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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Robert Downey Jr.

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Is Marvel Entertainment evil?

I compiled commentary from twelve experts, and the results are not good for superhero fans.

“I’m not going to head off and do a Marvel film,” director Peter Jackson said on the eve of his Hobbit 3 release. “I don’t really like the Hollywood blockbuster bandwagon that exists right now. The industry and the advent of all the technology, has kind of lost its way. It’s become very franchise driven and superhero driven.”

Since Jackson’s Lord of the Rings marked that technology advent, and since Jackson made all six of the Tolkien franchise films, that leaves superheroes as his only objection. He doesn’t like them. Or at least he doesn’t like Marvel—which, despite Warner Bros’ best efforts, is the same thing.

Even Marvel’s own Iron Man Robert Downey, Jr. is sees the rust: “Honestly, the whole thing is just showing the beginning signs of fraying around the edges. It’s a little bit old. Last summer there were five or seven different ones out.”

Actually, there were only four superhero movies last summer, and though Marvel Entertainment produced only two (Captain America, Guardians of the Galaxy), the Marvel logo appeared at the start of the last X-Men and Spider-Man installments too. But you can’t blame Downey’s miscount. New York Times film critic A. O. Scott expressed a similar opinion after seeing Downey in The Avengers two year earlier: “the genre, though it is still in a period of commercial ascendancy, has also entered a phase of imaginative decadence.”

Alan Moore’s review was even more apocalyptic: “I think it’s a rather alarming sign if we’ve got audiences of adults going to see the Avengers movie and delighting in concepts and characters meant to entertain the 12-year-old boys of the 1950s.” Even The Avengers own director Joss Whedon acknowledges that audiences are tired of at least some aspects of the formula: “People have made it very clear that they are fed up with movies where entire cities are destroyed, and then we celebrate.”

And yet when a director attempts to shake-up the formula, Marvel fires them. Marvel’s Ant-Man went into production only because of Edgar Wright’s involvement, but when Marvel wasn’t happy with his last script, they rewrote it without his input, followed by a joint announcement that Wright was leaving “due to differences in their visions of the film.” Wright joined axed Marvel directors Kenneth Branaugh, Joe Johnston, and Patty Jenkins (as well as axed actors Edward Norton and Terrance Howard), all victims of similar differences in vision.

Is this the same risk-taking Marvel that hired Ang Lee to make his idiosyncratic Hulk? Is this the same Marvel that hired drug-addict Robert Downey, Jr. after Downey couldn’t stay clean long enough to complete a season of Alley McBeal? Is this the same Marvel that hired the iconoclastic Joss Whedon after his Buffy empire expired, his Firefly franchise flopped, and his Wonder Woman script never even made it into Development Hell?

Actually, it’s not.

Kim Masters and Borys Kit of The Hollywood Reporter explain:  “Marvel and Wright were different entities when they began their relationship. Marvel was an upstart, independent and feisty as it began building the Marvel Studios brand.”

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The Marvel I grew up reading, Marvel Comics Group, hasn’t been around since 1986, when its parent company, Marvel Entertainment Group, was sold to New World Entertainment. Technically, Marvel Comics (AKA Atlas Comics, AKA Timely Comics) ceased to exist in 1968 when owner Martin Goodman sold his company to Perfect Film and Chemical Corporation. The corporate juggling is hard to follow, but that next Marvel was sold to MacAndrews Group in 1989, and then, as part of a bankruptcy deal, to Toy Biz in 1997, where it became Marvel Enterprises, before changing its name to Marvel Entertainment in 2005 when it created Marvel Studios, before sold to Disney in 2009.

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The real question is: at what point did Hydra infiltrate it?

I would like to report that the nefarious forces of evil have seized only Marvel’s movie-making branches, leaving its financially infinitesimal world of comic books to wallow in benign neglect. But that’s not the case.

Marvel comics writer Chris Claremont, renown for his 16-year run on The Uncanny X-Men, is currently hampered in his Nightcrawler scripting because he and everyone else writing X-Men titles are forbidden to create new characters.  “Well,” he asked, “who owns them?” Fox does. Which means any new character Claremont creates becomes the film property of a Marvel Entertainment rival. “There will be no X-Men merchandising for the foreseeable future because, why promote Fox material?”

That’s also why Marvel cancelled The Fantastic Four. Those film rights are owned by Fox too, with a reboot out next August. Why should the parent company allow one of its micro-branches to promote another studio’s movie? Well, for one, The Fantastic Four was the title that launched the Marvel superhero pantheon and its subsequent comics empire in 1961.  Surely even a profits-blinded mega-corporation can recognize the historical significance?

Like I said: Hydra.

This is what drove former Marvel creator Paul Jenkins to the independent Boom! Studios: “It bugs me that the creators were a primary focus when the mainstream publishers needed them, and now that the corporations are driving the boat, creative decisions are being made once again by shareholders.” Former Marvel editor-in-chief Roy Thomas agrees: “There is a sense of loss because the tail is now wagging the dog.”

Compare that to Fantagraphics editor Garry Groth: “I think it’s a publisher’s obligation to take risks; I could probably publish safe, respectable ‘literary’ comics or solid, ‘good,’ uncontroversial comics for the rest of my life. I think it’s important, personally and professionally, to occasionally get outside your comfort zone.”

Marvel Entertainment is all about comfort zones. Even for its actors. “It’s all set up now so that you’re weirdly kind of safe,” says former Batman star Michael Keaton. “Once you get in those suits, they really know what to do with you. It was hard then; it ain’t that hard now.” New York Times’ Alex Pappademas is “old enough to remember when Warner Brothers entrusted the 1989 Batman and its sequel to Tim Burton, and how bizarre that decision seemed at the time, and how Burton ended up making one deeply and fascinatingly Tim Burton-ish movie that happened to be about Batman (played by the equally unlikely Michael Keaton, still the only screen Bruce Wayne who seemed like a guy with a dark secret).”

That’s the same Michael Keaton that just rode Birdman to the Oscars. How soon till Marvel’s Agents of H.Y.D.R.A. overwhelm that corner of Hollywood?

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As Jack Black sang at the Oscars ceremony: “Opening with lots of zeroes, all we get are superheroes: Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, Jediman, Sequelman, Prequelman – formulaic scripts!”

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Benedict Cumberbatch can’t throw a punch. At least not when he’s playing Sherlock Holmes. Khan in Star Trek into Darkness throws plenty of punches, but he’s a eugenically bred superman. Dr. Watson reports in A Study in Scarlet, Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel, that the “excessively lean” detective is “an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman,” but we have to take his word on it.

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I wouldn’t know what a “singlestick” is if not for Jonny Lee Miller’s portrayal of Holmes in the aggressively updated CBS series Elementary.  A singlestick, it turns out, is a stick you smack your opponent on the top of the head with. That’s what the BBC wanted to do to CBS when they heard the Americanized Holmes was premiering in 2012, because CBS had been in talks about producing a version of the BBC’s already aggressively updated Sherlock. But then the BBC would have to accept a head smack from Warner Bros. since Sherlock premiered a year after the 2009 Sherlock Holmes hit theaters.

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Sherlock is the bastard brainchild of two Dr. Who writers; Elementary midwife Robert Doherty cut his teeth on Star Trek: Voyager; and the Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes started life as a comic book that producer Lionel Wigman penned instead of the usual spec script. When director Guy Ritchie got his hands on it, he was thinking Batman Begins. The Marvel formula was succeeding at box offices by then too, so Holmes’ superpowered intellect would have to be “as much of a curse as it was a blessing.”

A young Holmes should have nixed the forty-something Mr. Downey, but who can say no to Iron Man? Especially when Ritchie planned to restore all of Doyle’s “intense action sequences” other adaptations left out. You know, like when Holmes sneaks aboard the bad guys’ boat in “The Solution of a Remarkable Case”:

“With a lightning‑like movement he seized the hand which held the knife. Then, exerting all of his great strength, he bent the captain’s wrist quickly backward. There was a snap like the breaking of a pipe‑stem, and a yell of pain from the captain. Nick’s left arm shot out and his fist landed with terrific force squarely on the fellow’s nose.”

Oh no, wait. That’s not Sherlock. That’s Nick Carter. I’ve been getting them confused lately, and I’m not the only one. Carter premiered as a 13-episode serial in New York Weekly in 1886, the year before A Study in Scarlet premiered in England’s Beeton’s Christmas Annual. Carter was created by John R. Coryell and Ormond G. Smith, but Street & Smith (future publisher of the Shadow and Doc Savage) hired Frederick Van Rensselaer Dey to write over a thousand anonymous dime novels between 1891 and 1915 when Nick Carter Weekly changed to Detective Story Magazine.

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Doyle wrote a mere four novels and 56 short stories, with the rare “action sequence” lasting about a sentence: “He flew at me with a knife, and I had to grasp him twice, and got a cut over the knuckles, before I had the upper hand of him.”New York Times film reviewer A. O. Scott labels Holmes a “proto-superhero,” one who’s “never been much for physical violence,” crediting the Downey incarnation for the innovation of making the detective “a brawling, head-butting, fist-in-the-gut, knee-in-the-groin action hero” (what one commenter called “The precise opposite of Sherlock Holmes”). The film opens with Downey in a bare-knuckled boxing match, displaying the skills Doyle only hints at. Apparently Holmes once went three rounds with a prize-fighter who tells him, “Ah, you’re one that has wasted your gifts, you have! You might have aimed high, if you had joined the fancy.”

Nick Carter, on the other hand, has the fancy: “He bounded forward and seized in an iron grasp the man whom he had just struck. Then, raising him from the floor as though he were a babe, the detective hurled him bodily, straight at the now advancing men.” Yes, in addition to all of Holmes’ sleuthing powers, Carter has superhuman strength. And a bit of a temper—the secret ingredient American producers feel is missing from all those stodgy British incarnations.

Jonny Lee Miller’s Holmes doesn’t hurl men like babes, but he has broken a finger or two sucker punching serial killers. The leap over the Atlantic has made the Elementary detective’s passions more violent than his London predecessors. He also has a tendency to wander onto screen shirtless, displaying tattoos and a well-curated physique. His drug problems seems to be a carry-over from his Trainspotting days, which means the English accent is as authentic as Cumberbatch’s. In fact, Miller and his BBC counterpart co-starred in a London production of Frankenstein in 2011. You’ll never guess who played the doctor and who the monster. Literally, you’ll never guess—because Miller and Cumberbatch swapped parts nightly. Mr. Downey was busy completing the sequel Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, and so was not available for matinees.

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Plans for a Sherlock Holmes 3 have been in talks too, but Downey was busy with Avengers, Iron Man 3 and now Avengers 2. Why settle for a proto-superhero when you can play a real one? At least the long-delayed season 3 of Sherlock finally arrived. It was perfectly fun watching a barefoot and CGI-shrunken Martin Freeman chat with Cumberbatch’s growly dragon in Hobbit 2, but nothing beats the Holmes-Watson bromance—a delight the otherwise delightful Jude Law and Lucy Liu can’t quite deliver with their Frankenstein partners. Sherlock is also the last show my family still watches as a family, so I don’t mind the BBC cauterizing the Nick Carterization of the character.

Of course Nick has evolved since the 19th century too: a 30s pulp run, a 40s radio show, a 60s book series. I have the anonymously written Nick Carter: The Redolmo Affair on my shelf. It’s a musty James Bond knock-off I found in a vacation house and kept in exchange for whatever I was reading at the time. I can’t bring myself to flip more than a few pages:  “I streamrollered my shoulder into his gut and sent us both crashing to the deck. I got my hands on his throat and started squeezing. His fist was smashing down on my head, hammering into my skull.”

In Nick’s defense, Doyle considered Sherlock Holmes schlock too. He hurled him over a cliff so he could stop writing his character—but the detective keeps bouncing back. Elementary is certain to be renewed for a third season, and the Sherlock season 3 finale is a cliffhanger with the next two seasons already plotted. The biggest mystery is how they’ll keep Cumberbatch out of a boxing ring.

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Who stuck an adaptation of the 1999 cartoon The Iron Giant into the middle of Iron Man 3? Not that I’m complaining. Even The New Yorker loved it (as opposed to the formulaic explosions that bookend the movie). Robert Downey Jr.’s abrasive bromance with 11-year-old Ty Simpkins is the film’s brightest and most unexpected subplot. Though it also adds to the film’s overall incoherence. Which, again, might be a good thing. Not since Tim Burton was defining the superhero blockbuster in a single bound have we gotten such a (to use Tony’s term) “hot mess” of a movie.

Even before the young Mr. Simpkins’ entrance, Iron Man 3 was straining its thematic rivets. Aside from the obligatory bad guy machinations, the story scaffold looks like your standard marriage plot variety. Yes, Tony and Pepper are already together at the start, not married exactly, but at least, you know, whatever. Tony quickly overturns the domestic bliss by sending one of his remote control drones to romance his girl while he finishes some work in the lab (anyone notice that Shane Black and Drew Pearce lifted the scene from Watchmen?). Tony is literally phoning it in, and Pepper’s stuck with his empty shell.

Soon the robot drone is jumping into bed with them (yep, Watchmen again) and Pepper is packing. Next thing she’s climbing inside some other super-genius’s brain, and Tony’s pal warns he’s going to lose her if he doesn’t change. Which he does. When things start exploding, he remote controls that robot suit to encase her instead of himself. It’s actually a bit poignant—especially when Iron Pepper returns the favor by shielding him a moment later.

The weird thing though? We’re only about thirty minutes in. Sure, there’s a reprise when Pepper saves him a second time at the climax, followed by the formal exploding of the Iron drones in evidence of Tony’s now focused devotion to Pepper. He even chucks his cyborg heart over a cliff in the epilogue.

But romance is not the machine driving this movie. In addition to becoming a less dickish boyfriend, Tony has to get over the PTSD brought on by his near-death in The Avengers. This is fairly new terrain for a superhero plot and is one of several ways the specter of Afghanistan haunts the movie. The platoon of regenerative thugs are all maimed soldiers who literally grow back lost limbs. Osama Bin Laden is played by the Mandarin—who is played by a Baptist minister—who is played by a washed-up British actor—who’s played by Ben Kingsley—who most of us remember best as Gandhi. Terrorism, it turns out, is not the problem. It’s the War on Terrorism. Which might explain why the President looks like George Bush and not Barack Obama—especially when he’s being rescued by Don Cheadle. So when Tony blows up his armada of Iron Drones, he’s also saying goodbye to a military policy a lot of Americans would like to see go too.

Except when exactly is it that Tony gets over all that pesky post-traumatic stuff? He’s been tinkering in his basement for months, so why does one Home Depot shopping spree turn him into a McGuiver-esque 007? And what does it mean that he promises Pepper he’ll catch her and then can only watch with us as she plummets to her (apparent) death? And if both the romance plot and the foreign policy allegory agree on vanquishing all that deadly hardware, why does the newly superpowered Pepper need an extra boost of tech to put the bad guy down a final time?

Maybe this is where Ty Simpkins and The Iron Giant come in.

If you’ve not seen the Brad Bird movie, I highly recommend it. My daughter adored it when she was four. A mail-functioning robot crashlands in smallville where a father-less boy hides it in his shed while he and a wacky father-figure partner work to repair it. Sound familiar? It gets better. Like the Iron Man suit, the Iron Giant divides into semi-autonomous pieces, and the story climaxes with the self-sacrificing hero sailing into the sky to prevent a U.S. nuclear warhead from destroying the town. Which, incidentally, is also the climax of The Avengers. The Iron Giant even pays homage to the ur-superhero, Superman, who the Giant emulates to escape his programming as a soulless military machine.

But if being a less dickish boyfriend means finding your inner father figure for a half-orphan, the film mocks the tropes more than it fulfills them. This isn’t Spielberg. It’s a Spielberg parody—a particularly hilarious one. Downey and Simpkins are a comic tag-team that skewer the feel-good formula they’re only half pretending to inhabit. It’s as if we’ve crashlanded in a different movie.

But soon Tony is driving back down the main plotline, his remote control suit soon to follow. And what is it exactly that he learned during the detour? Mock sincerity. Deadpan delivery. Comic timing. All the things we loved about Tony but that no longer worked with Pepper in the room. He had to drop his defenses or lose her. All his jokes were misfires on the home front. So the kid gave him a new comic target. Simpkins replaces Paltrow as sparring partner and straight man. Iron Man is above all else a comedian. Refueled with a live audience laugh track, he’s ready to smash the bad guys again.

This all makes sense for one reason only. Iron Man isn’t Tony Stark. He’s Robert Downey Jr. Yes, Black and Pearce wrote the script, and Paramount dropped some $200 million into the budget, but the film’s structural logic isn’t animated by CGI effects. The movie only works because it’s so damn funny.

Even the post-credit Avengers 2 teaser is pure sketch comedy—Tony and Doc Banner trading barbs in a two-minute therapist routine. The material is pretty hackneyed, but these guys make you want to laugh anyway. Political commentary, character arcs, plot structure—it all melts away when you’re laughing.

Comedy is Iron Man’s real superpower.

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