Monday, May 25, 2015

7 Days in May | You Wouldn't Like Me When I'm Mad Max

Hulk (2003)

Continuing the Marvel re-watch, I went back to the unofficial first movie in the series. It's unofficial because most people - including Marvel - want to forget it, but I like parts of it too much to dispose of it and it fits with the rest of the series for a couple of reasons. To start, it begins with the military's trying to develop a new version of the super-soldier program. After what happens to the last of Steve Rogers' blood in Agent Carter, the military would have had to go back to the drawing board and David Banner's experiments in Hulk are a logical development of that. So, it fits thematically with First Avenger and Agent Carter.

But I've also always liked that Hulk ends with Bruce Banner in South America and that The Incredible Hulk opens with him there. You can't make the two movies flow seamlessly into each other, but if you squint hard enough you can pretend that Incredible is a sequel and not a total reboot. And like I said, there's enough about Hulk that I love that I want it to still exist in the Marvel Movie Universe. Mostly that's the Hulk's escape from the desert base and the tank and helicopter fights that follow, but I also very much love Eric Bana and Jennifer Connelly's performances as Bruce and Betty. And Sam Elliott was born to play General Ross. Yes, the movie is slow as molasses in winter and the resolution to the David Banner plot is so ridiculous it hurts, but I can suffer through that to get to the good stuff.

Iron Man (2008)

Watching Iron Man right after First Avenger and Agent Carter, I was struck by how easily it also flows from those same themes. Tony Stark and Obadiah Stane are both obsessed with the legacy of Howard Stark. Howard's involvement in Operation Rebirth was one of many projects he participated in or created to improve the US military. And as the military continued its own attempts to perfect a super soldier (resulting in the Hulk), Stark and his partner - and eventually his son - pursued those same goals from other angles.

The problem is that Stane doesn't have the conscience that Howard displays in Agent Carter. And neither does Tony at first of course. That's the beauty of the movie: watching Tony develop that and become a better person. It still totally works after I don't know how many viewings and I still get choked up at the double meaning when Tony thanks Yinsen for saving him.

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

The Incredible Hulk continues these same themes only more overtly than the 2003 movie. Instead of David Banner's working to make soldiers immune to chemical warfare, General Ross is heading up a program that's explicitly trying to replicate the success of Operation Rebirth. I really like how well the Hulk and Iron Man movies pick up and build on different aspects of what was happening in WWII, even though they were made before First Avenger and Agent Carter.

Incredible is a more exciting movie than Hulk and I love how it works in characters, visual references, and musical queues from the '70s TV show. Tim Roth is a cool villain and I buy his motives for going deeper and deeper into the process that eventually turns him into the Abomination. One of my problems with the movie though is the Abomination's look. The comics version is one of my favorite character designs, so it was disappointing to lose the head fins that I've always associated with him.

More than that though, I have a problem with General Ross. Forgetting for a second that Sam Elliot was dream casting for me, Ross is just written really weird in Incredible. In the comics - and in the 2003 movie - Ross is a character I love to hate. I want him to leave Hulk alone, but I understand why he doesn't. He's scared and he's trying to protect the world from what he thinks is a dangerous monster. But in this movie, it's Ross who's clearly the monster. He doesn't want to destroy the Hulk, he wants to weaponize him. That makes Ross an unrelatable, stock villain.

I want to talk about that last scene, too. It seems weird at first that Tony Stark shows up to tell Ross about the Avenger Initiative. What does Ross have to offer SHIELD? He's lost the Hulk and the Abomination was a horrible failure. But the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. We see in The Avengers that Nick Fury isn't afraid to do some questionable things and work with some shady people to accomplish his goals. Maybe with Bruce Banner off the grid, Fury sees Ross as his next best option for getting a Hulk-like creature on the team. Obviously that never paid off and it's kind of embarrassing that The Incredible Hulk doesn't fit more naturally into the rest of the Marvel Movies story, but it works for me that not every avenue Fury explored on his way to The Avengers paid off.

One thing that does pay off from the end of Incredible though is Bruce's learning to control his transformations. That flows into one of my favorite moments from The Avengers.

Iron Man 2 (2010)

This gets a lot of crap for supposedly forfeiting story in favor of setting up The Avengers. I don't see it. I do think there's too much going on in Iron Man 2, but setting up The Avengers is just part of it and it's one of the more interesting parts. It gives us Black Widow, for crying out loud.

Far less interesting is the plot about Tony Stark's dying. It's a fake emergency; a stake that comes out of nowhere and is easily resolved without any real consequence. All it does is introduce some false and unnecessary tension into everyone's lives. There's plenty of drama already in the idea that the government wants to control the Iron Man armor and that Stark's best friend is under orders to take it from him. That plot also continues the themes of the whole series so far: the conflict between individuals who want to make the world a better place and the organizations that want to do that on a larger scale. With Captain America: Civil War on the horizon, I suspect that we're not done exploring that either.

From a continuity standpoint, Iron Man 2 creates some wrinkles by revealing that Stark actually turned down Nick Fury about the Avenger Initiative. He sort of changes his mind in Iron Man 2, but then Fury decides he doesn't want Stark for more than a consultant. That calls into question the final scene of The Incredible Hulk, but I think I remember an interview or something where someone suggested that Stark's conversation with General Ross happened after Iron Man 2, so Stark's acting in his consulting capacity? I don't know if that marries well with The Avengers, but I'll keep an eye on it.

One thing that Stark and Fury's conversations in Iron Man 2 do really well though is set up Iron Man 3. Fury says that he wants Iron Man, but not Stark. Stark objects, "I am Iron Man," but the certainty of that statement is called into question, especially considering Rhodey's actions. Iron Man 3 explores that question in a cool, powerful way.

Captain America (1944)

I finished the Captain America serial. It's not very good. It's not horrible, but it's certainly not any version of Captain America I recognize. The plot stretches out in dumb ways, too. Most serials have long sections of padding, but some deal with it better than others. In Captain America, whenever the story slows down, a new inventor shows up who's somehow grafted onto the villain's motivations and made a target.

And neither the villain nor Captain America are very smart about hiding their identities. When the villain realizes that Captain America is actually the District Attorney who's also been hounding him the whole time, it's not based on any new information that the villain hasn't already had since Chapter 1. The story just realizes that it's time to wrap things up, so the villain finally figures it out.

It's not much better for the villain's identity. He's so at the center of everything that's been going on that it's ridiculous no one ever suspects or at least questions him. Nor does anyone until the end when the villain has gotten so sloppy that he's just appearing to people and counting on killing the witnesses later.

One cool thing about the serial though is the character of Gail Richards. She's the DA's secretary, but she's also in on his secret and works as Captain America's partner. She's no sidekick, but a valuable ally who drives during chases, flies planes, and figures things out before Captain America does. And it's her who - once she's captured at the end and sees who the villain really is - figures out how to get that information to Captain America to save someone's life and bring the whole case to a close.

I don't recommend Captain America to fans of the character, but if you like serials in general - and especially if you like Lionel Atwill - there's enough to make this one worth watching if not exactly a classic.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

I don't have any special fondness for the first three Mad Max movies. I only ever remember the last five minutes of Mad Max, but I think I enjoyed Road Warrior well enough. All I recall of Beyond Thunderdome is Tina Turner's saying, "He's just a raggedy man!" Which means that I went into Fury Road pretty cold, but - thanks to the reviews - with high expectations for a great action movie. And boy does it deliver.

There was a moment not quite halfway into it where I realized I was watching what would have been the grand finale in most action flicks. That's really what Fury Road is: a two-hour third act. Not that it's light on story. It has plenty of character and emotion; it just gives them to you without a lot of exposition. It's the kind of story I love where the world just exists and no one feels like they have to explain all the details. I get Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and what she's up to. And I even understand what makes Max (Tom Hardy) tick, even though he doesn't say a lot and is actually a secondary character in Furiosa's movie. Theron and Hardy are both doing awesome work and convey more in looks and actions than they do in dialogue. One critic compared Fury Road to a silent movie and that's a valid observation. If only silent movies were all this badass.

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