Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness

Here is a modest comparison of the two biggest summer blockbusters to be released in the past month:

Both choose explosions and cliche action sequences over character development or plot. Jon Favreau's Iron Man and J.J. Abrams' Star Trek were movies filled with characters. They grew and developed and suffered and fought and cried and laughed, and we loved the film for it. Yes, there were plenty of action sequences and dazzling effects (particularly in Star Trek). But those explosions never overshadowed the heart behind each story as a boastful and arrogant protagonist (Tony Stark and James Kirk) are humbled and stretched in profound and affecting ways. While both sequels do their best to create an atmosphere of pathos in key scenes, this usually falls short because it doesn't feel earned. These are just big popcorn explosion movies, cobbled scenes of cliche action sequences intended to make us ooh and aah at all the right moments.

Both feature genetically-modified self-healing villains with a motive of personal vengeance against a large technological corporation and its leadership, and both villains have a secret "twist" identity intended to surprise and/or delight the movie audience. I'll just let that sentence speak for itself. The parallels are uncanny.

Both tried to go "dark." After Christopher Nolan's incredibly successful run with the Batman trilogy, superhero movies are doing their best to be gritty, grim, and gloomy. Just see the Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness poster mashup above--falling out of the skies in flames against a grey, cloudy background. The only problem: it's rather difficult to have a glum Tony Stark or a morose James T. Kirk. It's akin to having a peppy and zestful Bruce Wayne.

Both revel in vengeanceIron Man 3 boasts in Tony Stark's "you hurt my friend, so I'm gonna kill you" morality. (Spoilers for STID): John Harrison, aka Khan, is getting revenge for being awoken from cryogenic sleep and kills Captain Pike, which leads Kirk to seek revenge on Khan for the death of Pike, which leads Spock to get revenge for the "death" of Kirk. It's like watching a Tarantino script.

Both have glaring plot holes: Iron Man 3 has more, but Star Trek Into Darkness has a number of its own. A few plot inconsistencies or frustrations, with spoilers:
  • Why does Tony Stark create nearly four dozen working Iron Man suits and not use them until the final battle sequence? During any of the fight sequences throughout the prior two hours of violence and death, why didn't he just...you know...press a button and make them show up? Like, maybe when the helicopters show up at Tony's house in the first place, since they're all just sitting right there?
  • If Tony Stark's suits require an eye-scan identification to work--like they do for Pepper Potts when she receives Tony's message via his helmet--then how do the bad guys reconfigure the Iron Patriot suit to use for their own schemes?
  • Tony Stark has the arc reactor and shrapnel removed from his chest via surgery, supposedly as a moment of closure. If all it took was a simple surgery, why didn't he get that sooner? And we know he's not really done being Iron Man; they've still gotta make The Avengers 2, after all.
  • Speaking of them, during all the attacks and fighting and kidnapping of the president, etc: where are the other Avengers? And where is S.H.I.E.L.D.?
  • Why does Spock needlessly fight Khan in order to get his super-blood in order to heal and resurrect Kirk, when there are 72 other sleeping super-blood folks easily at hand?
  • Speaking of Khan--why the alias? Why go by John Harrison at all? Matt Singer asks the same question, and comes up with this answer: it's because J.J. Abrams thrives on mystery and toying with an audience. Abrams calls it his mystery box, and he employs it often. There is no real need for Benedict Cumberbatch to be John Harrison at all, except to make it all the more mysterious for us movie-goers and further Abrams' desire to keep our curiosity piqued. You can bet there will be TONS of mystery box moments when the new Abrams-directed Star Wars films arrive in a few years. (This isn't necessarily a bad thing, by the way. I love me some mystery and intrigue. I'm simply stating that Khan could simply be Khan, and Khan alone; there was no need for the Harrison alias to make the character intriguing.)
Both feature unnecessary scenes with main characters emerging from a bed containing two women. Just saying. Not exactly family-friendly. Speaking of unnecessary characters...

Both have unnecessary characters: The kid Tony Stark encounters in in Tennessee and Carol March are each used for their particular cuteness to reveal the "sensitive" side of their heroes (Stark and Kirk, respectively). Neither are real characters with heart and purpose. The kid is just there to give Tony Stark a father-figure moment; Carol's primary role in Star Trek Into Darkness appears be the brief scene featuring her in her underwear. They have maybe a dozen lines each and have little to add to the narrative arc (though both are used to save the hero from the villain). Yet even as I wrote this last sentence, it reveals the vapidity of both characters--they're used, like objects, plot points in a story rather than an actual person. A challenge: I'll give you huge props if you can remember the name of the kid in Iron Man 3 without looking it up.

Both will make loads of money. As of this writing, in the United States alone, Iron Man 3 has made $338 million in three weeks. Star Trek Into Darkness has made $83.7 million in less than two weeks. I'm willing to bet that Iron Man 3 will be the highest-grossing summer movie of the year.

Both were disappointing. I wish I liked these movies more than I did. I loved Iron Man. I loved Star Trek. So I was frustrated and disheartened that both of these films left me wishing I hadn't dished out the cash for the 3D or IMAX tickets.

What did you think of Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness? Am I just being too cynical and critical, or were you disappointed too?


  1. Joel, I agree with most of your points. As a life long Trekkie, it's hard for me to say that I enjoyed Iron Man 3 more than Into Darkness.

    My gripe with Into Darkness was how the filmmakers were reaching for emotional moments similar to Wrath of Khan, but you knew they'd never get there. Wrath of Khan remains one of the best sci-fi movies and it's a slow burning movie full of dialog that demonstrates the depth of the relationships between characters, not stupid space/skydiving sequences.

    After the conclusion of LOST, Prometheus and Into Darkness, I am really starting to sour on Lindelof as a writer.

    1. "After the conclusion of LOST, Prometheus and Into Darkness, I am really starting to sour on Lindelof as a writer." YES. The guy knows how to start something truly great; he just doesn't know how to wrap it all up in a satisfying and thoughtful conclusion.

      The one significant positive about Star Trek Into Darkness? It's inspired me to seek out viewing Wrath of Khan.

  2. I respectfully disagree with your plot hole critiques. When I watch these movies I don't go expecting something like Crime and Punishment or Les Miserables. I put my expectations for continuity or plausibility on hold (within reason). You could easily ask how likely is it there are aliens? Warp drives? Teleporters? A mechanical suit that basically makes you a super hero? An unending supply of energy from a mini reactor in your chest? None of these things are plausible, so why go to the movie at all?! I enjoy the movie for what it is. Entertainment, fun, eye catching, action and so on.

    1. My frustration is that these plot holes exist within the worlds of the films. I'm not looking for realism in the sense that warp drives and aliens must appear plausible--the flaws I'm pointing out are issues with plot structure and consistency WITHIN the world the filmmakers have created. I love entertainment and fun, which is why these glaring holes are frustrating for me--they take me out of the fun and entertainment as I wonder "hey, why didn't Tony just use those suits earlier?" or "hey, how did those bad guys even find Tony in the middle-of-nowhere Tennessee, and why were they there in the first place?" I'm not expecting Crime and Punishment, but I am expecting common logic and coherence within the created world.

  3. First of all, I agree with you to a degree and your point about the plot holes within the world created by the film is not lost on me. My point was that the world created in the these superhero movies are "make believe" and "pretend". They are fantastical to begin with. Therefore, non sequiturs are somewhat expected.
    The suits critique I agree with, yet the other complaints about the one dimensionality of the characters, the revenge motif, the explosions versus plot development frankly I'm okay with, that was the product I was expecting.

    1. Good thoughts, Dan! That's a fair analysis, and I think we both agree--big summer blockbuster superhero movies requiring different expectations than, say, an indie drama or epic Oscar-bait movie. I guess I was just expecting more, because previous films in both series set me up for higher expectations. "Star Trek" and "Iron Man" were SO good (as was "The Avengers," which is in the Marvel realm), so I just wished these films had been stronger. Appreciate the comments, btw!

  4. It is kind of schizophrenic in the sense that when these comic books were created they were making different universes. Hence why another superhero or team doesn't come and help with a villain. But then they combine the universes and they do assist. A bit of a crazy maker.

    I do enjoy your movie reviews, keep up the good work! You should check out my blog:
    You might like it.

    There is a comic out there with a plot that includes all superhero universes, its called "The Infinity Gauntlet". Its excellent. In my opinion the best superhero movie out there is "The Watchmen" by far! Have you seen it?

  5. Just for the sake of details, the characters name is Carol Marcus, not Carol March. She was also a character in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and is the father to Kirk's son. Just FYI.