The narrative purpose of any post-Avengers Marvel movie is not to majorly shake-up any of the characters at the core of the franchise—regardless of what Iron Man 3’s closing narration has to say about Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and his place in the world, everything you know about him going in remains the same at the end—but to slowly push each individual piece away from alien-wasted Manhattan, towards the next apocalypse. With that in mind, director Shane Black does fine work within the paint-by-numbers structure of a solo Avengers outing. Tony Stark is charming, crass, egotistical, and the possessor of enviable wealth, fame, and success. He deals with the fallout of Manhattan—he freaks out at the mention of wormholes—and with the wreckage of an impetuous youth. In the end, he is Iron Man, and Black and Downey do their best to mash that triumphant, wailing note as long and as loud as humanly possible.
This is the beginning of Marvel Studio’s much-hyped “Phase Two” of Avengers movies, and, while they’ve got the formula figured out, holes in the fabric are beginning to show. However fine or fleshed-out the assembled Avengers seem, the love-interests, friends, and rivals propping up the individual pillars of the eventual tent of proportions beyond belief are frustratingly one-note. This is the third Iron Man film where Stark’s opponent is a disenfranchised corporate raider, where Stark’s claim that he’s not going to play ball with the United States government clashes with the need for him to protect the American status quo, and where Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) serves as Iron Man’s damsel in distress. Marvel Studios will probably never run out of oily businessmen, things that go boom, or plots against America, but considering that the best parts of Iron Man 3 occur just beyond that storytelling triumvirate is enough to make thoughts of such comic book movies pleasurable. Read more
A time-displaced soldier. A Norse god. A playboy billionaire genius. A brilliant scientist who turns into a raging monster when angry. A former Russian spy. An expert marksman. On paper, a team comprised of six individuals this vastly different shouldn’t work. There are egos to deal with, competitive urges, the occasional extinction-level event. Since 1963, the Avengers have walked the very fine line between being Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and Earth’s Largest Screw-Ups. All it took back then was an assortment of popular comic book characters and the retrospectively brilliant idea of bringing a World War II era hero back from the publishing grave. In 2012, to get The Avengers together under the auspices of one movie took a more herculean effort: Five good-to-great movies serving as pretense, an assemblage of the right actors playing the right characters, and the right director at the helm of so much potential chaos. Read more
The horror of Contagion isn’t the disease itself, the end result of the disease or the social unrest the disease causes. The film begins with the sound of a woman coughing. That woman dies, her son dies and the people who’ve come into contact with them start getting sick, too, but the film, which takes great pains to show simple human-to-human contact–hand shaking, money exchanging, drink serving, hand holding–has a larger point: We are living in the Lysol commercial from Hell. Germs are everywhere, and while we may eventually be able to isolate, reproduce and “cure” what ails us, we’re only really able to buy into placebos (Lysol, hand sanitizer) and hope for the best. The phrase “99% effective” is the world’s largest loophole: You can’t see these things coming, and you can’t see them die.
We can, however, see the effects of a virus play out on the people around us. The woman coughing, for instance, is Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), whose husband Mitch (Matt Damon) follows her to the hospital. After her death, on his way home, Mitch receives a panicked call from the babysitter: his son has had a seizure. He finds his son dead. In the larger world beyond Minnesota, the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization try to get a grip on the situation, sending out disease intelligence agents in the Midwest and China to track Beth’s movements, trying to figure out how a businesswoman could have gotten people sick in China, Chicago and Minneapolis. It’s not hard to figure out: she was in a crowded room. She was on an airplane. As we travel, so too do the germs we carry.
The real joy (if you can call it that) of this movie is watching how director Steven Soderbergh juggles the large and small scale dramas contained by Contagion. There’s Damon’s arc, where, in riot-ravaged Minnesota, he tries to protect his daughter from the virus and from other people. There’s the CDC arc, where Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) tries to coordinate the investigation of Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) while protecting his future wife, providing for the research of Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) and fending off the vitriol of popular conspiracy blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), who may have found an over-the-counter cure. In China, Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) is kidnapped and held hostage until a village is given the vaccine.
Not everything holds up. Once Dr. Orantes is kidnapped, she disappears. Mitch, who has done everything he can to avoid breaking down in front of his daughter, has to put up with her as she goes from understanding to typical, complaining of being locked in a prison while the outside world goes crazy. Perhaps most disappointing is Krumwiede, who begins the film as a small-time blogger unable to get traction with the San Francisco Chronicle to a massively popular individual with 12-million unique views and a four-million dollar profit coming his way thanks to the boom in sales to his homeopathic cure. He is Sarah Palin’s image of the blogosphere–unwashed, unsexed and unhinged–and he eventually disappears into the ether without the film giving us a sense if he believes what he’s selling, or if he’s just in it for the money. Jude Law plays Krumwiede as a firebrand, which is about right, but he’s a firebrand without focus.
Beyond that, Soderbergh manages to keep everything aloft. I wondered, a little, how a world in crisis managed to keep the power and internet running, and I wish more was made of the film’s two or three governmental sub-plots, but by resisting the urge to sensationalize any given aspect of a global epidemic (when you think about it, 12 million worldwide visitors listening to a whackjob blogger is pretty marginal) Contagion manages to do what most films marketed as horror are unable to: scare its audience. A man in the theatre coughs. A woman sneezes. Everybody is touching their face with their hands that have touched the theatre seats, drink cups and popcorn bags that have, of course, touched other people who have touched other things. We all cringe, busy with the business of dying.
Contagion. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. With Matt Damon (Mitch), Jude Law (Alan Krumwide), Laurence Fishburne (Dr. Cheever), Gwyneth Paltrow (Beth), Kate Winslet (Dr. Mears), Marion Cotillard (Dr. Orantes), Jennifer Ehle (Dr. Hextall) and Elliot Gould (Dr. Sussman). Released September 9, 2011, by Warner Bros.
Iron Man 2 just kind of happens. It is two hours of stuff happening, and while it happens so fast that it doesn’t feel like two hours of stuff, it all happens in such an underwhelming way. Not that Tony Stark’s life isn’t as interesting the second time around, but given the massive, unavoidable hype and the expectations raised by the first Iron Man, Iron Man 2 is far too jittery to match its predecessor, which stands as the best movie yet made about a Marvel Comics character.
After the events of the first movie, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has a lot on his plate. Iron Man has become a bit of a joyride since nobody has stepped up to challenge him, but he must deal with the United States government, who want the Iron Man suit turned over to “the public” (read: the military), and his public, who are swarming his just-opened Stark Expo, a one-man World’s Fair, designed to celebrate both the technology of the future and the man who “successfully privatized world peace.” Oh, and the power supply of the Iron Man suit, which is keeping Tony alive, might actually be killing him.
Stark’s success, a point that he makes sure to brag about constantly, gets on the nerves of senators, competitors, and bizarre-looking Russian scientists alike. While he is able to blow off the Senate like so many wall street executives and former baseball players, his arrogance does little to quell the jealousy of his main business competitor, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), or Russian scientist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), who believes that Stark’s power supply is based largely on the work of his father, who worked on the project with Tony Stark’s dad until he had him deported for reasons unknown. Ivan does what so many others have failed to do: Successfully replicate an arc reactor, which he uses to fashion twin whips of electricity that cut through most objects like a lightsaber through butter. He heads to America to destroy Tony Stark and, in doing so avenge his father.
He fails, but not for lack of trying. Somehow, Ivan knows that Tony is racing his own Formula One car, wanders onto the track and cracks his whip at Tony’s vheicle, which crashes spectacularly. A fight breaks out, and Tony puts Ivan down. Justin Hammer, watching all of this on TV decides to spirit Ivan away so he can work on his Iron Man modeled drones, which Hammer plans on debuting at the Stark Expo, apparently open to competitors.
So you’ve got that, which would make for a pretty good movie in its own right. Rockwell steals the show as Justin Hammer, and Mickey Rourke’s scenery chewing and Russian accent do enough to distract from the fact that Iron Man’s villains are so bad that they need to steal his ideas to stand a fighting chance. You add in Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Scarlett Johansson as Tony’s employee, Gweyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, and Don Cheadle as Tony’s best friend, and you end up with a bloated movie that pushes its main antagonist aside for a couple of added fight scenes. Cheadle, who replaced Terrence Howard as James Rhodes, is given nothing to do but yell at Tony for having fun on his birthday. He eventually pulls the ultimate dick move: Stealing one of Tony’s suits, destroying half of his insanely expensive house, and turning patent-protected technology over to Justin Hammer. He, as Tony’s best friend, does more to undermine Stark than a competitor and a crazy guy who wants to kill him.
Naturally, none of that really matters. The best friend, villain, and CGI robot fighting aspects of the first Iron Man were that movie’s weakest aspects, and they don’t take away much from either films’ strong points: The script. As before, the dialog is sharp, witty, and fast paced. It never stops, even when Tony is being dogged by missiles, Rhodes in a virus-infected suit and Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine drones that are trying to kill him and, frankly, are proving to be a nuisance to the people trying to evacuate the Expo on account of the giant, terrifying robots. Robert Downey Jr. once again proves that his sudden ascent to superstardom was no fluke—no matter the circumstance, he always manages to be the most interesting thing on the screen.
It’s just too bad that there’s so damn much there, and that not all of it appears to be going much of anywhere. There was a point in time when the expanded Marvel cinematic universe was a cause for excitement, but now I’m not so sure. Iron Man 2 struggles to accommodate an expanded role for Nick Fury, who exists in this movie not as a teaser, but to tell us what we already know: That Tony is an irredeemable narcissist, but is pretty awesome nevertheless. Scarlett Johansson, as the Black Widow, lurks in the background, carrying clipboards until she’s called upon to fight security guards. Pepper Potts loves and hates Tony’s recklessness and takes on the task of running the company while he goes off and creates new elements. They, along with Hammer, Vanko, and Rhodes, create a hollow shell in which a guy like Tony can work his magic, but not one in which he can thrive.
Iron Man 2. Directed by Jon Favreau. With Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark), Mickey Rourke (Ivan Vanko), Don Cheadle (James Rhodes), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), Sam Rockwell (Justin Hammer), and Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury). Released May 7, 2010, by Paramount Pictures.