Friday, September 19, 2008

Movie Review Double-Shot: "The Incredible Hulk", "Iron Man"

I guess time really does heal all wounds. If you'd asked me a few years back whether a Hulk movie could work after Ang Lee Set Up Us The Bomb, I'd have been skeptical at best - it took the Batman franchise almost a decade to bounce back from Joel Schumaker (you'd think all that rubber would've made it easier), and Batman's A-list; the Hulk may be popular but he's hardly Marvel's most visible property.

To be fair, it's not that Lee's approach was wrong on a conceptual level - the psych angle was the foundation of Peter David's seminal 11-year run, so it pretty much proved itself in that respect. But the execution was sluggish and sedate: not enough adrenaline to be considered an action movie, not enough complexity to be considered a psychodrama. It fell between the cracks and that was pretty much the end of it.

"The Incredible Hulk" is much more traditional: Bruce/The Hulk runs around a lot and soldiers run after him. Simple, yes, but that may be exactly why it works so much better than its lethargic predecessor. There's so much energy here - even Liv Tyler steps up from her usual Thorazine-like state, and the action sequences (particularly the chase scenes) are exciting. Casting was particularly good: Eric Bana was way too hunky to work the nerd archetype, but Ed Norton pulls it off while maintaining his usual cuteness. Tim Roth creeped me out. William Hurt was precisely the kind of Obnoxious Military Guy you want to slap until his face falls off.

One thing I particularly enjoyed about this movie was the way it dealt with the backstory in the first few minutes, getting it out of the way as quickly as possible. It's been a pratfall of comic-to-film adaptations that you can't really help using the origin story as the basis for the first (and, in many cases, only) movie; think of "Batman Begins" and "Spider-Man", for example. They're complete in terms of their own internal plots, but with regards to the characters' larger storylines they only really cover the first act, so to speak. "The Incredible Hulk" gets past this very easily: Bruce Banner experimented with gamma radiation, he was in love with Betty Ross, he mutated and accidentally injured her and her father, and he ran away. That's really all you need to know. And the fact that the story moves past that point so quickly lets things move along at a much better pace.

Ultimately, "The Incredible Hulk" doesn't reinvent any wheels; it doesn't need to do that. It's fun superhero action that hits every mark it's aiming for, and that's good enough.


Marvel was two-for-two this week, because I wasn't expecting much out of "Iron Man" either and I ended up being pleasantly surprised again.

My enjoyment of "Iron Man" comes down to a single factor: Robert Downey Jr. I've never been much of a Tony Stark fan, especially given the most recent turn as a mega-fascist douche, but Downey's portrayal makes the character charming, funny and compelling. When we talk about specific roles that specific actors were "born to play", it's Downey as Tony Stark that seems to be the strongest example of that elusive connection between an actor and the role he plays: the look, the body language, all the little tics Downey threw in, it all works perfectly.

It's nice to see that Jon Favreau understood the way "Iron Man" should be about the man behind the tech and not the tech itself - the movie could've easily turned into another hollow special-effects gallery a la "Transformers", but this is still Tony's story, and it shows with every little "wake-up call" he gets that bring him closer and closer to that last revelation.

And there are actually a lot of amusing moments, which I honestly didn't expect; I mean, the movie opens up with an abduction in Afghanistan, not exactly light-hearted stuff. But we also have Tony's hilarious field-testing of the armor and its components, and the dialogues with Pepper, JARVIS and Rhodes have a swift, comedic touch. It makes for a nice blend of laughter and excitement.

Of course, the scenes where the Iron Man armor actually does its work are duly impressive; we get to see multiple incarnations of the familiar design in rapid succession, which sells the idea of Iron Man as an identity that evolves even as Tony himself is evolving. And, as tradition dictates, the final showdown is suitably action-packed and dynamic.

So I can definitely say that "Iron Man" is deserving of the praise it's received; like "The Incredible Hulk", it doesn't really do anything that could be considered ground-breaking by comic book standards... but what it does, it does very well.