#353. Iron Men

Any metallurgist will tell you that steel is stronger than iron. And yet, the concept of iron being a strong material still remains in our popular culture. Perhaps it’s the weight of iron, and its use for strength training. Perhaps it’s due to the “purity” of iron, itself being one of the elements on the periodic table. In any case, it seems many movies use iron as an advantage. From the campy Ironmaster (1983) to the martial-arts mashup of The Man with the Iron Fists (2012), the characters who can manipulate iron are usually shown as having an advantage. Not only can the benefit be through defense, with iron armors and shields, but through offense as well, with swords and spears. Either way, iron is often associated with war, which itself has intrinsically been a man’s game. This week’s two films highlight some men who use iron to their advantage.

Iron ManIron Man
Year: 2008
Rating: PG-13
Length: 126 minutes / 2.10 hours

While not technically made of iron, but instead of a gold-titanium alloy, the suit worn by the eponymous Iron Man certainly gives Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) an advantage. From the obvious defensive capabilities of the suit to the advanced weaponry installed and integrated with it, whenever Stark dons this armor, he is able to take on super-powered individuals of many varieties. Ironically enough, even though iron is considered “heavy,” the Iron Man suit allows its wearer to fly, mainly due to the immense power contained within the suit. Of course, the very first version of the Iron Man suit was likely made of iron (or steel, if it was available), but that was due to the limitations of the materials Tony Stark had at the time. A fusion of medieval armor and modern technology, the Iron Man suit is what makes Tony Stark Iron Man.

After being captured by terrorists in the mountains of Afghanistan, Tony Stark is forced to build weapons for them as their hostage. Not wanting his company’s technology to get into the hands of terrorists, Stark instead creates a suit of armor that he can use to escape. Unfortunately, his mobility is limited due to a piece of shrapnel trapped in his chest. The only thing keeping him alive is a magnet in his chest, holding the metal in place. After escaping the terrorists, Stark arrives back in the United States and starts improving on his design. In the press, rumors of an “Iron Man” start circulating as Tony tests out his equipment in public. Once a working design is finished, he sets out to punish the arms traffickers who have misused his company’s weapons. In doing so, he gains the attention of the Air Force, as well as his mentor, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), who has built an “Iron Man” suit of his own to stop Tony.

The Iron GiantThe Iron Giant
Year: 1999
Rating: PG
Length: 86 minutes / 1.43 hours

Iron is not only the most abundant metal found on this planet, but the fourth most plentiful element found here. Not only is iron the main ingredient of the molten core of Earth, but its crust as well. Of course, Earth is not necessarily unique in this attribute, as iron is plentiful on many other planets and stars. What do you think gives Mars its red hue? Oxidized iron, of course. It is then no wonder that an alien robot from outer space would also be made of iron. Much like Iron Man, this Iron Giant has the defensive capabilities provided it by this heavy metal, but also the offensive weaponry provided by alien technology. Of course, even iron has its limits. Given a situation with forces stressing enough, the metal will bend, melt, or break. Iron is certainly a strong element, but it is not indestructible.

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first man-made satellite: Sputnik. Shortly afterward, a mysterious object falls from the sky and lands near Rockwell, Maine. Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) observes this re-entry and heads into the woods to investigate. When he finds a giant, metal robot (Vin Diesel), he learns that it is not there to hurt anyone. In fact, the robot has no knowledge of Earth or its customs, so the 9-year-old boy takes it upon himself to teach the enormous automaton. Unfortunately, the U.S. military also knows something landed in Maine and sets out to find it. While the military assumes the robot is dangerous, Hogarth shows them that, if they do not threaten him, he will not threaten them. With cold war tensions high, fear causes one of the leaders to launch a nuclear strike against the robot, potentially killing everyone who would be nearby.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 metallic men

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#352. Wealthy Superheroes

In the realm of superheroes, there is a certain amount of suspension of disbelief when it comes to how a hero obtained their powers. From alien lifeforms who found themselves on Earth (a la Superman) to regular people who encounter deadly energies that mutate them into super-human beings, most superheroes have unbelievable origin stories. Then there are the “wealthy” superheroes. They don’t really have any superpowers other than their intellect and a massive fortune bequeathed to them via their deceased parents who succeeded in capitalism and industry. While heroes like Spider-man are a little more relatable to the common man due to their financial plight being in the lower middle-class, these wealthy superheroes fight crime through an endless barrage of gadgets that could only be afforded by an endless stream of money. This week’s two films highlight some notable, wealthy superheroes.

BatmanBatman
Year: 1989
Rating: PG-13
Length: 126 minutes / 2.10 hours

Surprisingly enough, DC Comics has not one, but two wealthy superheroes in its lineup. Until recently, most people weren’t aware of Green Arrow, but the TV show Arrow has helped to bring this hero into the mainstream. Of course, this superhero pales in the name recognition that comes with Batman. Not only did Bruce Wayne grow up in the lap of luxury provided by his father, Dr. Thomas Wayne, but since both his parents were killed when he was young, he became the sole heir to the Wayne fortune. Because of the way his parents were murdered, his vengeance-filled vigilante attitude toward crime spurned him into crime fighting. While Bruce Wayne trained his body to be the superhero he is today, the money he has spent on gadgets, vehicles, and hideouts far surpasses the amount available to someone just working at a newspaper.

As Gotham City prepares for its bicentennial, many events are taking place to ensure it goes off without a hitch. The mayor has put district attorney Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams) and Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle) on notice that they need to clean up crime in the city before the big day. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) is using his influence as a billionaire businessman to host a fundraiser gala at Wayne Manor. When he notices Commissioner Gordon excusing himself from the party, he goes out to investigate as Batman. Through Batman’s meddling, mobster Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) accidentally falls into a vat of chemicals and emerges as “The Joker,” bringing terror to the city in the form of the “Smilex” chemical. As people start dying with smiles on their faces, it’s up to Batman to stop The Joker before he can unleash the chemical on the bicentennial parade.

Iron ManIron Man
Year: 2008
Rating: PG-13
Length: 126 minutes / 2.10 hours

In the superhero battleground that is DC vs. Marvel, if DC Comics has a wealthy superhero in the form of Batman, Marvel must have a corollary superhero to balance the playing field. While Tony Stark doesn’t have the tragic backstory that Bruce Wayne does, he is still the heir to a vast fortune accrued by his industrialist father. There are other differences as well, including Tony Stark’s focus on engineering to create his gadgets himself, as well as the technological advances that come via this emphasis that allow Stark to gain superpowers through his “Iron Man” armor. And while Bruce Wayne is hesitant to reveal his secret identity, Tony Stark is so much of a narcissist that he welcomes the attention he gains by being connected to the superhero known as Iron Man. In any case, Stark’s “superpower” would not be possible if he didn’t have the money to make it happen.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is so confident in the weapons technology of Stark Industries that he makes a visit to Afghanistan to show off their latest creation: the “Jericho” missile. Unfortunately, through some underhanded dealings, he soon finds his own weapons used against him as he’s captured by terrorists and held hostage. In the scuffle, a piece of shrapnel is caught in his heart and the only thing keeping it from killing him is a magnet in his chest. While his wealth and influence mean nothing in the cave where he’s trapped, he still has his intellect and uses it to fashion a suit of armor that allows him to escape. Once back in civilization, Tony investigates how these terrorists managed to get weapons from his company while also developing an improved version of his “Iron Man” suit to take down terrorists. Upon finding the mole, Tony must fight to maintain the integrity of his company’s name.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 very rich vigilantes

#250. Man and Machine

For years, technology has been continually proven superior to humans in many realms. In manufacturing, robots produce faster, more accurate, and stronger welds than any human can. In exploration, robots can discover new worlds unfit for humans to visit. In war, robots can keep our soldiers safe and succinctly take out enemy targets. However, despite all of these advantages, machines will always lack certain elements that are inherently human. Being able to think independently, expressing and understanding emotions, and even just walking steadily on two legs are all tasks that humans can do and machines cannot. Of course, as time goes by, this gap in capability rapidly shrinks. This week’s two movies examine the combination of man and machine and the consequences that this fusion means for all of us.

RobocopRobocop
Year: 2014
Rating: PG-13
Length: 117 minutes / 1.95 hours

Cyborgs have been a staple of science fiction for some time. What better way to enhance ourselves than by replacing these human weaknesses with mechanical strengths. Long before Iron Man (2008), two of the most famous cyborgs in cinema attained their fame during the 1980’s. The Terminator came back from the future to terrorize the past, whereas RoboCop used his cybernetic abilities to enforce law and order. Each of these film franchises have become eerily poignant as the current technological abilities of humanity continue to advance. Perhaps this was why the recent reboot of the RoboCop franchise wasn’t as much a series of gratuitously violent events as it was a foreboding sense of things soon to come. When science fiction becomes science fact, humanity needs to determine the morality of these technological advances before they become a reality.

In the year 2028, American soldiers are much safer overseas due to the implementation of robotic soldiers. Because these robot soldiers are sold by OmniCorp, CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) attempts to sell these same soldiers to the underfunded police departments in America. Unfortunately, Congress denies any such militarized robots from being used on American soil due to the Dreyfus Act. Reworking their strategy, OmniCorp finds a successful “RoboCop” candidate in Detroit detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman). This cyborg policeman isn’t as skilled as the original robot soldiers, so his humanity is decreased to the point where the automatic software makes decisions for him. Because his wife and son are still alive after his “death”, Murphy is able to use his emotions to break through and override some of this software and regain his empathy.

Bicentennial ManBicentennial Man
Year: 1999
Rating: PG
Length: 132 minutes / 2.2 hours

One of the current difficulties with any piece of technology is the idea of “planned obsolescence”. Advances are being released at such an incredible rate that obsolescence can sometimes come in mere months instead of years. Of course, part of this tactic is also enforced by lackluster materials. When things break, we often need to buy new ones because the part is difficult and expensive to fix. If we did not have planned obsolescence, we just might be able to create things that last more than a few decades. In the case of the melding of men and machines, this is a necessity. While our physical bodies will deteriorate with time, we don’t want the mechanical elements of our bodies to break before the bodies housing them do. An added benefit is that the mechanical parts will help lengthen the biological life. But what if a robot wanted to become biological (somewhat akin to Chappie (2015))?

In 2005, a homemaker robot named “Andrew” (Robin Williams) is bought by Sir Richard Martin (Sam Neill) to do work around his home. His family reactions are mixed, but when Andrew breaks a figurine belonging to the youngest daughter, he manages to carve a replacement out of wood. This creativity amazes Martin, but worries the manufacturer, NDR, who wants to destroy Andrew. Martin decides to ignore NDR and keeps Andrew, giving him upgrades over the years to better show the emotions that the robot can understand and express. Years pass and both Martin and the youngest daughter die, but Andrew falls in love with the youngest daughter’s granddaughter: Portia (Embeth Davidtz). Because he doesn’t want to watch another loved one die, Andrew undergoes many “upgrades” to make him fully human. On his deathbed, the World Congress recognizes his humanity and marriage.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 men melded with machines

#217. Jeff Bridges

While some actors may be prolific, almost appearing to be “in everything” (much like Kevin Bacon), others are equally prolific, but lack the amount of recognition that would normally go to someone who has acted in so much. Part of the reason for this dichotomy may come from the types of films being made. The middle-ground of films are the ones easily forgotten. You would think that a film that is really bad would be forgotten, but instead it feeds on the negativity and becomes infamous, much in the same way that a good film would build its reputation with positive feedback. For those actors who have acted in a plethora of middle-ground films, their performances in outstanding works seem to stand out that much more, even if they aren’t “in everything”. Jeff Bridges is just such an actor and this week’s two movies highlight some of his more iconic roles.

Tron: LegacyTron: Legacy
Year: 2010
Rating: PG
Length: 125 minutes / 2.08 hours

A few of Jeff Bridges’ early roles were pretty forgettable, but there remain a few that stood out and propelled him on his career. In The Last Picture Show (1971), we see him in a “coming of age” role that really set his career. This was the first of his three Best Supporting Actor nominations, the other two being for Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) and The Contender (2000). However, the one role from his early career that cemented him in popular culture was that of Kevin Flynn in Tron (1982). It’s no wonder that the sequel to this film, made almost thirty years later, would want to use Jeff Bridges again, not only in his aged form, but as he originally appeared in the 1980’s. Sure, he’s appeared in other “geeky” fare like Iron Man (2008) and R.I.P.D. (2013), but nothing compared to that original film that gave plenty of nerds the dream of virtual reality.

After defeating the Master Control Program (MCP) in 1982, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) found himself trapped in the virtual world of “The Grid”. While he grew older in his creation, his son grew up without a father. Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) eventually and accidentally found his way into The Grid where his father was waiting for him. He then learned that the reason why his father had not come home was that Kevin’s digital twin, Clu, had shut down the I/O port that allowed travel back to the real world. However, when Sam arrived in the world, the portal was reopened. With the unique program of Quorra (Olivia Wilde) in tow, both Flynns head toward the temporarily opened I/O port in a race to return home. That being said, Clu has found this chance to escape a prime opportunity and has put all his forces into obtaining one of the discs that can let him get out.

True GritTrue Grit
Year: 2010
Rating: PG-13
Length: 110 minutes / 1.83 hours

When people refer to a Jeff Bridges character, they more often than not refer to Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski from the Coen Brothers’ 1998 bowling-themed film, The Big Lebowski. This is probably due to the film’s cult status and the fact that Bridges was its titular, lead character. Even if this was his most iconic role, he was nominated for Best Actor three times, none of which was for The Big Lebowski. Shortly after Tron, he was nominated for Best Actor in Starman (1984), but it wasn’t until his career hit a late high in the 2000’s when he actually won the coveted statue. For his performance in Crazy Heart (2009), he won his first and only Oscar. A year later, he was nominated again for a different Coen Brothers film: True Grit (2010). And while he didn’t win in 2010, his character acting truly began to take off from this point onward.

Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) is a Deputy U.S. Marshal with one eye and a nasty disposition. When he’s approached by Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) to avenge her father, he scoffs and tells the young girl that she can’t afford him. After she acquires the money, he hesitantly obliges and the chase after Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) begins. Along the way, they meet a Texas Ranger by the name of LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who is also on the trail to capture Chaney for the crime of killing a Texas senator. Soon, Mattie has to catch up to the two men who ditched her and headed into the Choctaw territory where Chaney is rumored to be hiding. After she catches up to them, the two men find the hideout of Chaney’s gang and kill most of its members. However, Mattie soon has her chance to avenge her father directly, but finds herself in a dangerous situation from which only Cogburn can save her.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 brilliant Jeff Bridges performances

Bacon #: 1 (R.I.P.D. / Kevin Bacon)

#048. Robert Downey Jr.

Robert Downey Jr. is one of those actors who has been on the screen for almost his entire life. And while much of his early work isn’t really remembered (he did manage to get an Oscar Nomination for playing Charlie Chaplin), his meteoric rise in recent years has come with the apt casting of two iconic roles. What is probably more impressive is that after battling drug addiction around the turn of the century, Robert Downey Jr. has cleaned up his act and has managed to get back on his feet as an actor. Even though the characters he tends to play really end up eating the scenery, like in A Scanner Darkly or Tropic Thunder (another Oscar nominated role), when the characters are supposed to be smug and elitist, magic happens. This week’s two films highlight two of Robert Downey Jr.’s most recent powerhouse performances.

The Avengers
Year: 2012
Rating: PG-13
Length: 143 minutes / 2.38 hours

When the time came for Marvel to make a live action version of their comic book superhero, Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. was chosen by Director, Jon Favreau because there were a few parallels between the actor and character’s lives that Favreau wanted to tap into. What resulted was pure genius. Starring in another sequel two years later, Iron Man soon became the most popular Marvel superhero since Spider-Man. Two years after Iron Man 2, Downey Jr. reprised his role as Tony Stark / Iron Man in the superhero collaboration, The Avengers. As shown clearly on the theatrical poster, Iron Man is front and center due to the popularity of the franchise that he helped create.

After being told that he wouldn’t fit in well with a group of other superheroes, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is nevertheless drafted to become part of the Avengers initiative when the Norse trickster god, Loki (Tom Middleton) arrives on earth, ready to cause trouble. With the help of Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and other operatives of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson)), the threat of annihilation is eventually met head on. The unique traits of these superheroes cause much discord between them at the beginning, but soon they learn that they must put aside their differences in order to save the world. And if they can’t save it, you’d better believe they’d avenge it!

Sherlock Holmes
Year: 2009
Rating: PG-13
Length: 128 minutes / 2.13 hours

After the amazing success of Robert Downey Jr.’s role as Iron Man during the previous year, he was once again tapped to play another iconic character. This time, the smug superiority was successfully applied to Sherlock Holmes, the quintessential detective from the literary works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Just like the Iron Man franchise, Sherlock Holmes is in its own franchise as well. As a result, Robert Downey Jr. is now playing the lead in two successful franchises. While I’m sure that this means he can’t act in many other roles, due to the multitude of sequels these franchises demand, I’m also sure that he enjoys playing these roles, as his portrayals tend to be light and fun.

At the start of this film, Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Dr. Watson (Jude Law) have just finished up another case, resulting in the imprisonment, conviction, and hanging of Lord Blackwell (Mark Strong). And yet, the real mystery has just begun. When it appears as though Blackwell has risen from the dead, Holmes delves deeper into what was actually being planned. As more people are killed in mysterious ways, soon it becomes evident that the handful of incidents were merely triggers for a larger plot to adjust the political landscape of England. Can Holmes solve the mystery in time to save the day, or will he be a few steps behind in a battle of wits?

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 great Robert Downey Jr. roles

Bacon #: 2 (The Avengers / Clark Gregg -> The Air I Breathe / Kevin Bacon)

#047. DC vs. Marvel

Similar to the rivalry I wrote about earlier between Dreamworks and Disney, the two comic book powerhouses, DC and Marvel are also competing for your box office money. Around the turn of the 21st century, the comic book movie really started to take off. Granted, there had been films in the 70’s and 80’s about comic book heroes (most notably, Superman (1978) and Batman (1989)), but the entire genre of the comic book action film really didn’t hit its stride until the new millennium. Films like Spider-Man (2002) and The Punisher (2004) pushed Marvel into a field that had only been successfully covered by DC heroes. And yet, with more and more heroes being covered with their own individual films, a shift began to occur. This week’s two films highlight the jewels in their respective comic book competitors’ crowns.

The Dark Knight Rises
Year: 2012
Rating: PG-13
Length: 165 minutes / 2.75 hours

When someone asks you to name a superhero, the majority of people will say one of two names: Superman or Batman. These two icons of the comic book world are serious powerhouses for DC, as shown by the plethora of sequels and reboots these franchises have been given. Not only have we had Christopher Reeve as Superman, but next year we’ll see yet another attempt at rebooting the Man of Steel franchise (ironically enough, with Christopher Nolan playing a key role in its production). And while the Batman franchise started out well with Tim Burton’s vision of a dark, but less silly Batman (far removed from the Adam West version), eventually the franchise lost control and arrived back at its silly roots.

Christopher Nolan changed all that with perhaps the best reboot the series has ever seen. Taking the caped crusader into a darker, grittier, and a more realistic direction, Nolan pulled Batman away from the ridicule that it had been given by the time that George Clooney played the role. To cement his rulership of the Batman franchise, Nolan created not one, not two, but a whole trilogy masterfully tied together with depth and psychological intrigue. I can only hope that many decades will pass before they try to reboot the Batman franchise, because the Dark Knight saga stands as the ultimate testament of a masterfully crafted adaptation.

The Avengers
Year: 2012
Rating: PG-13
Length: 143 minutes / 2.38 hours

While Marvel may not have the silver bullets of incredibly famous superheroes, they do have a multitude of good stories to draw from. This is where I think Marvel has taken the lead in the last decade. Especially with the botched handling of lesser-known DC heroes like the Green Lantern, Marvel has shown that they can take any of their characters and hold it to a continuity not only within its specific franchise, but also against other franchises as well. The sum of the parts ends up being greater than the whole. As DC tries to re-invigorate their Superman franchise to match that of their Batman dynasty, Marvel is pulling out all the stops with an entire arsenal of comic book characters.

Part of the appeal to me of Marvel’s The Avengers is that it was a movie built on the backs of previous films. Now granted, this film marked the appearance of the third actor to play the Hulk in a single decade, but the unique stories of these superheroes having already been covered in their own individual films opened up The Avengers to be an action-packed adventure. Of course, you really have to hand it not only to the casting department over at Marvel, but to Director, Joss Whedon, who could have ended up with a fractured and cobbled-together story involving some very different superheroes. Instead, the unique characteristics of the entire team add a rich depth to the natural comedy that’s created in an earth-ending crisis.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 great comic book blockbusters.