Thursday, May 23, 2013

Review: The villains of Iron Man 3 and Star Trek 2

Time for a couple of quick movie reviews. Two big May sequels: Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness (aka JJ Abrams' Star Trek II). Both films are continuations of successful franchises, both heavily advertised their villains, both use insane amounts of CGI, and both have a fairly controversial twist, which means that most of everything I want to say is incredibly spoiler heavy. On the spoiler-free side, both films strike a fine balance action and humor, and well neither is perfect (and both make questionable decisions) both are excellent summer movies. Okay, spoilers now.

Seriously. Spoilers.

"Shall we begin?"

Okay, both films advertised themselves in very specific ways. Iron Man 3 promoted Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin, while Star Trek Into Darkness promised Kirk v. Cumberbatch. Of course, that's actually not what either film is about, and the way those reveals are handled is the make-or-break difference.

Star Trek and John Harrison

There were rumors as far back as December 2011 that Khan would be the villain of the Star Trek sequel. Rumors JJ Abrams denied. So halfway through the film, when "John Harrison" announces that he's really Khan (to which not Trek fans say "who?"), there's nothing to do but roll your eyes. It's a non-twist to a non-mystery.

It's possible the secrecy was to prevent comparisons between Into Darkness and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which is sort of the Empire Strikes Back of the Star Trek franchise. Unfortunately, Into Darkness then rushes to invite that comparison, recreating a classic scene, and bringing in Leonard Nimoy to remind anyone that wasn't sure that this is a villain you've already seen. Sure, it reverses the roles of Kirk and Spock (and has Zachary Quinto impersonate William Shatner), and tries to change things up with people in torpedoes and the reveal that Khan isn't actually the villain of the film. It's Admiral Marcus. He unleashed (then betrayed) Khan, and he shot the Enterprise and got Kirk killed (someone should've told Spock). The problem is that Khan immediately murders Marcus, because Khan is evil because he is Khan (who is evil because he was evil in The Wrath of Khan, where he was evil because his wife died, but because this Khan didn't have a wife he's just evil because Khan), and then Old Spock tells New Spock how to beat him. I'm not saying I didn't enjoy the film, but it failed to continue the reinvention of the universe that set the 2009 film apart, and for that (nudity-related controversy aside) I was disappointed enough to keep this from the top spot on my 2013 list.

And the Iron Mandarin issue

Meanwhile, that big superhero movie that features Robert Downey Jr. also had an issue with saying they weren't going to use a villain, and then totally using him. The kicker? They actually didn't. The mid-film reveal that Ben Kingsley is actually playing Trevor, an actor hired to play the Mandarin on TV may be drawing flack from die-hard comic fans, but it does exactly what Star Trek should have. It throws out everything you were expecting and gives you the thing you didn't know you wanted.

The biggest failing of the first two Iron Man films was that climaxed in an Iron Man vs a Bigger Iron Man showdown. Iron Man 3 gives us Tony Stark vs an Evil Tony Stark, and it's infinitely more interesting. If you follow Tony's journey through the films, he's a guy that invented cool suit out of necessity (to save his life), and it took three films and an alien invasion before he embraced his role as a superhero. Guy Pearce's Aldrich Killian invented a terrorist out of necessity (accidentally exploding people) and only at the end of the film does he embrace his role as a supervillain. It's a symmetry that makes Killian the best Iron Man foe to never (significantly) appear in the comics.

Maybe down the road, Marvel will do a more faithful adaptation of the Mandarin, but that's not what Iron Man 3 was about. And to touch back to the issue of stripping the clothes of female characters. It's not a problem when said female character kicks the bad guy's ass (instead of screaming). Iron Man 3 isn't perfect, but it's the best film I've seen this year.

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