CineMathematics or CinemaThematics. Your choice

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A Threatless Summer?

This summer's action films seem to lack urgency. With the exception of Lord of the Rings: Prince Caspian, which I didn't see, villains in action films don't really pose a threat to people other than the hero. Of course this will change, judging from the massive destruction on display in the trailers for The Incredible Hulk and The Dark Knight, but I want to take the opportunity to savor a strangely personal slant to the summer so far. The prime examples are Iron Man and Indiana Jones and Insert Joke Title Here.

Iron Man is merely the latest superhero movie to hit theaters, but it is also one of the most unusual. It goes through the typical superhero motions (origin story, testing powers, showdown with villain), but it puts the most emphasis within this arc on testing powers. It also doesn't hurt that Robert Downey Jr owns the movie in a way few actors do in any movies, nevermind superhero movies. When people think about the exciting part of the movie, they don't think of the battle between Tony Stark and Obadiah Stane; they think of Stark's first experiments with the Iron Man suit. The thing that struck me most about that final confrontation was how it almost felt as if Stark and Stane weren't fighting in a city. There was one car thrown, but there was never a strong threat that if Stark were to lose, then Stane would go on a rampage destroying the city. Stane, by manner of being a businessman, was acting in self-defense. He wanted to be able to sell his weapons to whomever he desired. Granted, those people are terrorists, but that fact never really gets enough attention as a way that Stane is a horrible person. The impact of selling to terrorists would have been amplified has the terrorists used their newly purchased Stark Industries weapons to attack the Western World in some way. When Stark returns to Afghanistan to take vengeance on those who attacked him to start the film, we see the terrorists using the new Jericho missile to level mountains in Afghanistan. We don't see this as an attack on our troops, and the missile seems to be far from any actual people. So where's the threat? If we're supposed to hate the terrorists and Stane for providing them with weapons, then we need to really see the impact.

Speed Racer wants us to hate the evil corporations, embodied by the character of E. P. Arnold Royalton. Royalton is the greasily seductive power of wealth and privilege before he is spurned by the Racer family. Then he turns to destroying Speed, both physically and mentally. It is in this attempt at mental degradation that Royalton reveals the threat to greater society that he and other corporations pose. When Royalton explains to Speed that the results of every race is fixed, he briefly mentions that this is why some company has a monopoly on the production of some motor product. I forget the exact details, but this does constitute a legitimate threat to the free market and society as we and the Racer family know it. However, this tidbit, which adds much more malevolence to the character of Royalton and all he represents, is largely forgotten in favor of the popular line we use with Barry Bonds -- he's ruining the purity of the sport! I know this is a kid's movie, but they could have at least put a little more in how Royalton is actually harming the world.

Indiana Jones has a long history of fighting terrible people, and preventing them from becoming unstoppable terrible people. Though we don't learn until the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark what the ark actually does, we know that the Nazis want it and that it's probably some sort of weapon. And that picture at the beginning showed lightning bolts coming out of it. We know from the very beginning of Last Crusade that the Holy Grail gives eternal life. That doesn't sound very threatening, but think of it this way: think of the film Downfall. Now think of what Downfall would look like if Hitler and his top advisers were immortal. What the Hell does the Crystal Skull do? We don't know, but at least it's super-magnetic, which is to say that it attracts multiple metals, including gold, as if they were iron. I'm going to forget for a second just how weird it is to look at the skull and see its magnetic powers seemingly turn on and off throughout the movie. But I don't even really get what happened at the end. The Crystal Skull was just another piece in a puzzle that allowed an alien to come back to life so it could leave Earth? Then why not just let the Commies take it? Add to that Shia LeBeouf in the major action set piece as Errol Flynn and Tarzan King of the Apes and you've removed all the tension from the film. Of course, this film tried to compensate by vastly increasing the deadliness of its creepy-crawlies. Where the first three films had snakes, bugs and rats for simple gross-out phobia-inducing purposes, this one features both a scorpion and massive CGI red ants that will eat a man alive. Come to think of it, the scene with the scorpion is the perfect symbol for this movie. We think that there may actually be a threat to Indy and the Kid, but it turns out to be harmless.

If there's one thing that Kung Fu Panda has going for it, it's the genre of the Kung Fu Movie. Like Iron Man before it, this is a rather unadventurous genre movie, but it goes through the motions with solid execution. The Kung Fu Movie also includes various anime, allowing the opening to be visually splendid in the style of a show like Samurai Jack, which completely disarmed me and put me at ease for the rest of the movie. The only problem with the storyline is that the Kung Fu Movie is always a personal one. There may be some spy elements to Enter the Dragon, but those are minimized in favor of Bruce Lee's personal stake in the tournament. Similarly, there is an attempt to make the threat of Tai Lung more than it really is. When news comes that Tai Lung has escaped from his prison, the village is immediately evacuated. This stands in contrast to the explanation for why Tai Lung would come back so angry in the first place. Tai Lung is looking for personal vengeance on Po and Master Shifu simply because he couldn't fulfill what he believed his destiny would be. He never mentions anything about the village, and there is no reason to believe that he would harm those who are in the village. In this light, such important emphasis on the safety of the village seems silly.

This summer has been a strangely personal one so far in Hollywood. Tony Stark must destroy his mentor, while Po and Indiana Jones must protect theirs. The outside world hardly matters to these heroes, and it is rarely shown to the audience. All of this leads to a feeling of less tension and fear regarding the villains and the possibility of succeeding. These movies don't have a temple collapsing around dozens of people while Indy reaches for the Grail. There is no train running to the center of Gotham that will spread Ra's Al Ghul's fear drug to everyone in the city, nor has Doc Ock sent a train hurdling toward its doom that only the hero can stop (I think the real question is: Where is Iron Man's train system?). We simply have one guy in a mechanical suit fighting another guy in a mechanical suit in a parking lot. A collapsing temple that threatens 5 people, one of whom is too greedy to see that there is a collapsing temple around him. You know there's serious trouble when we need M. Night Shyamalan to come around and threaten the whole world.

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