Category Archives: Superhero

The Toxic Avenger (1984) – 24 Carat Crud…

Toxic 4

Woody Allen famously keeps a drawer full of ideas scribbled on bits of paper, which he dips into when he needs inspiration for a new movie. It’s not always successful – it seems like he forgot to add anything else before shooting Magic in the Moonlight.

I’d like to think Troma movies get made in a similar fashion. I can picture Lloyd Kaufman, Troma’s cartoonish co-founder, sitting in a hottub with a couple of poodle-permed babes, scribbling crazy titles on cocktail napkins and handing them to his butler for safekeeping.

Titles include A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell, Dumpster Baby, Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid, and Maniac Nurses Find Ecstasy. They’re friday night four-pack-and-a-pizza movies, and any VHS junkie from the ’80s and ’90s will be familiar with the lurid cover art of Troma’s oeuvre. They’ve been going for over forty years now, barfing a steady steam of lowbrow, z-grade schlock into existence – if it’s got aliens, monsters, psychos, guns and tits, all on the front of the video box, chances are it’s Troma.

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The Dark Knight Rises (2012) – The Legend Sort of Ends…

[This article contains HUGE spoilers!]

Halfway through Christopher Nolan’s hysterically anticipated final installment of the Dark Knight trilogy, I couldn’t help thinking of Dr Evil in Austin Powers:  “Let’s just do what we always do, hijack some nuclear weapons and hold the world to ransom!”

Hulking villain Bane (Tom Hardy) wants to liberate Gotham from the decadent, complacent fat cats and give it back to the people…then blow up with a nuclear bomb. No matter how sophisticated the villain or dastardly the plan, movie-makers still use nuclear weapons to convey the ultimate terror. Nolan has performed an awesome feat of gloomy revisionism in rebooting Batman for the post-9/11 audience, but even he couldn’t resist reaching for the nukes to ramp up the stakes in this last installment.

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Iron Man 2 (2010): Another Feature Length Trailer for “The Avengers”…

So, is everyone looking forward to “The Avengers” next year, then? You’d better be, after Marvel Studio’s ambitious and expensive build up – five big budget superhero movies (Iron Man 1 & 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America) establishing the principle characters in next year’s main event, The Avengers.

The big question has got to be, does anyone apart from Marvel fanboys actually give a toss? Sure, Marvel have made their money back – and then some – with the project so far, and the films so far have been an enjoyable way to kill a couple of hours.

But how excited can you get if you know the hero must survive in order to fulfill their role in The Avengers, and how excited can you get about these superheros anyway, given they are all pretty much B- and C-Listers on Marvel’s back catalogue? (As a non-comic book geek, before all this begun, I’d heard of exactly 50% of the above line up).

“Iron Man 2” opens at the conclusion of the last film as billionaire industrialist and playboy Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) announces to the world that he is Iron Man. This breaking news is watched by a dying old man in a dark, dreary Moscow apartment – he is Anton Vanko, who we will learn had a grudge against Tony’s father, Howard.  The old man passes away, and his son Ivan (Mickey Rourke) sets to work, using blueprints conspicuously marked “Stark Industries”.

(Although set in the modern day, it’s interesting to note how this credit sequence clings to American Cold War-era cliches about Russia – there’s some Red Army Choir-like music on the soundtrack; it’s grey, freezing, miserable, and knee deep in snow; everyone looks poor; all there is to drink is vodka.)

Six months later, Stark has used his Iron Man suit to broker world peace; he’s as conceited and facetious as usual, and as he re-opens the expo established by his late father, appears to be a man riding the crest of a wave.

However, Stark is a man with problems – he is subpoenaed to a Washington Senate commission, led by the loathsome Senator Stern (played convincingly by the loathsome Garry Shandling), who wants him to turn his Iron Man tech over to the military.

Stark is also dying.  The Palladium core of the reactor in his chest, which keeps him alive and also gives his suit all its fancy powers, is slowly poisoning him.

Despite his friend James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) being forced to testify against him, Stark manages to demonstrate projects in unfriendly countries such as North Korea and Iran to develop a similar suit are years behind – as are the experiments of rival weapons contractor, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell). As Stark modestly puts it, “I have successfully privatized world peace.”

However, as Ivan Vanko is about to spectacularly demonstrate at the Monaco Grand Prix, Stark’s assessment is grossly over-exaggerated…

“Iron Man 2” trundles along entertainingly enough without ever being as fresh or refreshing as the original.  This is partly due to Stark – the man’s dying, so obviously he’s a bit down in the dumps. In the first film, most of the fun was due to the anti-heroic nature of Stark, an unrepentant hedonist and narcissist, who’s enjoying himself discovering what he can do with his indestructible flying suit. This time round, Stark’s not enjoying himself so much, so neither is the audience.

It’s also down to director Jon Favreau, who seems caught in two minds where he wants to go with this, the bridging chapter between “Iron Man” and “The Avengers”.  The eventual outcome is pre-defined, but he seems unsure whether he wants to go for more of the same, and stick with the light, irreverent fun of the original, or go darker and expand on the characters, like “Spider Man 2” or “The Dark Knight”.

In the end, he doesn’t really do either, so “Iron Man 2” follows pretty much the same story arc as its predecessor, without adding on any darker psychological layers to make the characters anymore interesting.

The film has one stand out set piece, as Vanko unveils his new equipment at the Monaco Grand Prix – which Stark has decided to race in, as you do when you’re a billionaire playboy superhero who’s dying.

Mickey Rourke looks awesome, standing fearlessly in the middle of the race track, tearing cars apart with lashes of his electric whips. It is the film’s only genuinely exciting and inventive moment, and the later climax pales in comparison.

Rourke, as usual, transcends the material he is surrounded by, although is tragically under used in “Iron Man 2”. Vanko is underwritten for a supervillain, and Rockwell’s Hammer gets to do most of the talking, leaving Rourke to do most of his work with his eyes. However, Rourke does what Rourke does best – Vanko in his hands becomes a weary soul weighed down with hard won wisdom.

It would have been nice for Rourke to share more screen time with Downey Jr, to see what would happen – both men fell from grace after bright starts in their career, and fought back from obscurity to become two of today’s most interesting and watchable actors. Both seem to use their troubled pasts to inform the characters they play, no matter how well scripted or directed.

Downey Jr seems relatively restrained this time around, which perhaps is inevitable given his character is dying, so is understandably a little more introspective. His performance is never less than interesting, though, and despite the excellent cast assembled, Favreau still seems content to let the film coast along on his star’s unpredictable charisma.

Sam Rockwell has fun as Justin Hammer, a loquacious, smarmy gobshite who wants to be just like Tony Stark, only to have his ambitions trumped at every turn. Rockwell plays the part mainly for comic relief, although subtly gives the character a sinister edge – this man may not be the fool he seems.

Gwyneth Paltrow is as dependable as her character, Pepper Potts, still running around tidying up after her capricious boss, still the obvious unspoken love interest; however, this time Stark’s eye is caught by newbie Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), hired to replace Potts when Stark promotes her to CEO.

Johansson doesn’t have much to do apart from look sultry, and plays what at first seems like a small part as transparently more than it seems.  She gets to do some pretty slinky, cat-suited butt-kicking later on, when she forms an unexpectedly effective partnership with Favreau, reprising his role as Stark’s chaffeur and bodyguard Happy.

Don Cheadle has the most unforgiving role, as a man caught between duty and looking after his anguished friend; the performance comes across as rather one note, for the most part Cheadle looking like a dog does when it’s owner nips down the shops for a paper and leaves it at home.

Samuel L Jackson rolls up at one point, in the film’s most overt reference to the upcoming “Avengers”, as S.H.I.E.L.D director Nick Fury (That’s Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Department for those of you who don’t know…)

Strangely, for a big summer blockbuster, it’s the action sequences that let the movie down.  All credit to Favreau for keeping the characters the main focus, but apart from the Grand Prix sequence, the action moments are the movie’s most forgettable, and the climax is the worst of the lot.

It degenerates into a flashy but unengaging punch up between Stark, Rhodes and an army of Vanko’s drone creations, and Vanko himself is dispatched with embarrassing ease.  There’s no sense of danger to the characters, especially as their facial expressions to the action is registered via a disembodied “in helmet” shot – their face against a black background, with the suit’s dials and read outs projected against it. As a result, the ending falls flat, with a disappointing shoulder shrug rather than a big bang finale.

“Iron Man 2” is a friendly and non-threatening way to while away a couple of hours – but then, it’s nice occasionally to have a superhero movie that doesn’t feel the need to go all dark and broody (“The Dark Knight”, “Watchmen”, etc). Having said that, without that psychological edge for non-superhero fans, isn’t it all just comic books?

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Thoroughly square and appealingly unironic, “Captain America” is a reasonably watchable origins movie, focussed on another of Marvel’s B-Listers ahead of next year’s “Avengers” flick.

If, like me, you thought “The Avengers” was a 60’s spy caper TV show featuring bowler hats and leather catsuits, then you’ll probably be underwhelmed at the prospect of spending two hours watching a movie about Captain America, only to find out it’s only really a prologue to the main event next year.

However, if the prospect of Captain America + The Hulk + Nick Fury + Thor + Iron Man floats your boat, then you should be in a pretty happy place during this film.

Aside from modern day bookends, “Captain America” is set during WWII. Nazi officer Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), like all the best dastardly Nazi officers, is hellbent on harnessing the occult to help win the war; not for his Fuhrer, you understand, but for himself and his army of gimp-suited stormtroopers.

Meanwhile, back in the States, titchy Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is dying to sign up for Uncle Sam and blow away some Nazis, but keeps getting rejected for the Army because he’s approximately the same size as Hitler’s one ball.

However, Roger’s indomitable spirit catches the attention of scientist Dr Erskine (Stanley Tucci), and is allowed to enlist under a super soldier programme, overseen by grouchy Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and sultry British agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell).

Erskine’s working along similar lines to the evil Schmidt, and with the help of Iron Man’s Dad, Howard Stark, Rogers is injected with some glowing blue stuff which pumps up his diminutive frame, and hones his speed and reflexes.

Unfortunately, there’s a Nazi spy in their midst, and Erskine is killed and the equipment destroyed before the super soldier scheme can be put into full production, leaving Rogers the only one of his kind. Humiliatingly, instead of fighting the Hun, Rogers ends up singing and dancing in a chorus line to boost morale in a ridiculous Stars-and-Stripes outfit…until, while performing at one USO show, he learns his old friend is missing behind enemy lines.

The film takes it’s time to build some form of character arc, and hopefully that will pay dividends when “The Avengers” rolls round next year. Evans is a likeable actor, although disconcertingly resembles Martin Short when he’s shrunk down to a weakling; perhaps, instead of blowing Rogers up, they could have gone the other way – he could fit inside a regular GI’s ration kit, sneak behind enemy lines, tie Hitler’s shoelaces together, that type of stuff.

Hugo Weaving does his usual bad guy thing as Schmidt/The Red Skull – entertaining as he always is, he’s pretty much phoning it in these days. Tommy Lee Jones perhaps enjoys himself the most as the gruff Colonel, and gives plenty of value, always a pleasure when he’s on the screen.

The film’s look is muted, with ruddy colours and understated effects. I’ve read comparisons to Indiana Jones, but of course the film it resembles most is Director Joe Johnston’s own “Rocketeer”, an excellent homage to the golden era of cliffhanger serials, with it’s own distinct period flourishes.

The action is fairly standard – perhaps in a conscious effort to get the family friendly certificate, Captain America has to resort to clubbing, clobbering, bludgeoning, twatting and frisbee-ing bad guys with his shield, while his comrades get to disintegrate villains with laser guns. The only bit of gore of note is an unfortunate, fragile human body/propeller interface which seems to be a direct nod to “Raiders of the Lost Ark”.

Entertaining enough, but nothing to stand out in particular in this era’s bumper crop of superhero movies; certainly not as humorous or visually exciting as “Hellboy” 1 & 2, nor as interestingly basketcase as “Watchmen”. It’s enjoyable enough to maybe swing some casual viewers towards “The Avengers” next year.


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