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The Wolverine (2013)

wolverine_ver4I grew up in the 90’s watching the X-Men animated series, and that’s what my main knowledge and fandom of the property stems from.  It’s been sorry to say that the live action movies have, to me, failed to be remotely as faithful.  Simply said, I have had a number of issues with all of the previous films of this franchise, and I was skeptical about The Wolverine going into it.  Color me pleasantly surprised – I REALLY liked this movie.  I have barely a major issue to levy against this film, directed excellently by James Mangold.  While Wolverine has been a very central character in all the previous films, save for First Class, this film actually puts forth the honest effort to make him more than just an action bad ass.  Some might find the film less than exciting, but for me, this steers this character into the right direction.

After the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has become a vagrant lost and detached from society until he is sought out by Ichiro Yashida, the man whose life Logan saved at Nagasaki in 1945.  This now powerful businessman seeks to repay this debt to Logan by absolving him of an unending life via his mutant healing factor.  Regardless of consent, Wolverine is left physically vulnerable by secretive forces as he attempts to protect Mariko, Yashida’s granddaughter and heir to his empire, from the Yakuza and a band of deadly ninjas.  Wolverine is now pushed to his physical and emotional limits as he confronts not only lethal samurai steel but also his inner struggle against his own immortality to emerge more powerful than ever before.

This is one of those reviews where I’ll address my minor issues with the movie first before delving into what I very much enjoyed.  The Wolverine has a rather good tone keeping things mainly dramatically based, but it does inject some humor and levity.  However, it possibly could have pulled back in a few places.  Stuff like Logan and Mariko hiding out in a hotel which ends up being a “love hotel” where couples go to get it on.  Some humor comes out of this which is rather gratuitous.  The first half of the movie has these moments where there’s already been a fine balance of levity and drama, but adds in just a little more humor that makes it feel a tad extraneous.  It throws that balance off just enough to slightly detract from the dramatic progression of the film, but by the halfway point, these issues evaporated.

Also, I wouldn’t begrudge this movie if it intentionally disavowed X-Men Origins: Wolverine from its continuity.  I say this because in that film we clearly see that Wolverine’s memories were robbed from him via an adamantium bullet to the head.  However, in this film, Wolverine easily remembers events from Nagasaki, 1945, more than thirty years before his memory loss.  While the previous X-Men films have shown him recovering memories, particularly from the Weapon X program, it’s a bit of a shady area as to how he is able to so clearly remember these events.  Even then, if you went by the continuity of Origins, he was still going by the name James Howlett at that point in time, but Yashida knows him only as Logan, which he doesn’t adopt until the 1970’s.  This franchise’s continuity is extremely shoddy, and it’s that reason why I both eager and skeptical about how next summer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past will possibly resolve these continuity issues.

However, a more significant issue is very valid.  Wolverine’s healing factor is repressed for the bulk of this film where his wounds heal at the rate of a normal human being.  Yet, he is constantly extending and retracting his claws with not a drop of blood or sight of a wound on his knuckles.  I did buy many X-Men comics in the 90’s including X-Men #25 where Magneto ripped the adamantium from Wolverine’s body, and his healing factor is overloaded to where to stops working.  Thus, his knuckles continually bleed out every time he unsheathes his bone claws, and he keeps them wrapped in bandages.  I can understand that the PG-13 rating would never allow Wolverine going around bleeding profusely in graphic fashion through most of the runtime, but it is a serious oversight.  It didn’t take me out of the film at all, but it’s a definite flaw in the film’s logic that I felt should be addressed.

Now, onto the good stuff.  Undoubtedly, this is Hugh Jackman’s most dimensional performance as Wolverine.  The film takes him on a journey from this man living in the wilderness, cut off from everything after Jean Grey’s death, and vowing never to hurt another person.  We get an arc for Logan where he rediscovers his purpose, and finds a reason for living.  He reinvests himself in a reason to fight for someone else, and become that honorable, yet animalistic warrior that he once was.  Jackman does an excellent job showing the rugged anger early on, but he contrasts that with the vulnerable, physically weakened Wolverine.  There’s a great balance in his performance that really shines through, likely due to James Mangold’s smart direction.  I also like that despite having no healing factor, Wolverine still proves to be one of the toughest bad asses on the planet.  He gets shot up, slashed, and beaten, but does he ever push forward with everything he’s got.  And of course, Jackman is in the best shape of his life here as he finally achieved the lean, muscular physique he always wanted for Wolverine.  He is totally ripped, and that creates a real raw, intimidating presence.  The fight scenes are some of the best he’s ever done as this character.

Tapping into the vulnerability of Logan are two women.  The first is Yukio who seeks him out, and seems to have a great deal in common with him.  They are both warriors who have lost loved ones in their pasts, and are brought together by Yashida as wayward souls.  Yukio is able to keep Logan on his toes as she is as smart as she is deadly, but has formed a bond of trust and respect with him.  Rila Fukushima does a very, very good job in this role handling all the physical demands amazingly well, and making this a character who is enjoyable as well as dimensional.

Mariko is the one who peels back the vulnerability of Logan’s heart.  While there is never an overt romantic connection between them, the film builds an intimacy with these two.  They get very deeply involved with each other learning the pain and love that have affected them.  Logan is driven to protect her at every cost, and the emotional bond is built up with a lot of subtlety and grace.  I really found this to be the main cog towards exploring Logan.  Through Mariko, we see the change in him from the lost, fractured man to the fiercely determined warrior.  The chemistry between Jackman and Tao Okamoto is really sweet and endearing as the two characters grow closer.

I feel this film is filled with a strong set of characters that are well cast.  Will Yun Lee impressed me thoroughly as Harada, a ninja and archer who has dubious allegiances, and demonstrates some amazing physical feats early on.  When the Yakuza are chasing Logan and Mariko through the Tokyo streets, he’s jumping and flipping from one rooftop to another and picking guys off with his bow and arrow.  To me, he essentially put Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye to shame with just that one sequence.  Beyond that, Lee simply grabbed me right from the start with his edge and presence.  Plus, Harada has a really enjoyable arc as his loyalties and honor are certainly in question as he is associated with certain underhanded individuals, but has the best of intentions.

There are many characters that have their own personal sense of honor, however misguided it might be, and it creates this very strong gravity to each character.  Shingen Yashia, Mariko’s crime boss father, is really damn good exercising authority and conviction with a really imposing presence.  Ichiro Yashida is also solidly portrayed with a more honest breadth of honor, but he still has some turns to show for himself later on.  These characters all have depth and dimension making them intriguing and engaging.

However, the femme fatale villain of Viper was possibly the least captivating character.  The character is very well portrayed by Svetlana Khodchenkova giving her plenty of juicy material to wrap this venomous character up in, but ultimately, she’s just a hired villain with little purpose or motivation of her own.  So, she’s not nearly as interesting as all these characters who are enveloped in honor, tradition, culture, greed, and betrayal.  Their stories are much more strongly interconnected because there is family involved, and it is all tangled up in a treacherous web of deceit.  Regardless, there’s not a single weak link in this cast, and they all put forth great efforts that truly impressed me.  I cared about so many of these characters due to the strong performances behind them, and a solid writing by Scott Frank, Mark Bomback, and the uncredited Christopher McQuarrie.

What I really found refreshing in The Wolverine is that is doesn’t feel the need to have to throw action sequences down your throat to engage you.  I believe some may disagree and find the film lacking, but it really hit the spot for me.  Like I said, these characters are compelling enough all on their own for me, and it is quite a while before we get a real action sequence here.  The film invests you in following Logan, and seeing what kind of man he is now.  It peers you into his mind and pained heart as its central focus, and introduces action where the story requires it.  Especially with superhero films, we tend to see action thrown at us right from the beginning telling you that action is the central focus of this movie.  Director James Mangold tells you otherwise with how this film begins and progresses.  It has important substance to introduce you to so that when the action occurs, you can be invested in the danger faced by these characters, and that is highly admirable in my view.

And the action here is rather stellar.  From the trailers, I thought the bullet train sequence would not be very good, but I was so proven wrong.  I found it exceptionally well constructed especially with how Logan and his combatants have to keep dodging the overhead structures that keep flying over their heads.  Sometimes they duck, sometimes they jump over top, and sometimes, an unfortunate adversary goes on a very rough flight goodbye.  There’s more to it than that, and every clever element just made it work very well for me.  While it is all clearly CGI settings and backgrounds, there was still a sense of danger involved considering this is a train rocketing along at hundreds of miles per hour.

There are also some excellent fight scenes.  I have to love me some samurai sword fights mixed in with perilous acrobatic martial arts maneuvers.  When Wolverine faces off with Shingen, claws versus sword, it’s really the moment where the bad ass hero that we know re-emerges, and it’s a great moment and pay-off.  There is plenty of slashing and impaling of Yakuza upon Wolverine’s claws early on.  Now, I didn’t think of it at the time, but really, Wolverine never gets a full-on bezerker battle with ninjas.  I know that’s appalling because that’s practically the signature moment every die hard fan would want to see.  There is a confrontation leading into the third act, but there’s very little close range combat in it for Wolverine to start ripping at ninjas.  Also, the use of blood on his claws is rather inconsistent.  Sometimes, we’ll see blood on them after he impales a guy, but most times, we either don’t get a good look at them or there’s simply nothing shown.  James Mangold did do an interview this past week hinting at a bloodier, more violent unrated cut of the film on Blu Ray, but we’ll have to wait and see.  He supposedly did remove a more elaborate fight between Wolverine and the ninjas.  Why, I couldn’t tell you.

I honestly think this is the best score I’ve ever heard from Marco Beltrami.  Up until now, I don’t think he’s ever done anything this diverse or exceptional.  He really captures the flavor and feel of Japan in subtle ways throughout his score.  He never seemed to go for anything easy or expected in that realm.  It’s a very fine piece of work that also highlights some great moments with due weight.

The cinematography is indeed damn good.  I had desired a Wolverine film that was dark, gritty, and raw from when Darren Aronofsky was attached, but Mangold and his cinematographer did a lot to make this more polished look work.  The Wolverine gives us a strong, vibrant color palette, and the nighttime scenes have a pleasing neo noir quality.  It gives the film some mood where needed.  I especially found some beauty in the Wolverine / Shingen fight with his dim blue backlight, and the ninjas converging upon Wolverine in the snowy landscape.  The action sequences are essentially filmed very well keeping things steady and competent.

I can definitely say that the digital effects of The Wolverine are superior to those of X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  Surely, there are places where it’s not superb, but it’s fairly on par with your general effects-heavy summer film.  Believe me, I saw worse CGI in the trailers before this film, but there were areas for improvement at times.  Frankly, I can forgive some undercooked CGI if the film surrounding it is damn good enough.  That very much applies here because this is exponentially superior to its Gavin Hood-directed predecessor on every level.

The Wolverine might not reach the level of greatness, but I feel it is an almost perfectly solid piece of work.  The film takes its time to explore its characters, and give us a sense of depth and emotion with its title character.  Even the dream sequences with him and Jean Grey are very poignantly handled starting out as something that haunts Logan, but slowly reflecting his ability to absolve himself of the burden he has at the film’s beginning.  As you can likely tell, I very much respect and like this film’s focus on character instead of action.  It also doesn’t overload us with more and more mutants, trying to cram every last cameo it can into the runtime.  It takes the characters it needs, and builds the story around them tightly.  I can only imagine how insane X-Men: Days of Future Past is going to be with somewhere in the range fifteen to twenty characters populating the story.  Speaking of such things, stick around for a few minutes after the end credits begin.  There is a special scene that you will certainly not want to miss that sets up next year’s big sequel.

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Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

Batman Mask of the PhantasmI am so glad that I did see this animated feature in theatres twenty years ago.  Being a major fan of the animated series, there was no way I couldn’t be excited for it, and it has become a very respected high mark in the DC Animated Universe.  Batman: Mask of the Phantasm does tend to get lost in the mix when discussing the best Batman or even best superhero movies because it was an animated feature.  The film didn’t perform well in theatres, likely do to a less than aggressive marketing campaign.  Even professional film critics Gene Siskel and Robert Ebert did not see it in its theatrical run, but when they did eventually watch it, they indeed loved it.  So, with this preface, I think it’s easy to deduce that this is a definite favorite of mine.

When Gotham City’s most feared gangsters are systematically eliminated, the Cape Crusader is blamed, but prowling the night is a shadowy new villain, the Phantasm, a sinister figure with a vengeful agenda.  Meanwhile, Andrea Beaumont, the one time love of Bruce Wayne’s life, returns to Gotham City stirring up memories including those of how he almost didn’t become Batman.  As all of this unfolds, and the Phantasm becomes a more imminent, lethal threat, the Joker is brought into the fold as a major wild card.  Now, can the Dark Knight elude the police, capture the Phantasm and clear his name?

If you’re unfamiliar with the 1990’s animated series, you need not worry.  This film works entirely as a standalone feature, but for those who were serious fans, there’s a great sense of expansion and increased depth that this film offers.  This is a great story interweaving all threads into an excellent Batman origin, romance, and superhero action movie.  The heart of it is the romantic and heartbreaking story between Bruce and Andrea.  It starts with so much hope and passion, but as with many of Bruce’s loves, it ends in despair and some tragedy.  It’s a beautifully crafted tale that does touch an audience’s heart, and truly shows the emotional depth and humanity of Bruce before and after he becomes Batman.

This film shows us the events leading directly up to Bruce Wayne actually becoming Batman.  I love seeing his first outing as a crime-fighter.  It’s just him in black street attire and a ski mask.  He has the skills, but not the persona, yet.  Batman hasn’t been born, and thus, the key essentially elements of intimidation and mystique aren’t in play.  He’s not the haunting creature of the night that will frighten the criminal element, and afterwards, Bruce realizes that is what he’s missing.  It’s a thrilling action scene as Bruce takes down a group of thieves, and then, hangs off the back of an open van during a police chase.  Yet, the very moment where Bruce Wayne dons the cowl and becomes Batman for the first time is a quintessential moment in my Batman fandom.  No other film has ever matched this moment for me.  Done wholly in shadows, it is a purely simple scene, but perfectly effective and iconic in my eyes.  When he turns to reveal himself to Alfred, the reaction from Bruce’s loyal and lifelong butler is pure shock and fear.  That still sends chills all over my body.

Now, I absolutely love how the stories of Bruce and Andrea intertwine.  The flashbacks to their hot and fast romance are beautiful and classy.  You can see that Bruce is ready to give up the vigilante nightlife to be happy with Andrea forever, but the shady elements of her father, Carl Beaumont’s business dealings forge an inevitable wedge between Bruce and Andrea.  Smartly, these elements are the core of the present day story between Batman and the Phantasm.  It’s also a great turn that the Phantasm’s murders are framed on Batman simply by misidentification.  This forces the Gotham Police to begin a manhunt against Batman, but strongly true to his character, Commissioner Gordon refuses to be apart of it.  He knows that Batman doesn’t kill, and that little moment shows the bond of trust between Gordon and the Dark Knight.  It’s only a shame that that is Gordon’s only scene in the film.  Every aspect of this story flows organically and tightly.  With a 76 minute runtime, it could move at no other or better pace.

By no doubt, Kevin Conroy has been the definitive voice of Batman for over two decades now for legions of fans.  Whenever I read a Batman comic book, it is his voice that I hear as Bruce Wayne and Batman.  Conroy reflects all the best qualities of the character from the upbeat playboy, the serious businessman, the dark, brooding man in the shadows, and the powerfully imposing Dark Knight.  The most important thing is he brings life, depth, and intelligence to Batman.  Producer Bruce Timm and co-writer Paul Dini perfectly understood the character, and throughout this DCAU from Batman: The Animated Series to Batman Beyond to Justice League Unlimited, they stayed true to the core of Batman.  The ideals of justice, humanity, and undying determination have always thrived in this animated interpretation.  Beyond anything else, we see the world’s greatest detective at work, which is something none of the live action films have ever fully embraced.  Batman unravels the mystery of the Phantasm and these crime bosses with cunning and perceptive intelligence.  Conroy embodies all of these subtle, inspiring, and engaging qualities of Batman with a lot of heart and care.  It might only be voice work, but this still stands as the best adaptation of the character to date.

And I couldn’t discount Mark Hamill’s Joker.  Much like with Conroy, he has been a definitive voice for the character to many fans for so long, but has had real competition from great actors in this role.  I am a fan of all versions from Ceasar Romero to Jack Nicholson and beyond.  With the Joker, there’s almost no wrong way to go with him because he is such a radically unpredictable character that he could be very Romero one day and very Ledger the next.  What Hamill does is make the Joker this insane clown who will do whatever hits the biggest punchline in his own twisted mind.  He will still likely kill you, but he’s going to laugh his ass off doing it.  Hamill brings the jovial zaniness meshed with a lethal intimidation that forges a colorful maniac that is endlessly fun and entertaining while still being a major threat.

Beyond the fact that I do really adore Dana Delany, I believe she was a perfect choice to voice Andrea.  She brings a touching beauty of heart and soul to the character.  As the younger Andrea, she’s very optimistic and vibrant.  She’s a young woman with everything to love and embrace in life.  In the present day, she’s a little more heartbroken and tender.  There’s a great emotional complexity to her by the end which is very sad and sympathetic.  Delaney is a wonderful, charming actress, and she does a remarkable job voicing Andrea Beaumont.

The animation style of this feature film is definitely a solid step upwards from the series with more dramatic shading, and a bit more dynamic action sequences.  The opening title sequence even features a beautiful CGI fly through of the Gotham City skyline.  The entire series was heavily inspired by the classic Max Fleisher Superman cartoons, and that is very evident, especially with the great art deco designs.  Adapting this style to Batman pushed everything into a great film noir realm that works stunningly for him.

The main theme from Danny Elfman for Tim Burton’s Batman movies lived on in this DC Animated Universe.  They were reworked by the great, and now late, Shirley Walker.  For this feature, she makes it even more gothic and haunting with a beautiful chorus.  Yet, that’s only just the start of her stunning work.  It’s a fantastic score that rouses an audience, and nails all over the wonderful emotional beats.

And there is plenty of thrilling action throughout this movie.  The Phantasm’s stalking of mob bosses are dark, shadowy, and even a little scary.  They have a looming, ominous presence.  The film unfolds some rousing and even explosive moments at a regular interval, but they entirely flow from the progression of the plot.  Nothing’s extraneous, and it really wastes no time crashing you headlong into the action and story.  The climax with Batman and the Joker at the abandoned World’s Fair is pretty fun.  It shows the Joker’s dangerous playfulness, and creates an escalating sense of peril as he has rigged the whole place to explode.  Yet, the movie ends on the appropriate emotional beats remembering that the story is paramount, and it treats its character with due respect.

Unlike many live action movies, this animated feature was given a lot of creative freedom to its production team, and they were able to deliver a very well fleshed out, wonderfully balanced story.  This is entirely reflective of the quality that was consistently on display with the animated series and its spin-offs and follow-ups.  If you’ve never seen Batman: The Animated Series, this is a great introduction to it, and if you’ve watched and loved it, this is a gem that will satisfy your fandom.  Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is a delightful and amazing animated Batman adventure that is well worth your time.


Man of Steel (2013)

Man of SteelMan of Steel was my most anticipated film of the year.  Not for an instant did I doubt it from any piece of marketing that came out.  Each trailer and TV spot just got increasingly better raising my excitement for this more and more.  Everything kept giving me hope for an amazing film experience.  I know there’s a full spectrum of opinions out there right now, but take it from someone who grew up on Christopher Reeve as Superman, whose main inspiration in life has been Christopher Reeve, from some who loved Smallville, and feels Superman is the most epic and emotionally powerful superhero of all time – I really liked this movie A LOT!  There’s plenty to get into here, and you can count on zero spoilers.

On the planet Krypton, renowned scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) discovers the hope for his seemingly doomed society in his newborn son Kal-El, but it is nearly thwarted by an attempted insurrection by General Zod (Michael Shannon), who is later sentenced to the Phantom Zone before the planet’s demise.  Years later, on Earth, a young boy learns that he has extraordinary powers and is not of this Earth.  As a young man, Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) journeys to discover where he came from and what he was sent here to do.  But the hero in him must emerge if he is to save the world from annihilation by the now freed Zod and become the symbol of hope for all mankind.

Okay, I really, really enjoyed this movie, but I just want to get my one big critique out of the way right up front.  It’s nothing damaging, just a structural issue.  The film does follow a linear storytelling structure except for all of the scenes of Clark growing up, and everything with Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent, who does a fine, heartfelt job here.  These scenes are all very good, but I really think the film needed for us to go on that journey with Clark instead of flashbacking to isolated moments in his upbringing.  I didn’t feel as much build up as I wanted to with Clark discovering his origins and donning the costume.  We don’t get to see the linear development of Clark struggling through the pain, the adversity, the fear, and the doubt in his youth to see how he really overcomes and grows stronger through that.  If there’s any one major flaw with this film, it’s simply that.  It worked wonderfully in Batman Begins because we still saw Bruce Wayne develop and find his way in the world as an adult before dedicating himself to becoming Batman.  Here, it feels a little short on that emotional journey and impact, and the film would feel a little stronger if that played out linearly instead of through flashbacks.  Clark dons the Superman costume within the first, probably, thirty-five minutes of the movie.

Of course, I suppose the main question for everyone is with Henry Cavill.  By no doubt, the film lives or dies by his performance.  For me, he does a great job.  He gives us a grounded portrayal that feels real and genuine.  The somewhat familiar Clark Kent secret identity is not fleshed out until the end, and so, it is a story of Clark deciding what kind of man he wants to be.  Cavill does embody an honest sense of hope, and has a strong physical presence.  He trained extremely hard to achieve this physique, and it makes all the difference when you see him walking down the street in that suit.  He just exudes power.  When he is not being Superman, he feels very grounded and honest.  He stays true to Clark’s Kansas farm boy roots being a man of morality and admirable strength of character.  Clark is developing throughout the film, and continues to push his limits of what he can do, not just in terms of powers but in terms of determination.  Superman is a hero who never gives up regardless of the odds, and here, the odds are tremendously against him.  Yet, through hell and back, Cavill’s Superman shows us an icon of power that can inspire others to greater heights than ever imagined.  While he doesn’t usurp Christopher Reeve’s inspiring magic, this feels like a Superman for a modern era that still has potential for further development in the already greenlit sequel.  I feel Henry Cavill is a great successor to the mantle of the Last Son of Krypton, and he gives us plenty of humanity that shines through on the screen.

And this film is going to challenge many people on their long held preconceptions of the traditional Superman mythos.  I’m sure there will be some that are resistant to this approach, but it ultimately laid my apprehensions to rest.  The relationship with Lois Lane is built up very differently as she is closely associated with Clark / Superman throughout the film, and they develop a great, emotionally intimate connection.  Amy Adams does a wonderful job as Lois Lane, and what she and Cavill have together is purely stunning.  There’s an honest depth of emotion and understanding between them that shines through beautifully.  Lois is not a damsel in distress either.  Yes, she gets into perilous situations, but she is an active part of this story and plot.  She’s very integral to stopping Zod’s genocide of humanity.  Because she becomes so closely tied to Superman, she remains relevant to everything that’s happening.  Of course, most pertinent of all, we see her as a dogged yet relatable journalist.  Adams swirls a lot of different qualities into Lois from her determination as a reporter to her compassion and strength.  She was a pleasure to witness here, and I think she also brings this character into a grounded, modern age that still remains true to the core, classic aspects of Lois Lane.

Having no easy shoes to fill himself, Michael Shannon takes General Zod and runs with him in his own way.  There’s absolutely no catering to fan service here.  He’s built up as his own character through Shannon’s awesome portrayal.  He’s a bonafide bad ass villain bred as a warrior to protect Krypton at any cost, and he’s given solid depth.  You understand what he’s doing, and why he’s doing it.  Everything Zod does is for the sake of the people of Krypton, but he is a megalomaniacal, genocidal madman willing to eradicate our planet to fulfill his inherent purpose.  This is no weak or generic adversary.  Shannon has great presence that really commands your undivided attention, and he delivers a chilling General Zod that can be frightening by his sheer mercilessness.  This is a Zod who’s going to kill everyone in his path without a moment’s hesitation, and that’s just awesome.

There’s a great supporting cast here, but in short, here are the heavy hitters.  Laurence Fishburne is a damn solid Perry White.  I know there are people bothered by the classic character’s change in race, but Fishburne is a tremendously awesome actor who delivers the goods with strength, nuance, and passion.  Diane Lane is a lovely Martha Kent bringing a subtle, tender touch at the right moments in Clark’s story.  Antje Traue portrays Zod’s second-in-command Faora-Ul fantastically.  She’s extremely imposing and lethal.  Anyone who thought this was just Ursa revamped, don’t do that.  She’s not given as much development as Zod, but she’s a hardcore ass kicking machine.  Beyond that, there’s just a lot of really quality performances throughout this film that does what a supporting cast is meant to do – build a solid foundation for the leads to springboard off of and launch the film into the stratosphere.

And indeed, lest I forget, we get Russell Crowe portraying the great Jor-El.  I found his performance quite admirable with a unique sophistication, compassion, and depth.  The real Jor-El is seen only on Krypton at the start, and it’s great seeing Crowe doing some action oriented work alongside some inspiring emotional beats.  Later on, we see Jor-El as merely a projection through Kryptonian technology, and there is indeed still that strength and emotion present when meeting with Kal-El or confronting Zod.  Yet, since he also works as sort of a computer program, there’s a more clinical portrayal of him in those instances where analytical guidance is needed.  While I don’t wish to draw comparisons for my own sake, I know people are interested in the comparison to Marlon Brando.  I do feel Brando wins in this situation.  I think Crowe is an amazing actor demonstrating his best performance in what I consider Michael Mann’s best film, The Insider.  However, Brando will always stand as one of the finest, most powerful actors of all time when he was in his prime.  Crowe’s Jor-El is more fallible and vulnerable, by design, where Brando’s was inspirational and infallible through and through.  For this Jor-El, Crowe hits it right on the mark, and I wouldn’t ask for him to change a thing.

Man of Steel also features plenty of action, and the more we get, the bigger and badder it gets.  It just builds and builds to flat out epic proportions!  We get moments where Superman has to push himself so hard to destroy Zod’s terra-forming machine that it becomes pure epic Superman awesomeness.  Earlier on, there are some brutal knock down, drag out fights between the Kryptonian soldiers and Superman.  While it almost seems futile for beings of seemingly equal strength and invulnerability to just keep pummeling one another, it generally works very satisfactorily.  What’s more impressive is when Faora is using her super strength and speed to just blitz through a dozen soldiers at a time.  This is all the kind of stuff Superman II couldn’t do because of the limitations of effects at the time, but this delivers in full throttle mode.

And I’m sorry, but The Avengers be damned with this climax.  Superman versus Zod is the epic throwdown of the decade!  They beat the living hell out of one another, smashing up Metropolis from top to bottom with full on ferocity.  While some of the CGI can get to appearing somewhat obvious at some times, you knew this was going to be a CGI-heavy affair from the start to achieve extremely fantastical feats.  So, aside from those small moments, this is some stunning and awesome digital effects work!  It integrates so beautifully and realistically with the grounded, slightly gritty feel of the film in my eyes.  The design of Krypton is very alien and somewhat bleak, but still stunning and enveloping.

And Zack Snyder has well proved he is a brilliant visual director.  I’m a big fan of the Watchmen movie he made, and it’s amazing how much his visual style shifted for the material here.  Indeed, I think the Christopher Nolan touch as a producer influenced that, but this is indeed Snyder’s film.  Director of photography Amir Mokri has clearly not done anything that would suggest a film of this visual depth and emotion, but he does a remarkable job realizing Snyder’s vision.  And again, that translates fully into the visual effects on every level.  Every moment reflects a film of epic scope in terms of size and emotion.

By no doubt, the score by master composer Hans Zimmer is perfect for this movie.  Yet again, separating this film from that iconic John Williams theme wasn’t easy for even Zimmer, but he honed his talent and found the sound for Man of Steel.  His main theme has weight and emotion creating a driving rhythm from twelve of the world’s best drummers.  When the scene is rousing and building towards something big and drama, the score is just powerful.  Still, he has a touching piano version of that theme which really plucks the heartstrings in the more tender, lower key moments.  It’s a stunning piece of work he crafted here, and this is a score that I will treasure to own right alongside that original John Williams score from the 1978 film.  Both work on the right epic and inspirational levels for the types of the films they accompanied, and I love them both!

Man of Steel does feature a certain amount of depth that I felt was very good.  Clark finding his purpose and learning who he wants to be has very apt and meaningful.  Although, I do feel there was one missed moment for a little more character development and reflection.  After learning his origins and having a discussion with Lois about Jonathan Kent, Clark returns home, and shortly thereafter, Zod’s message is transmitted around the world forcing that plot forward.  I feel a scene or two of reflection and development right before that plot is introduced would have been perfect.  It would’ve allowed Clark’s journey of discovery to settle in more, and understand where his mindset is at this point in time before being propelled into the public eye.  We do get a number of very good introspective scenes following this in regards to Zod’s ultimatum for Kal-El to reveal himself, but a short lull would’ve felt right to me.  But that’s just me.

Of course, once Zod arrives in Earth’s orbit, the film just propels forward at a very consistent pace.  It’s not break neck, but it certainly doesn’t slow down much for character building.  We do get moments of emotion, passion, and insight into Clark, Lois, and Zod at certain points.  Still, I feel that there is room for further development in a Man of Steel sequel.  I think there’s still much to explore about this Superman, and an even further distance for him to mature and grow.  The foundation is strongly and solidly laid out here, and director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David Goyer can launch everything into a even vaster and deeper place next time.

This is the best film of the year for me by a long shot!  Man of Steel might show some room for improvement, but it delivers on so many epic and powerful levels that I give this a wholehearted recommendation.  If you are a Superman fan willing to embrace a fresh approach that still carries on the spirit of everything that encapsulates the greatest superhero of all time, this is your film to see.  I have no problem with the redesigned suit now that I see it in full bombastic action, and this film has plenty of inspiring imagery.  While we came to believe a long time ago that a man could fly, today, we can believe that Superman can once again live and thrive on the big screen once again.  My hope is restored in full.


Superman II – The Richard Donner Cut (2006)

Superman II RDCThe preface to this review and this version of Superman II in general is that this is more of a rough draft reconstruction of Richard Donner’s original vision of the film.  As much of Donner’s footage was culled together and assembled for this edition, but there’s even a screen test used for one scene and a lot of special effects that are not comparable to what would have been done in 1980.  This version also follows the intended original ending for Superman: The Movie where it would’ve ended on a cliffhanger of Luthor’s missiles being hurled into space and its explosion freeing Zod and his cohorts from the Phantom Zone.  So, even then, this is not the film we would’ve gotten had Donner finished filming this sequel.  So, now that that’s out of the way, let’s get deep into this special and unique version of Superman II.

Freed from the Phantom Zone by an exploding missile in space, General Zod (Terence Stamp) leads his fellow Kryptonian criminals on the path to super-powered tyranny over the planet Earth.  Meanwhile, criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) escapes from his own prison, and journeys to discover Superman’s secrets at the arctic Fortress of Solitude in hopes to harness that knowledge as a weapon.  As this all happens, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) forces a series of events for Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) to reveal himself as Superman.  This leads to a romance between Lois and Clark, but the sacrifices the Man of Steel will make for the woman he loves may leave the entire planet in dire circumstances under the tyranny of General Zod.

The highlights of this version are the inclusion of Marlon Brando’s scenes as Jor-El.  We get a truncated version of Zod’s trial from the first film, conducted by Jor-El, with a few different angles thrown in.  This better establishes Zod’s personal contempt for Jor-El.  However, the best Brando content is in the Fortress of Solitude.  Clark’s interactions with Jor-El as he professes his love for Lois is strongly substantive and nearly heartbreaking.  Jor-El pleading with his son to think about his actions and re-consider his choices is a powerful scene, and is further enhanced when Clark learns of Zod’s tyranny on Earth and seeks to regain his powers.  This is the single biggest and best improvement from the Lester to the Donner cut.  We see how he gets his powers back, and while Reeves’ acting is deeper and more powerful in the Lester version, the overall scene has more impact and meaning with this interaction.  Brando’s presence simply enhances the emotional and consequential scope of the story.  This is due to Jor-El’s overall importance, and the quality of Brando’s legendary talent.

This version also excises nearly all of the silly humor that Richard Lester put into the film.  This makes for a leaner, more serious movie, and that’s exactly what Superman II required.  It has plenty of substance and thematic weight that shines through more clearly with that consistency of tone.  However, there are some structural problems that arise from this.  While I find this to be a faster paced version of the film, I don’t especially see it as a more streamlined or as well plotted of a version.

This version does have good ideas and intentions, but I think the editing is too aggressive to excise more and more Lester footage.  Beyond just having this match Donner’s version, a certain percentage of his directed footage has to be present for him to take credit as the film’s director by DGA rules.  This, along with the new timeline of events, affects the pacing and structure of the film in some negative ways.  For instance, Zod and company are freed from the Phantom Zone, and then, don’t reappear for another twenty minutes.  Then, after the moon scene, they don’t appear on Earth for another fifteen minutes.  Then, once there, the film jumps ahead so abruptly that within a one minute cutaway scene to Lois and Superman having dinner in the Fortress, it goes from their abbreviated encounter with the two cops on the outskirts of the town to them reaching international television coverage on their reign of terror.  Scenes are strung together in choppy ways to excise Lester’s comedy and to remove entire sequences that might be a little funny but also establish informative plot progression and gradual build-up.  The structure has some good intentions by tightening up the pace in a more modern way, and getting straight to the point, but ultimately, it doesn’t feel well balanced or evenly paced.

And it might be a nit-picky thing, but if these events happen within a day or two after the first film, how in the world is Lex able to build both a holographic projector and his alpha waves detector within that time?  I was realizing how much more sense some of Luthor’s dialogue with Otis was with these events happening immediately after those of the first movie, and then, that idea sprung to mind.  Some stuff works in that context, but other stuff, not so much.

Some of what I don’t feel works as well in that compressed timeframe is Lois’ suspicions about Clark being Superman.  First off, I think it’s rather abrupt as she begins suspecting right from the film’s start.  It’s not something built up in the first movie, and is introduced here at full throttle.  Lois also does some insanely radical things to prove it such as jumping out the window of the Daily Planet.  Furthermore, Lois and Clark have only known each other now for a few weeks, and Clark’s now willing to give up everything for her.  The dialogue between him and Jor-El alludes to him serving mankind for a long time.  He says things like, “After all I’ve done for them….will there ever be a time where I’ve served enough?”  In this version of the film, he’s only been Superman, again, for a few weeks, at most.  It simply doesn’t fit.  In Lester’s cut, you get the feeling that he has been around for quite a while, possibly a few years, but here, that is not the case at all.  This film picks up almost immediately after the conclusion of the first movie allowing for no such leeway.

The screen test scene is where Lois forces Clark to reveal himself as Superman.  Of course, this scene is jarring as Christopher Reeve looks quite different, even from shot to shot, as his hairstyle and glasses are different from the rest of the movie, and two screen tests were combined for one scene.  He’s also particularly thinner.  However, I especially don’t approve of Lois’ drastic measures, yet again.  Even though she loads the gun with blanks, the connotation is abhorrent.  Blanks or no, Superman or not, it’s not something you do to someone you love.  Not to mention, I’m sure even Clark could tell that no bullet impacted his man of steel body.  However, the real downside of this scene is that it’s not remotely effective or has nearly as much build up as the scene in the Lester version.  There’s more subtlety and underlining character and emotion in the Lester version where Clark feigns burning his hand in the honeymoon suite fireplace.  It’s also better acted as, again, Donner’s version is probably the first time Reeve and Kidder ever worked with one another.  Even if it were a properly produced scene, I just don’t like Lois pulling a gun on Clark.

The new digital effects for this version are divided in quality.  The one exceptional area is in the Fortress of Solitude with Jor-El’s projections.  You can sometimes tell they are digital composites, but overall, they are the best CGI this film has to offer.  They have a near dead-on look and feel to what we saw in the first movie.  Sadly, there are some really atrocious digital effects and composites on display here, especially the ones in space.  Those outer space background plates look like terribly cartoonish and laughable.  You would NEVER release a film with these cheap looking digital effects into a movie theatre.  Even for a low budget direct-to-video feature they are horrible.  Some of the effects in the Earth based scenes are more easily blended, but still leave a lot of room for improvement.  It is sad that you see other films of that era like Blade Runner or Star Trek: The Motion Picture that have been given similar director’s cuts and digital touch-up jobs with immensely superior results.  The former being a cult classic that did poorly upon release, and the latter still being one of the more maligned entries in the franchise.  Superman II has always been a widely revered film since release, and fans had demanded a Donner version for years.  It’s a terrible shame that Warner Brothers didn’t allocate a larger effects budget to this project because it severely needed it.  History shows you cannot do good visual effects on the cheap, whether in the optical or digital eras.

Another arguable issue is that Richard Donner chose to downgrade the use of Ken Thorne’s original score for Lester’s version in favor of cutting and pasting various pieces of John Williams’ score from the first movie.  This reportedly includes some previously unreleased tracks.  For certain sequences, especially with Zod, Ursa, and Non on the moon, the original Thorne score is more effective highlighting more subtle flourishes and moments.  One can never deny the value of a John Williams score, but his tracks are compositions created for certain other scenes from another movie.  They aren’t going to flow or fit as well as Thorne’s music.  Not to mention, there are times where you can hear obvious chopped up cues that are simply manufacturing moments to fit the scene.  Again, this sort of stems from a low budget for this project.  If this project had enough money, they could have gotten it scored the way it was supposed to be instead of pasting random cues together.

On the upside, there are a number of other improved scenes.  I like the extended assault on the White House.  There’s a peculiar moment where Zod, bored at the lack of a challenge, picks up an assault rifle and starts just shooting the soldiers with it.  All the while he’s got this smirk of amusement on his face like a man playing with a child’s toy.  To him, that’s exactly what it is.  While the scene of Zod being bored after having ceased control of the world is present in both versions, I’d just like to comment on this exemplifying a thought of mine.  What exactly does an all powerful villain and tyrant do once they’ve conquered the world?  For Zod, he sits around being bored out of his skull all day long.  I find that rather funny.

The battle through Metropolis is extended with a few more fun and exciting moments, but the Lester version does feel a little tighter in places.  Yet, Donner’s cut removes so much of the humor that previously undercut the drama of the scene, which is very welcomed.  I also wholeheartedly feel that the climax in the Fortress of Solitude is vastly superior here.  It’s simply better written dialogue and interactions.  Zod and Superman have a more confrontational exchange of words that build upon elements from the Metropolis battle and Zod’s history with Jor-El.  It’s better staged and shot in a more interesting way.  It just has a better, more cumulative feel to it, and is not hampered by a battle of bizarre powers.  It’s very character based, and Donner knows how to pay-off characters amazingly well.

There is a problem with the ending of this version.  While the time reversal usage in the first film, which was transplanted from this film, was strange but nothing really objectionable, how it’s used here negates the events of the entire movie.  Superman reverses time back to the beginning of this movie so that none of it actually happened.  All of the maturing and development of his character is washed away because he no longer has to face the consequences of his actions.  Him destroying the Fortress of Solitude showing that he is now moving beyond that and standing on his own is negated because turning back time restores it.  I also don’t know how reversing time actually prevents the missile from not exploding and releasing Zod, Ursa, and Non from the Phantom Zone all over again.  That’s not addressed in the least.  Plus, Superman did nothing to prevent Luthor from escaping prison, and then, traveling to the Fortress to learn all his secrets all over again.  It’s an extremely sloppy ending, and far too much of a copout power for Superman to utilize.  Any mistake he ever makes can be immediately undone by reversing time.  This applies to the ending of the first film, too, but at least, it was used in a rage of emotion for an isolated incident.  This might as well have had Superman suddenly waking up at the end revealing that it was all a dream.  Furthermore, the jerk at the diner that beat up Clark when he didn’t have his powers, he’s still given a beat down by Clark in this version AFTER he’s already turned back time.  So, Clark is now beating up a guy for something he actually now hasn’t even done.  It’s just sloppy, incoherent structure.  Donner seemed to want everything poured into this without really rationalizing out what made sense to belong or not.

I think somewhere between the Richard Lester and Richard Donner cuts lies the ultimate version of Superman II.  Something that features the best quality performances, including Brando as Jor-El, with a main focus on serious drama, but with a more even pacing that does not favor one director’s footage over another’s.  Warner Brothers should put the right money into it to enhance the new effects, clean up the original optical effects, and get a composer to create a full score with a solid mix.  Not to mention, a semblance of a truly satisfying and smart ending that doesn’t rely on either a memory wiping kiss or a time reversal concept, if possible.  Again, I like the intention and creative direction of Donner’s version, but because it is only a rough draft approximation of the film he would have made, it doesn’t feel like a complete film.  If Donner had been able to shoot his complete film the way he intended to, I truly believe this cut would be so supremely better.  Instead, his ideas have to cut around and chop up footage he didn’t shoot and doesn’t care for.  It’s like trying to fix someone else’s mistake on a sculpture by chipping your way around the undesirable parts.  It’s going to look awkward and clunky.  I more or less believe Donner did the best he could with the footage he had in approximating his vision while adhering to the rules of the DGA to receive a director’s credit on this.  I really hate to speak so negatively about this version because it should be the better version of the two on principal, but on a structural level, it doesn’t really work the way it’s supposed to.  If this was a script, I would say it would need rewrites.  I really enjoy Donner’s extended cut of the first film, and I only own his director’s cuts of the first three Lethal Weapon movies.  So, he does make some great choices in the editing room, but this is too peculiar of a situation for him to forge the best, unbiased edition of Superman II.  This feels more like a workprint than a final product, and I would hope that a better revision on this film could someday exist in an official capacity.


Superman II (1980)

Superman IIThis is one of those rare sequels which does measure up to the original.  Superman II does have some peculiar history, though.  In short, the producers didn’t care to continue working with director Richard Donner very much, and sought to replace him after he had shot part of this film.  Thus, Richard Lester was hired to complete the film, and to gain proper directing credit, he had to re-shoot several sequences himself.  What was released to theatres was Lester’s version, and that is what I am reviewing here.  I do intend on doing a review of the 2006 Richard Donner cut of the film, but one thing at a time.  Let’s delve into what many consider the best film of this franchise, so far.

When a group of terrorists threaten to eradicate Paris with a nuclear bomb, Superman (Christopher Reeve) races to the rescue.  However, after he hurls the bomb into space, the explosion unexpectedly and unknowingly releases the Kryptonian criminals – led by General Zod (Terence Stamp) – from the Phantom Zone who begin to forge a path of destruction towards Earth.  Meanwhile, criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) escapes from his own prison, and journeys to discover Superman’s secrets at the arctic Fortress of Solitude in hopes to harness that knowledge as a weapon.  As this all happens, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) begins to piece together Superman’s secret identity which leads to a romance between Lois and Clark Kent, but the sacrifices the Man of Steel will make for the woman he loves may leave the entire planet in dire circumstances under the tyranny of General Zod.

The film has a nice montage recap of the first film over the opening credits.  Back when this was released there was no home video market for people to re-watch these films whenever they liked, and so, adding this at the start helped audiences get the first Superman adventure freshly back into their minds.  Even for me as a child it was rather important since we had Superman II recorded on VHS well before the first film.  However, one obvious omission is the absence of Jor-El during the trial of Zod, Ursa, and Non.  This was because the producers did not want to pay Marlon Brando his salary again for using his footage in a second film.  So, the scene was reworked and re-cut to eliminate Jor-El completely, and much was the same with the Fortress of Solitude scenes later on.  Moving past that, I really like the opening to this film with the Paris terrorist action sequence.  It gives the film its action packed jump start, and shows that Superman as established himself as a global superhero.  Overall, it’s an excellently well done sequence that launches the narrative forward.

This sequel gives us more depth into Superman as he has to deal with a number of emotional choices.  He clearly loves Lois, but having to maintain the disguise of the bumbling Clark Kent becomes increasingly difficult.  When the truth is undeniably revealed, the romantic fire is fully lit between them, and it creates some wonderful moments that bring warmth and heart into the movie.  This is excellently juxtaposed with Zod’s reign of terror that gradually begins to loom over all of humanity starting from the moon to a rural town to Washington, D.C.  As Clark’s world is getting brighter with dramatic changes being made, the world is facing a terrible threat that only he can combat, yet is entirely aware of.  This is an excellent piece of storytelling dynamics.  When the two stories finally cross paths, it creates a crushing reality check for Clark that I think is one of the best scenes of the film that shows us the character at his most vulnerable state.

Christopher Reeve puts in an amazing performance here giving us great depth in this far more vulnerable and emotional story.  The romance with Lois is touchingly played out with charm, heart, and genuine tenderness with both Reeve and Kidder.  They have a heartwarming chemistry that resonates through the screen.  What Clark is willing to give up to be with Lois is powerful, but it’s the little bit that happens afterwards that I love.  Unlike many super-powered heroes, Superman is one who doesn’t just give up when he’s lost his powers.  When he sees that the world direly needs him, he will go to any length, brave any danger, and face even the slimmest odds to set things right once again.  This film perfectly portrays that inspiring strength, and Reeve does a magnificent job reflecting the emotional turmoil over Clark’s decisions.  Yet, when Clark becomes Superman once again, he stands tall ready to live up to his responsibilities to the world in grand fashion.

Terence Stamp, of course, has become iconic as General Zod.  His Zod can be cool, calm, and confident when things are going his way.  He knows that his destructive powers make all the emphatic statements necessary for him, and so, when confronting the army or even the President, Stamp allows for Zod’s ominous presence to settle in and take over.  However, when circumstances turn against him, when the control begins to slip away, he becomes heated and commanding.  He speaks in a louder, more authoritative voice such as when Superman confronts him, and he yells the classic line of, “Kneel before ZOD!”  Overall, Zod is intelligent and cunning, but it’s his ego that works against him in those excitable situations.  Stamp is a stellar, powerhouse actor who knows when intensity is needed, but is able to excel in the quieter moments of villainy where Zod’s confidence shows through.

Sarah Douglas puts in a graceful performance as Ursa that maintains her as feminine, but also, sadistic and venomous.  It’s perfectly femme fatale without showing a sliver of weakness.  She has a great presence that really complements Terence Stamp as Zod.  She’s also sexy without having to flaunt anything.  It’s all about Ursa’s attitude and how she carries herself that makes her alluring.  One can easily see why Zod would want her at his side as she enjoys destruction and violence as well as being a beautiful, dangerous woman.

I also love how Gene Hackman’s Luthor is used in this film.  They expand his character and show more of his intellectual savvy.  Sure, he can still come off as comical here and there as he boasts his ego, but he’s just a bit smarter than anyone else around him.  How he discovers the Fortress of Solitude and learns about the history of Superman is great stuff.  Hackman has great chemistry with everyone, and I’m glad Otis and Miss Teschmacher are ultimately left behind after the first act.  This allows Lex to be unhindered by their foolishness when he confronts the Kryptonian villains.  Zod becomes so desperate for a challenge he’s ready to charge headlong into it.  However, Luthor uses his cunning and leverage to manipulate them so that he can benefit from their conquests.  I really like Hackman’s work here, and working opposite Terence Stamp’s more militaristic presence allows him to shine more.  It’s a nice balance of a serious, powerful threat and an intellectual one with a sense of levity to him.

Now, the major detriment that Richard Lester brought to this film is its sense of silly humor.  We see this mostly in Non who is given many quirky high pitched grunts, and moments where he seems like an overgrown child.  This was entirely unnecessary as Non being a dumb brute would be far more intimidating and remain consistent with the tone of these villains.  Still, there are moments peppered throughout the movie where little gags appear that were simply not needed, and they work against the dramatic integrity of the movie.  Those comedic grunts from Non were entirely done in post.  Jack O’Holloran has an imposing, sort of scary presence as Non, and in general, what he does in his performance is very effective, aside from the overgrown child ideas which were obviously not of his creation.  At the time, I imagine much of the camp humor was fine with audiences, and for years, it wasn’t a bother to me.  However, time allows you to crave a more consistently dramatic tone.  That’s the film’s strength, but Richard Lester apparently wanted more laughs for whatever reason.

Now, what has most come to bother me about the reign of terror from Zod and company is that they tear apart some remote rural town.  I would have preferred seeing them tear apart a major city.  Something that makes a grander sized statement to the world, and lays waste on a larger scale.  The small rural town, to me, just feels like something that would be done a cheap budget.  I get the feeling that those scenes were directed by Richard Lester as much of the comedic qualities seen within them were excised in the Richard Donner version.  While the Kryptonian villains eventually battle Superman throughout Metropolis, I feel setting their initial assault on humanity in a place of larger importance would have been more effective.  In the least, the rural town has no scope and is shot rather blandly.  It would have been great to see a return to the sweeping cinematic visuals in Smallville of the first film to amp-up this section of the movie.

The score by Ken Thorne, a regular collaborator of Richard Lester, does reuse John Williams’ themes and cues, but in the film itself, the score sounds kind of thin.  However, there was apparently a remastered soundtrack release done in recent years that reflected a much richer and more lush mixing job.  Thorne doesn’t do a bad job, but it is really all built on the strength of Williams’ compositions, which have always been exceptional.  It really comes down to a weaker sound mix this time out, but regardless, the score does add a lot of life to the emotional qualities of the film.

The other strange quality of the movie is all the additional new powers that are given to Superman, Zod, and the rest.  This is most prominently on display in the climax at the Fortress of Solitude with the energy beams shot out from their fingers, and all the teleportation and illusionary powers shown.  Yet, earlier on, Zod and company demonstrate telekinetic type powers.  These are also detriments to the film that are more apparent in Lester’s cut, and possibly sprung from his involvement.  It shows an unfamiliarity with the source material.  There was indeed a time where Superman gained all kinds of crazy powers in the comics, but his core, classic set of powers have long been easily defined in many forms of media.  Anyone with a decent knowledge of the character would know that none of these powers are Superman’s.

Regardless, the vast majority of the effects here are great.  As with the first movie, there are a few lesser grade moments of visual effects work, but on the whole, we are treated to some exciting and visually satisfying stuff.  The entire battle in Metropolis is quite ambitious with a number of large set pieces involved.  The transition from location shooting in New York to soundstages is quite good.  The lighting is consistent with some very good backdrops, and some rear screen projection work done in the more dynamic flying moments.  Surely, it’s not as impressive by today’s standards, but for 1980, the year I was born, this was some exciting action and movie magic.  It gave us Superman actually battling a super-powered adversary, and three of them nonetheless.  Yet, what I really like is that Superman ultimately puts the safety of the civilians foremost, and chooses to end this confrontation with smarts and cunning back at the Fortress of Solitude.  While some might see it as anti-climactic after such an action packed throw down, I think this sequence has some great pay-offs.

The film ends on some good notes, but also some odd ones.  The memory wiping kiss that Clark uses on Lois is another bizarre inclusion by Richard Lester.  Of course, having grown up with it, this is one of those things you take for granted until someone else starts criticizing it, as I have heard.  However, this is a beautifully heartbreaking scene as Lois sheds tears over her crushing emotional conflicts.  She understands that Superman can’t belong to one person, he has to belong to the whole world, but she loves him so dearly that she can’t just detach herself from her feelings.  Clark can’t bare to see her in such pain, and so, he relieves her of that knowledge.  This segues into the very good moment where Superman comes to the White House, and promises the President that he’ll never let him down again.  It shows that he’s gone through an arc, and now fully understands his role in the world.  He’s committed himself to the protection of humanity, and he has to be selfless in order to live up to his promise to the world.  Superman does face problems on a larger scale than we can relate to, but we understand his story and what being Superman requires from him.  Superman is a hero who will never shy away from his responsibilities to the world because of the burden that comes with being the greatest superhero of all time.

Superman II does have many great qualities of depth, drama, and action.  It is very worthy of its reputation of being a fantastic sequel.  It builds upon the characters and ideas in the first film, and breaks it open in a film with thematic material and purposeful arcs that have good pay-offs.  It also far and beyond surpasses the first film in terms of action, and the effects work is a little more improved.  Christopher Reeve has more room to breathe and expand, and he really shows a powerful depth and range.  We get some great villains that have become iconic which transcended through pop culture.  Still, the film could have done without the slapstick humor, the child-like qualities of Non, the out-of-nowhere new powers everyone has, and the visual gags that Lester slipped in here and there.  The change from Marlon Brando’s Jor-El to the mother Lara in the Fortress advising Kal-El is not horrible, but those scenes don’t resonate as deeply as they could have with Brando.  Regardless, this film delivers a wonderfully enjoyable, entertaining, and nicely dramatic experience with plenty of romantic warmth and emotional depth.  It is unfortunate that the following two sequels sharply declined in quality, but the pleasure is in enjoying what it is you have to cherish.  Superman II is definitely a fine piece of superhero cinema that deserves to be treasured despite any shortcomings it might have.


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesMy childhood fandom of the Ninja Turtles has not stayed with me into adulthood, except for this excellent live action film.  When people talk about comic book adaptations I don’t think many trigger this film in their heads due to the property’s larger visibility as a cartoon.  The cartoon was very goofy fun while the comic was very violent and dark.  This movie met them somewhere in the middle giving us something that was gritty and violent with strong substance, but also maintaining a great sense of fun.  Even more impressive is how these filmmakers brought the Turtles into live action in convincing fashion.

A mysterious, severe crime wave is gripping New York as thieves slip in and out even in broad daylight sight unseen.  Television journalistic April O’Neil (Judith Hoag) believes it to be the work of a Japanese outfit called the Foot Clan, and she is soon targeted by them in order to silence her.  However, from the sewers of the city come four mutated crime-fighting and fun-loving turtles – Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael – and their rat sensei Splinter who fight at her side.  Joining them in their battle is Casey Jones (Elias Koteas), a vigilante that utilizes sports gear as weapons.  At the head of the Foot Clan is the merciless Shredder who has revealing links to the origins of the Turtles and Splinter.

Now, I don’t care how evolved CGI will become, I cannot imagine anything outdoing the brilliant craftsmanship of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop team here.  Henson, for those that don’t know, was the premiere innovator of puppetry and animatronics in the 1970s and 1980s.  This film was indeed a pinnacle achievement for him and his company.  Nothing at all is sacrificed with the use of these elaborate suits of foam rubber and animatronic mechanisms.  They have a full, wide range of abilities in expression and movement creating Turtles that can perform all of the dynamic, agile action, and convey deep emotion and character.  Even adjusted for inflation, no film today could achieve with CGI what this film did on $13.5 million.  Each Turtle is given a distinct look, design, and feel with extraordinary detail.  They have a very realistic texture that feels natural to the environment around them and of the film as a whole.  Splinter is undoubtedly the most impressive accomplishment in all his articulation as there was no one in a suit portraying him.  He’s purely from the result of expert animatronics operators, and he still has the value of humanity to him.

Leonardo is the strong leader of the group trusting and enveloping himself in Splinter’s spiritual teachings.  He forges the soul of the team.  Donatello is more laid back, less like his scientist cartoon counterpart, but still works very enjoyably in this dynamic.  His voice is even provided by Corey Feldman.  Michelangelo is the fun loving party dude, and a bit of the mischievous one of them all.  However, my favorite is definitely Raphael with his more tough guy attitude.  He’s the most strong willed, but also stubborn one of them all.  He shows the most passion and frustration of the Turtles, and I really like his first encounter with Casey Jones.  It’s very funny to both of their credits.  It would be easy to drive this premise into silly territory, but this film takes these characters seriously.  The filmmakers do make them fun, but they are dimensional characters with interesting family dynamics and deep, real emotions that are beautifully conveyed.  It’s a masterful mixture of the live action performances, and incredible dubbing work by highly talented voice actors.  It all feels totally seamless and cohesive for an ultimate Turtle Power experience!

Judith Hoag does a stellar job as April O’Neil.  She’s a spirited, serious journalistic that is determined to crack open this crime spree, and even suspects the police of not doing their all to combat it.  Hoag injects a lot of spunky personality into the character, and as the film progresses, we see her heart and humor in touching fashion.  Hoag makes April a very energetic and fun character.  It’s a terrible shame that she declined to reprise her role in the sequels due to substantial cuts to some of her scenes here.  She does a wonderful job in this role through and through.  I also believe Hoag has some endearing natural beauty that entirely fits the tone of the film, and more important than looks is that she’s a pitch perfect casting choice.  She has wonderful chemistry with everyone she shares the screen with, and carries her own in every single scene.

The one person that I’ve always dearly loved in this movie is Elias Koteas as the hockey mask wearing Casey Jones.  For one, Koteas is one of the best, most consistently awesome actors I’ve seen.  As Jones, he’s greatly entertaining with a real hard edged but not-too-bright attitude.  Koteas is more of a street fighter, but shows off some good moves against the Foot Clan.  Casey is charming in a dunderheaded kind of way.  He’s surely street smart, but not all that smooth socially.  He means real well with his heart in the right place, but often his mouth and machismo screws him over.  Koteas and Hoag have this great endearing friction that Donatello perfectly relates to Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd on Moonlighting, which had that classic argumentative romantic tension.  By the end, however, you see Koteas has great comedic charisma, and has Casey show his heart to really win everyone over.

And of course, the portrayal of the Shredder is chilling and perfect.  The filmmakers set the right tone keeping him shrouded in shadows at first, and giving him grand reveals that elevate his mystique.  The role was the work of two performers.  James Saito was the on-screen performer giving the character all of his theatrical and frightening presence, and showcasing some stellar martial arts abilities.  However, his low, ominous voice was provided by David McCharen, and that’s a major cog in the Shredder’s overall power.  The theatrical trailer actually features a different dubbed voice which isn’t as effective, and so, all the right choices were clearly made with the execution and presentation of this arch-nemesis for our heroes in a half-shell.  And surely, I have to mention the really tough right hand man in Tatsu that leads the Foot into battle, and is a very solid complement to Shredder’s presence and character.

The action sequences are done remarkably well.  All of the martial arts action is superb with the Turtle suits impairing none of the stunt players’ ability with the fight choreography.  The violence holds nothing back, short of bloodshed, as weapons are used regularly, and the fights show plenty of inventive ideas to keep it fun and original.  The Turtles’ shells are often employed in quirky, smart ways.  It’s a great showcase of fun, dynamic, but also, gritty martial arts action.  When the Turtles finally square off against the Shredder, it’s a great sequence which intensifies the villain’s indomitable skill and cold blooded viciousness.  Yet, the climax still has some surprises and humorous beats to make it both a dramatic, perilous sequence, and something to elicit some chuckles and laughs from the audience.  It’s stellar and memorable all around.  It’s greatly satisfying.

It is immensely admirable how genuine this film is.  Director Steve Barron pays honest respect to this material, and never treats these six foot tall ninja fighting mutant turtles are jokes.  Of course it’s an absurd concept, but it’s only as convincing as how you present it.  If you can make the audience connect with the characters on a genuine, emotional level, a serious tone with the film will work, and it does so amazingly here.  Leo, Don, Mikey, Raph, and Splinter are given as much weight and poignancy as any other character you might find.  It is their film and they carry it.  And they carry it with tremendous success.  These are the characters you absolutely must fall in love with, and all of the work that went into them from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to the performers to the voice talents and beyond made that possible.

And this is one seriously catchy score by John Du Prez.  These themes have been engrained my mind for over twenty years.  He uses a strong urban flavor with electric guitars for most things, but there’s plenty of variation.  For instance, the main theme is light-hearted and melodically catchy.  Du Prez also gives us beautiful compositions in the more spiritual scenes with Splinter, and the tender moments out at the farmhouse where the Turtles, Casey, and April recover from their defeats.  And even more so, his score accentuates moments of tension and danger for our heroes.  It’s an awesome score that is filled with so much life and depth, but as with the rest of the movie, it never forgets the fun factor.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has excellent energy with spot-on rhythm and pacing.  While it has lower key moments with lulls in the action to further develop the characters, it never drags.  These filmmakers fill that 90 minute runtime tightly creating a film that is all kinds of fun while not skimping on the substance.  This is due to the great action and charismatic humor that populates it.  Every character is realized vibrantly and portrayed superbly.  The balancing of tone between the serious drama and fun levity is greatly handled by director Steve Barron backed by a really solid screenplay   It’s a shame this was at the end of the careers of both screenwriters.  They seemed to have a real great knack for entertaining diversity, well developed characters, and cohesive storytelling.

Altogether, this is seriously one great movie!  I really love it, and I think it holds up beautifully over the last twenty-three years.  The gritty look of it really grabs me, and sets the Turtles in a unique world where it feels very real but their mere existence opens up the doors to far more fantastical possibilities.  I think the spiritual qualities offered up are powerful as they add a further depth to these characters and concepts.  I find it a real disservice that the sequels took a much more family friendly and lighter direction due to objections from parents about this film’s violent content.  Neither sequel was received as well as this one resulting in declining box office returns for New Line Cinema.  This first film was produced independently, and at that time, it became the highest grossing independent film of all time bringing in $200 million.  That comes are no surprise to me because this is an excellent made film in every aspect striving to be more than just a fun flick.  It gives you a weight of substance that is essential, in my view, to any successful comic book adaptation.  Heroes will always battle villains, but it’s what you put into those heroes and villains that make it special.  And to me, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a very special film to me.  I give it a HUGE recommendation!


Superman (1978)

SupermanThe original superhero blockbuster was an epic task to achieve in the late 1970’s.  Richard Donner was the director given the main task of helming this ambitious project, but the true strength of bringing Superman to the silver screen lied within one man who remains, for so many, the quintessential embodiment of the Last Son of Krypton.  Christopher Reeve would carry this icon to soaring heights, and capture the hearts of audiences worldwide.

When the premier scientist of the planet Krypton, Jor-El (Marlon Brando), rightfully predicts the destruction of his peaceful planet, he sends his only son in a spacecraft to the planet Earth.  There, he is adopted by the kindly Kansas couple the Kents, but they quickly discover young Clark Kent possesses powers beyond that of any human.  As he grows to maturity, Clark (Christopher Reeve) learns of his alien heritage, and comes to Metropolis as a reporter for the Daily Planet.  However, when a perilous helicopter accident forces Clark to reveal his powers to the world as Superman, he becomes the target of criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) who launches a diabolical plan to destroy the west coast and kill Superman.

When this film was being made, comic books weren’t taken very seriously, and so, these filmmakers intended to make a serious impression with Superman.  While this didn’t break the floodgates open for comic book movies to be produced, this laid the groundwork for things to come, especially 1989’s Batman.  Even though the tone isn’t consistently serious and epic, it never degrades the integrity of Superman.  That’s something I can at least say about all of the Christopher Reeve outings, regardless of how bad, cheesy, or stupid they may have gotten – Reeve maintains Superman as an icon of integrity and dignity.  However, he is not the only incredible acting talent on display in this epic blockbuster.

Casting Marlon Brando as Jor-El was a brilliant idea.  For those first twenty minutes of the movie, he carries it effortlessly bringing compassion, strength, and wisdom to this pivotal character.  No one could ever discount Brando’s talent, and he establishes a solid impression with just a few introductory scenes.  In addition to that, Glenn Ford really has only two scenes here as Jonathan Kent, but the substance of his talent and performance rings through purposefully.  It has weight and poignancy.  Both of these fathers are the moral building blocks of who Clark Kent becomes, and they are the men that forge the strength and virtue that are key to Superman.  Brando, in particular, sets a wonderful, heartfelt tone when he returns as this projection in the Fortress of Solitude to guide his son.  The film’s extended edition adds in another scene between Clark and Jor-El which is beautiful and touching.

And since Superman and Superman II were plotted out and conceived at the same time, we have an excellent setup at the beginning of this film with Terrence Stamp’s General Zod and his fellow conspirators.  Stamp makes a powerful impact in that one scene with a cold, tyrannical presence where he leaves Jor-El with a prophetic threat that pays off in the following film.

Richard Donner and his cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth do a remarkable job with the visuals here.  Krypton has its epic visual scope, but also, this intriguing utopian alien aesthetic.  The crystal structures are unlike anything that had been seen before reflecting a culture vastly different from our own, and the journey of Kal-El’s spaceship to Earth is wonderfully cosmic.  The scenes in Kansas are sprawling and picturesque.  They evoke that Norman Rockwell heartland of America feeling.  They use the landscape to stunning effect giving the film visual scope in distinct ways.  When the film shifts to Metropolis, it looks more standard with less visual flare.  More urban grit with locked down shots and less graceful camera movements.  The whole film also has this soft focus glow that I feel really works well.

Must I even say that John Williams’ score is amazing?  The man specializes in amazing.  However, what he does here I think is even more special.  No other theme in all of cinema, to me, reflects such hope, heroism, and inspiration as his theme for Superman.  It has lived beyond this continuity of films to be iconic with the character himself through all media and generations.  It is usually a surefire way to choke me up, especially with the right imagery, and it encapsulates Superman in the most epic ways possible.  The overall score is equally as stunning, and stands as one of Williams’ finest accomplishments.

This was a film of ambitious special effects as never before had the image of Superman flying through the air appeared convincing.  Largely, I do think many of these visual effects are still great.  They still work beautifully, but every once in a while you get a shot that looks quite dated and less than convincing.  However, the use of miniatures for certain shots, and every trick they used to make Superman fly is stellar.  Oddly, I really like the scene where he stops the car burglar from scaling the skyscraper, and you see Superman fly down across frame as the burglar falls.  It’s a simple shot that required no visual effects.  The opening shots on Krypton are stunning too especially after Zod and his cohorts are sentenced to the Phantom Zone, and we see that massive dome opening up.  It’s all about visual scope, and this film captured it with epic results.  In general, this film was an amazing achievement in visual effects that earned this team an Oscar.

Now, while this excellent special effects team made you believe a man could fly, Christopher Reeve made you believe in Superman.  That helicopter rescue scene remains possibly my favorite Superman moment of all time.  His moments at the end of that scene speaking with Lois are magical to me.  The confidence he projects with a glimmer in his eye is the moment I believed in the power of Superman.  Overall, Reeve brings the heart, humanity, compassion, and charm of the Man of Steel to brilliant life.  He even shows moments of emotional depth speaking again with Jor-El at the Fortress of Solitude after revealing his existence, and especially so opposite Lois.  But it’s the genuine kindness and earnest humbleness in Reeve’s performance that sells everything.  You can see that this is a character that believes in the best in humanity, and is truly a beacon of hope to all.  Later in life, we saw that Christopher Reeve naturally embodied these qualities in his struggle with paralysis, and because of his undying hope, he became one of the greatest inspirations in life to me.  He was a real life Superman.

Now, while the first fifty minutes of the film are very serious, dramatic, and vast in scope, the latter bulk of the movie shifts tones.  It delves more into a somewhat campy comic book tone.  You’ve got the charming yet bumbling Clark Kent creating a little bit of physical humor here and there.  Then, the introduction of the villains pushes the proverbial envelope.  Ned Beatty’s Otis is not to be taken seriously at all.  He’s an obvious dimwit, and Miss Teschmacher is not much better.  It almost seems like Lex Luthor surrounds himself with morons in order to make himself look like a genius in comparison.

Now, I am not a fan of this portrayal of Lex Luthor.  He’s little more than a ruthless con artist and a real estate swindler with bad fashion sense and maniacal aspirations.  I will give credit that he is a sociopath willing to exterminate countless lives for his own greed, and that does make him a serious threat.  However, regardless of the sort of silly characterization, Gene Hackman still puts in a damn fine performance.  The humor of Luthor is expertly done with sharp conviction, but what sells him as a villain is really the vile intellect.  The entire “greatest criminal mind of our time” thing does come off comically, but we do see moments where Luthor has a dangerous intelligence.  He can setup a cunning trap for Superman, but I’d love to be able to take the character seriously on a consistent basis.  I truly believe Hackman could have done a wholly serious, villainous performance, and done it awesomely.  Unfortunately, it really is the bumbling fools that surround Luthor which make him cartoonish for most of his screentime.  I don’t think the film needed silliness in any degree.  Regardless, Hackman is a magnificent actor, and his talent regularly shows here even if the material is a little goofy.

And the remainder of the supporting cast is exceptionally solid.  Jackie Cooper gives us a great, hard edged Perry White.  He’s a newsman who has gusto and aggression who motivates his people firmly.  Margot Kidder is indeed a stellar Lois Lane giving us both the assertive, ambitious journalist who will do whatever it takes to get the best story, but also, shows us the feminine vulnerability.  We see her genuine affection for Superman, and Kidder has solid chemistry with Reeve in both of his personas.  The scenes of tender heart and warmth are genuine while the bumbling Clark scenes have a nice contrast of humor and Lois’ aggressive nature.  It’s fantastically handled by two amazing talents, and honed by a great director.

This is a solid origin story and a colorful, vibrant film.  I do like the pacing of this movie because it is consistent even if it is slower than your modern day superhero epic.  Yes, Kal-El’s early life is kind of done in a Cliff’s Notes version as it just briefly touches on the largely important parts.  Then, when Reeve makes his appearance as the adult Clark / Superman, the pacing is more lax allowing for things to be stretched out further.  I did watch the expanded edition for this review as I like the extra content with Jor-El on Krypton, and Lex Luthor’s gauntlet that he lays out to test Superman.  There are a number of added segments throughout, but I do think they are mostly substantive and worthwhile.  The film has no overarching plot, and the extent of one is simply foiling Luthor’s crazed plan to blow up the west coat to make way for his real estate scam.  So, this isn’t a film of thematic material and heavy subject matter.  Yet, it accomplishes its goals – bring Superman to glorious life on the big screen in an epic sized adventure.  There’s really only two real action sequences – the helicopter rescue with a crime-fighting montage afterwards and the climax as Superman attempts to stop the missiles and save people from its destructive consequences.  The ending is rather ridiculous by most standards.  Reversing the Earth’s rotation to turn back time is a very cheap idea, but also very much in the style of the Golden / Silver Age of comics where logic didn’t figure into science.  So, given the time this was made, I can let it pass, but if a movie today did it, I’d cry out for someone to knock some sense into the filmmakers.

While it might be entirely perfect, Superman: The Movie was the wonderfully produced and directed film it needed to be.  It keeps things simple enough without sacrificing emotion and drama, but adds in touches of humor later on for a generally fun and enjoyable superhero film experience.  It set the foundation for where the franchise could go from here, and while directors, tones, budgets, and qualities would change, Christopher Reeve maintained the steady confidence of Superman through each film.  Here, there was no question that he was indeed the Man of Steel brought to cinematic life, and Richard Donner’s high quality direction with a great eye for visual scope made this a stunning success.  Add in the sweeping, epic, and iconic score of John Williams, and you have the greatest superhero of all time taking flight in a great and satisfying way.


Iron Man 2 (2010)

Iron Man 2I do like this sequel.  I’ve never vocalized any criticism of it because it is fun and enjoyable, but yeah, it does have some problems that should be pointed out.  Probably its biggest is a few too many plot threads running through it.  They never make the film incomprehensible, just a little bloated, but there is the fact that the film constantly veers off track by following the wrong story after not too long.  It had promise at the start, but let’s see how exactly they dash that.

Now that Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) has revealed to the world that he is Iron Man, the entire world is now eager to get their hands on his hot technology – whether it’s the United States government, weapons contractors, or an unknown enemy.  That enemy happens to be Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) – the son of now deceased Anton Vanko, Howard Stark’s former partner.  Stark had Vanko banished to Russia for conspiring to commit treason against the US, and now Ivan wants revenge against Tony – and he’s willing to get it at any cost.  But after being humiliated in front of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, rival weapons contractor Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) sees Ivan as the key to upping his status against Stark Industries after an attack on the Monaco 500.  All the while, an ailing Tony has to figure out a way to save himself, stop Vanko, and get Hammer before the government shows up and takes his beloved suits away.

Simply said, I think Iron Man 2 could have been a better movie if it didn’t overload itself with so many plots.  The story we get with Tony dealing with a self-destructive mentality has some great stuff in it.  Instead of dealing with alcoholism, which has been a major issue for Stark in the comics, it deals with his failing health due to issues with his arc reactor.  What’s saving his life is also killing him is a fine idea.  I do like that this ties into Ivan Vanko and Howard Stark, creating something that appears cohesive in concept.  Yet, adding in all the unneeded machinations of Justin Hammer and the S.H.I.E.L.D. plot elements convolutes things, taking away the focus and poignancy of the core story.

I feel that everything directly involving Tony dealing with his father’s legacy, and rebuilding himself is excellent.  It creates the weight and gravity of the film, and it is what I love about Iron Man 2.  While it does seem like the filmmakers kind of took Tony back a step from the more altruistic and compassionate guy he became in the last film, I can see how Tony’s deteriorating health could alter his personality and disposition.  Once Tony’s health is on the upswing, and he becomes inspired by his father’s legacy, he rises back up to being that hero we knew.  Still, that kicks in for the third act, and so, for the majority of the picture, we have the more self-absorbed, self-destructive Tony Stark.  Downey continues to do a fantastic job in the role bringing his charm and charisma into the fold to maintain Tony as likeable even if he’s being a belligerent ass.  You know there’s a better guy underneath and he just needs a kick in the back side to open his eyes and mind again.

Obviously, I really liked Terrence Howard as Rhodey, but after a disagreement over money, Marvel replaced him with the equally talented Don Cheadle.  He does a fine job following up on what Howard did, but admittedly, I can’t help but constantly think how Howard might’ve played things a little differently.  That’s not a knock on Cheadle, who I love, just the unfortunate fact of having to re-cast a role.  Regardless, Don Cheadle is a strong fit for this role focusing more on a character of serious candor and conviction with a few touches of humor.  We still get moments of compassion from Rhodey, but he’s forced into a more conflicted role of trying to help Tony, even went it turns adversarial, while maintaining loyalty to the U.S. military.  Cheadle takes the role and runs with it adding his own vibe and depth to it while not betraying what was done previously.

Scarlet Johansen is amazingly sexy and killer as Black Widow.  She’s got some sharp, alluring chemistry with Downey.  Natasha Romanov is able to lead Stark on while also never giving into his advances, making her a very smart and assertive character.  When it comes time to kick ass, she is immensely impressive handling all the agile fighting skills beautifully.  She’s a wonderful and vibrant fit for this role.

On initial viewings, I found Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer to be nearly insufferable and obnoxious.  He came off like the lame guy at the party trying to act like the coolest guy at the party and failing.  I understand that this is sort of the intention with the character.  Make him seem like a second rate Tony Stark who is more lame by trying to be cool, but annoying is sort of what I got out of the performance.  The film sets him up as this inferior and incompetent competitor to Stark, and he never becomes anything but incompetent and egotistical.  No one in the film is really buying any of the bull he’s selling, especially Vanko, and you can see that even he views Hammer as a foolish, abrasive joke.  Rockwell is a highly talented actor with many various talents, but I think this character is too much.  He eats up so much scenery and screentime while being one of the least consequential characters in the movie.  At times, I can enjoy him more now, finding some humor in what Hammer is doing, especially during his weapons presentation to Rhodey, but the film really would have been far better off without this character.

It’s almost sad that Hammer has so much screentime compared to Mickey Rourke.  While Ivan Vanko’s story is simply revenge, it has more potential substance than Hammer’s purely ego-driven scheme.  It would’ve pushed the more internal conflicts with Tony into the foreground, and have Vanko represent everything wrong and twisted with his family’s legacy.  Rourke can be a fantastic actor, or in the least, a very entertaining one.  There are scenes here where Rourke does very solid dramatic work, especially when Vanko and Stark meet after the Monaco incident.  Rourke makes this a great, intimidating, and menacing villain that should have been the main threat throughout the movie.  Yet, he quickly becomes relegated to be a minor character after he joins up with Hammer, and even the conclusion to his part of the film is very dismissive as a generic “villain in a suit” throwaway action sequence.  With so many plot threads weaving through this film, it seems the filmmakers lost sight partway through of what was pertinent to the core story and what was just entertaining fluff.

The scene between Vanko and Stark after the race track incident is the best scene of the film, and it is terribly wasted.  The thematic material Vanko brings up in it and the questions about the Stark family legacy are barely followed through on in the remainder of the film.  This scene establishes a serious, dramatic tone that is not really revisited.  Even in the trailers, this was the dramatic hook for me.  If this set the tone for the remainder of the film, it would have been a tremendously solid film, but alas, that was not to be.

Again, the film is a little over bloated and a bit indulgent.  Stuff about Vanko obsessing over his bird is entirely frivolous, but thankfully, doesn’t take up more than a few minutes of screentime.  Yet, the film has little moments like this where it indulges in extraneous junk, such as in the Senate Committee meeting.  The film gets cluttered with too much junk that it can’t see the track to stay on it.  The main plot of this film deals with Tony Stark falling apart and having to rebuild himself by rediscovering his father’s legacy.  That’s apparent right from the beginning, and it would have flowed very well if the film dealt mainly with Ivan Vanko’s intentions of revenge.  It would all thematically tie in solidly, but again, it is the Justin Hammer aspect that disrupts that plotline of the film.  The first part of the film through Vanko’s incarceration is great to me.  It felt like the film was on-track, for the most part, towards a meaty story filled with emotional resonance.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t maintain that because the filmmakers felt it was necessary to add a second, frivolous villain who overshadows the more superior and relevant villain.  This really is my main gripe with the movie, and it is why I keep harping on it.  Vanko has strong motivations based in bitter emotions that make him a formidable adversary.  Hammer just has ego going for him, and that is just not very interesting.  Beyond that, he’s just a lame character good merely for small jokes, not a forefront storyline.

Now, people say that this film being a setup for The Avengers is its biggest problem.  Frankly, that is barely part of the movie.  Yes, there are ways you could have written Nick Fury and Black Widow out of this for a tighter, less crowded movie, but let’s look at what they contribute to the film.  They provide Tony with an injection that curbs the symptoms of his ailment, provide him with further knowledge into his father which leads to Tony discovering the new element to power his Arc reactor, and Black Widow helps to stop Vanko’s assault with the Hammer Drones.  They don’t actually impede upon the plot, or wedge their own plot into the film, they are part of the on-going plot of the movie.  They assist Stark with various aspects of it, and while they are there in order for there to be a segue into The Avengers and more concretely establish S.H.I.E.L.D., they don’t hijack the movie from Iron Man.  It’s still his movie, and they just happen to be in it.

On the upside, Iron Man 2 does feature some excellent action sequences.  They are all different and exciting from Vanko’s attack on the race track, which creates a sense of grave peril, to the fast-paced finale teaming Iron Man and War Machine together against the Hammer Drones.  It does have less action than the first film, but what Jon Favreau and his creative team of filmmakers achieved with these sequences is still excellent.  There’s enough plot going on to maintain a rhythm and pace in the film for it to survive and mostly thrive without the aid of additional action sequences.  I do feel that the Hammer Drone attack is far more satisfying than when Vanko shows up in his Whiplash suit.  This is mainly because the Hammer Drone segment is just an action scene with the sole intent of delivering excitement in a smart and slick fashion.  Vanko’s conclusion, again, feels flat and secondary, at best.

Regardless of its problems, I still do find Iron Man 2 quite an enjoyable film with plenty of excitement, charisma, mostly great performances, and some very smart ideas for evolving Tony’s character.  I do think that Marvel Studios had all the right talent and elements, but weren’t able to either trim them down for a leaner story or arrange them in the most effective order.  You could have Justin Hammer be in the film without him dominating so much of the plot.  He could easily be a more minor character enabling Vanko, who remains in the forefront enhancing the thematic elements of the story.  In any case, many do see this film as a stumbling block in just the Iron Man franchise, but I’m far from thinking it’s terrible.  I know others disagree.  It’s a film that still had substance and evident talent behind it which still manages to be entertaining, in my view.


Iron Man (2008)

M Payoff 1shtSometimes, when you want it done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.  That’s how I feel about the Marvel films.  Until Iron Man, I don’t think anyone entirely handled the Marvel Comics properties correctly on a consistent basis, and so, it took until Marvel Studios was launched for a cohesive and high quality franchise of films to be created.  This was the groundwork, and on every level, it was a stunning success.

Billionaire industrialist and genius inventor Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is the CEO of the leader in military weaponry, Stark Industries.  After Stark conducts a demonstration of the company’s state of the art Jericho Missile, his convoy is attacked and he is taken captive by a group of insurgents who want Stark to build him their own missile.  Instead, using his intelligence and ingenuity, Tony builds a high-tech suit of armor and a means to prevent his death from the shrapnel left in his chest by the attack.  Stark soon escapes captivity, and when he returns to the United States, he  changes his outlook on life, and begins to dedicate himself to peace instead of war.  He finds opposition and criticism from his closest confidants in business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), his best friend Lt. Colonel James Rhodes (Terence Howard), and his smart and affectionate secretary Peppers Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).  Yet, when he uncovers a nefarious plot with global implications, Tony Stark dons his powerful armor and vows to protect the world as Iron Man.

This is absolutely one of the best superhero origin stories ever realized on film.  I had not been thoroughly impressed with any Marvel Comics movies before this since Blade.  Whether it was unfaithfulness to the source material, the wrong talent involved, or the wrong tone being implemented, nothing from X-Men to Daredevil to Spider-Man ever really got it completely right in my view.  Iron Man is a perfect example of handling it right.  This set an excellent tone for the full Marvel Cinematic Universe, and also reflects the tone of Marvel Comics, in general.  It can have good drama, but usually, Marvel Comics are meant to be largely fun and colorful.  Director Jon Favreau does an exemplary job meshing those ideas together in a very cohesive and entertaining film.

It’s beautiful how Favreau sets up and establishes Tony Stark here.  We get a dash of the charisma and personality followed by the awards ceremony video package detailing his history in short.  It gives you all the basics right up front in an entertaining and succinct fashion.  This style permeates the film being sharp, smart, and stylish.  It also reflects Stark’s personality.  He’s a man of sharp wit, arrogant intellect, but is irrefutably charming and fun.  I can hardly imagine anyone but Robert Downey, Jr. pulling off this diverse and engaging role.  The charming yet arrogant egotist is a major challenge, but it seems to come easy to Downey.  It’s that sense of heart and lovability he adds in there, especially opposite Paltrow, which allows Tony Stark to come off as a charismatic joy instead of a self-important jerk.  Downey is simply a vibrant, solid leading man who handles the dramatic, soul searching aspects of Tony Stark as strongly as the fun, humorous bits.  He’s compelling and electric on screen.  He makes that subtle, yet profound evolution from the self-important genius to the selfless, righteous hero masterfully.  He doesn’t just embody Tony Stark, he launches him into excellence.

Jeff Bridges does an excellent job as Obadiah Stane.  He’s an immensely diverse actor able to do the full spectrum from kind hearted hero to tough, gritty guy, and here, he gives us some taste of that whole range.  We get the upbeat, friendly guy who is very close to Tony, and can work an awards ceremony audience or a press conference with charisma and spin.  Then, we get the gradual transition to the intimidating, menacing villain.  It’s a masterful turn towards the corrupt businessman willing to sell out his company, best friend, and country for profit.  Bridges embraces all of these fascinating aspects with great zeal making Stane a very solid and smart enemy for Stark to combat.  In general, he just plays an awesome heavy.  And apparently, Bridges always wanted to shave his head for a role, and I think maybe that propelled his enjoyment of the character.

I also really love Terrence Howard.  He’s an amazing actor that I hold in high value.  As Lt. Colonel James Rhodes, he’s really a joy.  The strongest qualities are his vibrant chemistry with Downey, and the sense of compassion and honor he has.  Rhodey’s clearly a great character with a lot of depth and dynamics to offer, and I think Howard was wonderful in this part.  It’s a performance that gives us a character of potential, and while it’s unfortunate that Howard could not negotiate a return for the sequel, the character has yet to go to waste in any actor’s hands.  And of course, I’ve always loved the little tease of War Machine we get going into the third act.  It’s a great moment thrown out for fans, but also works smartly for non-comic fans.

And of course, Gwyneth Paltrow is wonderful as the sweet and smart Pepper Potts.  It’s great how Pepper brings out the heartfelt honesty in Tony, and Paltrow does that with some great subtlety and charm.  She makes Pepper this interesting person who can be very assertive and a sharp business personality, but then, get very sweet and flustered when trying to keep up with Tony’s rapid fire wit.  The chemistry between her and Downey is beautiful, and really allows for the humanity of Tony Stark to show through.

What we get here is a very strong and smart origin story that never bogs us down.  So many origin stories seem to suck up a lot of time just establishing every little element methodically before we get to see the hero come into being.  With Iron Man, the film unfolds at a tight rhythm always pushing the story and character forward to where you are fully invested in Tony Stark, and what he’s going through.  We see the man himself evolve and change his sensibilities in order to make Iron Man what he needs to be.  It is a story of redemption.  Stark is reforming his ways and becoming accountable for what his company does, and how his negligent behavior has facilitated Stane’s corruption of Stark Industries.  It’s qualities like this which make Stark one of the more fascinating Marvel superheroes.  He has a lot of bad behavior and decisions to make up for while trying to build a better, safer future for everyone.  The relationship with Pepper Potts beautifully reinforces the depth of humanity that is motivating Tony.  He wants to be a better person that saves lives instead of enabling war.

I love the motivating scene where Tony is watching the newscast of the Ten Rings having ravaged Yinsen’s hometown while he is working on the Iron Man gauntlet.  It’s that moment which triggers Stark into action as a protector doing what no one else can.  That is the moment where his purpose and path is clear.  He’s been betrayed by one of his closest friends, and sees that betrayal has lead to this level of tragedy and injustice.  He will not stand for it, and that is the scene where Iron Man is solidified.

We also get those great phases as Tony goes through the Mark I, Mark II, and Mark III armors gradually refining Iron Man.  Each one is excellently adapted from the pages of the comic book making them convincing as functional pieces of machinery.  The visual effects married with practical elements create a cohesive and seamless result.  These are top grade visual effects featured throughout this movie giving us dynamic, cinematic images that serve the story superbly.

This film has plenty of sharp, smart humor.  These moments really create the fun factor of Iron Man, and maintain the entertainment value in between the scenes of action and engaging drama.  They hit in just the right moments to highlight the well written and developed qualities of these characters.  And the dramatic qualities of Iron Man are executed with equally great skill and care.  The emotional weight and drive of this story is powerfully accentuated throughout.  Excellently directed by Jon Favreau, all of this results in a movie of great thrills.

This is just filled with wonderfully done action sequences.  They are never frivolous.  They drive the story and characters forward each time.  Stark has something to fight for each time whether it’s freedom, destruction of his back market sold weaponry, or protecting those he cares for, it all has a purpose to exist.  The action climax is beautifully done.  It has bombastic intensity and emotional stakes while all the while being fun and thrilling.  It is exceptionally satisfying.

Needless to say, Iron Man is one of the best comic book movies ever made.  The casting of Robert Downey, Jr. was brilliant and pitch perfect.  There are possibly other actors that could have done a fine job with the role, but what Downey brings is that sharp wit and charisma that instantly and endlessly entertains an audience while hitting all the dramatic beats beautifully.  Favreau was also ultimately a fantastic choice for a director bringing in a lot of those same elements from behind the camera.  This was an exciting, successful launch to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and that little tease after the end credits of Tony getting a visit from Nick Fury drove fans crazy at the time.  What Marvel Studios has since done with this universe and franchise is an amazing achievement that is not ready to slow down anytime soon.


The Shadow (1994)

The ShadowI have LOVED this movie since I first saw it.  I know this was met with mixed reactions upon release, and it was not a real lucrative success in theatres.  Frankly, I am baffled by this.  The Shadow, to me, is a marvelous film that is perfect Russell Mulcahy style, second only to Highlander.  It’s also a film that was never given its due justice on home video, but thanks to iTunes, I can now enjoy this film in beautiful high-definition widescreen!  I believe The Shadow to be a solid piece of work in every aspect as well as an immensely enjoyable superhero action film.

In 1930’s China, Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin) is known as Yin-Ko, a murderous opium warlord, who is reformed by a Tibetan mystic who teaches him how to use his keen mental powers to manipulate others.  As penance for his past misdeeds, Cranston masquerades as a New York City playboy by day and secretly plays the heroic Shadow by night, staving off evildoers with a network of agents and a cab-driving sidekick (Peter Boyle).  A greater challenge arrives when a new enemy presents himself in Shiwan Khan (John Lone), the final descendent of Genghis Khan, who has received training from the same Tibetan master who instructed Cranston.  Khan desires to have the once savage Cranston join him in his conquest of the world through use of an atomic bomb, but finds only an adversary.  Meanwhile, Cranston encounters the alluring and intriguing Margo Lane (Penelope Ann Miller) who also possesses unique psychic abilities that complicate his life, but soon, they join together to combat the powerful Shiwan Khan.

Mulcahy shrouds this whole film in this wonderful mystique and atmosphere that is perfect for this sort of character.  The entire presentation of the Shadow reinforces the supernatural element of him – the smoke, illusions, and psychic perceptions.  He’s enigmatic to a vibrantly fascinating degree bordering on frightening.   I love the lighting trick of enveloping Cranston in shadow when he utilizes his psychic abilities.  The mystical and surreal visions we get as we delve into his psyche are stunning.  This film really envelopes an audience fully and deeply into Lamont Cranston’s mind which is endlessly fascinating, if not quite disturbing.  It also doesn’t bog us down with a lengthy origin story.  It’s quite succinct, telling us all we need to know, and even touching back upon it as the film goes on.  This way, it can jump right into the meat of the story.  While I’m sure something like a 120+ minute film could be made from this material, like a Batman Begins, walking us through Cranston’s change from the barbarous Yin-Ko to the heroic Shadow, I like the straight to the point mentality of this film.

I honestly believe Alec Baldwin was a dead-on perfect casting choice.  He has the dapper charm and charisma for Lamont, but with a tinge of shadowy mystique at nearly all times.  As Yin-Ko, he is a chilling, violent warlord who is hedonistic in his bloodletting.  He never ceases to satiate his lust for barbarism.  In the middle of Cranston and Yin-Ko, we find the Shadow where Lamont uses the darkness within to battle evil wherever it hides.  I love that Baldwin embraces and envelopes himself in that darkness, and even adopts a bit deeper voice, at times, that is both haunting and unsettling.  His eyes are also magnificently piercing with that intense, razor sharp stare.  Overall, I think Alec Baldwin put together a stellar and dynamic package here with a darker tinged hero with charisma, charm, and an edginess.  His performance here made me believed that Alec Baldwin could also have been a great Bruce Wayne / Batman.  He takes a character of complex depth and grim history, and makes him a nearly larger than life entity of justice.

Baldwin has such great chemistry with Penelope Ann Miller forging a unique but very pleasing romantic, lively relationship.  That Margo also possesses psychic abilities makes her an intriguing counterpart to Lamont Cranston.  She’s not going to be manipulated by his powers, and she can see directly into his mind, picking up his thoughts.  It forces them together, much to Lamont’s dismay, but this allows for a unique synergy between them.  They never have a love scene, but their bond goes so deeply into their psyches that a love scene would seem almost unnecessary.  Miller brings a great deal of spirit and assertion to Margo Lane making her both an elegant beauty and lovely character to invest your time in.

And oh, do I love John Lone as Shiwan Khan.  He has such theatrical presence that commands every scene he appears in.  He has such passion with his performance embodying Khan’s admiration for Yin-Ko, but also, the lust for violent conquest.  He hungers at the thought of the power and the barbarism.  He’s a perfect villain who reflects upon Lamont as the man he was and is still haunted by.  Khan challenges Cranston as an equal tapping into the deepest, darkest parts of his being, and even being superior to him in certain ways.  Shiwan Khan is an intelligent, calculating villain with patience and the merciless will to enact his plans of destruction.  It is an immensely satisfying portrayal from a very talented actor.

Tim Curry does a wonderfully pleasant job as the weasely Farley Claymore.  He embraces this sleazy, cowardly, power hungry character with great zeal.  He’s loving every minute of it, and he creates this great second foil that an audience can’t wait to see get what’s coming to him.  Curry is always just so much fun to watch in whatever he does, and this is no exception at all.

This film makes gorgeous use of both digital and optical effects.  For one, the filmmakers do an amazing job seamlessly recreating 1930’s New York with various matte paintings, back lots, miniatures, and more.  This creates a fully enveloping  reality for the film’s setting that has the feel of something made in that time period of cinema.  The visual effects used to cloak the Shadow in various instances, and even to morph Baldwin’s face from Cranston to the Shadow are simply fantastic.  I can’t really recall any film marrying optical and digital effects.  It was either one or the other all the way, but I think Mulcahy saw the value in both technologies utilizing each to their best results.  Even Jurassic Park only used CGI dinosaurs when it was necessary, and relying on animatronics for the rest.  Here, it all comes together for a stunning and masterful visual experience.

The production design on The Shadow is simply astounding.  It has rich, detailed art direction and production values fashioning an elegant 1930’s look.  Everything feels authentic to the time with beautifully dressed sets.  Khan’s majestic room at the top of the hotel is gorgeously draped with bold Asian designs in fabric, and the Cobalt Club is so elegantly realized.  The costumes are excellent, especially those for Penelope Ann Miller who looks classy and gorgeous in those dresses.  The look of the Shadow is awesome with the long brimmed fedora, black cloak, overcoat, red scarf, and the twin shoulder holsters.  It’s a solid, yet simple iconic look that makes a striking impression.  I love how the cloak flows giving the Shadow a floating quality that reinforces the wraith-like glimpses we occasionally get of him.  Even the atomic bomb has a great art deco design.  This art department really did an amazing job here leaving no detail unpolished.

While the story is rather typical of a superhero film, bad guy wants to conquer the world, it’s really the characters and their motivations that make it different.  I always wonder what exactly a villain would do once they’ve taken over the world.  What’s left to do when everyone is your enslaved servant?  For Shiwan Khan, it’s not about being the ruler of the world, but indulging in the barbarism that comes with that power.  He doesn’t want to sit back and enjoy himself.  He wants to see the world tear itself apart in savagery and war.  He wants to strike terror into humanity, and see it descend into fear and butchery as he pits one army against another army.  The added dynamic between Khan and Cranston makes the story all the more compelling to me.  When you’ve got a hero and villain so tightly interwoven and connected like this, it creates a great sense of depth and intrigue.  Lamont must battle an adversary who is his superior, but gradually, must grow his abilities to eventually match those of Khan.

The film also features some smart, timely, and appropriate humor.  Mulcahy balances the darker atmosphere and peril with some quirky moments that never take you out of the vibe he’s running with.  The rhythm and chemistry between Baldwin and Miller creates plenty of levity, and there are even a few jovial bits with the now late Jonathan Winters, who portrays Lamont’s Police Commission uncle.  Mulcahy keeps the movie fun while still delivering thrills and intrigue on a grand tapestry.

The climax is just stunning from when the Shadow enters the Monolith Hotel to when he and Khan finally clash.  It’s a visually awesome sequence with some great effects shots.  All the shattering glass creates an amazing dramatically intense impact.  There’s a great sense of triumph for Lamont here as he is now taking the fight directly to Khan instead of lagging behind him, and the touches of character growth are excellent.  Alongside that, you’ve got some fun yet perilous moments with Margo and her scientist father, portrayed by Ian McKellan, trying to chase down and disarm the ticking time bomb that will nuke the city.  It’s fun stuff that still maintains tension in this solid climactic sequence.

Top all of this with a fantastic Jerry Goldsmith score, and I personally believe you’ve got a great, fun film on your hands.  I have never had any criticism for this film as I enjoy and love it thoroughly.  It’s a solid superhero film with a retro feel that is realized with vibrant vision by Russell Mulcahy.  He was the right choice for The Shadow bringing his great eye for cinematography and fantasy with an air of mystique to this very mysterious and fascinating character.  Anyone who has not seen this film is someone I strongly urge to do so.  I don’t understand where the negativity came from over this.  I think it’s a grand example of Mulcahy’s best work, and what made him the filmmaker that I love.  He gets great performances out of everyone in this cast, and just hit the style, tone, and atmosphere just perfect as far as I’m concerned.  The Shadow feels like a film that should have been a surefire hit, and be held in great admiration to this day.  Instead, it has merely a cult following, and has been saddled with a full screen DVD release.  Fortunately, it will finally receive a widescreen Blu Ray release this June.  Until then, you can rent it from iTunes or Amazon Instant Video.