Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Review

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How god-awful is the name of this film? Dawn of the Planet of the Apes sounds like a bored screenwriter’s attempt to sell a shitty prequel. I get that people have to recognize the film as part of the franchise, but come on. As if ANOTHER film with an ape protagonist didn’t have enough obstacles. Thankfully, the film’s less than stellar title is barely a factor when compared to its astronomical quality.

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A sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Dawn continues the reimagined origin of the classic Planet of the Apes series. Instead of  a modern man placed in an ape-dominated future, this series focuses on the evolution of the apes who will eventually overthrow humanity.

The first film introduced our hero Caesar (played by Andy Serkis), a genetically modified chimpanzee raised by humans who breaks himself and his fellow apes free from oppression by modifying them as well. The second film focuses on Caesar and some humans’ attempts to create peace between the races.

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As with the first film, one of the strongest aspects of Dawn is it’s commitment to making the apes true characters. Most films dealing with CG characters tend to rely on the human actors as a way for the audience to relate ( Transformers, Godzilla, etc). Dawn avoids that by establishing the culture of the apes and their individuality. They have just enough cultural elements to be relatable (military tactics, complex housing, horsemanship) without just being humans who look like monkeys. The film also expands on the previous film’s characters of Koba (Tony Kebbell) – a chimp embittered by a life of lab tests – and Cornelia (Judy Greer) – Caesar’s wife and mother of his children. This allows for us to truly buy into the super-apes as a group we care about.

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Ironically the apes might be more relatable than the actual humans in the film. Our side is primarily represented by Jason Clarke (The Great Gatsby, Zero Dark Thirty), Keri Russell (Felicity, Mission Impossible 3), and Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight, The Fifth Element). The first two seek the helps of the apes to regain electrical power to their city whereas the last one wants to blow their heads off. The virus that brought them to such desperation is given oddly little focus: the first film only shows one victim of the flu and the rest of the epidemic is summed up in the now cliched “opening news montage”. Given the prevalence of post-apocalyptic films, it’s possible the filmmakers just decided to spare us the usual story, which undercuts much of whats supposed to make the humans sympathetic. It’s hard to really empathize with the usual “my son/wife/dog died” story when we actually SEE the hell apes go through in the first film. We do see some of the aftermath of the flu with scenes such as Gary Oldman breaking down when he sees his dead family’s pictures for the first time in years. This shows just how dire humanity’s predicament is and why he feels so eager to kill some apes. In a similar vein, Jason Clarke’s family is focused on as a parallel to Caesar’s growing family. Both of them have to worry not only about their communities, but their children. Despite this, the human family have little impact in the overall story; there’s a subplot due to them being a recently forged stepfamily, but it goes nowhere.. Overall, the flu epidemic never goes beyond being a plot device to explain why the humans died out and why the apes are considered to be threats to man. To be fair, the same was true in the original film as well.

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Despite the shoehorned flu plot from the previous film, Dawn portrays the conflict between humanity and ape-ity with sincere tragedy. The original Planet of The Apes (1968) emphasized the recursiveness of world culture: oppressed apes gained power as the humans lost theirs. Rather than creating a new society, the apes developed all of humanity’s social ills: dogmatism, racism, and worst of all, slavery. Likewise, Dawn shows the apes as being just as capable of evil as man. The threat against the ape society comes from outside and inside as their own member begin to turn against each other. Despite the trailer’s emphasis on Gary Oldman, much of the Ape Vs. Man war arises due to several parties on both sides. Ignorance of the flu epidemic leads man to think apes are a literal virus, and apes anger towards humans makes them overly aggressive. One side overreacts to a slight, the other side misinterprets an action, all hell breaks loose.

And when hell breaks loose, it is pretty awesome. As with the first film, seeing how the filmmakers interpret how smart apes would fight is awesome. Once again, rather than just moving like humans, the apes fight like apes who realized how badass being an ape is. Just imagine a bunch of hairy Spider-Men. With spears! And horses! One scene that straddled the line between awesome and cheesy is one of the apes riding a horse while dual wielding assault rifles. All that needed was a quip like…

Monkey see, monkey KILL!!!

Monkey see, monkey KILL!!! / Just call me Furious George, motherfucker!!! / Now that’s what I call GORILLA warfare, bitch!!!

Speaking of quips, this film did not have nearly enough primate jokes. The original film managed to sneak in gems such as this visual pun with the ape elders.

I know the film is supposed to be more serious, but i would’ve loved to see just ONE ape attempt to fight off  some gunmen with a banana. Alas…

Final Verdict

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is definitely one of the best films of the year. It accomplishes most narrative and visual goals it attempts and entertained me the entire time. See the film if you want to see the summer blockbuster that others weren’t (*cough*Transformers*cough*). Don’t see it if you have a crippling fear of primates. Which would probably mean you’d have to avoid all movies since humans are primates. Take that, creationists.

To be honest; I still like The Simpsons‘ Planet of the Apes reboot better…

 

 

A Gullible Breed: What Men In Black Says About Humanity

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Science fiction is grounded in real-life concerns. The genre allows for speculative thinking to be literalized (what if robots supplant humans, what if reproduction become a factory process, etc). Probably the most “speculative” concern is how would we react to intelligent alien life; since we haven’t encountered much to suggest they exist. As such, most fiction dealing with human-alien interaction tends to be less interested in scientific progress and moreso in affirmation. Particularly, the affirmation that humans kick ass! Aliens will either improve humanity or get trampled by us. Strangely, one of the few sci-fi franchises to challenge this is the comedy/action/sci-fi franchise Men In Black.

The premise: Very black cop J (played by Will Smith) is approached by very white kind-of-cop K (Tommy Lee Jones) to join an organization that polices aliens. Hilarity ensues.

With such a simple premise, you wouldn’t think that Men In Black (1997) couldn’t have much narrative weight. What stands out intellectually isn’t so much the actual plot, but the underlying themes.

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As part of his introduction to the MIB, K explains to J one of the core directives of the organization: the hiding of alien life; ” Humans don’t have a clue and they don’t need or want one. They’re happy. They think they have a good bead on things ” This is a pretty dark idea for a major motion picture: people (i.e. you) are too fucking dumb to accept aliens. The MIB works to protect Earth not only from alien attack, but also the very IDEA of aliens.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind ( 1977 )

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As mentioned before, a common thread with these kinds of films is the life affirming nature of extraterrestrial life. The best American example of this is Close Encounters of the Third Kind (which coincidentally was directed by Steven Spielberg, the producer of Men In Black), where the protagonist Roger Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) becomes obsessed with otherworldly visitors after an encounter with a UFO. He has a mental image of a hill stuck in his mind after his encounter which he later finds is a message from the visitors showing where they will make contact. His knowledge of this causes him to lose his family and job as he is unable to stop thinking about the hill. Being ostracized doesn’t quell his fascination with the hill and the aliens. When he does eventually reach the hill, he (and by proxy, we) get rewarded for his curiosity with a glorious vision of the aliens and their craft. They then accept him into their ship.

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Neary was right all along: it WAS worth it to believe when no else did. The final scene signals the dawn of an “Age of Enlightenment” which would supposedly lead to even more wondrous discoveries for Neary and humanity.

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Men In Black (whether intentional or not) is placed in the same thematic continuity through Agent K. He shows J that his introduction to extraterrestrial life (and subsequently, MIB) was through a farm sighting where he met face to face with an alien, along with other future agents. This parallels Close Encounters; an ordinary man makes contact with aliens in a mundane setting and it changes his entire world view. K’s character arc began in the “Age of Enlightenment” that Close Encounters ended on. Except, K’s enlightenment hasn’t “fulfilled” him. In fact, it’s done the opposite.

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Remember K’s first partner; the first recipient of “flashy thinging”? Before his memory is erased, he looks to the sky and muses ” look at the stars…we never just look at them anymore“. This signals to K that his partner is no longer capable of being an agent, hence why he neuralyzes him. The sky, a sight that is meant to be simply appreciated for the feeling it evokes, has been disenchanted by knowing what lies beyond it. Unlike in Close Encounters, realizing the complexities of the universe is diminishing rather than empowering. As K tells J, knowledge of aliens challenges everything we believe. K puts this in context for J:

A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it. Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow

K stresses here the inherent delusion of “common knowledge.” People are inclined to believe not only what is apparent, but what is comfortable. The existence of alien life requires a massive reconsideration of our understanding of the world. According to K, this is a bad thing. This is why throughout the film, the neuralyzer is by far the most important gadget the agents wield. It is the ultimate “defense” against aliens in that it protects humanity from the knowing they exist.

Those that aren’t protected from the truth are irrevocably changed, as exemplified by K himself. As the senior MIB agent, he’s more of a jaded cynic than a romantic top officer. Nothing excites him. Nothing entertains him. Since he’s basically a ghost, his interactions with people are brusque and often disdainful. After the first use of the neuralyzer on some rangers, he quips to himself wryly ” damn, what a gullible breed “.

When K is neuralyzed by the end of the first film, it’s confirmed that he reunites with his childhood sweetheart and gets married. This is important because it’s implied that seeing the alien visitor is what derailed their relationship initially. The flowers he gave the alien were supposed to be for her, thus showing K’s first step towards losing touch with humanity.

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A scene where K “checks in on her” (read: stalks her) shows he never got over the woman. Thankfully, the film ends with K getting neuralyzed and then reuniting with his sweetheart…which was then flushed down the toilet in the sequel (2002) where it turns out K’s marriage fell apart rather quickly. Jay attributes this to “the way he views the stars”, a call-back to the first film. In Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces, the archetypal hero’s journey is circular: once one gains knowledge, he can return home to integrate said knowledge into his old life (which Campbell dubbed “The Crossing of the Return Threshold”) :

The returning hero, to complete his adventure, must survive the impact of the world. Many failures attest to the difficulties of this life-affirmative threshold. The first problem of the returning hero is to accept as real…the passing joys and sorrows, banalities and noisy obscenities of life.

Stargazing is one of the many “passing joys” of humanity. Stars aren’t “luminous spheres of super-heated plasma” to the layman, they’re something to be enjoyed superficially. They’re just…beautiful. MIB agents know so much about the stars and beyond that they can’t ever see them as “just beautiful” again. That lack of naive whimsy is what separates normal people from the MIB. K’s experiences has changed him so much that he’s practically an alien himself, unable to connect with society.

Even J is shown to have lost much his vigor by Men In Black 2 (probably because he was in  Men In Black 2). J’s burgeoning relationship in the film mirrors K’s relationship with another alien in the past. Both end with the loss of their love interest and…that’s it. There’s nothing to be gained from it. Their lives are just that terrible They even have the nerve to give K yet ANOTHER love interest that doesn’t come to fruition in Men In Black 3 (2012). Fuck Steven Spielberg.

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Despite how cynical the films are about the pursuit of knowledge, it doesn’t seem to have much reverence for the ignorant masses of humanity either. Besides the MIB, every human being with speaking lines is either an asshole (Edgar the farmer, J’s police partner) or an idiot (Edgar’s wife, the Rangers). The film has this degraded view from the start: the opening credits of the film doesn’t have us viewing anything awe-inspiring or exciting, they have us following a dragonfly moving across the desert sky.

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This seems awfully familiar…

Son of a bitch!

Son of a bitch!

We accompany the dragonfly until it hits a truck, dead on impact. This introduction puts us as an audience in the lowest cosmic rung; compared to the vast universe, we are insects.

Furthering the insect/humanity parallel is the film’s antagonist: the Bug. The Bug seems to have either an inferiority or superiority complex (I studied english, not psychology). His kinship with smaller insects makes him severely conscious of their “abuse” by earthlings. He, in turn, compensates by diminishing humanity. In a bit of dramatic irony, he describes humanity to an exterminator who thinks he’s describing roaches: “(they are) undeveloped, unevolved barely conscious pond scum totally convinced of their own superiority as they scurry about with short, pointless lives “. The only motivation even given to the Bug is his hatred for humanity, with the much larger plot being an implied conflict between his race and another. In fact, the other race (who are the “good guys”) nominate to blow up Earth should the Bug abscond with the “galaxy marble” that serves as the film’s plot token. MIB’s leader Zed accepts this idea without much judgement, knowing that it would be best for the universe even if it means the death of humanity. And I guess this is the closest thing we get to a “positive” point in this fairly bleak film: Zed, K, and eventually J, accept their roles in the universe.

At the end of the film, J to gets the upper hand on the bug by playing to his fragile ego. He purposely kills several roaches to distract him from leaving Earth with the galaxy marble thing. Despite the jeopardy of his mission, the Bug goes out of his way to confront him, which leads to his failure. He stepped outside of his role for revenge. Contrast this with the cool detached nature of the MIB agents; K didn’t hesitate to allow himself to be eaten alive if it meant he could get his job done. Even when he lost his memory and became a postman, he carries on a clockwork routine in his life. K epitomizes a samurai-like professionalism which allows him to be the perfect agent. This zen outlook extends beyond just killing aliens and mind-wiping cops. The moment after K regains his memory in Men in Black 2 parallels a scene from the first film after J realizes aliens exist.

Men In Black

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Men In Black 2

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And no: i haven’t a clue what’s up with the weird bikers

At one point he was about to step on a cockroach, but knowingly doesn’t (which was a good thing because it turned out to be an alien).

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For what little good it does them, J and K know their and everything else’s role in the universe. Their roles might not be lofty, but at least they have “a bead on things“. Knowledge isn’t always uplifting, but that’s not a bad thing. In a way, Men In Black still manages to affirm the role of humanity, if not it’s perceived grandeur. The ffilm ends with a dramatic zoom-out showing our entire solar system to be as small to a gargantuan alien creature as the galaxy inside the marble was to us. In such a recursive reality, everything plays some kind of part, no matter how hard it is to see.

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For more thoughts on sci-fi franchises:

The Matrix: Reflections on Neo and Morpheus

Thor: The Dark World Review

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Thor is the Dos Equis guy of Marvel. Whereas Peter Parker cries about dead uncles and Tony Stark can’t put down that bottle of Jack Daniels, Thor fights rock giants and beds valkyries with a grin on his face and sledge in his hand. He’s omnipotent. He’s noble. He’s boring as shit. One of the reasons it took soooo long for Marvel to even create a film about one of it’s most significant characters was because he’s extremely difficult to adapt into a compelling protagonist. With that in mind, i saw the first Thor ( 2011 ) with apprehension and came out…neutrally. It’s about as good of an adaptation as one could do, but it’s not a good film in its own right. As mentioned, Thor was severely lags behind his Avengers kin in terms of character in the film. In addition, a large portion of the film ( by necessity i understand ) happens on Earth for the sole purpose of:

a) connecting the franchise with the awkwardly integrated S.H.I.E.L.D.

b ) connecting him with humanity despite the fact that it was established IN THE BEGINNING OF THE FILM that the Asgardians had already interacted with humans several times in the past

c ) forcing a relationship with all the chemistry of peanut butter and salami

With that being said, i thought it was well cast, which allowed for fairly boring characters to be interesting ( especially Loki ). In addition, i’ve grown to appreciate the artistic direction of the series in regards to its Asgard ( which i’ll touch upon later ). But enough about the first film, what do i think about it’s illustrious sequel?

Honestly? It’s better. Still not good, but better. And not for necessarily the best reasons.

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The plot: After the events of the first film, Thor has been busy maintaining order in the ( poorly defined ) nine realms of the universe. Back on Midgard / Earth, Padme and that busty CBS waitress happen to find a rip in the fabric of reality ( which happens sometimes ). It turns out that one of these rips leads to a macguffin known as “dark aether” which was previously a plot point in an ancient war between the Asgardians and the oddly-technologically-advanced Dark Elves, who want to use it to spread the daaaahkness across the realms.

The Dark Elves

The Dark Elves

One of the biggest problems i had with the first film was it’s scenes on Earth and this one more than makes up for it. The majority of the film takes place on Asgard and occasionally the titular dark world. As such, we get the sheer scope of the world of Thor. This is helped by another narrated “historical lecture” by Anthony Hopkins as Odin in the beginning. Though he’s clearly a little checked out in this film, Hopkins as always manages to get across the gravitas that a film featuring Norse myth should have. Speaking of which, one of the most under-appreciated aspects of these films is the art direction. And i don’t mean flashy Hollywood CGI ( which is still good, i’ll admit ) , i mean the actual aesthetic choices. The film furthers a sort of “magitech” feeling for the Asgardians and their technology. When Loki is imprisoned, his force field cell looks like it wouldn’t be out of place in Star Trek if it weren’t for those stock “fantasy runes”. Choices like this keeps Asgard from feeling like a generic Dungeons and Dragons locale and also makes it fit in a world where Iron Men and Heli-carriers abound. The villainous Dark Elves take this even further by using weapons straight out of Halo such as energy rifles and grenades. Overall, like the last film, The Dark World has a very strong aesthetic goal and concept that makes for compelling visuals…

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…which doesn’t do much for uncompelling plot. Thor: The Dark World suffers from the same condition as Iron Man 2 ( 2010 ) by being an uninspired franchise sequel. By the end of Thor, Thor goes from being a cocky guy who cares little for his enemies to being a cocky guy who cares a little for his enemies. That’s it. That’s the only psychology you could milk out of that asshole. As hard as it is to believe, there’s LESS characterization in this film. The only driving aspect of the character is, of course, his arbitrary love for Jane Foster ( Natalie Portman ).Once they’re reunited, that becomes the only thing we get out of the guy emotionally. Even when a MUCH more terrible event occurs during the film, he barely has emotional reaction. This is why Thor is such a god-awful film protagonist: no matter how charismatic Hemsworth is, he can’t make up for a character with absolutely no pathos. There’s nothing for him to grow into at this point, his narrative journey ended in the first film. This makes the scenes on Earth more painful than they were in the first film, since they literally have no bearing on anything. Ironically, the film’s choice to use Earth comedically actually undercuts most of the point of the first film. The first scene with Jane Foster shows her on a date with the affable Chris O’Dowd ( Bridesmaids ) who looking like this…

Chris O'Dowd At Jameson Done In 60 Seconds Media Day

…pales in comparison the dreamy Thor. During the scene, Darcy ( Kat Dennings ) shows up and basically cuts the poor sod off, while Jane purposely ignores him, which is funny because…it’s actually not that funny. It underscores the biggest problem with this film and the challenge of Thor as a superhero. Once all of the “character development” of Thor was finished, humans became punchlines to the film’s jokes. “Look at this limey loser! He ain’t shit compared to Asgardians!”. Even Jane ends up being portrayed as more of a commoner during her brief stay on Asgard, where she can barely has any screen presence when compared to her godly costars. So with all that in mind: how do you then justify Thor’s interest in Earth? Asgardians and whatever the fuck Hogun is are essentially humans but better. Why the fuck was it important for him to be a hero on Earth? The film seems to forget it has to even establish that reasoning. This lack of motivation stretches an already stretched-thin excuse plot.

Speaking of plot, it’s actually the opposite of Iron Man 2 in terms of complexity. Which is a bad thing. Obviously, no one really cared about writing a good story for Iron Man 2. So instead, they have a quick plot that needs little explanation AND could be conveniently wrapped up succinctly. The Dark World takes a fairly uninteresting macguffin plot and actually makes it hard to understand through a whole shit load of plot elements. This is where the ” magitech” elements work against the film, since we’re given obscure technobabble for almost every aspect of the climax. I dare any viewer to honestly tell me how exactly Thor defeats the Elves by the end. In terms of subplot, the only one of note is the hinted at Jane / Sif rivalry. I’ll just tell ya, it’s not that big of a deal. See it for yourself and you’ll probably agree.

One of the most criminal sins for the more passive viewer is the fact that, once again, Thor barely fights. I get it, i really do. Thor is a god. Because of this, showing him in combat often would kind of diminish the majesty of his might. This is the reason why this is one of the few elements that didn’t bother me. As i said, Thor just ain’t interesting. There’s no way for him to lose and he has no personal struggles to overcome. This film manages to spend just enough time away from Thor in order to actually be somewhat compelling. We get more screen time with his mother Frigga ( Rene Russo ) who has some tense moments. As per fan-girl request ( literally ), we get plenty of Loki as well. While it’s obvious he’s a bit tacked on to the plot, i’ll admit Hiddleston plays his role well as usual as Thor’s untrustworthy sidekick. Personally, i think the time could have been better spent with supporting characters Thor actually LIKES like, i don’t know, the four fucking badass warriors who would follow him to death. But as a non-fifteen year old white girl, i am clearly not part of Thor’s fanbase.

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Final Verdict

This film is the lowest form of ‘ok’ to me. The first act is impressive and really ties you into the Norse mythos the film creates. The best parts for me were when they didn’t focus on Thor or Jane and instead had us soaring around this world. The actors make due with what they got, but it ain’t much. Not to mention the plot is almost pointless. See this film if you liked the first one, appreciate the talents of the cast, or have the money for IMAX 3D. Don’t see this film if you didn’t like the first, actually want character development, or want an interesting story.

For more posts on Marvel heroes:

Iron Man 3 Review

Iron Man: Real American Hero

Journey of Peter Parker from Amazing Fantasy to Amazing Spider-Man

Spider-Man Tackles The Torch: Spider-Man as a Classic Anti-Hero

The Lois Lane Effect

Three Things About The Thing

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The beauty of the Sci-Fi and Fantasy genres is that they literalize the figurative. Enemies become demons, philosophers become wizards, etc. This is why the two genres are ( undeservedly ) heavily associated with children, since children have yet to create a literal sense of the world. One of the few bastions of “adult” fantasy is the horror genre. Here, fantasy can explicate the darkest fears of the subconscious. John Carpenter’s The Thing ( 1982 ) is an excellent example of how the juncture between Horror and Sci-Fi can produce amazing results.

A little background: The Thing was directed by John Carpenter ( Halloween, Escape From New York ) and written by Bill Lancaster ( The Bad News Bears ). It’s based on the novella Who Goes There? (1938 ) by John W. Campbell Jr., which also inspired The Thing From Another World ( 1951 ). It stars Kurt Russell ( Escape From New York, Death Proof ) Keith David ( Pitch Black, There’s Something About Mary ) and Wilford Brimley ( Diabetes commercials ). See the trailer here

The plot: A group of American Antarctic researchers get more than they bargained for when they take in what seems like a dog that was being chased by a Norwegian gunner. Upon shooting the man and letting the dog into camp, it quickly reveals itself as a shape-shifting monster. Even worse, it turns out it can impersonate humans as well.

There are several things that makes The Thing a thing of beauty ( i promise i won’t make that joke again )…

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1. Paranoia

The threat of the shape-changing Thing creates tension between the researchers. This could have been played very straightforward: everybody just flips on each other at a moment’s notice. Instead, the characters do something unheard of: THEY ACT RATIONALLY. MacReady points out that “he knows he’s human and that some of them must be human too or else they’d just attack him. He recognizes that there’s still some reason to trust each other. When one of the characters suspects that the doctor might be going insane, he pulls MacReady outside into a helicopter to discuss the issue, rather than just putting the guy on the spot and risking a freak-out from the others. The characters are smart. Most horror films rely on stupid people making stupid decisions. They play on the lowest common denominators with helpless women and children. This is why Roger Ebert once called slasher films “dead teenager movies”. Because they’re smart, it makes the threat so much more compelling when shit hits the fan. The threat of the alien is rational when you remember that the dog had some time to interact with them and leave parts of itself. Anyone could be The Thing. Several characters try to establish a chronology of contact which is constantly in question. Who interacted with the dog first? Who was in the room during attacks? Even suggestions become suspect as we know the Thing could be trying to cover it’s bases. What’s even worse is that even the characters THEMSELVES seem uncertain if they are the Thing or not. When MacReady starts testing everyone’s blood, one of the characters is relieved when his test is negative. He wasn’t even sure if he was still human. Your own body could betray you in this film.

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2. Effects

While i’m no opponent of CGI, physical effects are always the best to me in regards to horror. It’s hard to get across quality viscera with computer models. The Thing uses entirely physical effects, making it a bit of a dinosaur when compared to its new-fangled 2011 remake. Instead of this being a hindrance, the actual models allow for a palpable level of repulsion. The Thing has some of the freakiest scenes scenes i’ve ever seen. One of my personal favorites is when a character is jumped by the Thing and his flamethower malfunctions. The Thing’s head then proceeds to SPLIT IN HALF AND BITE HIM!

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That’s the kind of shit you can’t do with CG. Like most smart pre CG films, the cinematographer is careful not to hold too long on anything so we always have very immediate bodily impressions of the Thing’s forms. This still leaves the monster some mystery.

3. Build Up and Pay Off

In America, there seems to be two schools of thought when it come to Horror film plotting. You either a) allude to terror and leave threats permanently ill-defined ( Rosemary’s Baby, The Changeling ) b) have immediate scares that jar audiences into terror ( Hostel, 30 Days of Night ). Both of these methods have their flaws: a creepy atmosphere that doesn’t deliver on threat can feel unsatisfying, whereas a overt scares can desensitize an audience. The Thing does both by having a legitimately threatening monster that doesn’t necessarily show itself unless it has to. The camera implies heavily that there’s something…off…about the dog they pick up, and we don’t realize what exactly is wrong with it until the half hour mark. Up until then, all we see is it’s longing looks at the rest of the cast. The film actually convinces you the dog is plotting against them. When it’s put in a cage with other dogs, we clearly see its demeanor is completely different from the other dogs from how it sits.

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We then of course get to where it reveals itself as a monster.

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Even after this scene, we go only a few minutes before someone else is copied. It’s at this point the film takes a step back to focus on the human drama as these men have to deal with the fact that they can’t necessarily trust each other. In addition, there’s no way for them to leave or get help in this arctic wasteland, turning the camp into a pressure cooker of tension

Overall, i would say The Thing easily rates as one of the best horror films i’ve ever seen. Do yourself a favor and check it out before the month is out.

For more posts on classic horror:

Progression of Ash in Evil Dead

Decay of the American West in Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Death Has Come To Haddonfield: Fatalism in Halloween

Also, if you want, here’s a quick musical summation of the film

Gravity Review

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The film Star Trek (2009) opens with a federation starship being attacked by an enemy ship. During the attack, a hole is blown through the ship as a crew member is walking by. She tries in vain to hold on while screaming hysterically, but physics win out and she sucked into the void. We last see her flailing around noiselessly in an exterior shot of the ship. The scope of the battle is so large that she’s barely noticeable on the screen; a nameless ensign adrift in the depths of the cosmos. For a film with as many memorable visuals as Star Trek,  this is one that stood out in my mind. It’s not a particularly thrilling moment (quite the opposite in fact). It’s horrifically stark: whatever emotion we’re supposed to feel is as fleeting as the scene itself. Oddly, a film that uses outer space as a site of fantasy begins with a scene expressing its cold reality. This is a concept rarely touched upon in film. One the few to do so is Gravity.

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Gravity manages to take a story as simple as ” hero gets lost in a foreign land ” and take it to its logical extreme. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Harry Potter And The Prisoner of Azkaban), the film focuses on  bio-medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) who’s first space trip to the Hubble Telescope goes awry when debris from a Russian anti-satellite test results in massive destruction near Earth’s orbit.

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This results in the destruction of the shuttle and most of its crew, leaving Stone and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), to figure out how to survive.

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As in real life, being in space is portrayed as oddly both expansive and claustrophobic The promos for Gravity show an extreme close-up of Sandra Bullock. The camera slowly pulls out as we see her spacesuit and her tumbling through space. This frightening visual encapsulates the tone of the film perfectly. Most non-fantasy films dealing with space travel (Apollo 13, Armageddon) never deal with what being in space is like. It’s just a cool backdrop.  The characters rarely reflect on space. If they do, it’s only to say how beautiful it is. In this film, outer space is portrayed as honestly as possible. It’s nothingness. It’s cold (we see Bullock’s breath while in a vessel). Despite not being explicitly a horror film, Gravity manages to create an unnerving atmosphere when it wants to. Imagine being lost in space? Not only will you die obviously, but your body will forever be adrift (a fear played with by the promos of Stone tumbling in space). The only object of ” beauty ” in the film is the Earth, which is maddeningly out of reach for Stone.

Because the protagonist is explicitly NOT an astronaut, a large amount of drama comes m how she’s as disoriented as the audience would be in that situation. This is illustrated when the shuttle’s crew is introduced. Kowalski is casually reflecting on personal stories and the beauty of the Earth, whereas Stone is too uncomfortable to take her eyes off her work.

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Stone’s space suit becomes indicative of Stone’s limitations. Rather than just being a costume, it’s significance is constantly alluded to. She’s constantly worried about its oxygen supply. Several shots are taken from inside the helmet so we can see her limited vision. Her suit is her tether; keeping her alive and also hindering her. This is the film’s overlying theme: the tag line states “Don’t let go”. For a film about space, freedom is seemingly unobtainable.

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As much as I hate the term, this film could be accurately described as ” hauntingly beautiful “. The camera (which I’m not quite sure existed given all the CGI) manages to take on the properties of the film’s environment perfectly. We are rarely given a sense of direction as the camera slowly drifts through each scene. It obviously works to allow the audience the feeling of space itself. As mentioned before, this at times whimsical, but more often purposely disorienting. This film also bears the signatures of its director, who is an expert at extremely long mobile takes (as seen in films like Children of Men (2006). The introduction of Stone and Kowalski, the revelation of the debris, and their separation from the shuttle all takes place in ONE continuous shot. Holy shit. The film makes sure to almost never separate us from the action, so we get the sense we’re in just as much trouble as the protagonists are. This is the type of filmmaking that almost makes me tear up.

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Given that this is a film with only two principal actors (with the subjective perception of one), Gravity is extremely intimate despite its vast backdrop. Bullock’s acting serves the film, but I can see people having mixed reactions. Bullock’s niche in Hollywood has always been “tough chick who’s secretly feminine” or “smart chick who’s secretly feminine”. She’s the “anti-glamor” girl. As such, when she’s in vulnerable mode, it’s much more understated than say, Julia Roberts. This keeps her character from being a damsel-in-distress IN SPACE. This also means that she might not have the overt reactions some audiences need to feel the emotional weight of the film. Personally, I think her performance fits the character’s personality. A tragedy in Stone’s past has made her a checked-out workaholic. Her job is the only thing that she lives for, which even factors into how she got stranded in the first place. When she deals with stress, it’s more about nervous tics than obvious emotion. For example, one of the most terrifying moments in the film occurs when she gets caught in the debris storm while working on a spacecraft. Her reaction? She ignores it and begins humming to herself awkwardly. That is a brilliant way for us to feel scared for her without diminishing the character. She’s a ball of nerves but she doesn’t break down, which makes us root for her.

Final Verdict

Gravity is one of the few films I would call beautiful in every respect. The effects are gorgeous. The acting is moving. The story is simple yet powerful. I honestly can’t see how someone couldn’t like this film. I guess the only reasons not to see it is if you get motion sickness ( seriously ) or if you just hate Sandra Bullock. Otherwise, see this film.

The Matrix: Reflections on Neo and Morpheus

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So there’s this film that was made in 1990’s where Keanu Reeves and his best friend end up on a science-fantasy journey, during which he says “Whoa”.

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I had to go there

No of course i mean The Matrix starring Laurence Fishburne instead of whoever the fuck Bill is. Granted, unlike Bill in Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) , Morpheus doesn’t share equal billing with his friend Neo and is relegated to a support role instead. Not to say he’s unimportant, however,he is an example of prevalent archetype in world culture ; the wise mentor.

The Matrix makes a not so subtle attempt to parallel the story of Neo with the Campbellian monomyth. A hero ends up in a foreign world in search of enlightenment and adventure. With that in mind, the mentor figure takes on many classical elements. As a mentor, Morpheus resembles what anthropologist Joseph Campbell would have called a “threshold guardian”, who tests the resolve of the hero to continue the quest at hand. In this case, the test is philosophical: would you want to see how far you can stray from the familiar or do you want to go back to it? A similar option comes up often in Lord of The Rings with Bilbo and Frodo who have to choose between staying in the cozy yet isolated shire and the larger,  intimidating Middle Earth.

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The pill choice serves as Neo’s “call to adventure”, where the hero is given the choice of whether or not he wants to embark upon the journey at hand. Morpheus could’ve told Neo the sinister purpose of the Matrix or the fact that he thinks Neo’s the One, but he intentionally leaves out the best arguments for either option, instead opting for ambiguity. This foreshadows Neo’s later meeting with the Oracle, who tells him he’s not the One even though he is. Telling him would possibly force him in his predestined direction, but allowing him to come to the conclusion himself allows for him to fully realize it (which plays into the end of the series). Neo’s role as the One is as a messiah, not a hero. That means that his primary role is to sacrifice himself for others.

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As such, when he’s told he has to choose between saving his own life and Morpheus’, he chooses Morpheus because he thinks him to be more important than himself, which is the level of humility he needs as the One. Ironically, from Neo’s point of view, Morpheus was the true hero of the story whereas he was merely a supporter.

While I would deem Morpheus’ role as fairly “race neutral”,his role as a mentor overlaps with the archetype of the “magical negro” initially. To clarify, this term was first coined by Spike Lee in a lecture on film in 2001 and the unfortunate frequency of morally pure subservient characters who often were mystical as well (The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance, specifically).

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Disney’s “Song of the South” (1946)

The formula was goes like this: a white person, often from a wealthy background yet fraught with “first world problems”, meets a sage black person who gives them advice and/or magic from beyond their culture. A great example is Don Cheadle’s character in The Family Man (2000), a seemingly criminal young man who teaches Nicholas Cage’s character the importance of family by warping reality to give him the one he never had. Given the magic realism of the film, he’s never given much characterization other than being jovial and helpful to the protagonist. The issue with characters like this is, as with any caricature, it’s flatness. Real people have goals, ambitions, and desires. Therefore, a dude who is simultaneously as powerful as a “magical negro” yet lacking these attributes seems a little flat. If Bagger Vance is such a philosophical and brilliant golfer,why the fuck would he caddy for some white guy? One could make a good case for Morpheus falling into this stereotype. Neo is introduced as a lost man; a hacker with an empty life. Meeting Morpheus allows for him to gain knowledge about a world beyond his pale (pun intended).

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He also teaches Neo how to fight, which is a pretty black thing to do

 The “mysticism” of the character is due to his closer relationship to the nature of the Matrix than Neo’s. This is visually evident from the first time they meet, just look at how Morpheus’ glasses stay on his face despite not even having those thingies on the side.

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That’s fucking weird

Lawrence Fishburne’s entire performance is initially as foreign as possible due to his slow deliberate speech and stoicism. Morpheus is the first person of this obscure world that is both clearly “strange” yet willing to accept Neo in , unlike the agents he meets beforehand. And obviously, like a magical negro, Morpheus’ primary goal in the first film is to boost the esteem of the white protagonist. With all that being said , Morpheus is still quite far from being a flat supporting character. What keeps Morpheus from being a true “magical negro” however is his own unique character arc. In the first film , his belief in Neo isn’t just for his sake, it’s for the sake of Zion. It’s the last piece in his vision for humanity. It’s not as if he doesn’t have a plan and the ability to fight the machines beforehand. Morpheus is as important to the citizens of Zion as Neo is (if not more). He even has a beta romance with Niobe (who is, unsurprisingly, black as well) , which makes him a bit more human.

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Also, a bit more pimp

After the first film , the characters begin to diverge from a protagonist/foil relationship (the foil being a mentor in this case) to more of a protagonist/deuteragonist relationship. To clarify , this means that Morpheus become a secondary protagonist that takes on an almost as important role to the plot. This is generally accomplished by having an immediate and/or practical goal for the deuteragonist to take on while the protagonist takes on a more significant thematic goal. Often the deuteragonist’s goal allows for the protagonist to reach the goal in the first place. Probably the most famous deuteragonist is Aragorn in Lord of The RingsWhile Frodo has the “load bearing” task of destroying the true macguffin of the series, Aragorn has to take care of the more immediate task of fighting Sauron’s forces. In addition, he also has the more practical task of creating post-war order as the King of Middle Earth’s menfolk. Morpheus’ almost beat for beat fulfills the same role: we see in Matrix Reloaded (2003) that he is the actual leader of the freed people and has the practical experience to lead an army against the machines. Morpheus acts as a contrast to Neo as the One: Neo stands alone for the most of the film with most of his influence to the rest of Zion being tangential. When a child thanks him for saving his life, he brushes him off rather rudely. This in contrast to Morpheus’ fatherly attitude towards his men; Morpheus’ power comes from his ability to directly influence people. Fittingly, in The Matrix Revolutions (2003), while Neo fights in the Matrix, Morpheus is the one actually responsible for the preservation of Zion. It’s also implied that he ends up being the spiritual leader of humanity after the defeat of Smith, making him the “King of Men” himself.

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The relationship between Neo and Morpheus pays off the most in The Matrix Revolutions (2003), specifically the shifting of spirituality between the two. In the first film, Morpheus completely trusts in the prophecy of the Oracle, whereas Neo spends most of the film skeptical of it. While this is at first portrayed as a character flaw of Neo’s, it actually ends up becoming an advantage over Morpheus. Morpheus’ absolutist belief in the Oracle’s teachings makes him rigid. Sure, his beliefs are inspirational, but they also have a glass-like fragility. In The Matrix Reloaded, we learn that “The One” is all part of the Matrix’s plan for humanity; a way of dealing with eventual anomalies. Morpheus completely drops his faith upon this revelation, stating that ” I dreamed a dream, but now that dream is gone from me“. Revolutions shows him to have lost much of the confidence that defined his character to the point where he doesn’t even offer a word of encouragement when the war effort starts going south. When Neo decides to go to the source of the Matrix , Morpheus is unconfindent in his fate , telling Neo that he “can only hope [he] knows what [he’s] doing“.

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Neo on the other hand is resolute in his decision. Neo doesn’t know WHY he should be resolute , but he’s willing to trust his instincts. This is something Morpheus can’t do, he needs the clear prophecies that the Oracle gave him to be as confident. This is why, until Neo makes his sacrifice, Morpheus lacks his trademark proud bearing. Neo is the one who inspires humanity at this point. Niobe, who doesn’t even believe in “The One” begins to have faith in Neo, calling his proposed action “providence”. While Morpheus helped create the spiritual path of Zion , Neo was the one who kept the spirit going once the path became murky. Neo’s skepticism allows for him to fully realize what the Oracle wants him to do; to reject the fatalism inherent in the Matrix. In the series final battle, Smith questions his resolution in continuing to fight when all seemed lost. His response is simple…

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This is ultimately what makes him Zion’s true Messiah and not Morpheus: he doesn’t need a grand narrative to move forward, he only needs choice. Several figures in the series make absolute claims about the nature of the Matrix, including the Oracle. Neo chooses against them in favor of his own whims. Just as Jesus rejected the rule of the ruling religious authorities, Neo rejects the reality the machines have set before him. This allows him to not only defeat Smith, but also rejuvenate the independent spirit of humanity, beginning with his mentor.

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For more posts on Sci-Fi:

A Gullible Breed: What Men In Black Says About Humanity

Three Things About The Thing

Iron Man 3 Review

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With all due respect, Iron Man is a pretty hard character to adapt to screen. He doesn’t have a noteworthy rogues gallery and it’s difficult to create believable threats for him. Without a secret identity, there’s no worry of revealing who he is, which tends to be a heavy amount of most superhero drama. He’s also practically a one man army with unlimited arms and resources to. This makes it all the more impressive how well the Iron Man film series has turned out. I honestly believe that the series is the best comic book adaptation to date, managing to translate the franchise, which has a lot of issues, to modern film. The third film shares a good amount of the quality of previous installments, albeit with a few missteps as well.

In the film,Tony suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder due to the events of The Avengers ( 2012 ) His condition causes him insomnia and impaired judgement. By impaired judgement, i mean pissing off an international terrorist named the Mandarin, who declares war on Tony. Backing Mandarin is a new rival of Tony’s, a wealthy bio-engineer dabbling in human experimentation. The cast includes Ben Kingsley ( yes, Ghandhi ) as the Mandarin and Guy Pearce ( Prometheus, The King’s Speech ) as Aldrich Killian. The plot draws from several comic arcs, including Warren Ellis’ Extremis arc (the use of genetically modified super soldiers) and the Armor Wars ( Tony’s suit variations ) and the Joe Quesada’s ‘ Sentient Armor ‘ arc, which thank god didn’t factor too much into the plot since it features an armor who gets a mind of its own, falls in love with Tony,vthen becomes violent towards him.

You could call him an abusive SUITor. Get it?

You could call him an abusive SUITor. Get it?

The film acts as a reconstruction of Tony Stark as a character. Before the end of The Avengers, he was basically the world’s greatest man;not only having the wealth and brilliance of his own series, but also the love of his life and the admiration of the planet. This is a common issue in sequels; satisfying conclusions need to include character development of some kind. Therefore, the protagonist of a film should have already settled whatever problems he or she suffered from. One of the MANY reasons i found The Hangover Part 2 ( 2011 ) so stupid is that in order for the events of the film to take place, everyone would have to trust Alan enough to take him along ( despite his mistakes from the previous film ) and Alan would have to be the same reckless idiot he started as. Sure, one could say people don’t necessarily learn from every mistake, but growth of some kind is often a necessity for compelling stories. Since Iron Man ( 2008 ) is a decently written film franchise Tony Stark has loads of development, so much so that when Pepper asks what’s wrong with him in the beginning of the film, he just tells her. No lies,no drinking, he just acknowledges his PTSD. Big improvement over the guy who drunkenly beat up his best friend in the previous film in order to ‘cope’. The remaining challenge for Tony is reconciling the implications of a larger Marvel Universe. Both film and comic Tony Stark are men at the height of human potential, but they are still only human. How does someone like Tony stark cope with beings who’s abilities dwarf him soundly? He gets back to basics, which for him means tinkering and snark.

The film begins with him creating a new suit that can be summoned piece by piece onto his body via ” body computer ” ( which of course becomes a recurring Chekhov’s gun throughout the film ) which is just cool as hell. This is one of the first things i like about the film and the franchise as a whole: brand new shit every film. Yes, i know some dude at Mattel would probably make the filmmakers include new toys anyway, but for once it works perfectly for a franchise like this. Iron Man is always making new suits to do all kinds of shit, he even makes one to fight THOR of all people ( spoiler: it doesn’t work ).

Tony Stark, despite a few issues, is very much an escapist character, like James Bond. Iron Man is what every child with an erector set wishes he was making. Unfortunately, the coolness of being Iron Man and Tony’s general flippancy undercuts the ” PTSD ” he’s supposedly going through. In the film, Tony literally sees a woman get shot and a friend’s bruised body, yet still seems perfectly able to crack wise. I wouldn’t call this a huge fault of the film, however, this is Tony Stark, not Bruce Wayne we’re talking about. The character’s personality allows for his banter to be played as a coping mechanism.

In terms of pacing, nothing in the film is dragged on. There’s not too much exposition going on in the film’s beginning, which is appropriate given that this is the third film in a series. What might be a point of contention for many people is part of the reason why there’s no need to exposit: both antagonists are quite familiar.

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Aldrich Killian, Tony’s rival industrialist, is a nerd who gets rich and sexy. He’s a character originating from the Iron Man Extremis arc. As the guys at spill.com pointed out, he’s basically The Riddler from Batman Forever ( 1995 ); an awkward scientist who is rejected by the wealthy protagonist and later uses his success to beat him at his own game. Some will probably say that another evil industrialist is getting redundant, and i would agree. Mind you, this isn’t a criticism of the film, it’s more of an acknowledgment about the nature of the franchise. Who the fuck is going to fight a billionaire with powered armor unless they had the same amount of resources? Due to the level of power Tony wields, he can only really be opposed by someone like him. Guy Pearce puts in an okay performance: it’s just enough for the film, but doesn’t really distinguish itself from similar characters. I could sum up his performance as a more reserved Tony Stark. Nothing more than that. As such, he’s not so much menacing, but then it’s kind of hard to be a sexy billionaire scientist AND a personal threat, so it’s passable.

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Who isn’t like him is the film’s designated ethnic antagonist, The Mandarin. The Mandarin appeared not too long after the first issue of Iron Man’s series in 1963 and was intended to be his archnemesis, but due to the obvious racist overtones, was mostly overlooked. With he and Killian, we once again see the franchise’s habit of, without intending it i assume, having an American and a non-American antagonist. This is a carryover from the comic series, where the only threats Tony dealt with were either corrupt corporations or enemies of the state. In 1963, the boy reading an Iron Man comic would know that communist China is always fodder for villainy, and in 2013, the equivalent would be a (lets be honest) a bearded Middle Eastern dude makin’ movies. Yes the character’s racist, but without spoiling anything,the film manages to justify why so. Ben Kingsley basically plays a supervillainous version of Osama Bin Laden. I’m pretty sure a vocal coach told him that film supervillains have strange, unrealistic accents like Joker and Bane, so he sounds a lot like Richard Nixon. I find it kind of funny, to be honest, but it works in the context of the film. Since both characters are basically variations of previous ones, the film doesn’t need to build either of them. Even thought two villain comic films have become synonymous with shit, the combination of the two allows for it to avoid the pitfalls of the previous film in terms of action. In Iron Man 2 ( 2010 ), Ivan Vanko didn’t have nearly enough weapons or resources upon his first battle with Stark, so it barely manages to be compelling outside of the fact that he just jumps him. Justin Hammer wasn’t even a “supervillain”, just an envious industrial rival. It took till the end of the film before their combined threat managed to lead towards an exciting action scene. This film, on the other hand, manages to seamlessly integrate both villains into a viable threat from the moment Tony’s house is attacked. The two antagonists end up having a very logical connection that works brilliantly. This leads to the film having several exciting twists, even if some of the bigger ones might be somewhat predictable.

Final Verdict

Overall, despite some initial reservations, i believe Iron Man 3 is a sufficient end to the franchise. The film is entertaining and a great conclusion to the character development of Tony Stark. He manages to reassert his significance to the world, even outside of Iron Man, and makes a ( mostly ) logical decision about what to do with his life at the film’s climax. Hopefully the character will continue to entertain in the almost certain cameos he will have in other Marvel films.

For more thoughts on Iron Man:

Iron Man: Real American Hero