LIARS AND THIEVES: THE DECEPTIVE VILLAINS TREND

A musing on the success and mostly failure of concealing your true villain

Villains are a crafty bunch. Dealing in lies, trickery, and deception to get what they want, a good villain will string you along until they turn on you at the right moment, revealing their true, sinister motives.
By that standard, filmmakers Shane Black and J.J. Abrams are on their way to becoming terrific villains.

I won’t lie, before this summer started I was pumped that in the span of two months we’d be seeing Iron Man’s arch nemesis, The Mandarin, Superman’s super-powered antithesis, General Zod, and Benedict Cumberbatch playing somebody nefarious, all on the big screen. In at least one category, it looked like summer ’13 would match the lofty standards set by summer ’12.

I wish I knew how two of those examples would turn out — then I could have curbed that enthusiasm earlier on.

Since this article talks about, arguably, the biggest twists in both Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness, you’d be right in assuming this is spoiler filled, which means turn your gaze away now if you want the mystery intact.

The Mandarin is an incredibly tricky character to bring to life. Essentially a dated/racist manifestation of communism, it was always assumed that some liberties would be taken to properly translate his character after three movies of buildup without offending as many people as possible. That said, having The Mandarin turn out to be a drug-addicted British stage actor who is meant to cover for Aldrich Killian’s Extremis experiments, and not a villain at all, the liberties taken here were a bit on the extreme side.

Meanwhile, Khan Noonien Singh is Star Trek‘s biggest baddie and any attempts to conceal his true identity were made in vain from the very beginning. But like our previous foe, Khan was not the only villain in Star Trek Into Darkness, with Peter Weller’s Admiral Marcus acting as the schemer behind the curtain and Khan filling a secondary villain role for most of the movie.

One of these twists was mostly expected, one was most definitely not. Regardless, neither of them worked to their full potential.

Nobody saw The Mandarin twist coming. Shane Black masterfully concealed any clues from the audience about the truth and even our entourage of bad guys dedicated themselves to the illusion throughout, referring to Kingsley’s character as “The Master.” All in all, it’s a very smart way of going about such a problematic character and doing something fresh and new with the narrative. For that, it has my respect.

The problem is nobody wanted this twist. The buildup to see who the man behind the group that kidnapped Tony Stark in the first movie and got Ivan Vanko onto that Monaco race track in 2 was finally coming to a head and to reveal that not only was he not what he seemed, but not a villain at all, was nothing less than disappointing.

Truthfully, I could have perfectly lived with that twist had the true villain of the movie been a show-stopper. Needless to say, he wasn’t. Aldrich Killain is a cool idea for a villain in some ways, finally providing an adversary who’s not a bruiser and can still go toe to toe with Iron Man without the aid of another robot suit and Guy Pearce is certainly fun and fierce in the role but the character is lacking something. Namely, clear motives (how do you own the war on terror and profit from it when the terrorist isn’t real?) and abilities that differentiate him from his other Extremis minions. It’s like they traded one group of bad guys that are all the same (Vanko’s drones) for another.

Not offensive enough to be The Mandarin

Fuzzy implications that Killian is supposed to be some iteration of the actual Mandarin are almost insulting and are an underlying  reason why this twist may be so off-putting. Maybe with a lesser villain in Iron Man lore, there may not have been such a huge backlash but as is, it’s a creative risk that only half-way paid off.

Meanwhile, having the villain of Star Trek Into Darkness be Khan was a twist almost everyone saw coming, with it possibly being one of the worst kept secrets of this summer.

One might think having Star Trek‘s most fan-favorite villain in the new movie would be an opportunity for an exciting and memorable new interpretation. If so, opportunity squandered.

For much of the movie, Khan is lacking a certain weight. He fights and menaces from the sidelines as the mannered Cumberbatch delivers his lines in super-bass mode but there is something underwhelming about him. Like Mandarin, it is also revealed about half way through that there is another devious mind  at work, this time being Peter Weller’s character of Admiral Marcus. Marcus woke Khan up to develop weapons for an upcoming war against the Klingons and when Khan escaped to their world, Marcus intended to use the Enterprise to start a war with them.

Even with his extraordinary strength, intelligence and casting choice, Khan is just a little boring. His background is hazy, the true core of why he’s an antagonist isn’t made clear until later in the movie with one sentence (the whole extinction of “inferior” races thing) and despite him being heavily featured in the marketing, he’s sidelined for most of the movie as a secondary villain.

By comparison, the idea of Marcus being the villain is a lot more original and actually gives something to think about. The leader of Star Fleet is actually a war-hungry schemer who awoke a centuries-old, genetically modified conqueror to build advanced weaponry and when it went sideways, he tried manipulating a captain and his ship into not only killing his enemy, but killing him with said enemies friend’s as the weapon and erasing the evidence of his supposed wrong-doing in the process. Not only that, but by firing these people-filled missiles and disabling their warp core, Marcus has a patsy to start the war that he always wanted in one move.

Maybe its just me, but those actions seem pretty villainous and hold more water when you leave the theater. This speaks to a question that seems to be prevalent in the Star Trek universe: is Star Fleet an exploratory organization, or a military one?

And yet, our villain with the true interest is played off as a plot complication and the hyped villain just sits around, boringly, until he’s needed for the next action set-piece.

Interestingly enough, both of these twists operate under the exact same theme — the true face behind terrorism. Killian and Marcus both operate in secrecy and pass the blame for these terroristic attacks onto someone else, be it as a distraction or a means to an end, to continue their devious work. It’s a timely and important topic, one I hope continues to be explored, but one I also hope is executed better.

For comparison’s sake, last summer’s two biggest villains, Loki and Bane, also had the invisible hand twist in their stories, with Thanos giving Loki the army he needed to invade Earth and Talia al Ghul actually leading the League of Shadows. The thing is that once those specific things were revealed, neither Bane nor Loki stopped being villains. They were still a real threat and their actions weren’t eliminated or outshined.

Iron Man took a big threat and revealed him to be a fraud but left us with an actual villain who was just standard. Star Trek took a small character and revealed him to be larger than life but never utilized him correctly and probably should never have used him in the first place. Some twist and turns are appreciated but they must be done with more care. Otherwise they’re just cheap and betray their message.

My fingers are firmly crossed that there’s no scene in Man of Steel where the man we know as Zod is revealed to be a cadet and his right-hand accomplice, Faora, is revealed to have gone by the name of Zod. Going by this summer so far, it may be a legitimate concern.

Pictured: my face if that happens

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STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS REVIEW

Nobody killed Star Trek — it grew stale and died on its own after people got bored.

Instead what we have here is more akin to a mad scientist digging up its corpse, Frankenstein-ing something together out of the best bits and pieces and supercharging it with a bolt of lightning. And while it certainly has far more basic brain functions, this new being known as Star Trek works entirely on its own.

After betraying the prime directive in order to save Spock’s life, Captain Kirk is dressed down in an effort to learn some humility. When two terrorist attacks by the mysterious “John Harrison” leave Star Fleet shaken, Kirk and his crew are given permission to track the elusive fugitive down and destroy him. However, the mission is not all what it seems and the Enterprise may have ventured too far into darkness to return unscathed.

Even if you’re one of the people that thinks the new Star Trek is some kind of desecration, you must admit that the property has never been more popular than it is now thanks to what J.J. Abrams has done with the material. Say what you will about his unmistakable lack of respect for the original show or the loss of the low-budget, cerebral quality it was originally built upon — audiences have responded to these new films being big, dumb action movies and as big, dumb action movies, the new Star Trek films are some of the most entertaining.

The danger in 2009’s Star Trek was tense; the threats presented in Star Trek Into Darkness leave you with little time to breathe. One by one, things go horribly wrong and our crew of protagonists is put in mortal peril, displayed in some jaw-dropping action set-pieces. A visit to the Klingon home planet and several instances of the Enterprise almost kicking the bucket (often piled on top of each other) gets the blood pumping and the nerves on high even more proficiently than the last.

Of course, we wouldn’t be all that invested without a cast that continues to knock it out of the park.  The banter between the cast continues to be great. The expanding relationship between Chis Pine’s Kirk and Zachary Quinto’s Spock has some genuine heart and care put into it, along with Kirk’s journey towards humility. Zoe Saldana has more to do in the first hour of this movie than she did in the entirety of the last one. Side players Simon Pegg and Karl Urban continue to absolutely own with relative ease in their roles as Scotty and Bones, respectively.

Newcomers Alice Eve and Peter Weller hold their own well but the big addition is no doubt Benedict Cumberbatch as our big baddie who, I’m a little disappointed to say, was simply really good. The man is a terrific, gifted actor but he’s too good for what they have him doing here.

Awe-inspiring action, scene stealing performances and a layered emotional arc are strengths carried over from the first movie that essentially make this series what it is and what’s so appealing about it.

And still, what we have here is, at its heart, a big, dumb action movie script that unfortunately pushes into a frustrating area of either laziness or idiocy the first movie barely even touched.

The reprehensible Damon Lindelof (seriously, why are they still giving him movies to make mediocre at this point?), under Abrams’ hand, delivers the final screenplay that’s built on basic familiarity of the brand with an overabundance of throw-away fan service moments.

The previous Star Trek movie did itself a huge favor by establishing this as a separate timeline, which gave the filmmakers free reign to explore new stories and ideas. So when this movie essentially settles for being a louder reworking of *SPOILERS* The Wrath of Khan*SPOILERS* in many parts, it feels like a huge slap in the face.

Why?

The half-baked (and unnecessary) twist midway through, along with excessive, obvious foreshadowing on no less than two huge events doesn’t do the movie any favors either.

The first two acts survive while the third eventually sinks following a heavy-handed and cheap plot throwback that’s then followed by a big, dumb action movie chase/fight you can only scratch your head over.

A strong argument could be made that this new Star Trek is following a parallel path to the two new Sherlock Holmes movies: both the originals, while more action-oriented re-imaginings, retain the spirit of their source material and thrive on the strong chemistry of their main players to make for a fun, exciting update. The sequels, both featuring the series’ most popular villain, still retain the chemistry but lose some of the magic that made the source material special, opting more to be a big, dumb action movie. Some plot points from A Game of Shadows and Into Darkness are practically identical.

Still, it can’t be said there’s nothing smart about the movie. Into Darkness does make an interesting (dare I say thoughtful) point about why Star Fleet seems so militarized lately and most of the emotional beats between the main characters ring surprisingly true and mature (with one notable exception), helped out in part by another fantastic Michael Giacchino score.

With only the defect of blurry 3D, Into Darkness features some simply amazing full IMAX scenes and is one to make the Trek to see in the superior format.

The old Star Trek isn’t going away forever, so there’s really no harm in this new creation having its moment in the sun. One can only hope any further adventures will have the drive to boldly go where no man has gone before in the plot department but if it continues to be as strong on visuals and character, we’ll still have one of the best popcorn movie series around.

7/10

THE GREAT GATSBY REVIEW

“You can’t repeat the past.”

This is an idea that is central to The Great Gatsby. Yet outside the basic yes or no solutions, this 2013 adaption of the classic novel itself acts as an answer to that question — maybe you shouldn’t.

Everyone in New York shows up to his gigantic parties but nobody seems to know who Jay Gatsby is. That is, until up-and-coming bond salesman Nick Carraway, his neighbor, is caught up in the dream world Gatsby has created in order to woo an old flame of his, Daisy, Nick’s cousin now married to the inconsiderate sportsman Tom Buchanan. But can Gatsby’s dream become a reality and withstand harsh truth of the matter  (his background and source of wealth) or is it doomed to be unattainable?

Having never read it, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s signature novel, The Great Gatsby, has only ever been described to me by the most reputable sources I know as “The Most Boring Book Ever Written”. While literature and film are different mediums to be sure, this movie, in spite of all its best efforts, can’t escape that defining aspect of the book.

Even with all its glitz, glamour, and visual splendor, The Great Gatsby is just plain boring. Instead of trying to adapt it as flashy eye candy with a modern twist, director Baz Luhrmann would have done much better for himself (and everyone else) by focusing on a tighter runtime and characters we care about.

I’m sure that the portrayal of these characters is faithful to the book, but the film does really nothing to give us any reason to care. That’s not to say the actors are bad — on the contrary, the cast is one of few things the movie has going for it.

DiCaprio delivers another serviceable and slightly above par performance as Gatsby (still not seeing an Oscar in his near future, though) but Joel Edgerton actually outshines him as Tom Buchanan, a role that ends up being more layered than the traditional dickbag villain thanks to his performance. Tobey Maguire jumps back and forth between believable and out of his league, but ultimately fits into the movie. And despite all her questionable role choices and performances, Carey Mulligan does justice to the fickle and dough-headed Daisy — as much as anyone can or should.

But instead of breathing new life into these characters, besides making them noticeably younger than previous interpretations, Baz Luhrmann is once again all about the visuals. The Great Gatsby most of the time comes off as one big Gatsby party, but just like the titular character’s celebrations, the true meaning is obscured and the movie ends up being more style than substance.

Why this incredibly dry book needed a 3D adaption is beyond me but it just calls more attention to the movie’s real focus: the party scenes. Delivering the kind of extravagant visuals one might expect from the director of Romeo+Juliet and Moulin Rouge, the energy felt in these parts is commendable but these scenes feel like high-energy asides, there only to regain the audience’s focus. The core of the story is lost in these vibrant little patchworks. Though I must admit, seeing Tobey Maguire get plastered early on is amusing enough in its own right.

Speaking of things that don’t fit, word was quick to spread about the decision to utilize a soundtrack by Jay-Z for the movie, focusing all on modern music with only some score repasted in here and there. It’s an interesting risk to be sure but it’s not one that paid off in any way. Forced parallels to the Roaring ’20s and our current society aside, the music does nothing to add to the story, often just flailing there, awkwardly.

When adding this to the overwrought visuals and lack of depth, The Great Gatsby comes off as no more than a two and a half hour music video.

It’s worth briefly mentioning the wonky editing and how often character’s words don’t match their mouths.

Yet even if these had been paid attention to in the editing bay, it wouldn’t for a minute change the fact that The Great Gatsby is a disjointed, hollow affair.

4/10

IRON MAN 3 REVIEW

To successfully follow up the biggest non-James Cameron movie ever sounds exhausting; to try and do it with a three-quel sounds impossible.

I guess one should never doubt the power of Robert Downey Jr. and the role that brought him back into the spotlight because Marvel and company have delivered a movie that is arguably as fun as The Avengers and succeeds as such with a much different focus.

Tony Stark isn’t having the best of times. Despite saving all of New York from obliteration, Stark is suffering from panic attacks brought on by his heroic deed, which puts a strain on his relationship with Pepper Potts. After Happy Hogan is injured in an apparent bomb blast, Stark foolishly declares revenge (and his home address) against the culprit, the mysterious uber-terrorist The Mandarin. With his home and things destroyed, Stark must rely on his wits to find The Mandarin, save Pepper from danger and find out how the think-tank A.I.M. and its sketchy scientist leader, Aldrich Killian, are involved.

Contrary to its title, Iron Man 3 is really a Tony Stark movie. Much like another recent superhero three-quel, The Dark Knight Rises, this movie spends most of its time with the man behind the mask and that’s just fine. Many may lament the lack of Iron Man here and many people would be wrong in forgetting that Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark is infinitely more interesting outside the suit than he is inside it.

It’s not hard rooting for the effortlessly charismatic Downey as is but director/writer Shane Black and writer Drew Pearce craft a character piece with wit and one-liners to spare. Seeing our hero in such a vulnerable place with his panic attacks actually sparks some genuine character interest and investment, something Marvel movies usually aren’t strong on.

Likewise, Pepper, Rhodey, and Happy are given something to do that never seems forced. The chemistry between Downey and Paltrow continues to be one of the cutest, most whip-smart pairings the genre has to offer.

Black and Pearce find a perfect balance between the sometimes heavy thematic material (surpassing the original’s use of terrorists as a plot device and certainly anything seen in Iron Man 2) and the naturally witty world Stark inhabits.

Black’s trademark Christmas setting for his movies, as well as much of the movie being a mystery starring Downey with hints of a buddy-cop film, draws heavy comparisons to his previous film Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang. Seeing how that movie is pretty terrific, that seems like a good thing. Instead of a straight adaption of the material, Iron Man 3 feels much more like an interpretation of the world – one that takes liberties here and there but ultimately pays off well. If this movie is to be believed, this could be a sign of Marvel heading in a much more artistically daring direction.

But before it begins to sound like the movie completely devoted to examining what makes each character tick, it wouldn’t be an Iron Man movie without some serious action set pieces, which Iron Man 3 delivers on. The attack on Stark’s mansion, a skydiving stunt, and the explosive finale on an oil rig all push the Iron Man action to new boundaries and occasionally gives the action seen in The Avengers a run for its money.

And still, it wouldn’t quite be an Iron Man movie without the odd flaw, here and there.

DC comic adaptions, the Batman movies in particular, have had the distinct trend of their villains overshadowing their heroes. To counteract this, Marvel has moved in the opposite direction and, time and time again, has practically taken measures to make sure their villains are as flat and unmemorable as possible. Iron Man 3 is unfortunately a poster boy for this continuing flaw.

Without spoiling too much, there is a substantial twist when it comes to The Mandarin and Killian – one that, while no doubt well-concealed and original, comes off as cheap in terms of buildup and comic book accuracy and only succeeds half way. No marks against Ben Kingsley or Guy Pearce here since both are terrific fun to watch play their roles. It’s just that, ultimately, the villain we are left with at the end of the movie is a letdown because of a late introduction, fuzzy motives and lack of differentiation between him and the other Extremis soldiers in terms of abilities.

Speaking of which, the possibilities of this new and exciting class of adversary seem promising in the beginning (no more guy in suit vs. guy in suit action!) but are never taken advantage of, essentially turning everyone exposed to Extremis into super-strong molten men/women with unclear thresholds of how they can be defeated.

Two plot holes cropping during the movie that simply can’t be put out of mind:

1. When the airwaves get taken over and the president is kidnapped, shouldn’t there be some sort of mega-spy agency we’ve seen before that should step in?

and

2. The Ten Rings was the terrorist group that originally kidnapped Tony Stark, whose logo can be seen at the beginning and end of every one of The Mandarin’s videos. This is intended to be a clear tie-in to the first movie and no explanation is given for this. Ugh, my brain hurts.

But I hate when people harp on plot holes too much and these are a minor detriment at worst. All in all they really don’t do much to take away from what is so far the most fun movie experience of the year.

There are no less than eight quotable lines and a similar amount of moments dukeing it out for my favorite moment of the movie (Stark’s McGuyver/unibomber phase is currently winning). The 3D doesn’t do much to add to the experience but it doesn’t really take anything away from it, so there’s my not-discouraging plug. Conversely, if you haven’t considered seeing the movie in IMAX, do so and fast.

Iron Man 3 may not be perfect but what film is, especially what third installment? What it is is a hell of a lot of fun, a high-ranker in terms of Marvel movies, a great way to start the summer and a movie I’m looking forward to seeing again (and again).

8/10

GREETINGS, SALUTATIONS, AND WELCOME BACKS

It’s been a long winter and now’s finally the time to kiss it goodbye.

The year has been no less than eventful and unfortunately these events didn’t include updating this site very regularly. Mea culpa.

But now it’s summer, which means I have a lot more time on my hands, the most anticipated movies of the year are coming out, and my regular writing outlet is ca-puts for much of the next three months. So here I am again, ready to dive in.

To prove I wasn’t simply hibernating for the past seven months, you can find my school-year writings at the website of Minnesota State University, Mankato’s student newspaper, The Reporter.

So, without further ado, I’ll be bringing you my thoughts on many recent happenings soon, including reviews of Iron Man 3, its score, The Great Gatsby, and current movie news/events, plus I look forward to spilling the word on upcoming behemoths like Star Trek Into Darkness and Man of Steel, music scores included, as well as some of the smaller releases this summer might see.

Now’s a good time to be someone who writes about mostly movies.