There was once a video game known as Captain America and the Avengers for the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo Game Systems. Playing the game as a child, I always chose the stalwart Avenger Iron Man and despite my professed dorkiness, this was the extent of my experience with the character of Tony Stark/Iron Man before I saw Jon Favreau’s Iron Man. So, unlike most of my analyses of superhero media, my perspective on Iron Man> was rather neutral: I was, for once, a normal moviegoer, an unbiased observer. And I have to say, I didn’t like it that much.
Iron Man is not a bad movie, and don’t for a second think that I am insulting Robert Downey Jr., who seems to be everyone’s new favorite actor (hell, after saving Kiss Kiss Bang Bang with his performance, he’s one of mine). The film is just cookie-cutter superhero stuff with an extra dose of sexism. Favreau’s Tony Stark is just Roger-Moore-as-James-Bond in a metal suit, treating women horribly and wise-cracking when he’s not getting himself into laughable action scenarios with ridiculous gadgets. Downey plays it well, but there’s nothing particularly interesting here: Iron Man escapes from Central Asia terrorist camp, it’s obvious that Obadiah (Jeff Bridges) is going to become a villain, Iron Man comes back to destroy Central Asian terrorist cell, Obadiah becomes a villain, end of movie.
It flirts with the idea of America’s mistakes coming to bite us in the ass — the terrorists’ weapons are Stark’s company’s weapons — but as some would later (and only somewhat justly) point out about The Dark Knight, just mentioning an idea is not the same thing as exploring it. With a predictable plot, an empty subtext and a weak script, it’s only Iron Man’s talented cast and special effects crew that inject any life into it. Despite the debacle that was Spider-Man 3, I would argue that Marvel properties were mostly better when they were in the hands of Hollywood studios. Seeing what the newly-minted Marvel Entertainment movie production unit had to offer this summer, the other film being the disastrous Incredible Hulk, I doubt that the pop brilliance of X2 or Spider-Man 2 will ever be recaptured as long as they’re making their own films. Which is not to say that I won’t see the rest of them, or that I’m not considering purchasing the Iron Man DVD released today.
A film whose quality did surprise me, however, was Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Also out on DVD today, I didn’t initially trust the idea of another Judd Apatow side project after being seriously burned by Drillbit Taylor, which would make my short list of the worst movies of 2008. Sarah Marshall turned out to be nearly as funny as more high-profile Apatow flicks, with much of the same cast and crude comedy but with a fresh star and screenwriter in Jason Segel, who, like other Apatow proteges Seth Rogan and Jay Baruchel, starred on the underrated Fox sitcom Undeclared. Segel’s comedy is noticeably less sexist than the usual male-oriented, R-rated romantic comedy fare, though no less crude or sexually explicit. It also has a bit about a Dracula-in-love puppet musical which is nothing short of classic, not to mention a Paul Rudd cameo role which highlights why he, like Vince Vaughn, was merely wasting his time with drama during the 90s.
The gag reel included on the DVD reinforces my position that for the most part, gag reels should be banned from most DVD releases. There is also an “outrageous” and unrated extended cut of the film, which unfortunately does not work on every DVD player, including mine. Most so-called “unrated” editions are cheap marketing ploys, though: by adding an extra thirty seconds and not submitting the new cut to the MPAA for a new rating, the studios can heavily suggest that you get to see naked breasts (or extra blood in horror movies) and thereby sell more copies. The best special feature may be the “We Gotta Do Something” music video, by fictional European rock star Aldous Snow and his band Infinite Sorrow. Lampooning the semi-coherent, pseudo-profound social content of bands like Coldplay and U2, the character of Aldous Snow is one of the best things about Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and the incredible similarity of “We Gotta Do Something” to real English rock-pop makes it that much more hilarious.
The highlight of this week’s DVD releases is the Oscar-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, the film Michael Moore wishes he could make. The film is obviously opposed to the Bush administration, but to suggest that the film has a liberal bias would be to argue that concerns for the moral state of the nation and humane treatment of innocent human beings are exclusively liberal stances. The documentary, focusing on the use of torture in U.S. interrogations since 9/11, declines to blame the troops (even the convicted ones), with which any conservative should be happy, focusing the blame on the superiors who put the MPs and Army grunts guarding Abu Ghraib and Bagrem in a position in which they would be ordered or pressured to torture inmates. While Pfcs and low-ranking MPs take the blame for the horrors of Abu Ghraib (be prepared for more explicit photos and videos than the media would show), the Bush Administration writes self-pardons into funding bills and refuses to prosecute any officers, in direct contradiction to the principles set by the Năremburg trials.
As its prime example of the atrocities of Bush war policy, the film uses the story of Dilawar, an innocent Afghan taxi driver who was tortured to death at Bagrem. Often stepping back to show how Dilawar’s story is not the exception to but the rule of the prison system set in place by Bush and his cronies, Dark Side always returns to Dilawar, its moral anchor. If his story doesn’t elicit tears, the story of a country which has lost its ethical bearings, whose very founding concepts have been perverted and obscured by its corrupt leaders, will. And so will the danger they have created for its citizens in doing so. How can the families, communities and countries of the 80,000 people we have blindly arrested around the world not react in some way to our treatment of them, and how many of them will react violently?