This episode might start with a not-so-subtle metaphor in its title, but that metaphor pays off in compelling scenes for a whole host of supporting characters.
This episode might start with a not-so-subtle metaphor in its title, but that metaphor pays off in compelling scenes for a whole host of supporting characters.
After months of waiting, the Armored Avenger’s third solo adventure is finally here! So let’s talk about it!
Yup, we’re doing two issues at once this time, because when Book Six came out I was out of the country and didn’t have the time or the energy to buy, read and review a comic. Turns out it was kind of a shame, because Book Six was the most important issue of the run so far.
It’s been a very improbable ride for Tony Stark.
I mean, let’s be honest with ourselves here. Think back five years to right before Iron Man hit theaters. Or better yet, think back six years, to when you first heard there would be an Iron Man movie, and that Robert Downey Jr. would be starring in it. How high were your hopes, honestly? Even if you thought it would be good, how many people thought it would be as good as it turned out to be? And even if you did think Iron Man would be badass, who among you really thought that Tony Stark – not Peter Parker, not Wolverine, not The Punisher – would be the coolest dude in all of Marvel-based cinema? Who among you thought he would be the heart and soul of Marvel Studios? If you predicted all of that, you are a much more prescient cinephile than I, and you should probably go out and buy a lottery ticket or something.
But regardless of what I or anyone else thought, all of that happened, and then – perhaps just as improbably - The Avengers happened. Some of us never thought that day would come, but it did, and Tony Stark’s charisma put him at the center of that incredibly ambitious movie universe too. He’s the rock star of Marvel cinema. We couldn’t take that away from him now if we wanted to. And what’s more, he’s earned it.
Unfortunately, this status also means that he’s the most scrutinized of the Marvel heroes (so far; believe me when I tell you I will be looking very closely for flaws when Thor: The Dark World hits theaters this fall). Remember Iron Man 2? As over-the-top action flicks go it’s a damn fun time, full of action and cool effects and lots of that patented RDJ charm. But in spite of that, it fell flat. It seemed stale and redundant next to its predecessor, and it almost felt like an absolute snore compared to the bombastic cleverness of The Avengers. So, with all that in mind, we come (at last) to Iron Man 3.
It’s the first Tony Stark solo adventure in three years, and there have been whispers that it will be the last. It’s also the first major Marvel Studios adventure since Joss Whedon set a new standard of superhero awesome. In other words, there’s a lot riding on this movie. It’s a new chapter for Marvel Studios, a chance for a new writer and director (Shane Black) to make waves in one of the most successful action movie families in recent memory, and a chance for Robert Downey Jr. to prove that his Tony Stark shtick hasn’t gotten stale in spite of Iron Man 2. So, let’s talk about this damn movie.
Tony Stark (Downey) hasn’t been sleeping well ever since he flew through a wormhole into another dimension and almost died at the end of The Avengers. He still doesn’t fully understand what the hell happened to him, how he went from battling terrorists and vengeance-seekers to trans-dimensional aliens and gods, or how he somehow got roped into fighting alongside a pair of secret agents, a man from the past, a thunderous blonde deity and a huge green rage monster. As a man who’s spent his life focusing on science and mechanics, where everything has a logical place, this really gets to him. He doesn’t feel right anymore, and things are getting worse.
But as anxiety begins to wrack Tony’s brain, the world begins to need him more. A new terroristic threat is looming in the form of Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a mysterious criminal mastermind responsible for a series of almost untraceable bomb attacks and a set of freaky video messages. As things inevitably get personal and a showdown between Iron Man and Mandarin looms, Tony must fight to both save the world and protect his girlfriend and business partner, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who has concerns of her own as she deals with the intriguing but enigmatic scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), who claims to have a new biological agent that could change the way humans heal. Add to this the re-appearance of an old flame of Tony’s in Dr. Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) and the transformation of Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle) into the president’s favorite armored soldier Iron Patriot, and Tony’s set to face a set of challenges unlike anything he’s ever experienced before.
And yes, that’s as much plot as I’m going to give you, though you’ve probably figured a good deal more out just from watching the trailers and reading the news. I’m keeping it vague not because I’m trying to avoid spoilers (again, you probably already know a good deal more than what I’ve told you), but because this film – like most of the best superhero films – isn’t about what happens, but how it happens. Let’s face it, there’s a formula to these things. We’ve all seen Iron Man movies (and Spider-Man movies, and X-Men movies and Batman movies) before. We know where certain things in this movie are going before the movie even starts. Therefore the difference is made in the personality of the story, and it’s here that Iron Man 3 is an unquestionable triumph.
It starts with the dialogue, and right away it’s clear that Black and co-writer Drew Pearce know exactly where Downey’s strike zone is. Even in its most desperate and dark moments (and yeah, you know from the trailers that there are several), Iron Man 3 is packed with characteristic Tony Stark wit, and it’s all the more noteworthy because it’s wit that works no matter how dark the moment is. This is a film largely about taking Tony Stark out of his comfort zone, and yet he still keeps his sense of humor, his sharp tongue and a twinkle in his eye. This could come off as cheap audience-pleasing trickery, but Black and Downey somehow make this an essential part of Tony’s personality, just as Joss Whedon did. His unceasing smart-assery in the face of the absolute horror of the battle he’s fighting is both a sign of courage and a sign of outright panic, and it makes him both endearing and endlessly fascinating.
Black also serves the film well by making certain that this adventure takes us places no other Marvel movie has taken us before. We see Tony Stark down in the dirt, battered and scared and lost, we see him thinking on his feet without any armor to guard him, we see him digging deep into his most primal instincts. We step further away from the polish and showmanship of Iron Man than we ever have before, and in so doing we get to see a part of Stark that’s more vital than the armor ever was. Black hones in on Stark’s inherent identity as mechanic, as fixer, as tinkerer. It’s a thread that runs through all of the Iron Man films (The Avengers included), but Black and Pearce nail it better than anyone has before, and the result is not only an incredibly inventive action movie, but the best Tony Stark character study we could have hoped for.
As a result, Downey gets to take the character to depths of expression previously unseen. He gets to probe further into Tony’s inherent pain, his inner turmoil and the lengths to which he’ll go to preserve his outer cool, his sense of family, revenge and protectiveness, and his own struggles with identity. There’s much more to Tony Stark than quipping and well-manicured facial hair, and here we see that shine through in ways the other films never managed. That’s thanks in large part to Black and Pearce’s inventiveness, but we owe most of it to Downey’s genius. Don’t let the huge salaries and blockbuster cred fool you. He’s one of the greatest actors of his generation, and we’re lucky that he loves this part so much.
This film is also a chance for Paltrow to dig deeper into Pepper Potts, a character that – until now – was mostly noteworthy for her patience with the exasperating genius billionaire playboy philanthropist. She finds new fire in the character this time around. But the real scene-stealer is Kingsley, who does some wonderful and unexpected things with Mandarin (which I will not spoil here). He nails the mystery and the bombast of the character. And the voice. Much like Tom Hardy’s Bane, it’s an accent so unsettling, so unplaceable, that it knocks something loose in your brain. It doesn’t just make you fascinated with the character. It makes you crave more of him.
As I said before, the real success of this film isn’t what it does, but how it does it. Obviously I won’t spoil any of that for you now, but after the often stale Iron Man 2, this film is the biggest breath of fresh air we could hope for. The entire creative team seems to have a rock solid understanding of how a good Iron Man movie should work, but an even greater understanding of how to take everyone completely by surprise. This is an unpredictable, witty, earnest and utterly indulgent superhero film that delivers all the action movie goods (Iron Man army and all) along with a massive dose of heart and exuberance. It gets almost everything right, and it reminds us all why Tony Stark is the reigning King of Marvel Cinema.
You might remember that I called last week’s episode the best of the season. Well, in terms of excitement, I was right. In terms of depth and emotional punch…I may have been wrong.
Oh man are you guys gonna love this one.
So, we’re three episodes into a new season of Game of Thrones. The halfway point is closer than you think, and more than once the season’s been called slow by viewers (yes, even me). But, as you may recall, I’ve defended the show. I’ve said that often the early episodes are about putting new pieces of the puzzle together so the payoff can come, and it’s all being done so elegantly that I don’t care much about the pace. Well, the “slow” criticisms stop here. “And Now His Watch Is Ended” is not only the most exhilarating episode of this season so far. It’s also got the potential to be one of the most pivotal episodes in the history of the show.
Note: Once again, I’m writing an advance review here, so no big plot spoilers for the episode will follow. However, there will of course be spoilers for the rest of the season so far.
In King’s Landing, Margaery (Natalie Dormer) and Olenna (Diana Rigg) continue to work their charms on Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) and Sansa (Sophie Turner), though Cersei (Lena Headey) is still suspicious. Meanwhile Varys (Conleth Hill) has his own business with Olenna, as well as Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), and Cersei has business with her father (Charles Dance). In the North, Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) ventures deeper into his dreams with the help of Jojen (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), while Arya (Maisie Williams) must find new courage among the Brotherhood. Still lost somewhere in Westeros, Theon (Alfie Allen) laments his choices. Beyond The Wall, the rifts within the Night’s Watch grow deeper. In the Crown Lands, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is reeling from the aftermath of his punishment. And in Astapor, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) makes good on her bargain with the Unsullied slavemaster.
Again, there are a number of highlights that I just can’t talk about because you haven’t seen them yet, but I can tell you a bit more broadly about what I loved. I talked a lot last season about my love for the complex and often deceptive relationship between Varys and Tyrion, and this episode contains the very best scene between the two of them yet, and because of the nature of their relationship it’s one of those things that could turn out to be exceptionally important or could just be more smoke blown from either of them. But hey, that’s part of the fun, and Hill and Dinklage are both at their absolute best.
I also, for some reason, really noticed in this episode just how detailed the regional differences are in the show’s production design. Watch Margaery walk next to Sansa. Their costumes each say different thing about the wearer, but they’re also part of a larger landscape of costume design, armor design, weaponry, food and everything else that makes up this world. It’s the same level of detail that made the design work in The Lord of the Rings so good, and it’s never been applied to television in quite this way before. It struck me particularly hard watching this episode, so take a moment and savor that.
But more importantly (and again, I can’t spoil anything for you), this is the episode where everything about this season really begins to move forward in a really energetic, proper badass way, particularly in the final minutes. It’s the sort of episode that leaves you absolutely invigorated and makes you flat-out angry that you can’t watch what happens next right now. I think we’ll look back on this episode and call it one of the most important of the season, and certainly one of the most fun.
Note: This is the last of my advance reviews for this season, so if you’re reading my reviews, look for the next one on Sunday night after I’ve watched it right along with the rest of you.
One of the enduring themes of Game of Thrones, it should be painfully obvious, is loss. With “Walk of Punishment,” the show treads once again into very grim territory, and the results, while often hard to watch, add to the power of a season that’s already begun to gain a lot of steam.
After weeks of uncertainty, I think this comic has finally hit its stride.
If you’ve read these reviews before, you know that I’ve criticized the pacing, the lack of backstory, and the vagueness of what exactly Ultron did to so completely wreak havoc on Earth. Book Five of Age of Ultron doesn’t solve all of those problems, but it does give them all a somewhat startling and endlessly intriguing new direction, and as such it becomes the best issue of the series so far.
After escaping the carnage of New York and San Francisco, the surviving Marvel Heroes relocate to the Savage Land, where they hope to regroup and find a way to deal with Ultron’s wrath. Things are complicated by the news that Ultron himself is not actually leading the conquest. Instead, he’s watching things from the future while Vision runs things in the present day. With this information, the heroes begin to form a plan, and an old ally returns to galvanize their efforts.
I praised the last issue of this miniseries for the way it seemed to open up the door to the greater plot of this series. I still feel like everything that came before could have been covered in one issue, not three, but that’s a Bendis comic for you. He takes longer than other writers do, and while that can sometimes be frustrating, it also means he can deliver big character moments. Here, in issue five, he not only delivers those moments, but kicks down the door of this comic. Everything is bigger and more ambitious. Everything seems part of a larger whole, finally, and that makes what’s come before worth it…at least, so far.
I don’t know yet where this is heading. I won’t spoil it for you, but parts of this seem awful gimmicky. Other parts, though, look like the stuff of fantastic character building. We’ll see where it goes. In the meantime, I’m willing to brand Age of Ultron Book Five a thrilling, relentlessly plot-filled issue that sets up the rest of the event in marvelous ways.
Last week I said that season premieres are essentially about asking questions and making us excited to hear the answers. So, did the second episode of Game of Thrones’ third season lead us in the right direction?
Hey, this thing is actually getting interesting?
If you read the last three reviews I did of this event book (Hi, all two of you!) you’ll remember that I’ve been very skeptical of it from the start. The opening issue didn’t impress me, the second treaded water a bit, and the third only began to show something a little intriguing. I won’t say that issue four kicks Age of Ultron wide open, but at the very least it does present some of the greater story that I’ve been hoping for all this time, and even if I don’t end up liking where that goes, I can finally say I like where it is right now.
NOTE: Spoilers for the last three issues ahead.
So, last issue Luke Cage took She-Hulk to Ultron’s headquarters atop the ruins of Manhattan with the hope of “selling” her to the artificial intelligence and figuring out why Ultron was interested in buying superheroes in the first place when he could just, you know, kill them. Once there, Cage discovered that the being at the center of all that technology wasn’t Ultron, but a ripped-in-half Vision. From there, Cage and She-Hulk learn a secret that could change the whole face of this comic (which I won’t reveal here). Meanwhile, Captain America, Iron Man and the rest of the Manhattan superhero survivors make their way to the Savage Land, and Black Widow and Moon Knight plot their own escape from San Francisco.
This is my favorite issue of the event so far, not just because it shows our heroes being more proactive than reactive for the first time, but because it sheds light on the Ultron story in ways we hadn’t seen before. I was worried, especially after the “Look at all the carnage that’s already happened” vibe of the first issue, that this would be a very simple, single-layered Ultron tale. Ultron wants to destroy humanity, humanity fights back, one side wins and one side loses. But after the revelations of the last two issues it’s clear that something bigger is at work here, and that’s, if nothing else, comforting to me. It was easy for me to get excited about something like, say Avengers vs. X-Men or even Fear Itself (because the concept of the nemesis intrigued me more than most Marvel event books), but this one had me skeptical. Ultron is a great nemesis in the right hands, but it’s hard to make a killer robot (in any context) more interesting than “Hey, look out for that killer robot!” With this issue, Brian Michael Bendis seems to be proving that he’s capable of overcoming that.
Not that we’re out of the woods yet, mind you. We still have six more issues to get through, and at any time we could fall victim to deus ex machina or a surprising and completely ridiculous twist, neither of which are new to Marvel event books. Still, if you were waiting for things to really kick in with this comic, Book Four is the one that did it for me. Now I’m not just ready to be impressed, but I’m convinced that I can be.