Iron Man 3: Meh!

Day 7, dud 2. Iron Man 3 was such a disappointment. I wish I wasn’t saying this because I was so excited about it when the film started. But it got me thinking, ‘Why didn’t this movie work? What makes a good Iron Man movie?’ Here’s what I didn’t like about this movie: The film was extremely dull because none of it is believable. This sucked the joy out of the film. It may have even been a halfway decent movie, but after The Avengers, it came up short.

Before we get into the specifics of this movie, let us turn to the first question. What makes a good Iron Man movie? Iron Man is a superhero who is a product of his suit that gives him the information he needs to stay on top of his enemies during battles, ability to survive any and all circumstances (even going to outer space through a wormhole) and the ability to fight even the toughest enemies. The suit is best suited to fight enemies with powers to match: people with enhanced abilities or advanced technology. But the films are also a product of the man behind the suits. Its Tony Stark that leads Iron Man into conflict. So, the movie must also be sufficiently challenging for Stark.

On paper, this movie has all these elements. The film challenges Tony Stark by separating him (albeit briefly) from his suit. It challenges Iron Man by making his suit vulnerable to the powers of the antagonists – extreme heat that can penetrate the suit. The antagonist is formidable because he creates an army of people who can generate extreme heat. What it lacks, which is perhaps the most crucial element in an Iron Man story, is a cohesive, engaging story to tie these elements together. This is because of a dearth of a fresh plot and well written characters, and because of the way in which the conflicts in the film are resolved.

In the end, the film is about saving the US from terrorist attacks and rescuing the President and Stark’s girlfriend, Pepper Potts, from captivity. The stakes are high, but the bar for stakes has raised even higher by the last few films. Think about it. At this point we have seen two intergalactic conflicts and battles over an energy source that can create a wormhole to the other end of space. Compared to that, these stakes look stale. Regardless, this could have been a good film had it not been for poor execution.  Rather using action sequences to let the tension linger and engage audiences, the film tried too hard to tie up all loose ends. For instance, when the President is attacked on Air Force One, the plane has been damaged and people are falling to their deaths. This was a moment of high tension, but the director chose to resolve it quickly by having Iron Man catch all of them mid-air by forming a human pyramid. This had me rolling my eyes as far back as I could. Similarly, the final action sequence Stark summoned an army of robotised suits back him up. This came out of nowhere and made me wonder why he didn’t do so before when he needed a suit desperately.

Additionally, the characters in the film lacked conviction about what they were doing. This is most apparent with Maya Hansen, Stark’s ex-girlfriend. The film starts to establish her as one of the antagonists before abruptly giving her a change of heart. Similarly, the film goes to great lengths to establish a terrorist organisation and its head, ‘the Mandarin,’ but later shows the audience that the organisation is a farce, a coverup for the real antagonist. But what this person’s motivations are, what he plans to do with his power, are all questions that remain underexplored. Because of poorly written characters, the film is held weakly together by the power of Iron Man’s suits.

I wish the third instalment in the series had tried to build on everything the universe had established and tried to take it a step further. Or in the very least been a well-written standalone film. Anyhoo. Tomorrow is another day.

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.

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!

Iron Man’s Villain Problem

Like so many others, I am beyond excited for Avengers: Endgame. However, I am not a traditional superhero fan. I became interested in the genre only recently and I haven’t seen all the movies in the MCU. As a result, I don’t know everything I there is to know about the Avengers. I plan to remedy that before the release of Avengers: Endgame. Between now and then, I am going to watch and review every movie in the MCU. If anyone wants to gush about the Avengers, I am available in the comments! So here goes, the first movie of MCU Phase 1 – Iron Man

Iron Man (2008) is largely a very fun movie. It is exciting to see a man build a suit out of the limited materials he has at hand in a cave to make an escape from his kidnappers. The action sequences with Iron Man are genuinely enjoyable. I did find the character of Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr.) insufferable, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t overlook (with the occasional eye roll, of course). Overall Iron Man is a great movie to start us off. It is well-written story with good action sequences and a decent plot – a weapons’ manufacturer trying to undo his legacy of war and destruction by becoming a superhero. The problem with Iron Man, is that this genius hero doesn’t have a comparable villain to go up against.

So that makes the principal antagonist of the film, Obadiah Stane/Iron Monger (played by Jeff Bridges), a poor villain? First, at the very outset, Stark is portrayed to be superior than Stane. In the second scene of the film, we see that at 21, Stark becomes the CEO of Stark Industries brushing Stane aside. Right away, Stark is better than his antagonist. Second, the villain isn’t able to develop his own powers. Stane steals scraps of Iron Man’s initial suit to make his own. He can’t even develop the Miniaturised Arc Reactor by himself; he steals it from the protagonist. This further perpetuates the idea that the Stane is no match for Iron Man. This is before the any direct fighting between Iron Man and Iron Monger. When the action begins, it fails to create the tension required to engage the viewer in the film. As the viewer, I already know that Iron Man can defeat Iron Monger because the film has told me so.

In addition to being perceived as less formidable, Iron Man has almost no comparable opponent for more than half the movie. At the beginning of the movie, Stark’s main opponent is his kidnapper, Raza. The playing field here is levelled because although Stark is very capable, he is trying to create something amazing in a cave in rural Afghanistan with whatever materials are available to him there. He is also in captivity making him vulnerable to his opponent. This makes the film interesting and makes Iron Man’s escape all the more impressive.

But Raza isn’t the principle antagonist of the film. He is being used by Stane in the latter’s quest for dominance. But rather than building up the character of the villain along with the hero so that the viewer doesn’t take Iron Man for granted and becomes invested in the conflict in the movie, the director Jon Fraveau only allows the viewer to see the already formidable Tony Stark transform into an almost indomitable Iron Man. At the point the viewer’s perceptions about the hero have already been developed, and the film doesn’t make an effort to subvert them. This reduces the impact of the antagonist.

About one hour into the movie, long after Iron Man’s character has been established, the movie finally reveals that the antagonist will use the scraps from Iron Man’s suit as the basis for his/her armour. The armour of the antagonist is not discussed again until 2/3rds of the movie is over. Furthermore, Stane isn’t revealed to be the bad guy until more than halfway through the movie. Even then, he is shown to be opposing Tony Stark in business, not as a supervillain. It is only in the last 25 minutes of the film (including 10 minutes of credits) that the main conflict of the movie emerges, and the antagonist challenges the protagonist. Couple that with his perception as an inferior fighter and you have the villain problem in the film.

Despite a major problem, Iron Man is a fun watch because his powers are super cool. They are tested in multiple situations throughout the film (his big escape from captivity, his encounter with militants in Gulmira, getting chased by the US government, and his final battle with Iron Monger). As a viewer this made me want to root for Iron Man. That being said, I hope Iron Man 2 offers our hero more of a challenge.

Hera Pheri: A win for writing

I want to talk about Hera Pheri. Unlike most films I review, Hera Pheri is certainly not new to me. Like me, some of you must have grown up watching and loving it. I would rank it as one of the best Indian comedy films. It has all the makings of a masala potboiler film – comedy, action and drama. Yet it feels fresh and real, rather than cringe and contrived as comedy films often become. And I would attribute that to one thing – superb writing. The writing deliberately uses the tropes of comedy, action and drama to control the tempo of the film and make it all work together, and it works perfectly. Action, drama and comedy work themselves through the writing with the help of two emotions – empathy and tension. These emotions reel us in and keep us engrossed throughout the movie.

Hera Pheri is essentially a story about poor people. The principal characters – Raju (played by Akshay Kumar), Shyam (played by Suneil Shetty), Babu bhaiyya/Baburao Ganpatrao Apte (played by Paresh Rawal) and Anuradha (played by Tabu) all drowning in debt and barely making ends meet. The writers use this as the first ploy to generate empathy among the viewers. Additionally, it is also used for the characters to bond with each other and empathise with each other, even as they make dubious choices. The poverty in the film is so organic to the film’s fabric that it isn’t a big deal at all. The doesn’t try to make a forced point about the characters’ situations.

Additionally, the film generates empathy using the tropes of comedy and drama, often in conjunction, to help the viewer become engrossed in the story and carry the narrative forward. For instance, when Khadak Singh (played by Om Puri), comes into town to claim the money Shyam owes him, the scene is a charged with emotion because of how much the former needs the money for his sister’s wedding. But the writers combine the drama with comedy seamlessly. The writers also use these emotions to raise the empathy between characters. Despite the quarrel between Shyam and Khadak Singh, at the end of the film, the latter (with a truckload of angry Sikhs) charges into the fight sequence where goons are beating up Shyam, Raju and Baburao because he cannot see his friend getting beaten. The scene is hilarious. As a viewer, the scene is very easy for me to watch, it keeps me entertained, and it makes me accept the story because I understand the characters and their motivations.

In addition to empathy, the film uses tension to keep the viewer hooked to the film. Tension first makes an appearance right as the second half of the film begins. The first half of the film ends with a happy dream sequence, lulling the viewer into a false sense of security. This sets the scene for the shock to follow and intensifies the tension as we learn that the granddaughter of a famous fisheries magnate is kidnapped and needs rescuing. Largely, the film plays with tension through the use of action. The action sequences in Hera Pheri are long and the director, Priyadarshan, is in no hurry to resolve the tension. In the first half of the film, action is largely comedic, a way for the principal characters to fight, but ultimately harmless. It is a way for the principal characters to interact and for the viewers to become used to thinking of these characters as a trio. In the latter half of the film, the action gets a lot more serious, and the tension more palpable. For instance, when and the lead trio come in to rescue the kidnapped girl while pocketing half the ransom money, their plans are botched with the arrival of the police. What follows is a long escape scene that had me clenching my fists with in excitement even though I had seen the scene numerous times before. The trio, trying to run from the police, join a large group of cyclists. While the scene has a few funny moments, the nearly 4-minute-long scene is an action-packed chase sequence. For those four minutes, I was completely engrossed in the narrative, feeling the thrill of the chase.

As I think about why Hera Pheri continues to remain fresh, I think the writers, Siddique, Lal, Neeraj Vora and Anand Vardhan, deserve some serious credit. Combining three popular genres and not letting go of the viewers’ attentions while doing so will land you a classic, and Hera Pheri is just that.

Before I end this post, I also want to talk about the music of Hera Pheri. I know, I know… WHAT?! But hear me out; within the context of the film, the songs just work. Don’t get me wrong, the songs are objectively terrible. But they don’t seem too bad when seen in conjunction with the movie. Also, props to the director for shooting each song and dream sequence in the style of the dreamer. Raju considers himself a hero, so his dream sequence (the song Jab Bhi Koi Haseena) is like that of a typical hero in a 1990s-2000 mainstream Hindi movie. Baburao still likes luxury, but he isn’t much of a hero. His dream (the song Dene Wala Jab Bhi Deta) is much kitschier compared to Raju’s but still very filmy. Shyam is the most grounded of the lot and his song (Humba Leela) is shot in the same manner as the rest of the film. No luxurious dream there. Even Tabu’s dream sequence (Main Ladki Pon Pon) shows her as uncomfortable with the role of a typical heroine in the song because she is a realistic, practical woman in the film devoid of any airs. Tun Tunak Tun is easily the worst song in the film. But even that makes you empathise with the dancer when the film reveals that she’s also very poor and in desperate need of shows. Rather than show her as just another item girl, I appreciated that the writers tried to humanise her.

So there goes. If you are in the mood to watch something light hearted but well-written, you know where to look.