-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.