real win for writing.

Here goes Day 3. Tomorrow it’s time for Thor, a film that has been on my list for weeks. I cannot wait!