Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Summer of the superhero (1): Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk

Empire magazine has this to say about 'Iron Man':

"[It] is an origin story is more ways than one ... Origin stories are tricky things - they often feel like feature length pilots. And where is it written that comic book franchises need origin stories. Looking just beyond the genre, it didn't hurt Indiana Jones, Connery's James Bond or Captain Jack Sparrow that they arrived on our screens fully formed."

Well. What can you say to that? Nothing really, except to state the obvious:

Indiana Jones is Indiana Jones. James Bond is James Bond. Jack Sparrow is Jack Sparrow. None of them have alter egos. All superheroes, however, do have alter egos. They have to, otherwise they wouldn't be superheroes. The very point of the superhero is the concept of a secret identity. Therefore Superman is Clark Kent and Superman. Batman is Bruce Wayne and Batman. And for this work, for character motivation to be established, and for the crucial dramatic dynamic between the two halves of their personalities to function, you have to explain why Clark Kent became Superman or Bruce Wayne became Batman*.

Two effortlessly entertaining blockbusters, adding up to four and a half hours of big-screen fun, exploit the dynamic between public persona and iconic alter ego to brilliant effect.

Empire's bone of contention vis-a-vis Jon Favreau's 'Iron Man' - an odd choice of director, but by God he makes the material work! - is, actually, precisely its strong point. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jnr, following up his storming comeback turn in 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' with another storming turn sure to put him right back in the A-list) is an arms manufacturer: clever, cocksure, terminally irresponsible, Downey plays him like a child revelling in the sheer fun of playing soldiers ... except imagine a child who's grown up to earn unprecedented wealth, drive an Audi R8 and hang out with centrefolds.

Then, in the film's most compelling section, he learns a swift lesson on the nature of responsibility when he's captured by terrorists and forced to build a weapon they can deploy against Stark's best customers (the United States military). Stark responds by creating an armoured (and armour-plated) exoskeleton which also has the capacity for flight, and blasts his way to freedom. Returning to America, he realises that (a) some dodgy corporate dealings within the company have seen arms shipments sold to the selfsame terrorists who imprisoned him; and (b) his ad hoc invention is possibly the greatest weapon he's yet created. Rather than let it become public (or even shareholder) knowledge, he keeps it under wraps ... and re-invents himself as Iron Man.

'Iron Man' isn't quite a straight-up classic of its kind (all its best scenes are in the first half; the climatic smack-down is nothing compared to Stark's escape an hour beforehand), but it works because the script pays attention to who Stark is, who he becomes and why. And because Favreau draws good performances out of quality actors: Downey Jnr owns the role the way Johnny Depp makes Jack Sparrow completely and utterly his own; Gwyneth Paltrow is radiant as Stark's Miss Moneypenny-style PA, 'Pepper' Potts - there's a palpable chemistry in their scenes together; and Jeff Bridges adds a measured amount of gravitas as the Machiavellian Obadiah Stone.

Canny casting is the key, also, to Louis Letterier's 'The Incredible Hulk'. Edward Norton plays Bruce Banner, a scientist seeking a cure to the gamma poisoning that provokes his transformation into something big, green and afflicted by serious anger management issues every time something gets his goat. Genius casting! Edward Norton has always excelled at playing schizophrenic characters. Remember 'Primal Fear', Norton's rivetting performance making an otherwise by-the-numbers courtroom yawnfest compelling whenever he was on screen? Or how about 'Fight Club'? Norton wears the hounded, world-weary character of Banner like a ragged old coat. Liv Tyler, as Dr Betty Ross, provides the human element, much as Paltrow does in Iron Man; while William Hurt and Tim Roth are value for money in fleshed-out, well-considered supporting roles.

'The Incredible Hulk' isn't an origin story per se, but delivers the Banner/Hulk backstory with admirable speed and efficiency during the opening credits sequence. This achieves two objectives: it allows us to (a) disregard the earlier movie, Ang Lee's 'Hulk' - at best, a noble failure - and (b) narratively speaking, cut to the chase. For 'The Incredible Hulk' is essentially a chase movie. Banner wants a cure so he can live a normal life; the military want Banner so they can use what's inside him to create an army of 'super-soldiers'. No quarter is asked or given. The stakes are raised when General Ross (Hurt) uses fanatical soldier Emil Blonsky (Roth) as a guinea pig in an attempt to engineer another creature with the Hulk's physical prowess. But power corrupts, Blonsky is consumed by his dark side, and the Abomination is born.

Ang Lee's take on the Hulk was misconceived: a bright green blob that bounced around like a screensaver on crack. Letterier's is the real deal: muscled, veiny, dark green to the point of shadowy, and - crucially - fucking angry. Again, it isn't without flaws. As with 'Iron Man', the denouement is overly protracted, but a cracking script and genuine chemistry between the characters lift it well above the usual standard of comic book movies. Nifty last-minute vignettes link the two movies (although you'll need to stay until after the end credits with 'Iron Man') and point towards an upcoming Avenger adaptation.

In the meantime, however, there's Christopher Nolan's 'The Dark Knight' and Guillermo del Toro's 'Hellboy II: the Golden Army' to look forward to, hugely anticipated sequels to two of my favourite comic book adaptations, both reuniting original cast and original director.

It's gonna be a good summer!

*Subject of which: 'Batman Begins', which is arguably the best comic book adaptation yet produced, is an origin story all the way down the line - and it took a defibrilator to waning heartbeat of a near-dead franchise.

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