Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Impossible Expectations

Many critics and many viewers were disappointed in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Is this justified? It depends on your expectations.

No, this wasn't the greatest action movie ever made.

Yes, it was a satisfying sequel to the original Raiders of the Lost Ark. As far as I am concerned, it was the first satisfying sequel. The second movie, Temple of Doom, was just plain bad. I watched it again a couple of weekends ago and it has not aged well.

The third movie, Last Crusade, was much better but I didn't like the ending for several reasons. The biggest is that they found the Holy Grail only to lose it forever. Oops. I thought that Indy's father should have stayed to become the Grail's new keeper, thus fulfilling his life's ambition.

Crystal Skulls follows the general formula pretty well. There is an opening sequence followed by the real plot. In this movie the two are more closely linked. Indy starts out looking a little old and rusty but the longer the movie goes on the less you notice it.

It was established in the first movie that Indy can beat the average goon so Skulls doesn't even bother showing all of the fights. The supporting characters watch Indy climb on top of a truck and commies start falling off.

The communists are a good replacement for the Nazis. They establish early on how ruthless they are and go from there.

There are some major plot holes. I won't go into them. Ignore them and the movie works better.

I went in expecting a 50s adventure movie with 50s aliens and I was not disappointed. Mutt was a lot more enjoyable than I expected. The return of Marion was a great move.

So why are people complaining? The original movie was a lightening in the bottle event that holds up after decades and multiple viewings. That is nearly impossible to top. The Crystal Skulls at least manages to capture a lot of the original feel without embarrassing itself but it cannot stand on its own. Too much of the movie references the earlier releases.

But this is a sequel so what's the problem?

Friday, May 16, 2008

Flight part 4

I've written some other entries on how superheroes fly but I didn't get into assisted flight. This is usually done with rocket boots, jet packs, flying belts, or, occasionally, rings.

The Rocketeer is a great example of flying with a jetpack. As portrayed in the movie, there are serious issues with control. The Rocketeer solved some of these problems with a fin on his helmet. The movie also had a few other nods to physics. He only flew in short bursts reflecting the fact that a pack like that couldn't have more than a few minutes of fuel. Landing was difficult. Finally, the whole thing ran on highly alcohol and could burst into flames if there was a leak.

More common in comic books are rocket boots. These are usually as light as hiking boots but contain enough fuel for extended flight. They also allow the wearer to hover, fly like a missile, or land. Obviously several laws of physics are being violated here.

The movie version of Iron Man addressed several of these. Stark's first attempt at flight gets him airborne for a few seconds but doesn't allow for any sort of soft landing. It's more a ballistic trajectory. Later Stark adds thrusters to his gloves so that he can balance. He also has flaps that pop out of his suit to assist banks and other maneuvers. Even with all of this, he still has some problems. This is probably the most realistic example of powered personal flight.

There is one big question about Iron Man's flight - how do those thrusters work? The movie drops the term "repulsor" early on. These might work something like the repulsor rays in the comic version. These were always represented as being different than his boot jets but jets that are only an inch or two thick (and still leave room for retractable skates) are impossible. Presumably the repulsors are similar to ion drive except with much greater thrust. They are powered by Stark's chest piece which represents a miracle in electrical power production.

The Legion of Super-Heroes has gone through a few generations of powered flight. They started out with backpacks then moved to flying belts. Finally they developed flying rings. These use an anti-gravity metal. Will-power is also required.

Meanwhile, in the real world, someone demonstrated a jet-powered flying wing. This has several drawbacks. You have to be dropped from an airplane in be high enough, you only have around five minutes of fuel, and you use a parachute to land. Control is accomplished by the flier's body movements. Still, this is getting close to the Rocketeer.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Iron Man & Politics

I mentioned the politics of Iron Man briefly before. I'd like to go into more detail.

--------- SPOILERS ------------------------

A couple of minutes into the movie Tony Stark has a life-changing experience. He is blown up by one of his own company's missiles.

So what does he do? He builds a new weapon and breaks out. When he gets home he announces that his company is going to stop making weapons but not because he has suddenly been transformed into a pacifist. His concern is that the wrong people are getting hold of the weapons.

His solution - build a better weapon and take over personally.

I'd like to point out that this isn't a comic book where heroes don't kill. Iron Man kills lots of terrorists. Some of them are faceless like the crew in the tank. Others he targets and blasts without a trace of remorse.

He's fighting a war with the terrorists. When he flies through a no-fly zone and has to take on a couple of American jets, he doesn't fight them, he just tries to avoid one, eventually having to save a pilot.

Eventually the big villain turns out to be an American - Stane - but Stane is a traitor. He is selling weapons to the enemy.

The US government, as embodied by SHIELD, supports what Stark did and would have arrested Stane if he hadn't gotten his Iron Monger armor working first.

There is never any suggestion that US policy is at fault. No snarky comments about how everything is W's fault. No suggestion that the military is anything but dedicated. When he returns, Stark tries to get his military liaison to help with the armor.

In the opening part of the movie, Stark is grilled by a liberal reporter who hits him with leading questions. He answers all of them and seduces her for good measure. He never shows any signs of backing off of the sentiments expressed. It is unlikely that, even before he was injured he would have approved of selling arms to terrorists. The main difference is that after his injury he started taking matters into his own hands.

I've seen a conservative or two complain about the movie. I don't see this. I suspect that the person complaining is so used to liberal Hollywood productions that he assumed there must be a liberal message hidden in Iron Man somewhere.

Not here.

Iron Man took in over $100 million its first weekend for the second biggest non-sequel opening. The way things have been going, the just-announced sequel will bring in even more.

This is the first movie to show Taliban-style terrorists as the bad guys and Americans (except for Stane) as the good guys. It's opening weekend gross was higher than the last several anti-US movies put together. Coincidence?

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Iron Man - the movie

I've made a couple of posts about the history of Iron Man in comics. Now the movie is finally out. It's very good. It also manages to hit most of the high point of Iron Man's history.

The origin is almost exactly as it was in the comics. The location was moved to Afghanistan instead if Viet Nam and the enemy is a Taliban clone instead of Communists but it works even better this way. In the comic, his first suit was cast iron. In the movie is it wrought iron and it looks like something that someone made in a cave. There is a twist on it that but that doesn't come out for most of the movie.

Other elements - Tony's relationship with Pepper Potts. It's complicated. His driver, Happy Hogan, who never actually gets to drive him is there, too.

In the comic his pilot and best friend is Jim Rhodes who eventually takes over the armor for a while before getting his own suit. In the movie Rhodes looks at a prototype and says, "Maybe next time."

The armor developed over decades in the comic starting with the primitive cast iron suit. The next version iced up if he flew too high. This was represented in the movie with three generations of armor.

In the comic, Stane was a rival businessman who took over Stark International in a leveraged buy-out. In the comic he is a mentor and second largest stock-holder and, yes, he tries a corporate takeover.

BTW, Stane uses the term "iron monger" to describe their business. This is a term for munitions manufacturers.

For years Iron Man kept running out of power during fights. Since his life-support used the same power system, this could potentially kill him. They managed to include this in the movie, also.

Early on Stark discovers that the Taliban-clone has weapons from his company and launches an attack to destroy these munitions. This is an echo of the Armor Wars, a plotline where Stark discovers that Stane sold controller chips that he meant to keep secret. Stark went on a mission to shut down all suits of armor using this technology regardless of who had it (some of the technology was being used by the US government).

What about the politics? I saw one complaint that the movie lapses into Ralph Nader corporate responsibility. Yes, there is some talk of this but it is mainly in terms of keeping the technology out of the hands of terrorists. After being shot with one of his own missiles, Stark's message seems to be that if he can't keep it out of the hands of the US's enemies then he wasn't going to make it. But it never really went much beyond talk. Stark never came up with a new corporate plan.

I think that conservatives would agree that selling weapons to the Taliban is bad so this doesn't bother me.

And this is the first movie to feature an action hero taking on a Taliban-style enemy. That has to count for a lot.

Marvel has been saying that casting Robert Downey jr. was a triumph. I can't argue with that. He is to Iron Man what Johnny Depp is to PoTC. Word is that Downey is a huge Iron Man fan and loved playing the character and would be quite happy to keep making Iron Man movies through Iron Man 15.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Iron Man Moves Up to the A-List

Back in the mid-1960s it was easy to tell which Marvel heroes were A-list and which were B-list. The A-list heroes got a monthly book all to themselves and a summer annual which was a double-sized comic. This was a pretty short list - The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Thor, Sargent Fury and the Howling Commandos, and the Avengers. The B-list heroes either shared a monthly book with someone else or were published bi-monthly. This included the X-Men and Daredevil in semi-monthly books and the Human Torch, Dr. Strange, Giant Man and the Wasp, the Hulk, Iron Man, and Captain America, all sharing monthly books. Later the Submariner replaced Giant Man and Nick Fury Agent of SHIELD replaced the Torch. As sales increased all of these got monthly books and several mover up to the A-list.

In the early days Marvel has so few writers and artists that you couldn't tell A-list characters from B-list ones by the quality of the staff working on them. This changed over time. The more popular characters tended to get better talent with the B-list talent going to the B-list characters.

Iron Man spent most of his career solidly in the B-list. When he got his own solo comic he had Roy Thomas and Gene Colon, both very talented, but the comic was soon handed off to lesser creators. It had a run of several years in the late 1970s and early 1980s with some A-list talent. When they moved on the comic returned to its B status.

The other way of telling a comic's status was how much freedom the current team had to change things around. Changing Spider-Man's girl friend was a top-level change. Other strips worked the characters over several times.

There was a fad for replacing characters then bringing back the original. This started with Iron Man (and Green Lantern in DC at the same time). Tony Stark's alcohol problem overcame him and he spent a couple of years living as a homeless bum while Jim Rhodes took over the armor. Stark eventually sobered up and took back the armor. Later he died and Rhodes took over a gain for a short time until Stark was resurrected.

The comic was retconed and rebooted several times. Iron Man's origin moved from Viet Nam to China. He was turned into a teenager then returned to adulthood. He moved his base of operations from Long Island to California. His heart problems came back and were fixed a couple of times.

In the 1980s Marvel expanded the Avengers franchise with Stark founding the West Coast branch. This also introduced a new abrasive, manipulative facet to his personality that eventually became a defining trait leading up to his role in the Civil War.

With tomorrow's release of the Iron Man movie, Tony Stark finally moves into the A-list. Ironically his long-time status as a B-list character may help him here. Marvel grew tired of other studios licensing their characters then making movies that didn't do them justice (Ang Lee's Hulk). Iron Man is the first movie directly produced by Marvel and is supposed to usher in a new line of movies that are true to the characters. All indications was that they are off to a good start. Preliminary reviews have been very good. By all accounts, the casting of Robert Downey Jr. was a masterstroke. Not only does he have a history similar to Stark's but he manages to keep the character interesting throughout the movie. Ghost Rider was a success because Nicholas Cage did the same thing with Johnny Blaze.