SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 13 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence, some Language and brief Suggestive Comments

Directed by: Jon Watts

Written by: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers

(based on the SPIDER-MAN comics by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko)

Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Tyne Daly, Marisa Tomei, Robert Downey Jr., Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier & Tony Revolori

After years of battling for the rights and fans craving Spider-Man’s inclusion in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Sony and Marvel finally teamed up to deliver (at least) two SPIDER-MAN movies set within the MCU. The web-slinging superhero’s introduction was a highlight in last year’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR and I was hoping that Marvel might deliver a (second) SPIDER-MAN reboot that could actually work. While SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is a fun, light-hearted piece of superhero fluff and wisely doesn’t retread origin material that’s been done twice over, this sixteenth movie in the MCU isn’t quite up to the level of its competition.

After aiding Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) in fighting Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is anxiously awaiting his next official mission with the Avengers. However, school comes first and Parker finds himself dealing with the angst that plagues most teenagers. Eager to prove himself to Iron Man, Spider-Man jumps at the chance to take down new high-tech supervillain Vulture. Things get complicated though as this adolescent Avenger seems to be out of his league against Vulture and is running on thin ice with Tony Stark…and there’s also the upcoming Homecoming dance. What’s a teenage superhero to do?

In its second phase and during its third phase, Marvel Studios seems more willing to take risks and mix different genres with the typical superhero formula. For example, WINTER SOLDIER was a fantastic conspiracy thriller with a superhero, both GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY films were space operas with superheroes, DOCTOR STRANGE was a mind-bending fantasy with a superhero, and ANT-MAN was a heist-comedy with a superhero. SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is very much a coming-of-age tale…with a superhero. Sometimes, this works, but other times it feels overly familiar and doesn’t nearly seem as exciting or fun as it should be.

This might be fatigue from seeing two other incarnations of SPIDER-MAN within the span of 10 years, but I blame most of this film’s problems on overused tropes (from both the superhero and coming-of-age genres). None of the fault falls on the shoulders of Tom Holland, who’s playing the youngest version of Peter Parker that we’ve seen yet and convincingly brings the ambitious do-gooder, smart-ass side of Spidey to the screen. Though I still hold a soft spot in my heart for Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man and I thought that Andrew Garfield drastically improved his performance in his second outing as the crime-fighting wall-crawler, Holland just might give Maguire a run for his money in future films (as the character grows up and the stories evolve).

On the supporting side of things, Jacob Batalon earns a lot of laughs as Peter’s geeky best friend Ned. Zendaya is half-heartedly thrown aside as Peter’s bland love interest. Even worse than the unbelievably forced romantic angle is Tony Revolori being miscast as Flash. Instead of a jock bully who wants to beat Peter’s brains in, Flash has been made over into a pompous, rich kid, “king of the nerds” type of tormentor and it simply doesn’t work. Hannibal Buress and Martin Starr make appearances as Peter’s naïve teachers, while Marisa Tomei is fun as Aunt May. Also, it’s impossible not to enjoy watching Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, even though he only gets about fifteen minutes of screen time.

HOMECOMING’s best quality comes in Michael Keaton’s Vulture. Instead of being your typical supervillain, Vulture’s motivation is sympathetic and his progression of evil has a moral compass. These character traits make Keaton’s baddie into one of the most interesting Marvel villains we’ve received thus far, even if his first action scene with Spider-Man is ruined by incoherent quick editing and shaky cam. The rest of the encounters are fun to watch, especially a conversation between the two of them in a car. Also, a mid-credits scene reveals yet another moment that make Keaton’s Vulture into a more complex villain…who deserved more than this by-the-numbers script. The same can be said of Shocker (played by Logan Marshall-Green and Bokeem Woodbine) who mostly stands around and only gets one solid fight scene that’s over far too quickly.

Every major problem with SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING comes from predictable writing and overused clichés. Coming-of-age stories have been done to death nearly as much as superhero movies, so combining those two genres doesn’t exactly give the filmmaker or (six!) writers a lot of originality to work with. This feels like a safe made-by-committee superhero movie, which could have been the direct result of Sony and Marvel working together. Still, there’s enough entertainment, good acting, and laughs to make SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING worth a tepid recommendation. HOMECOMING is your average fun superhero movie and your average fun teenage coming-of-age tale…and it’s the fourth best SPIDER-MAN film thus far (behind SPIDER-MAN 2, SPIDER-MAN, and THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2).

Grade: B-

THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for some Sequences of Scary Action and Peril

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Directed by: Jon Favreau

Written by: Justin Marks

(based on THE JUNGLE BOOK by Richard Kipling)

Starring: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito & Christopher Walken

After playing second fiddle to Pixar for years and hitting a stream of live-action flops along the way, it seems that Disney has been on a drastic upswing with live-action retellings of their animated classics. The latest title on their docket is THE JUNGLE BOOK, based upon Richard Kipling’s short story collection of the same name. Before walking into this movie, I read up on the process of how it was filmed. Apparently, it was entirely shot in a Los Angeles studio with tons of computer effects making up the locations and (obviously) the animals. That is incredible given how realistic and detailed every frame of this movie looks. Even if you ignore the undeniably impressive effects, this new JUNGLE BOOK is a very entertaining adventure for the whole family.

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Mowgli is a young boy who was orphaned deep in the jungle. This man cub was raised alongside wolves, with panther Bagheera serving as a would-be parental figure. When a particularly hot dry season arrives, Mowgli’s way of life is threatened by evil tiger Shere Khan, who vows to hunt and kill the boy when the rainy season returns. Soon enough, rain begins poring and Mowgli is forced to make his way across the treacherous jungle in order to be with his own kind. Along his way, he’ll meet an assortment of colorful characters. There’s lazy bear Baloo, who becomes a friend, while giant orangutan King Louie and massive snake Kaa serve as newly found antagonists. All the while, Shere Khan waits for his chance to pounce.

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I already mentioned JUNGLE BOOK’s insanely detailed effects, but they cannot be talked about enough. This is the best CGI that I’ve seen in a long time. The environments look completely realistic and the animals (despite human speech coming from their mouths) are convincing. One might imagine that human voices coming from realistic looking animals might appear somewhat silly, but JUNGLE BOOK pulls off this fantastical feat in an extraordinary way. I was entranced by this animated on-screen world and never once felt like this film went over-the-top, even though that easily could have happened in lesser hands.

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The vocal work is great from the A-list cast. Lupita Nyong’o plays wolf-mother Raskha, Bill Murray perfectly inhabits jokey Baloo, and Ben Kingsley wonderfully fits wise Bagheera. Shere Kahn is voiced menacingly by Idris Elba and the more subtle moments of this villain fully showcase his vicious nature. A big standout is Christopher Walken as King Louie, who comes off as simultaneously comical and intimidating. Walken even gets to do a bit of singing with the tune “I Wanna Be Like You,” which I am still humming as I type this review. Though she serves as little more than glorified cameo, Scarlett Johansson adds a bit of charm as the calm, deadly Kaa.

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The only live-action performance in the film comes from newcomer Neel Sethi as Mowgli. Major props to this kid, because he was essentially acting against nothing and does a solid job for 90% of the film. The other 10% comes from a few moments of line delivery that sounded a bit awkward. However, the lame excuse of this kid being a first-time child actor could also easily wipe away my complaint with his performance. Neel Sethi is a convincing enough lead and mostly sells the more emotional moments. One of the most moving scenes in the film is a conversation between Neel Sethi’s Mowgli and wolf mother Rashka, which solely depended solely on Sethi’s acting abilities.

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This new JUNGLE BOOK is well-paced as the nearly two-hour running time flew by. We are treated to a few cool plot devices early on that come back in a big way. The script also doesn’t follow the exact motions of the 1967 animated classic or the underrated 1994 live-action effort. Instead, big changes have been made to the plot that actually benefitted it. I really loved this movie’s conclusion and the final face-off with Shere Kahn is far better than previous interpretations of the material. What is sort of awkward are two songs (“Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You”) in the otherwise straightforward narrative, which were enjoyable and also felt like they were included purely for nostalgia.

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2016’s JUNGLE BOOK reinterprets an old Disney classic in a groundbreaking effects-laden new way. The film has an already talented voice cast who are made even more impressive by animation that doesn’t make talking animals look silly. The movie runs on three modes: exciting, funny, and heartwarming. As a result, it’s never allowed time to drag and never bored me in the slightest. I may have mild annoyances with certain parts of the film, but I had fun watching it the whole way through. Families are bound to have a great time, as will older viewers who simply want to watch a quality effort from Disney. Christopher Walken as a talking, dancing giant ape is worth the price of admission alone!

Grade: B+

DAREDEVIL: Director’s Cut (2003)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 13 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence and Language

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Directed by: Mark Steven Johnson

Written by: Mark Steven Johnson

(based on the graphic novel DAREDEVIL: THE MAN WITHOUT FEAR by Frank Miller)

Starring: Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Colin Farrell, Michael Clarke Duncan, Jon Favreau & Joe Pantoliano

Once upon a time, DAREDEVIL was a good movie. That’s right! 2003’s DAREDEVIL has been the butt of many jokes since its disappointing release over a decade ago. The cut thrown into theaters was a mess. Audiences were forced to endure a plot that seemed half-heartedly stitched together, badly edited fight scenes, hollow characters and a clichéd romance. Turns out that DAREDEVIL was a victim of severe studio meddling and the Director’s Cut makes that more clear than ever. This original cut is the movie we should have received. With alternate scenes, an entire subplot reinserted into the film, less unbelievable romance, and far better action, the R-rated DAREDEVIL very much feels like a precursor to more serious superhero fare like Nolan’s BATMAN trilogy. In other words, this Director’s Cut was ahead of its time, but is well worth yours.

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Matt Murdock was blinded in a freak accident as a child, but gifted with superhuman abilities in his remaining senses. By day, he’s a lawyer working pro-bono for innocent clients in Hell’s Kitchen. By night, Murdock punishes the guilty who walk free as the masked vigilante called Daredevil. After taking on a particularly strange client and meeting the beautiful Elektra Natchios, Murdock finds himself drawn into a conspiracy that leads up to the Kingpin (a powerful mastermind behind most of the city’s crime). As Daredevil struggles to get to the truth, a dangerous assassin named Bullseye also makes his way to Hell’s Kitchen.

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It may sound stupid to phrase it like this, but the Director’s Cut of DAREDEVIL has an actual story! There’s a beginning, middle and an end. Things logically are built up, developed and play out in a way that makes sense. That wasn’t the case with the 2003 theatrical cut. An entire subplot, completely absent in the studio version, provides believable motivations and fleshes characters out. The plot isn’t revolutionary or entirely original, but it’s highly entertaining from start to finish.

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As far as casting goes, Ben Affleck is far more sympathetic as Murdock in the Director’s Cut of DAREDEVIL. Little touches are included that help make Daredevil into someone worth caring about as opposed to just another masked superhero. In a lot of ways, Daredevil is Marvel’s version of Batman and that’s a valid comparison in this take on the origin story (mirroring Frank Miller’s darker vision of the comics). Jennifer Garner is likable as Elektra and there isn’t forced chemistry between her and Affleck this time around. A hero is only as good as his villains. Colin Farrell delivers some of his lines as Bullseye in a distracting, snarling manner, while also being too over-the-top in places. However, he pretty much steals every scene he’s in. There’s also something to be said for his character delivering two of best fight scenes in the movie. Michael Clarke Duncan is well cast as Kingpin, but his character still remains underdeveloped (though he was ripe for a sequel that never happened).

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Another quality to be praised in this Director’s Cut is how edgy it feels. Almost every set and scene has a gritty atmosphere that combines popcorn superhero entertainment with just the right amount of darkness. The fight scenes are violent and well choreographed, unlike the edited-to-shreds action scenes in the studio version. However, not everything works. Besides Colin Farrell overacting as Bullseye, there are still out-of-place silly moments. A playground fight scene between Affleck and Garner remains totally intact and just as ridiculous as ever. There’s also predictability to things as this is an origin story, even if it happens to follow a unique hero. Joe Pantoliano’s reporter character feels like he was pulled straight out of Tim Burton’s BATMAN, even though he serves a purpose by the end of the film and could have been an important piece of a second installment.

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With 30 minutes edited back in, choppy studio scenes removed, and R rating firmly in tact, the Director’s Cut of DAREDEVIL is the movie that we should have originally received in theaters. Who knows? It could have been a huge financial success and earned better response from critics. In a perfect world, we might be swimming in an awesome DAREDEVIL trilogy. However, this Director’s Cut does the job just fine as a standalone superhero flick with dark sensibilities. Watch this Director’s Cut and pretend that the theatrical version doesn’t even exist.

Grade: B+

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 3 hours

MPAA Rating: R for Sequences of Strong Sexual Content, Graphic Nudity, Drug Use and Language throughout, and for some Violence

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Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Written by: Terence Winter

(based on the book THE WOLF OF WALL STREET by Jordan Belfort)

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, Jean Dujardin, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner & Jon Favreau

Martin Scorsese is 71 years old. Let that sink in. In a time where most veteran filmmakers feel so content to play it safe or have taken a long fall from grace (cough, Francis Ford Coppola, cough), Scorsese has pumped out amazing movie after amazing movie. With the combination of his 90’s mafia classics (GOODFELLAS and CASINO) he seemed to have perfected a style in how to tell a story about real-life criminals. Even with his later films THE DEPARTED (a crime masterpiece) and HUGO (one of the best family films in the past decade), Scorsese never seemed to falter or lose his talent. Everybody has a few flops, but Scorsese’s amazing hits more than make up for some of his lesser work. Martin Scorsese has delivered a combination of dark comedy and white-collar crime that is nothing short of a masterpiece with THE WOLF OF WALL STREET.

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This film is based on the memoirs of Jordan Belfort, a corrupt jerk who pulled off one of the most infamous money laundering schemes in the history of Wall Street. We open with a 26-year-old Belfort making his way into the titular Wall Street as a stockbroker. He quickly acquires the verbal tools of the trade and just as quickly finds himself out of a job due to Black Monday (a day when stock markets around the world crashed). Discovering the world of penny-stocks (loser companies in which the stock broker makes 50% commission), Jordan creates his own firm of an abandoned auto-body shop that blossoms into a full-fledged money-making machine. The film chronicles everything from Jordan’s humble self-made beginnings to his downfall in crime, drugs, and sex addiction. Instead of painting a bleak picture from the get-go, Scorsese delivers an impressively hilarious dark comedy that makes the three-hour running time fly by.

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WOLF OF WALL STREET is crude and very explicit. We do see many of Jordan’s sins which range from sniffing cocaine off a hooker’s breasts to abusing Quaaludes achieving such an extreme high that he encounters a “cerebral palsy” phase. This is a movie about a scumbag in every sense of the word. So why is it so amazingly entertaining all the way through? Well, we’ve seen plenty of other scumbags ranging from mobsters (Henry Hill in GOODFELLAS) to serial killers (Patrick Bateman in AMERICAN PSYCHO) and Jordan Belfort is far from the depths of evil that those characters were. Told in a certain style, nearly any story can be made hilarious and enjoyable to watch. This is the magic Scorsese injects into THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. It could have been a dark brooding downfall crime drama, of which we’ve seen so many, but WOLF is a frantically exciting and engaging. It’s by far the most entertaining movie I sat through in all of 2013!

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A director is only as good as his cast and it certainly helps that every single performance rings true to what was required of the cast. Jonah Hill’s character is a perverted lunatic who has no problem devouring a co-worker’s goldfish or marrying his attractive cousin, let alone introducing Jordan to a variety of new drugs that will forever make him an addict. Matthew McConaughey also is a foul-mouthed presence in the film for the first 30 minutes (which winds up being a sixth of the film’s total running time), but marks some memorable scenes.

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Of course, the real standout is Leonardo DiCaprio. This man has long distanced himself from being just a pretty-boy actor and really deserves the Oscar for best actor. He simply disappears into the skin of Jordan Belfort, frequently breaking the fourth wall to address the viewer (much like Henry Hill did in the courtroom scene in GOODFELLAS). He also proves himself to have a knack for comedy in this film, one scene of which had me in tears from laughing so hard. Leo owns the real-life character of Jordan Belfort and makes every second count of the 180 minutes on-screen.

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I could gush and gush for hours about how much I loved THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, but I’ll let the film speak for itself from here on out. If you’re a fan of Scorsese, you’ll absolutely love it. If you want proof that Leonardo DiCaprio can act his ass off, then prepare to be schooled. If you simply want to be entertained by one of the funniest dark-comedies in years, then you won’t be disappointed. This is one of my new favorite movies!

Grade: A+

IRON MAN 3 (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Intense Sci-Fi Action and Violence throughout, and brief Suggestive Content

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Directed by: Shane Black

Written by: Drew Pearce & Shane Black

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, Stephanie Szostak, James Badge Dale, Jon Favreau & Ben Kingsley

IRON MAN 3 is the first major release from Marvel since THE AVENGERS reigned in May 2012. It also marks a few daring moves for the studio that seemed content to play it safe with their superheroes in the past. It’s Marvel’s darkest movie and consequently the best IRON MAN film yet! This almost doesn’t feel like a superhero film and I mean that in the best possible way. IRON MAN 3 feels like a James Bond film crossed paths with a Marvel production and this is the result.

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Following fresh off the events of THE AVENGERS, Tony Stark is suffering from PTSD. After al, he did witness other worlds, demigods and aliens (let alone fought against them with other superheroes to save the world). In order to cope with these new revelations, Stark has taken to long sleepless periods (up to three full days worth of time) creating new Iron Man suits and inventions. This puts extra stress on Pepper, his significant other, who was already putting up with his erratic narcissistic lifestyle. A new foe emerges in the Mandarin, a formidable terrorist issuing random attacks in different parts of the USA and Pakistan. After one of his friends in injured in an attack, Tony Stark finds himself being targeted by the Mandarin and it appears that there is far more at work than what appears at first.

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IRON MAN was a good origin story for this superhero. IRON MAN 2 was an okay sequel, but seemed like too much set up for THE AVENGERS and not enough Iron Man. However, IRON MAN 3 delivers the sequel that the second installment should have been. There are references to what happened in New York in THE AVENGERS, but this movie seemed almost like a self-contained story that focused on the battle between Iron Man and a cunning villain. The plot is smart and has a few twists, but also knows when and where to place the action scenes and humor. There are a good amount of laughs to be had in parts of IRON MAN 3 and the fight scenes are just plain cool.

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Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, and Don Cheadle are back in the roles they played so well before. Rebecca Hall (THE PRESTIGE, DORIAN GRAY) shows up as one of Stark’s former lovers and Guy Pearce plays a rival scientist who may be hiding more than a few skeletons in his closet very well. Meanwhile, Ben Kingsley shows up as the Mandarin. If there’s any performance to be ridiculed in this film, it belongs to Ben Kingsley. You’ll know why when you see it, but it’s not bad per se, just wasn’t what I was expecting at all from the character.

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IRON MAN 3 takes some unexpected turns along the way (one of which is clearly owed to BATMAN BEGINS). This is the most obvious twist of the bunch too and the film spent a little too much time spelling out (in case some of the audience members didn’t get it from the first two times it’s shown). Some of the logic used in this world seems a bit silly when one tries to analyze it, but the viewer should also consider that we are watching a story in a world filled with frozen patriots, demigods, and aliens. So you kind of have to erase a bit of logic from your mind when entering this film.

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With these criticisms in mind, the film is still a “superhero vs. villain” story and it marks the first time Iron Man has faced off alone against someone with actual powers. The movie never loses its speed and even though it’s the longest running IRON MAN film thus far (a bit over two hours), it felt like it went by at a perfect pace. It seems that since Marvel has gotten all of the origin stories over with for each of its main heroes, they are now willing to shake things up in their universe and take some risks. This benefits both the film and the cast greatly. The ending of IRON MAN 3 makes some bold moves and I can’t wait to see where the character of Tony Stark goes from here on. Color me officially excited for the upcoming THOR sequel, CAPTAIN AMERICA sequel and the second AVENGERS movie. It’s looking to be a brave new direction of Marvel Studios and I like what I’m seeing a lot.

Grade: B+

IRON MAN (2008)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Action and Violence, and brief Suggestive Content

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Directed by: Jon Favreau

Written by: Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum & Matt Holloway

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges & Gwyneth Paltrow

IRON MAN was the second turning point in modern superhero cinema (the first was Chistopher Nolan’s reboot of Batman). IRON MAN came to show that the Marvel Universe had entered the world of The Avengers. I can’t recall another time in movie history that a series of somewhat unrelated films were formed to lead up to one mega-blockbuster. It certainly doesn’t hurt that this was a good start for the series of superhero films that included many remarkable individuals and spanned across two different worlds. Taken on its own, the first IRON MAN entry is a pretty good flick.

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Tony Stark is a billionaire genius who makes his fortune off selling weapons. During a trip to Afghanistan, Tony is abducted by a group of terrorists demanding that he duplicate a weapon of mass destruction for them. What Stark actually works on is an armor-clad suit complete with attached weapons. After an explosive escape, Tony comes back home to rethink his personal responsibility in peddling tools of war. This leads to the dismay of his stock holders and faithful partner, Obadiah Stane. Using his ingenuity, Tony Stark becomes Iron Man!

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First of all, Robert Downey Jr. owns his role as Tony Stark. He makes it so it’s pretty much impossible to imagine anybody else in the role, though there might be an eventual reboot coming in a few decades. This is the kind of character that it’s difficult to separate the actor from. Robert Downey Jr. just knocks it out of the park here and winds up being the most charismatic superhero to grace the genre. Although Downey Jr. is amazing, it seems that nearly everyone else here is used as means to an end. Jeff Bridges is tragically underused. Terrence Howard is the only other one with anything resembling a real personality. Finally, Gwyneth Paltrow feels forced as the love-interest.

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Despite what Christopher Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT trilogy might have you believe, most superhero movies wind up being about the spectacle and IRON MAN nails this down perfectly! The special effects still hold five years later as stellar. The action scenes, though not as frequent as one might expect, are adrenaline-pumping too. It also makes the film even more entertaining to spot all the references to the (at-the-time upcoming) AVENGERS movie. I chuckled more than once at seeing something that would make a big comeback later on in the Marvel universe.

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The main problem that IRON MAN suffers from is a script that totally feels like a bit of a been-there, done-that origin story. We pretty much know how things will play out from the get-go. There is also a half-assed twist that can be guessed about 30 minutes into the film. However, even with a barely serviceable script, IRON MAN manages to stand tall as a very fun, entertaining and downright cool superhero film. It’s not fine art and there are certainly better movies in the Marvel cannon, but IRON MAN is still a solid superhero story! If you haven’t seen it yet (I can’t imagine why you haven’t), then give it a look!

Grade: B

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