The Incredible Hulk (2008)

“You’re making me angry… You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”

Synopsis: Bruce Banner is one of the most brilliant scientific minds on the planet, but after an overdose of Gamma Radiation turned him into the Hulk he’s been a fugitive pursued by the US Government. This sequel/reboot follows Bruce Banner as he struggles to control his transformations, dodges the military’s attempts at capture, and seeks a cure for the Hulk. Meanwhile, General Ross deploys untested super-soldier Emil Blonsky in an attempt to capture Hulk, and inadvertently creates a monster.

The Incredible Hulk was Marvel Studios’ second foray into major-motion-pictures and a successful sequel/reboot to the notoriously awful 2003 Hulk (starring Eric Bana and Jennifer Connely). Incredible Hulk returns the series to the heart of the Banner/Hulk character: Bruce Banner as a fugitive. Banner is constantly on the road; always searching for a cure, always avoiding capture, and always fighting his inner demons.

Edward Norton is perfect as Dr. Bruce Banner, a brilliant and honorable scientist who is desperately trying to protect the world from the monster inside of him. The tendency is to play Banner as pathetic and whiny (‘why does this always happen to me?’) but Edward Norton carries the role with genuine emotion. Liv Tyler steps in beautifully as Betty Ross, breaking our heart for the romance that can never be. Tim Blake Nelson makes a surprising appearance as Samuel Sterns (Mr. Blue) and opens the door for a (possible) villainous return.
Most of the film features the conflict between General Ross (William Hurt) and fugitive Bruce Banner. Ross is trying to capture and weaponize Hulk and Bruce Banner resists, insisting that the Hulk cannot be controlled. In an attempt to finally catch Banner, Ross injects mercenary Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) with an untested super-soldier serum (foreshadowing Captain America!) and ends up creating the monster Abomination. This hunter-prey, action-packed drama sets the perfect pacing and tone for a Hulk film.

Themes: Self-Control, Respect for Power, Sacrifice

Hulk has always been a metaphorical character, representing the continual struggle to control the darker and destructive things inside of us. I believe that all of us can identify with Banner’s struggle to protect others from the monster within. – Unfortunately, this “I can’t control the monster” idea has been ripped off and poorly executed so many times (*cough cough* Twilight) that it feels well-trodden.

Responsibility often includes sacrifice. In order to protect the world from the uncontrollable Hulk, Banner has sacrificed everything: his life, career, freedom, and even his romance with Betty. Seeing Bruce encounter his old life, especially reuniting with Betty, is a painful reminder of everything he has left behind. As audience members, we yearn for justice. We want so badly for Bruce to be exhonorated and start a life with Betty. Most superheroes make sacrifices for a short period of time (or until the villain of that particular storyline is dead) but Bruce is destined to return to the road as a fugitive. Sometimes acting with integrity and responsibility means long-term, unending sacrifice.

Typical of the Prometheus and Frankenstein mythos, Incredible Hulk teaches us something about respect for power beyond our control or understanding. General Ross sees the Hulk as a weapon to be tamed, but Banner knows it is pure, uncontrollable rage. It is this careless misuse of power by Ross and the lust for power by Blonsky that creates the real monster, the bloodthirsty Abomination. At the end of the film, Hulk defeats Abomination and tosses the creature at the feet of General Ross. In this brilliant and silent moment, Hulk glares at Ross as if to say ‘you wanted a weapon, here he is. This is the legacy you have tried to build, and this is exactly what I have been protecting you from.’ It is human nature to lust for power greater than we can control, and Incredible Hulk warns us of the danger in yielding to those desires.

Conclusion:

Action packed and boasting a solid cast, The Incredible Hulk was a pretty impressive film… in 2008. It didn’t stand the test of time nearly as well as I had hoped. The cgi rendering of Hulk and Abomination look a little cheesy compared to recent developments like Michael Bay’s Transformers3. Couple this with the resurgence of werewolves, and this film’s “beast within” bit doesn’t stand out like it used to.

If you get the chance, watch the 2003 Hulk by Ang Lee before watching The Incredible Hulk. While the sequel reiterates everything you need to know, its makes you appreciate just how difficult it is to make a good movie about a giant green monster whose catchphrase is “Hulk Smash!”

Rating: 4/5 Zipped Lips

Sadly, The Incredible Hulk doesn’t stand the test of time as well as Iron Man, but its still an exciting and emotional ride with an action-packed climax.

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Iron Man 2 (2010) – New Review

“If you could make God bleed, people would cease to believe in him… All I have to do is sit back and watch as the world consumes you.”

Synopsis: Tony Stark has been busy. In the past six months, he has used his unique Iron Man technology to maintain an unprecedented level of world peace. After discovering that the miniature Arc-reactor in his chest is fatally poisoning his blood, Stark grapples with his mortality and legacy.

Its no secret that we at Shut Up & Watch The Movie were not fans of Iron Man 2. It seemed like everything that made the original so loveable got lost in the shuffle of multiple villains and Stark’s alcoholism. (See my original, albeit perplexed, take on it here.) This busy sequel meanders somewhat through the middle, gets bogged down with Tony’s self-destructive spiral, and doesn’t recover until the final act. But despite its issues, a second look at both Iron Man films revealed a strong undercurrent that I hadn’t noticed before: legacy.

Why Iron Man 2 felt flat:

On the surface, Iron Man 2 spends a lot of time on the Iron Man technology and whether or not Tony Stark’s invention is the new face of modern warfare. Stark insists it is not, the government insists that it is, and then one day Ivan Vanko opens pandora’s box by tearing up a racetrack with an arc-powered suit of his own. This attack throws Stark into a self-destructive spiral, leading to a wild party, and an Iron Man vs. War Machine slug-fest in Tony’s living room.

While this sounds like a good story line, its not particularly gripping because as audience members we know that there’s only one Iron Man hero. Sure, Stark’s buddy Rhodey gets a suit (and becomes the psuedo-sidekick War Machine) and there are a handful of armored villains, but the hero always wins, right? Tony Stark won’t let some ruffian Russian robots start World War III. With this knowledge rattling around in our self-conscious, Tony’s alcoholism and Iron Man “drunken bar-fight” with his best friend Rhodey feels unnecessarily tedious and juvenile.

Why Iron Man 2 deserves a second look

This isn’t a story about Tony Stark struggling with vanity and alcoholism, its a mortal man’s struggle with his own purpose and legacy. When you understand legacy as the central thrust of the Iron Man saga, all of these odd-shaped puzzle pieces begin to fit into place.

The first film highlights the heritage of Stark Industries. Tony tells us that his father’s legacy was weapons developed to win WWII, “that’s how Dad did it, that’s how America does it, and it’s worked out pretty well for me so far.” – The twist comes when Tony realizes the true legacy of Stark Industries: mass murder at the hands of terrorists. “Those are YOUR weapons in the hands of those murderers! Is this what you want? Is this what you wish the legacy of the great Tony Stark to be?”
Determined to alter his legacy, Stark uses Arc-Reactor technology to power the Iron Man suit and right the wrongs of his company. Tony redeems his family legacy. …Or so he thinks.

Enter Iron Man 2.

The Arc-Reactor that keeps Tony alive is poisoning his blood and he doesn’t have much time left. He reopens the Stark Expo, announcing: “It’s not about me. It’s not about you, either. It’s about legacy, the legacy left behind for future generations. It’s not about us!” Determined to leave a great legacy before he dies, Stark names his assistant Pepper Potts as CEO of Stark Ind., and he reprograms the War Machine suit so that Rhodey can use it. (In case you didn’t catch that, Tony wanted Rhodey to steal the suit.) Ivan Vanko’s appearance doesn’t reignite Tony’s narcissism and alcoholism, it causes Tony to doubt his own change of heart, his redemption, and the integrity of the Stark legacy. Tony, directionless and dying, simply throws himself one final going-away party (the only way he knows how.)

Finally, Tony sees a video of his father, Howard Stark, speaking of the Stark legacy. Howard admits that he wanted to contribute more to the world than weapons but he was limited by the technology of his time. In a very touching scene, he asks Tony to fulfill the Stark legacy, “I’m limited by the technology of my time, but one day you’ll figure this out. And when you do, you will change the world. What is, and always will be my greatest creation… is *you*.”

Cue the single manly tear.

This statement spurs Tony on to create a new element for his suit (blood poison free this time), and defeat Ivan Vanko. Alive and not dying, Stark sets everything back to rights.

Themes: Legacy, Partnership, Responsibility with Technology

I’ve proven how central ‘legacy’ is to the Iron Man films, and Iron Man 2 specifically emphasizes passing on something of value to the next generation. Responsibility is a sub-theme, stressing the importance of using technology with integrity. There’s some discussion about whether or not handing over your technology to the government is the best way to keep everyone safe (the film answers that with a resounding “no”.)

Partnership takes a surprising spotlight spotlight here, revealing once again that villains can never get along. – Seriously, what is it with those guys? Its like they signed a contract “will betray each other in the 3rd Act.” As for the heroes, Tony Stark thinks he has to carry the weight of being Iron Man alone. His partnership with Petter and Rhodey may be tenuous, but pays off. In the end, the hero is stronger with allies than he is alone.

Conclusion:

Now that we’ve got that messy “what is this movie about” business out of the way, Iron Man 2 is a fantastic movie. The characters, the cast, the directing, everything is great. Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) and Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) are great antagonists, mixing humor with sheer brutality. Each villain has their own spin on the “legacy” concept (rivalry and revenge) but both unite in their desire to dethrone Stark Industries. SHIELD agents Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Natasha/Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) are a tad underwhelming, but they’re really just making cameo appearances until The Avengers film anyway.

Here’s looking forward to The Avengers and Iron Man 3!

Rating: 4/5 Zipped Lips.

I’m glad that I gave Iron Man 2 a second chance. What seemed to be a frazzled grouping of storylines proved to be one cohesive story that began way back in the opening lines of the original Iron Man film.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) – Review reposted.

“Why did I choose someone weak? Because a weak man knows the value of strength.”

Synopsis: After being deemed unfit for military service, Steve Rogers volunteers for a top secret research project that turns him into Captain America, a superhero dedicated to defending America’s ideals.

Marvel Studios has spent the last three years bringing superheroes to the silver screen with unparalleled charm, wit, and integrity. Packed with a star studded cast, plenty of action, and a dash of comic book camp, Captain America is no exception. Director Joe Johnston expertly balances the feel of 1940’s America (as he did in his 1991 classic, The Rocketeer) with the campy science fiction of a comic book. The period sets have a nostalgic charm and the characters are larger than life in their heroics. Cap’s wit is simple, straightforward, and thoroughly American. And when it comes to big budget action movies, there’s no better villains than the Nazis.
(I hate those guys.)

Chris Evans shines as Steve Rogers, whose initial wimpy appearance is a startling achievement in special effects. He looks nothing like a soldier, let alone the iconic Captain AmericaBut, as the story reveals, its Rogers integrity that sets him apart from the rest. Despite his small size, Rogers is desperate to help defend his country. He admits “I don’t want to kill anyone. I just don’t like bullies.” Its this courage that causes Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) to choose Steve Rogers for the Super Soldier Serum, a chemical mixture which gives an ordinary man superhuman strength.

Themes: Integrity, Responsibility, Heroism

Steve Rogers is chosen because he is an underdog with integrity. Dr. Erskine tells Steve “why did I choose someone weak? Because a weak man knows the value of strength, the value of power. And he also knows compassion.” Erskine also explains that the Super Soldier Serum enhances everything that is within a man. Because of his integrity and heroism, Steve Rogers becomes the iconic Captain America. But this same serum also transformed power-hungry Nazi Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) into the villainous Red Skull. It is this reason that Dr. Erskine makes Steve promise that no matter what, “you will stay who you are. Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.”

Marvel characters often learn that it takes more than superpowers to make a superhero. This has been a consistent theme for Peter Parker, Tony Stark, the X-Men, and even Thor. But no character seems to embody honesty, courage, and heroism like the iconic Captain America. When he dons his stars and stripes shield, you know what he stands for.

Conclusion: My favorite of the Marvel movies

Your enjoyment of Captain America will greatly depend on your expectations and your willing suspension of disbelief (for more on this and Superhero movies, check out my review of Thor.) If you go in expecting the best movie of the summer, you’ll be disappointed. But if you enter with an open mind and try what Marvel’s cooked up, you’ll have a blast. Some aspects of the film (like the Cosmic Cube and Red Skull) are hard to swallow if you’re assuming a typical WWII film. Captain America goes far beyond the fantasy adventure in movies like Indiana Jones (there’s a line about “Hitler digging around in the desert”) and several plot choices may have newbies saying “… what?” But in the end, the Cap succeeds because America loves our underdogs. Especially ones who punch Nazis in the face. With a shield. A stars and stripes shield.

A word on The Avengers:

Ever since Marvel Studios began with Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk in 2008, we’ve been building up to The Avengers film which is finally glimpsed at after the credits of Captain America. I’ve been very impressed at how well each film has built off its predecessors; integrating S.H.I.E.L.D., giving cameos to Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), introducing the Cosmic Cubeand finally bringing Captain America into the mix. While Cap can’t fly like Iron Man or wield the power of Thor, he’s the natural choice to lead the team. I’m very excited to see what Marvel Studios and director Joss Whedon whip up for The Avengers (2012).

Rating:

4.5 out of 5 Zipped Lips

Captain America is a throwback to a simpler time when the good guys were good and the bad guys were bad. There’s something here for everyone: wit, charm, explosions, romance… but what lingers is a heroic little guy whose virtue made all the difference.

Thor (Avengers Countdown)

April 29, 2012

Thor (2011) – Review reworked and reposted.

“There’s always a purpose to everything your father does.”

Synopsis: The powerful but arrogant Thor is cast out of the fantastic realm of Asgard and sent to live as a mortal on Earth.

Let’s be honest here: Thor is kind of a lame superhero. In Marvel comics, Thor is the mythological Norse God of Thunder, Son of Odin, and wields an awkwardly giant hammer like a yo-yo. Put this shiny armored dude in a lineup next to Iron Man and Thor looks dorkier than Tobias Fünke. So naturally, I was very skeptical as to how Marvel was going to pull off of Thor film. After finally seeing the film, my hat is off to Marvel Studios and director Kenneth Branagh, because Thor is one solid movie.

Thor is an excellent example of “willing suspension of disbelief.” You can skeptically complain “those helmets look dorky, Thor’s costume is too shiny, and frost giants? …this movie is crap!” Or you can choose to enjoy the fantastical setting and see if Thor delivers on its premise. So much of our enjoyment is based on choices: we can choose to be overly critical or choose to enjoy something new and different. If you’re willing to suspend your disbelief, Thor packs a wallop.

The film explains that Thor and his fellow Asgardians are an extra-terrestrial race whom the ancients mistook for gods. Thor describes Asgard as “a place where science and magic are one in the same.” Asgardians have immense physical power but also wield incredibly technology like the “Rainbow Bridge” that teleports adventurers between planets/dimensions. Science Fiction has a long-held tradition of explaining ancient deities as powerful alien beings (see Star Trek: The Original Series), so Thor’s extra-terrestrial explanation felt natural and familiar.

Marvel Studios once again proves that they can line up a terrific cast. Chris Hemsworth is likeable, heroic, and stunningly perfect as the brash and arrogant Thor. Tom Hiddleson is subtle, creepy, and ‘Wormtongue-esk’ in his portrayal of Loki, who will make a key reappearance in The Avengers film. Anthony Hopkins is iconic as Odin, a father trying to raise two sons while keeping peace between realms. Natalie Portman‘s nerdy scientist pleasantly surprised me, and her small stature makes Chris Hemsworth look all the more godlike in proportion.
Thor’s honorable relationship with Jane Foster (Portman) was a ‘stark’ contrast to Iron Man’s hedonism. There’s a brilliant moment where you think Thor and Jane will break for a self-indulgent kiss or a lusty romp in the bed, but Thor gently kisses Jane’s hand instead. This concept of honoring women and sex has practically disappeared from our culture; allowing Thor’s respect to not only surprise us, but to critique our lustful expectations as audience members.

Themes: Character, Humility, Stewardship

All of the Marvel Studios films have a strong emphasis on character and integrity, but Thor takes this to a new level. His entire banishment to Earth is the result of his prideful and reckless actions. Before Thor can be a steward of Asgard, he must learn humility. Odin exiles Thor for his own good, and the Queen reminds Loki to trust Odin’s wisdom: “there’s always a purpose to everything your father does.”

Conclusion:

If you haven’t seen Thor yet, definitely check it out before seeing The Avengers this summer. From what the trailers have previewed, several things from Asgard return to play an important role in the upcoming film.

Thor is truly a unique superhero movie. Kenneth Branagh is far more interested in themes of honor, pride, and family than pandering to a superficial desire for explosions and lusty sidekicks. The action is present and Mjolnir pack’s a wallop, but hammer swinging isn’t what Thor’s here to do. Its a journey about father’s and son’s, responsibility, and integrity. And ultimately, Thor is a hero who must be humbled before he can become a champion.

4.5 / 5 Zipped Lips

Thor is a unique superhero movie: it is far more interested in themes of honor, humility, and family than dishing out gratuitous violence and explosions. Thor is likeable, engaging, and fun whether you’re a lifelong fan or new to the Marvel Universe.

Iron Man (2008) – Review reworked and reposted.

“You stood by my side all these years while I reaped the benefits of destruction. Now that I’m trying to protect the people I’ve put in harm’s way, you’re going to walk out? – I shouldn’t be alive, unless it was for a reason. I’m not crazy, Pepper. I just finally know what I have to do. And I know in my heart that it’s right.”

I know what you’re thinking, Audience, “everyone has seen Iron Man! What can Isaac possibly say that I haven’t heard already?” – Trust me, I’ve got this.

Tony Stark saves the Cat

Until last night, I had never seen the first two minutes of Iron Man, and it totally changed my perspective on the entire film. “So what”, you ask, “nothing happens, they just crack some jokes on a Humvee ride.” – But oh, its incredibly important. You see, this is Tony Stark’s initial “Save the Cat” moment. (“Save the Cat” is a phrase for when the main character does something endearing/heroic in the first 20 minutes so that the audience will like him.) The opening scene: the legendary Tony Stark is riding in a Humvee with three US soldiers; its quiet, awkward, and boring. Tony breaks the silence with a few jokes, and after a minute everyone is laughing, snapping pictures, and enjoying his company. Its a simple scene but it establishes Tony Stark as inherently fun and likable. Without this introduction, Tony’s character is merely an arrogant billionaire playboy with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Raising the Bar

Iron Man showed the world that superhero movies can be fun, witty, action packed, engaging, adventurous, well-written, expertly directed, fantastically acted, and most of all, pretty darn good. Superhero movies don’t have to be half-baked, poorly written, 2-hour cheese fests. Long gone are the days of “let’s cast somebody big! like, uh… Ben Affleck!” (facepalm.) Iron Man has it all, especially in the acting department. Robert Downey Jr owns Tony Stark and has great chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts.

The Origin of a Icon

Jon Favreau did a fantastic job of directing Marvel’s first big movie. I wish all superhero films were executed with such exquisite attention to detail. He captured the essence of Iron Man: Tony Stark discovers a reason to live for something other than himself. He begins as a spoiled and naive playboy, the ‘quintessential capitalist’, but its not long before the billionaire is thrown into a cave (‘with scraps!’) and given an ultimatum. This is where Iron Man finds its heart; Tony Stark becomes a man of character. In a stirring montage (gotta love those montages), our hero builds the MK1 armor, pounding away with a purpose. This is more than a thrilling tale of how Tony Stark made the superpowered armor, this is the mythic essence that drives our hero onward. This is the powerful ‘origin story’, the ‘heart of the hero’ that will call audiences back to film after film of Iron Man’s legacy. Executing the ‘Origin of the Superhero’ is the most important part of the mythos, and every sequel must uncover a subsequent heart and passion to drive the Superhero on. (More on that in Iron Man 2).

Themes: Redemption, Technology, the Global Arms Race

While its spotlighted more intensely in Iron Man 2Iron Man talks quite a bit about the nuclear arms race. While this was a hotter topic during the Cold War (the era of Iron Man’s comic debut), the global arms race is far from irrelevant today. The United States is involved in a number of foreign crisis’, and Tony Stark’s situation begs the question: “what’s America’s responsibility in foreign affairs?” While Jon Favreau wisely avoids the archetypal wise-old-man repeating “with great power comes great responsibility,” he asserts that Iron Man has a duty to use his technology to not only right his own wrongs, but to protect the innocent. The ending crowns Stark with the fame of the Iron Man identity, but the technology will inevitability open a proverbial ‘Pandora’s Box” of evil potential.

At at its core, Iron Man is a story of redemption. “I shouldn’t be alive… unless it was for a reason. I’m not crazy, Pepper. I just finally know what I have to do. And I know in my heart that it’s right.” Tony experiences a profound change of heart as his eyes are opened to his true legacy: death and destruction at the hands of Stark Industries. Everyone around Tony challenges his redemptive experience, insisting that its PTSD. They encourage him to “get back to his old self.” But this idea is abhorrent to Tony; his old life represents selfishness and death, his new life must embody selflessness and justice.

Conclusion: Shut Up, and Watch the Movie.

I could go on about the Superhero Formula (trading punches), the humour, the gorgeous visuals, the thrill of the Iron Man suit… but who am I kidding, you’ve all seen this. Here’s one time where I’ll just Shut Up and Watch The Movie.



4.5/5 Zipped Lips

One of the best superhero movies ever, setting a high standard for a new generation of comic-book films.

Only two kinds of men get shot: criminals and victims. Which one are you?”

Synopsis: – Seriously. Its called Cowboys and Aliens, you don’t need a plot synopsis for this.

Cowboys and Aliens is a surprisingly good movie; it has a fantastic cast, skilled directing, beautiful scenery, and plenty of gun-slinging action. In fact, its so good that it may lure you into thinking its a decent adventure movie about real people and the western frontier. And just when you’re starting to take it seriously, it’ll slap you in the face with a juvenile action-cliche and remind you “hey, what are you doing! Are you actually expecting this to make any sense!? Its called COWBOYS AND ALIENS!!!”

Even though Daniel Craig is definitely not playing 007 this time, there’s enough action movie cliche’s and contrived gadget-saves to make you wonder if this character is really a time traveling James Bond. Once again, remind yourself, “this is a cowboy movie… with aliens…” and all will be put right. This won’t be making anyone’s top ten list, no matter how much they love cowboys and/or aliens. But besides the handful of western and science fiction cliche’s, there’s some genuinely good moments here.

What makes it good?

Westerns have a way of rounding up a star-studded cast, and here Cowboys and Aliens is no exception. Daniel Craig is sufficient as the archetypal amnesic anti-hero (see what I did there?) who can out-gun, out-ride, and out-brawl anyone despite not knowing his own name. His look and demeanor lend itself to this role well, though at times you can tell he’s struggling to subvert his English dialect and replace it with a sandpapery western one.
Harrison Ford is perfect as the semi-antagonist ranch owner with a dark past. Part of me wishes the aliens hadn’t shown up and stolen his villainous thunder. Ford’s screen presence brings a unique gravity and emotional depth to the film, not something you’d expect in a movie about aliens. (… and see what I did there?)  The supporting cast gives noteworthy performances which I’ll summarize briefly: Sam Rockwell (hilarious), Adam Beach (impactful), Clancy Brown (king of the one-liners), Paul Dano (who we love-to-hate), and Olivia Wilde (meh?)

Themes: Redemption

Pretty much every Western ever told is about redemption. Lone hero with a troubled past, father with an estranged son, pretty girl looking to avenge those who killed her family, etc. Its all been done before (well, at least without aliens). In one way or another, they’re all looking to redeem themselves and their relationships. There’s a strong theme of valuing life, relationships, and virtue, because we don’t know how much time we have before death.

Conclusion: “What you see is what you get.”

This is a cowboy movie. And its a sci-fi alien movie. But whether or not its greater or less than the proverbial ‘sum of its parts’ is up to you. You can get frustrated with its plot holes and disregard for basic physics, or you can enjoy it for what it is. Cowboys and Aliens follows a similar formula as the Indiana Jones films: “Take a B movie action-adventure and give it an A-level director, cast, and special effects.” The result is an enjoyable popcorn flick featuring the New Mexico desert, gritty cowboys, and of course, aliens.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Zipped Lips.

Cowboys and Aliens does exactly what it sets out to do: tell an old fashioned cowboy tale with aliens in it. In fact, its so well done that you’re in danger of taking it seriously and ruining all the fun.

Sucker Punch (2011)

February 27, 2012

“Everyone has an angel. A guardian who watches over us. You can’t know what form they’ll take. One day old man. Next day, little girl. But don’t let appearances fool you, they can be as fierce as any dragon. Yet they’re not here to fight our battles, but to whisper from our heart; reminding that its us. Its every one of us who holds the power over the worlds we create.”

Synopsis: A young girl nicknamed Babydoll is unjustly locked away in an insane asylum where she will undergo a lobotomy in five days’ time. Facing gruesome odds but determined to escape, Babydoll imagines a fantastical dreamworld where she and her companions are warriors on a mission. The lines between reality and fantasy blur as Babydoll and her friends fight to retrieve five items they will need to break free from their captors before its too late.

Director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) is a master of aesthetic. From sets and dreamworlds to stylized costumes and makeup (highly sexualized, one should note) Sucker Punch is a visually stunning film. The five-minute opening sequence alone is a study in use of slow-motion camerawork and visual storytelling. Snyder’s directorial talent is unquestionably good in the aesthetic arena, but Sucker Punch falls flat on its face in plot exposition.

Let’s talk about the multiple layers of reality.
There’s a theatrical rule-of-thumb that essentially states “if you’re going to do something weird, you have to do it in the first 15 minutes.”  You have 15 minutes to establish your premise, no matter how outlandish it is, and your audience will buy it. That’s why musicals always open with a song, they’re letting the audience know right-off-the-bat ‘Hey, this is a musical! People sing here and its totally normal!’ But if the play opened realistically and then 45 minutes later the cast burst into song and dance, the audience would feel that their willing suspension of disbelief had been betrayed. Simply, storytellers have to quickly establish the rules of their fictional world (this is referred to in Science Fiction writing as the “Novum”.) The more outlandish the premise, the more focused one’s opening 15 minutes must be (think about the introduction of movies like Star Wars, The Matrix, Underworld, Avatar, Inception, etc.)

So how does Sucker Punch hold up to this rule?

At 12 minutes in, the real world of the insane asylum is replaced by a brothel. Here each character is reintroduced in this fictional reality as gangsters, dancers, lost orphans, etc. This reality shift happens abruptly, without any explanation or motive, and left me thoroughly confused. After a few minutes of head scratching I concluded that this brothel was merely a sub-reality and the characters were actually still in the asylum, but the fact that the entire reality of existence switched so curtly and completely without exposition baffled me. Also, occurring a full 12 minutes in is really pushing their time limit.

As for the fantastical, action-packed, dream-world, this doesn’t appear until 21 minutes into the film. I initially let this slide because everyone saw the Sucker Punch trailer and knew an action-packed fantasy world was a major part of the movie. (But it disturbs me that a film relies on its theatrical trailer to accomplish good storytelling.) One of Sucker Punch’s major problems is failing to reconcile its dramatic brothel plot with its gratuitously violent dreamworlds.

There’s storytelling rules for a reason. They’re not meant to restrict would-be storytellers, but guide them. And for heaven’s sake – the more outlandish your premise, the more you must stick to the rules! This is clearly demonstrated by how confused audiences were and still are by Sucker Punch (“which world is real, are Babydoll and Sweetpea the same person, is Blue taking girls from the asylum to work in his brothel next-door”, etc.) If Zack Snyder wanted people to “get” his crazy, outlandish “genre-piece”, he should’ve stuck to the basic rules of storytelling! (For a positive example, think about the exposition used in Inception. Pretty much the first 2/3rds of the film is explaining how dreams work so that the last act can unfold in all its glory without leaving the audience behind.)

What is Sucker Punch  even about, anyway?

I rarely need to watch a movie a second time in order to understand the plot. But it wasn’t until my 3rd time through Sucker Punch that I really got all the visual cues and understood what Zack Snyder was trying to do. (At least I think I do.) *spoilers* Babydoll is the ‘main character’ but its not her story, its Sweet Pea’s. The opening and closing narrations belong to Sweet Pea, and Babydoll admits to her at the end “this was never my story, its yours.” Babydoll was Sweet Pea’s guardian angel; the ‘little girl who fought as fierce as dragons’ and gave Sweet Pea the courage to escape. The action-packed fantasies belong to Babydoll, but the brothel reality belongs to Sweet Pea. – This switch-up is a cool idea and I see the puzzle pieces there for it, it just doesn’t come together to make one cohesive picture.

This isn’t too big of a surprise, considering Sucker Punch was an experiment in putting two entirely different genre’s into the same film. Zack Snyder even admitted to it: “How can I make a film that can have action sequences in it that aren’t limited by the physical realities that normal people are limited by, but still have the story make sense so it’s not, and I don’t mean to be mean, like a bulls–t thing like Ultraviolet or something like that.” Snyder basically wanted to recreate fights from The Matrix but skip the important bit about writing a physics defying universe that allows his plot to even take place. (Plot? *yawn* I mean, that’s so tedious!)

Themes:Escapism, Empowerment,Objectification.

‘What lengths are we willing to go to in our mind to deal with a situation?’ In a place where women are powerless and abused, they’re encouraged to create a reality where they are in control. I like the message of empowerment and conquering your fears, but needing to reinvent reality to the point where you define the rules has some disturbing connotations.
The film is filled with skimpy costumes, ridiculous makeup, and an overall objectifying visual tone. This swords-and-corsets look is cool in a geeky, stylized, comicbook way, but its so sexual in nature. According to writer/director Zack Snyder, Sucker Punch is a critique on geek culture’s sexism and objectification of women (his interview here). While he certainly refrained from lingering or ogling shots, I don’t see any element of ‘critique’ here. If anything, it carries the disturbing implication that this shameless objectification of women somehow makes them stronger.

Conclusion:

Sucker Punch tries to have a good message behind it all. Listen to the closing narration: “Who chains us, and who holds the key that can set us free? – Its you. You have all the weapons you need. Now fight.” This is a great message of empowerment and overcoming the obstacles we create for ourselves. Its asking us to examine the lies we tell ourselves that hold us back from reaching our full potential. But lets look at the story we just saw, shall we? Five women band together, and using their combined resources and creativity… three are dead, one is lobotomized, and only one escapes? That’s it? ‘You hold the key to your destiny, you are the only thing holding you back’ … but evil wins four out of five times? His ending totally undermines the point he’s trying to make!
Zack Snyder thinks he’s making a film about female empowerment in the face of helplessness, about creating realities where you are the hero and you have the weapons to accomplish anything. But everything about the movie from hackneyed plot to sexualized costumes unravels this until you’re standing there with two shreds in each hand wondering “…what is this movie even about?”

Rating:

2.5 out of 5 Zipped Lips

Writer/Director Zack Snyder was trying something new with Sucker Punch; an experiment in putting two totally different genre’s into one storyline. While I applaud his attempt and awesome aesthetics, the film lacks a foundation in the basic rules of storytelling and ultimately undermines everything he’s trying to do.