Archive for May, 2013|Monthly archive page

Movie Gab: Iron Man Three (Yeah, Spoilers here…)

I don’t hide the fact that I love Iron Man. I’m a nut for high tech heroics, transhuman themes and power armor. When I first heard Iron Man 3 was adapting elements of Extremis, written by Warren Ellis, I squeed. I admit this. The thought of Tony Stark blurring that line between man and machine on screen delighted me.

While that didn’t exactly happen, the movie proved excellent on many levels.

In Iron Man 3, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is coping with the stress of being a super hero. Memories of the Battle of New York haunt his waking hours and deprive him of his sleep. His obsession with improving his armor has gone past the point of eccentric and into obsession. It’s affecting him and his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). In addition, the terrorist leader known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) has been stepping up his attacks, finally targeting Stark.

Based on the trailers I wondered if this was going to be a story where Stark loses “everything” to the Mandarin and is out for the revenge. Happily, it didn’t go that route. The Extremis aspect didn’t quite match the source material and I was fine with that — the fun in seeing an adaptation (if it’s well written) is seeing where it diverges. The film makes it work very well and Killian Aldrich (Guy Pearce) makes for a fine villainous mastermind.

When Aldrich introduced himself in the movie’s prologue and mentioned his think-tank, Advanced Idea Mechanics, I worried that this film would fall into the same trap as many other super-hero films: too many villains. The Mandarin and his organization had enough influence on the first two films that AIM would have been overkill. More on that in the spoilers, but suffice to say the whole situation was handled brilliantly and connected with the first two films without flaw.

Performances are solid. RJD proves he owns the role of Tony Stark again, Paltrow does a fine job as Pepper Potts (and her arc grows in this film — more in the spoiler section). Kingsley and Pearce are delightful in their roles (more on the former), and while Cheadle didn’t get enough screen time as Jim Rhodes, he plays the action hero part in his own right — and out of the armor no less.

The final battle needed to have a bit faster pace to it, as the following denouement felt hurried and too “clean”, but that quibble is minor. The film brings a solid closure not only to Tony Stark’s story arc, but also to RDJ’s role as Shell Head (until Avengers 2). Honestly I’d be surprised if he shows for that sequel, rumors about his holding out for his coworkers’ getting a raise notwithstanding. At 48, RDJ is the oldest actor to play a comic book superhero, and while he’s in prime shape he still has the rest of his career to consider. Iron Man 3 is fine ending to this trilogy a movies, and a strong start to Marvel’s “Phase Two.” It’s an ambitious film with a lot of plot balls in the air, and while a few of them don’t dazzle, none of them are dropped. Put this on your “Must See More Than Once” list.

Now, let’s talk about this on a spoilertastic level. If you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to know, stop now and browse elsewhere.

Oh, and Marvel? Screw the Ant Man film. Make a goddam Black Widow film and team her up with Hawkeye.

(By the way, the second part of this section may have a trigger to it. I don’t know now this sort of thing works, but I feel better safe than sorry  by giving this warning.)

Okay. First order of business: Ben Fucking Kingsley and best act of misdirection I’ve ever seen in a motion picture and its advertising.

With all the trailers and promotional media, I went into this film all psyched for Iron Man and the Mandarin to go at it, somehow, someway. I was willing to accept a Mandarin without super powered rings — the previous films established him as a leader from the shadows, a master of influence. Because of that, I was curious to see just how the final clash between Stark and the Mandarin would play out.

Then comes the twist: Ben Kingsley as Trevor Slattery, a broken down actor hired by AIM to be the Face of Terror. When I first saw this scene play out my brain did a triple take, wondering The Mandarin would drop the silly act once Stark’s guard was down. Nope. I’m fairly good at picking up on plot points and twists, and it doesn’t take anything away from the movie. However, this I did NOT see coming.

As I said earlier, when I first saw the hints of AIM being in this film I was worried that the writers over-villain’d the script. It’s a common problem in superhero sequels, a way of trying to crank up the volume to eleven. With IM3, having AIM backing the Ten Rings with the Mandarin as the mouthpiece is a brilliant move consistent with the first two films.

Think about it: AIM is a think-tank society of scientists, technologists and engineers dedicated to the advancement of science no matter what the cost, using terrorism to fund their R&D. In the first film, Obadiah Stane is found selling weapons under the table for the Ten Rings, and later tries to steal Tony’s ARC Reactor so that the balance of power remains “in the right hands.”  We see this again with Justin Hammer and his development of War Machine and the humanoid drones. Thus the concept of the Mandarin as a front for AIM activities makes total sense in the Marvel Movie Universe.

Next item: Pepper Potts. You’ve seen the film. You’ve the scene when AIM attack Stark’s house and the armor flies to embrace Potts. Then she saves Stark. Maybe it’s just me and some strange armor fetish, but Gwyneth Paltrow never looked more beautiful than in that moment when she pops open the faceplate and says “I’ve got you.”

I have to hand it to Marvel Films: they’ve really done well with their treatment of women. It’s very clear with Black Widow and Maria Hill in Avengers and with Sif, Freya and Jane Foster in Thor. It may be subtle in the Iron Man films because Potts changes over the course of time. I remember commenting on her being more the assistant/damsel in distress by the first film’s end. Then in IM2 she takes on the role of CEO and while she falters, Potts manages to maintain her calm and take command when Whiplash suborns the drones. At the end Potts could have easily devolved into Stark’s romantic interest and yet another maiden to rescue.

Then in IM3 she saves Stark’s life. Twice. She’s the one that finishes off Aldrich when Stark is lying on the floor, out of armor and out of options. Some critics of the film said they found it hard to believe that Potts, having been given the Extremis enhancement, was ever in need of rescue, but I can believe it. Yes, by that point she’s has superhuman physiology and the ability to regenerate, but the film shows that the process of applying Extremis is dangerous, physically tasking and potentially fatal. So yeah, she’s gonna be out of it for a while until she realizes just what she’s become. Bear in mind that Aldrich took physical and psychological advantage of her. He forced Extremis on her. It might be a bit much to call what Potts went through in that final act a form of rape, but… well, dammit it fits even if it isn’t sexual. Don’t get me wrong: the violation and abuse of a character as means of development — especially for its own sake —  is lazy writing. Here it’s covered in brief passing and not glorified, even though it makes Potts a stronger person (literally). It should be noted that it’s not her sole point of characterization, as Potts has already been established as a capable woman. Despite the ravages of Extremis, Pepper survives, thrives and takes action against her attacker. Potts evolves from assistant to hero, and even though her role in the films isn’t all that extensive, the changes she goes through is important to take note. With that in mind, I hope that when Stark says he “fixes” Potts, he means he stabilizes Extremis as opposed to neutralizing it entirely, because… well, because Rescue, that’s why.

It’s good to note that the Phase One films have been crafted with character in mind first. As a fan of both films and super heroes, I’m eager to see how Phase Two comes into being.

Talking Game: Bioshock Infinite (SPOILERTASTIC! You have been warned!)

I needed some time to process this game. It’s part of the Bioshock franchise, and I’m a big fan of the first one (never played the second).

Let’s talk about gameplay first.

The controls are a little difficult at first. Having played FPSs in the past, I’m used to squeezing the left trigger to aim down the sights. This is one of those adjustments that will cost you some mojo in due play, maybe get you killed once in a while. It’s a quibble that can be overcome with practice.

Your arsenal is combination of arms that range from normal to steampunk and special powers known as Vigors. Vigors can be used for straight up blasting, crowd control, disrupting your foes, and so forth. Personally, I happened to like the “Murder of Crows” Vigor for the sheer eeriness. Vigors replace Plasmids from the original game, but there’s nothing to replace the hacking. This is much more a straight up action game.

While you’re limited to carrying two weapons at any time, ammo tends not to be a problem unless you have a very strong preference for a type of gun when Elizabeth isn’t around. In fact Elizabeth is one of the most interesting innovations in the game — she’s someone you’re sent to rescue, but you don’t have to protect her. As you journey through the skyborne city of Colombia, Elizabeth scrounges for money, health, Salt (which powers your vigors), and ammo. The animation is keyed to the item being chucked your way, making it amusing when Elizabeth does her best to heave an RPG into your hands. Her ability to open tears in some battlefields can give you advantages like cover, ammo, health, or even an ally or decoy.

The animation and voice acting are excellent by far. This is not the claustrophobic environs of Rapture, that’s for certain. Elizabeth’s transformation from the school girl to the character on the game’s cover is gradual and believable, as are her expressions. Shortly after a violent shootout after gettting Elizabeth out of her tower, there’s a point where she won’t even look at you. I even tried moving around to get her to look at me, and after looking away twice, she walked over to another part of the room.

Now, let’s talk story.

You play Booker DeWitt, a private investigator and veteran of the massacre at Wounded Knee. It’s a literal Portal/Quest opening, with Booker in a rowboat being taken to a light house. Honestly, seeing it looming did plant a seed of dread. However, this light house takes you into the skies to the floating city of Columbia. Your mission, find Elizabeth and bring her to New York. So of course, once you find her things go sideways.

Elizabeth is a unique girl, to say the least. She has the ability to open tears in the structure of reality, creating gateways to parallel universes where things are just a little bit different. Her guardian, the mechanical monstrosity known as Songbird, harries your mission as it seeks out its charge. That’s not all: there’s this conflict between Columbia’s Founders, led by the “Prophet” Zachariah Comstock, and the Vox Populi, led by Daisy Fitzroy. This boiling dispute threatens to erupt in outright civil war, and you and Elizabeth are caught in the crossfire. Racism and zealotry play key roles, and it becomes apparent that hatred is the black fuel that powers this conflict.

I went into this game knowing of the two factions and immediately decided I wasn’t going to trust either one. Call it paranoia from the first game, but it served me well. The expected war does erupt, but through the latter half of the story it seems to get put aside in favor of the reality hopping. So does Songbird, which is a shame as I was hoping for a show down, but he’s destroyed by plot instead. There’s a couple of solid moments where I see the “You Can’t Go Home Again” trope starting to make itself known. Seeing people suffering the echoes of the tear, remembering being killed yet still being alive in a sort of Schroedinger-induced fugue, is quite unnerving. The same can be said when seeing a woman singing CCR’s “Fortunate Son” as a spiritual amidst violence and chaos.

Seeing the subtle changes from one side of a tear to the next and having Elizabeth warn you that “we might not be able to go back” was what got me thinking about that trope I mentioned earlier. If you’ve read Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War then you’ve seen one way to make it work. I was wondering if I was going to find myself shifting over to Rapture due to the divergence of realities (I did but not in the way I expected). While certain I wasn’t going to get Elizabeth to the Paris she knew, I was hopeful there’d be a good (or fair) end to all these trials.

And here’s where the big spoiler leaps in…

I couldn’t accept Booker and Comstock being the same person, even if removed by a single-life choice between two realities. The clues and the context weren’t there to support it. In fact, some of the material goes against it. For example, Booker’s a veteran of the massacre at Wounded Knee. Comstock also claimed to be a veteran, but one NPC (Cornelius Slate) denies it. Violently. You would think that Slate, having been there as well, would be able to recognize Booker and Comstock as one and the same.

As a player I found no points of reference to connect the two. We don’t get a clear look at Booker throughout the game — all that we have is on the cover and in the adverts. The voices are provided by two different actors. Not even Elizabeth can provide the necessary connection until the very end, which is more or less exposition. She can’t for the most part, as she was taken from Booker as a baby and raised in isolation without knowing Comstock at all.

I could raise the question of whether Booker is an unreliable narrator — he could be. We start our story in a rowboat with the Lutece twins, but I took this as a Portal/Quest approach. The first Bioshock game starts in a similar fashion even with the iconic lighthouse. With only one minor reality dysfunction between the game’s beginning (not counting Booker’s vision of New York burning) and finding Elizabeth, Booker comes across as too reliable to be anything else.

In the end, the game is ambitious but it fails to stick the landing. The themes of jingoism and racism are definitely unsettling — and they damn well should be — but they fade into the background in favor of reality hoping. I can’t call Infinite a failure — the game plays well and Irrational Games should be lauded for trying to expand on their story-telling. If nothing else, I hope the success the game is enjoying leads to something even better: the rebirth of System Shock.