Sunday, May 16, 2010

Expectations: Iron Man 2 and Robin Hood

A good woman will reload for you. A great woman will take up a knife and start slitting your enemies’ throats.

-Stephen W. Browne (I think)

Summer blockbuster season is upon us once more, and for the first time in forever, I’m in the theaters. Not on opening day, mind you, but still…

The big two so far for me have been Iron Man 2 and Robin Hood. I was going to see these no matter what the reviewers and all said, and now I have, so I’m going to toss in my two cents.

Iron Man 2 is at least as good, and more fun, than the original. Squaremans is right; it’s got just as much fun in the build-up without asking us to believe someone goes utterly crazy and stupid in the final act to set up the compulsory Battle o’ the Suits at the end. Tony Stark is equally fun and self-destructive (with arguably decent reasons this time), Pepper Potts is a sultry, grown-up Hermione Granger (no, really, think about it), and Tony’s driver/bodyguard Happy pulls off being comedic relief without being a buffoon. Think a less furry and taller Gimly from the movies. And any movie that bookends itself with AC/DC tunes is gonna go up a few notches in my estimation.

Oddysey has described Samuel Jackson’s role in this movie as informing Tony Stark that he lives in the Marvel Universe now, where the meager elements of the periodic table are fortified with the potent, supernatural elements of Science! She’s spot on, I still think casting Mr. Jackson as Nick Fury was inspired, and I hope we get to see more of him as these movies slowly lead us towards the Avengers flick.

Robin Hood is a lot more problematic for me. First, it’s not been advertised well. This is most emphatically not a Robin Hood movie. It’s entirely an origins story.

Ok, I need to explain that. You know how in Batman Begins, the first half or so of the movie is about Bruce Wayne and how he becomes Batman, but by the last act he is Batman and he’s busy doing Batman-y things? Ditto for the first Iron Man movie, where we get a sort of sneak preview of what Stark will do in the first act, when he escapes from the terrorists, and then he’s full-on into being Iron Man by the third act.

In this Robin Hood movie, our hero doesn’t become Robin Hood until the last ten minutes of the movie. Seriously. The scene from the trailers where the sheriff asks for a nail and the notice gets pinned to the tree by an arrow and the crowd bursts into laughter? That’s maybe five minutes before the credits start to roll.

Knowing that, the movie is ok. When it soars, it really soars. Russell Crowe continues to prove he’s one of our most underrated actors today. When he responds to a quip from King John with, “To an Englishman, his home is his castle,” it’s got both great comic timing and the gravitas of English Common Law being crafted by the poetic wit and common sense of the mythic English yeoman. When Mr. Crowe starts growling orders in that rich voice of his, and the soldiers immediately move to obey, we buy it. The man has enough presence that the movie hardly needs Max von Sydow to add weight to the film, though he’s great in his role, as always.

Unfortunately, the writing, while clever, doesn’t always seem to be up to the level of that exchange about homes and castles. I can’t tell if this is a problem with the writing or the budget of the movie. We only hear about how King Richard lost the hearts of his soldiers by ordering the slaughter of innocent Muslims during the crusades, but we don’t get any tortured, washed out memories haunting the dreams of our heroes. The battles seem tiny, the villages barely larger than a handful of hovels, and when Marion shows up at the final battle with the Scary Orphan Boys in tow, it’s barely a handful of scraggly individuals, not the scary feral mob they’re clearly meant to be.

Which kinda gets at the heart of what I think is the issue here. The movie is clearly filmed to be a very intimate piece. Only it’s about international politics in 13th Century Europe and the Magna Charta, one of the most mythic political documents in Western history. The 1964 “Becket” managed similar territory by mostly shooting a big political movie sprinkled with deeply personal, poignant moments. Robin Hood tries the opposite tack, by having a deeply personal movie punctuated by moments of grand politics and war. It doesn’t quite work.

Part of the reason for that is the odd nature of the intimate moments. Much revolves around Crowe’s Robin Longstride not remembering much about his father. The final revelation, dribbled out to keep us intrigued, is underwhelming as secrets go, and serves primarily as catalyst for transforming Lonstride from a pillaging mercenary into a champion for liberty. Which means he gets to give rousing speeches about the right to trial and the right to earn an honest living without us having actually seen any summary imprisonment or much in the way of people being forbidden to feed their families. In short, it’s a writer’s cheat, and it feels like it.

So we get a movie that’s constantly trying to be greater than it is, complete with an invasion of England by France involving 13th century versions of the D-Day landing craft and grand plots and counter-plots, and yet the movie makes it feel like you can ride across the length and breadth of England in an afternoon. Marion spends most of the movie with her sleeves rolled up, being a sort of medieval Rosy the Riveter, but when she dons armour and goes to avenge the death of her father-in-law, she only manages to bring that scraggly handful of lost boys with her, and spends a good part of the mano-y-mano fight thrashing and sputtering in the surf. Sure, I know Robin’s got to slay the baddie at the end with an arrow, but again, it feels like we’re not quite given the payoff her character promised in the beginning. (Say what you will about Tolkien being sexist, but when Eowyn squares off against the Witchking to avenge the death of Theoden, it’s Eowyn herself who slays her foe, with only a bit of help from the doughty Merry.)

Which stands in stark (pun not intended) contrast to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts. Not only does she run Stark Enterprises while Tony is self-destructing in slow motion or throwing together a quick particle collider in his basement, she takes control at the end of the movie, not by donning a suit of super armour and smashing people through walls, but by using the skills and resources she’s been demonstrating through the whole film to minimize the damage and take down half the villainous duo in a way that’s clean, efficient, and inside the system. Sure, fanboys will rave about Johansson’s Black Widow, but it’s Pepper who has Tony’s back through thick and thin, who keeps the lights on at swanky Stark Manor, and puts out the fires started by the villains and Tony.

All in all, Iron Man 2 gets a big thumbs-up for me, Robin Hood gets a half-hearted thumbs-up, and that’s not a bad way at all to start the summer.


Nick Crayon said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who liked Iron Man 2. From what I heard it was mediocre, but I thought it was better than the original, showing exactly who Tony Stark is and why he acts the way he does.

And ditto about Pepper Potts Vs. Black Widow- sure, the Black Widow gets some acrobatics, but she's just a thug; Ms. Potts is the more interesting character by far, keeping a corporation run by maniac working far longer than it possibly should.

Lord Gwydion said...

Haven't seen Robin Hood yet--still waffling over whether to see it in the theater or not.

But I completely agree about Iron Man 2. I really enjoyed it and found it as good as the first, and the set-up for the ending better.

It's not without flaws, but it was good.

My review here:

sirlarkins said...

Yeah, once I read in another review that Robin Hood had a French invasion storyline, and that it featured medieval versions of D-Day landing craft, I was like, "That's it, I'm out!"

It's just a huge pet peeve of mine when Hollywood plays so unbelievably fast and loose with history.

Anonymous said...

I thought IM2 was an excellent movie but more for Tony Stark than for Iron Man. The effects were fun and all that, but Stark and the Stark/Potts dynamic are what really drove the film.

Sirlarkins while the 'big picture' history was terrible in Robin Hood, the actual look at day-to-day life in an English village in the period is remarkably well done. While I cannot recommend it for the overall plot, it does have its moments.

PatrickW said...

Any thoughts on the easter egg after the credits?

trollsmyth said...

PatrickW: Speaking of expectations, yeah, can't wait to see what Branagh does directing that material. :D

Anonymous said...

I think all Robin Hood efforts need to be compared to the definitive 80s BBC production, Robin of Sherwood, which has good history, excellent, grotty English villages (even the lords look cheap and dirty), a very cool Nazir, and an interesting subtext of English paganism vs. French catholicism. It sounds like this version of Robin Hood is riffing (not very well) off that one.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with you on all points. (Yes, I LOVED the Black Widow, but that's because I have...issues... Though you are correct that Pepper is great and does more to help Tony and keep things going than BW)

As for Robin Hood, just finished it, and medieval higgins boats? Seriously? I was really disappointed by this movie. It opens up ok with some action, though it does seem small, and then I feel like the rest of the movie was just talking until the ridiculous beach landing battle at the end. I kept feeling like I was in some flat 70's pic. The acting was ok, but I kept finding myself drifting off. :-\ The last charge on the beach seemed to be trying to copy the huzzah of the Gladiator charge, but didn't pull it off. The castle siege scenes also felt like they were trying to copy the great scenes in Kingdom of Heaven, but they too lacked spirit.