CASTALIA: “It’s a Wonderful Life” is Dark, Brutal, and the most Superversive movie ever made

Okay, I’ve been waiting ALL YEAR to do the “It’s a Wonderful Life” post for Superversive Tuesday. For those living under a rock, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is the endlessly remade and parodied Christmas classic about a man, George Bailey, on the verge of suicide. Before he can complete this ultimate act of despair God (!!!) briefs the witless but kind-hearted angel Clarence on the important details of George’s life, so that he understands the background and context of George’s actions before attempting to save his soul. And that’s where we get our movie.

I’m not going to bother adding spoiler warnings for this film. If you haven’t seen it, do so right now. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is far more than one of the greatest holiday movies ever, it is one of the greatest movies ever made PERIOD. While most famous for its brilliant ending, where Clarence shows George what life in Bedford Falls would be like if he didn’t exist, the entire movie is excellent, featuring underrated performances from Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed and a rich character study on the level of “A Christmas Carol”. It’s as much of a must-watch movie as “Casablanca” – you really can’t call yourself a fan of films without seeing it.

But the film doesn’t need me to sing its praises. What I want to focus on is a curious kind of nostalgia that I’ve noticed follows this film around. People tend to have this idea that “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a happy movie and Bedford Falls almost a platonic ideal of small town life, probably because of its upbeat ending and status as a holiday film (holiday films being rightly notorious for trite sentimentality).

A rewatch dispels such a silly notion very quickly. That is, if anything, the opposite of the truth. Bedford Falls is a coin flip – one life – away from being a terrible, terrible place. Drunken drug store owners beat disabled children. A cruel business tycoon (Mr. Potter, played to perfection by Lionel Barrymore) has near-dictatorial control over half of the town. A man punches George in the mouth moments before the famous suicide scene. There is, of course, much to love about Bedford Falls, but it is not even close to being the ideal of small town life.

Continue reading

Beginning of the End

Image result for spider-man homecomingI’ve been thinking of that “Homecoming” trailer, and I realized something: My analysis was wrong. “Homecoming” is the beginning of the end of the MCU.

Well, not “Homecoming”. Technically “Doctor Strange”.

I’ll explain:

Early in the MCU, there was no guarantee the franchise would be a juggernaut. “Iron Man” was a huge risk. There’s a reason they followed it up with name brand heroes like the Hulk and Captain America. They wanted to build a brand. Even Thor was a little more well known than Iron Man was, if only from Norse mythology. The risky franchises, like “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Ant-Man”, came later.

Then “Doctor Strange” was made. The Marvel formula always included background and side characters of different races and sexes. But “Doctor Strange” was different. Not only was Eastern European aristocrat Baron Mordo turned into a well-spoken black man, the Ancient One was changed from an old oriental man to a middle-aged Scottish woman. Yes, she was changed into a white person, but don’t kid yourself: This was about social justice. It was about adding a woman and changing stereotypes. Tilda Swinton was terrific, sure, but that wasn’t the point.

“Doctor Strange” wisely didn’t comment on this at all, since it had nothing to do with the movie, but it was an experiment: viewers were willing to accept changes to even more major characters without revolting.

And now “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is continuing the experiment. I’m sure “Homecoming” will be very good. They don’t seem to be attempting to do any commentary on racial issues, the casting for Peter Parker is excellent, and honestly it does make sense for an NYC high school to have more minorities than white folks.

But focusing on that misses the point. Now *everybody* who is a part of Peter’s world, including best friends, BOTH love interests, and even Flash Thompson, are minorities. Even if Zendaya’s character isn’t Mary Jane, they specifically made Peter’s love interests minorities. They specifically made sure to make his best friend a minority. And don’t think for a second that the villain being white is a coincidence – you’re “allowed” to make the villain white and still fulfill your social justice quota.

“Homecoming” isn’t the end point. It’s a test. It’s to see how much diversity casting audiences are willing to accept without revolt. “Star Wars” underwent the same evolution. The prequels made Star Wars think they were invincible; even after critical bashing, they were all still huge monetary hits. Thinking they could get away with anything, they started diversity casting with “The Force Awakens”. It was also a huge hit, but this time…there were rumblings. Brian Niemeier relays those concerns well.

But the franchise still doesn’t see it. They still think they’re invincible. And now, “Rogue One”, explicitly a pro-diversity, SJW film, as openly bragged about by the writers, is going to be the beginning of the end. Oh, it will do well. But it won’t do as well as they expect it to do. They still don’t understand the difference between a movie being poor and insulting your viewers.

“Homecoming” is Marvel’s test. And it will do well. And it will be the beginning of the end for Marvel, because they will think they’re invincible, and their SJW messages will get more and more overt, and, as always, people will get tired of it.

I don’t think “Spider-Man: Homecoming will be bad. In fact, I think it’ll probably be great. But it’s a sign of things to come, and mark my words: It’s not a good one.

CASTALIA Full Review: “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”

Image result for fantastic beasts and where to find them poster

From left to right: Tina, Newt, Queenie, and Jacob

(My quick review is here.)

I have a love-hate thing going on with J.K. Rowling.

On one hand, her personal and political opinions are obnoxious, nasty, contemptible, and make it very, very clear that she hates and despises people who think like me. And that’s not even to TOUCH the “Dumbledore is gay” controversy.

ON THE OTHER HAND – Her books are so whimsically entertaining, with such excellent characters and an engaging world, that even when I leave for awhile I find myself getting drawn back in almost in spite of myself.

I haven’t read much of “The Cursed Child”, but from what I have read, and what I know from the plot, I am deeply unimpressed; it is obvious that Rowling was not the writer.

Rowling has been criticized by some for going “Lucas” on us, that is, partially ruining what we loved by adding unnecessary backstory and removing some of the wonder. Honestly, I don’t agree. “Going Lucas” is something that does happen, but it happens because of the George Lucas’s of the world – that is, good idea people but mediocre writers. Continue reading

Suicide Squad: A Review

The gang’s all here. Well, except El Diablo, apparently

Let’s jump right to it: Will Smith was great as Deadshot, Margot Robbie was even better as Harley Quinn. Harley was a very, very poorly written character, but Margot Robbie made her her work – or at least came close – based pretty much solely on the strength of her acting.

You laugh, but wait until you see how useful it is when you’re stuck in a rainforest or something, I don’t know

We have a new winner for “worst superpower ever”, though, ousting everyone’s favorite archer (shut up, “Arrow” fans), Hawkeye, from the top spot (really like the character, but I always imagine him stopping at the arrow store before battles). Let’s all give a hand to…Slipknot! He can climb anything! And that’s it. Seriously. That’s it. That’s his superpower.

The plot of the movie is ridiculous swiss cheese. It’s not really clear why we need something like the Suicide Squad as opposed to, say, the Justice League: If Amanda Waller is that skilled at manipulation, wouldn’t it be in her best interests to gather all of the heroes together? In fact, somebody once did just that. His name was Nick Fury. It worked out really, really well.

The idea that we can pin any mistakes or atrocities on the Squad is absent here, since there really isn’t any opportunity for them to commit atrocities and their original mission is something that could easily be done by a swat team task force; they actually decide to go for the “Save the world” stuff of their own accord, which is really stupid and the sort of thing they should have been saved for anyway.

The methods used to control the characters was dumb: Try to run and you get blown up. This is stupid because there are plenty of things you can do that don’t justify blowing you up but are still harmful to the overall cause. For example, at one point in the movie Deadshot intentionally misses a shot; he’s not blown up because, hey, they could still use him after all. The obvious thing to do would be to ALSO attach some sort of device that causes pain; this way if you try to disobey you can be tased or something to stop you in your tracks, force you to comply, or punish you. But apparently this never occurred to anyone.

And yet…Harsh as I sound “Suicide Squad” was actually a whole lot of fun. As said before, Deadshot and Harley Quinn were both entertaining; even Killer Croc had some great one-liners (Captain Boomerang remains a half step above Deadshot and roughly on par with Hawkeye on the “Stupidest powers” scale. He throws boomerangs!). El Diablo’s actor put on a good performance and had one of the more interesting arcs in the movie, even if it ended up being something of a cliche in the end; he also ended up with the coolest powers, showing off a nice little surprise at the end of the film.

Yes, if you were wondering, he really is pretty much a pimp

Leto’s Joker was a disappointment. He wasn’t in it a ton and actually didn’t even seem overly menacing. He seemed to have a real connection with Harley Quinn (something I had a real problem with, which I’ll get to later), and we didn’t see him kill anybody but criminals and prison guards, who we’ve established earlier in the movie as sadistic.

And there was one moment that was absolutely perfect, which I’ll get to later. I actually recommend the film if you’re looking to see something stupid but fun. It’s the poor man’s “Guardians of the Galaxy”, continuing the DC trend of making inferior versions of Marvel movies – but inferior or not, it was definitely entertaining, if nothing else. It’s probably a 6 of 10 or so on the star scale.

Was the film superversive? Well…kind of? It depends on how you define superversive – whether it’s about the final result or the effort. Certainly the movie clearly TRIED for that superversive feel – a band of misfits and villains coming together and deciding of their own accord and without coercion that they were going to try to save the world, redeeming themselves, at least partially, in the process. But the execution was meh. Still, it really did go for it, and that, at least, is to be commended.

There was one moment in the movie that was absolutely perfect – and here be a minor spoiler. During the climax, the villain shows the heroes visions of their fantasy of a perfect life. Most were pretty standard fare – Deadshot wants a life with his daughter, El Diablo wants his family back (in a very nice moment in and of itself El Diablo is the only one to reject the fantasy world, being the only member of the Squad up to that point who really accepted the fact that he didn’t deserve anything more than what he got).

Harley Quinn’s vision is of her and the Joker with no deformities, dressed normally, with three kids, living a perfectly normal life. It’s poignant, it’s sad, it’s moving, and it’s a pitch-perfect insight into what makes Harley’s character tick. In a weird way this little thirty second scene was the highlight of the movie.

It also highlights the movie’s biggest problem. Early on we learn that Harley Quinn is the “Queen of Crime”, with Joker as the king. He goes on crime sprees with her, brings her with him everywhere, and seems to have genuine romantic feelings for her. At one point he “offers” her sexually to another villain but it quickly becomes clear that he was playing mind games and never really intended for her to do anything with him. He even saves her life at one point and organizes a major rescue mission for her.

This is all, all wrong. At her core, Harley is a tragic character. In that one scene the movie comes SO CLOSE to hitting upon this but never really backs it up. Harley is never Joker’s Queen: She’s his minion. He’s her abusive boyfriend. He does just enough to flatter her so she does what he wants her to but throws her aside and treats her like garbage as soon as she serves her purpose.

Will the real Harley Quinn please stand up?

Harley Quinn was introduced in “Batman: The Animated Series”. The Joker/Harley dynamic is best demonstrated in the episode “Mad Love”, widely regarded as a classic and originally an award winning comic. In it, Harley decides that to impress the Joker, she’s going to kill Batman herself. She actually manages to get Batman into an impossible to escape death trap, but is kept from killing him when Batman tells her that the stories the Joker told her in order to get her to fall in love with him (and spring him from Arkham Asylum, where she was his psychiatrist) were lies that Batman himself had already heard. He convinces her to call the Joker over to witness the trap for himself.

Harley’s near-success enrages the Joker. Despite her protests that she was trying to help, he pushes her out a window into a dumpster, and finds the whole thing so insignificant that it’s not even worth a laugh. This is some dark, dark stuff. This is abuse on a really dangerous scale.

In her hospital bed (!!!), Harley renounces the Joker forever…right up until his flower and card. All of a sudden, back to true love.

Harley Quinn’s relationship should be completely one-sided. The Joker shouldn’t rescue her. When she gets out, he might try to find her to use her somehow, but he’d abandon her – even kill her – in a heartbeat if she interfered at all with his plans. Harley’s dream life with the Joker is tragic, and it’s tragic in the movie as well – but it should also be tragic because it’s clear that not only is the dream impossible, it’s completely delusional: The Joker simply doesn’t care about her. She’s a minion, a disposable tool, worth only the most perfunctory efforts to keep her as a sometimes useful ally. That normal life isn’t just impossible because they’re both bad. It’s impossible because the relationship doesn’t even really exist at all.

The plot could easily have made more sense, too. The Joker should have been the real villain. You start off with the Joker and Harley doing something heinous – say setting off a bomb – when Batman shows up. Despite nearly catching the Joker he is forced to rescue Harley, who the Joker has pushed into water or something like that. A bomb goes off in a building, and in the chaos Joker escapes. Batman simply gets lucky that the building, for whatever reason, was empty that day.

Cut to Amanda Waller, who explains to a group of stuffed shirts that Batman is clearly too much of a goody-goody to get the Joker: To catch a guy like him, you need people just as ruthless and just as crazy – she proposes the suicide squad.

Everyone balks until word gets out that the Joker is planning another, even larger terrorist attack – and all of a sudden the idea doesn’t sound so bad. And there’s your premise. It gets Harley in on things too – as his ex-“girlfriend” she would supposedly know various hiding places of the Joker, and Harley of course, despite publicly renouncing the Joker, secretly wants to impress him and get back into his good graces….

There’s a plot that makes sense! The concept of a Suicide Squad makes sense. Harley’s inclusion makes sense. The villain is interesting. The stakes certainly are high enough. This is exactly what we should have seen in this film.

But we didn’t.

What we saw was still fairly good (due mostly to the strength of the lead actors), and highly entertaining, but it could have been so much better. And that’s a real shame.

In Defense of Ghostbusters (1984)

Ghostbusters

I really shouldn’t have to do this. At this point, the best course of action for everyone is to dismiss the artistic and moral failure that is Ghostbusters 2016, let the remake die a quick, unmourned, and forgotten death, and rest secure in the excellence of the one true Ghostbusters film.

But now inveterate contrarians and shills are vainly trying to make the reboot look better than the Cannon Films fire sale material it is by taking passive-aggressive shots at the original classic.

Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: your claims that the original Ghostbusters is dumb, sexist, or overrated don’t make you sound cool. They make you sound like a smug, revisionist poser. It’s just as irritating as a hipster saying he liked a band before they were popular. And in this case, calling the first Ghostbusters a bad movie is empirically wrong.

The short version

Ghostbusters (1984–how detestable it is having to clarify that) is an SNL satire–from back when SNL was good–of a Lovecraftian horror story.

The reimagining, on the other hand, is a cynical parody of the original.

That is what fans are upset about; not the sex of the lead players or the perceived effrontery of making a new entry in a “sacred” franchise. By all reasonable accounts the new film is a shallow cash grab smothered in sanctimonious propaganda, and fans have been wise to the con since the trailer dropped.

The film makers should have heeded the fans’ warning. But as I’ve said before, Hollywood hates its own audience.

Defense in depth

If you still doubt the original Ghostbusters’ greatness, consider the following reasons why it is rightly hailed as a classic.

The talent

Ghostbusters talent

Comedy is the hardest genre to write well. Just ask any pro screenwriter to find out why good comedy writers are held in such high esteem. Nothing else requires such precise timing, tone, and dialogue.

Well-crafted, genuinely funny jokes aren’t written by accident. If a writer is consistently turning in solid comedic scripts, you can be sure he knows what he’s doing.

It’s no coincidence that the creative team behind Ghostbusters includes Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Ivan Reitman, and Bill Murray–talents responsible for the golden age of Saturday Night Live, Animal House, Meatballs, and Stripes.

When a pro writer goes to work, he operates at a certain level of ability. Ghostbusters didn’t just rise to its creators’ high standard of excellence, it took their game to a whole new level.
The world building

Ghost Smashers

Okay, Ghostbusters might not be your thing. That’s understandable. But with the shortage of movies based on original IPs these days, you’ve got to at least give the first movie credit for originality.

I already explained that comedy is the toughest genre to write. Ghostbusters ups the difficulty even more by genre bashing comedy with horror and sci-fi: two of only three genres that require the added element of world building.

Take it from someone who’s built an expansive SFF/horror setting: world building ain’t easy.

 

The unique lore of Ghostbusters wasn’t thrown together in a weekend, either. Aykroyd first developed the film’s core concepts based on a real-life fascination with the paranormal stemming from his childhood. He spent years refining these ideas into an expansive mythos that’s only hinted at on screen.

Come to think of it, the fact that Aykroyd’s original, somewhat rambling, vision was pared down to a manageable yet still satisfying feature length experience stands as further testimony to the film’s brilliance.
The performances

Filmed in one shot.

Not only were the talents behind Ghostbusters ingenious writers, they were also gifted comedic performers. Stellar acting chops are also on full display among the rest of the cast–especially Bill Murray, whose celebrated deadpan delivery made Dr. Peter Venkman a font of legendary quotes.

Seriously, this film alone accounts for at least four percent of the 100 funniest movie quotes. All four belong to Murray, who improvised most of his lines. It’s been argued, and I think rightly so, that Murray deserves a co-writer credit on this film.

Also worthy of high acclaim is Rick Moranis, who improvised the notorious party scene during a single, long shot.

Sigourney Weaver, better known for more serious roles, ad-libbed the famous “You’re more like a game show host” line.
The visuals

Ghostbusters Wrightson

“Effects Movies” tend to get a bad rap, but let’s face it: if your film deals extensively with SF and/or horror elements, you need sharp visuals to sell the story.

Few films can boast the art design pedigree of Ghostbusters. With an art team that included venerable Swamp Thing and Frankenstein artist Bernie Wrightson, this movie’s startling yet endearing visuals and largely practical effects continue to endure as CG effects from movies made five years ago grow old before their time.

Ghostbusters Librarian

The original Ghostbusters was indisputably smart, funny, visionary, and visually gorgeous. What more proof do you need? I rest my case.

@BrianNiemeier

The Conjuring 2

The Conjuring 2

With The Conjuring 2 dominating the weekend box office, now seems like a good time to expand on my short review from the most recent episode of Geek Gab.

The sequel to 2013’s The Conjuring, also helmed by director James Wan, this installment features the dramatization of another case from the files of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. Though a couple of the Warrens’ other famous investigations are referenced, the plot mostly revolves around the 1977 Enfield Poltergeist case.

Like all films “based on a true story”, The Conjuring 2 takes copious amounts of dramatic license with the original source material. But James Wan’s stated aim was to restore the reputation of studio horror films; not make a documentary.

Did he succeed? Let’s examine the movie in light of the director’s goal.

In case you’re totally unfamiliar with The Conjuring 2

…here’s the theatrical trailer.

Seeing as how the film’s premise is based on a highly publicized haunting that’s been in the media since 1977, I’m dispensing with spoiler warnings. I’ll also restrain myself from discussing major fictionalized plot details.

The facts in the real life case, as in the film, are that a young girl and her family experience strange phenomena in their North London home after she plays with a Ouija board.

Obligatory pneumatology PSA: legends, folklore, and old wives’ tales often contain a kernel of truth. The universally negative portrayal of Ouija boards and other methods of communicating with spirits is one nut that Hollywood’s blind squirrels reliably manage to find. DO NOT play around with this stuff.

And to head off the skeptic’s favorite sophomoric objection: it’s not that a mass-produced toy is magic. It’s that the chosen end of seeking undue power over preternatural beings and phenomena is inherently evil; not the specific means used.

The more you know

Back to the film review. When ongoing disturbances, including but not limited to strange noises, poltergeist activity, teleportation of people and objects, apparitions, spiritual oppression and possession drive the family from their home, paranormal investigators–including the Warrens–intervene. The ensuing case becomes one of the most well documented hauntings in history.

Analysis

The Conjuring 2 is an atmospheric, often smart, supernatural horror film with welcome thriller and mystery flourishes. James Wan set out to make a studio horror movie in the tradition of genre classics like Poltergeist and The Exorcist.

Although this movie doesn’t quite rise to the level of those iconic films, Wan does prove that “studio horror” doesn’t have to be synonymous with “lowest common denominator schlock” while producing a rare sequel that rivals the quality of the original.

This film’s greatest successes lie in three areas”

  • Background and foreshadowing: The Conjuring 2 cleverly sets up its main plot through a properly terrifying introduction that scores bonus points by delivering on a promise made at the end of the first movie.
  • Mood, atmosphere, and tone: director James Wan strikes a superb balance between visceral scares, psychological horror, existential dread, and, refreshingly, scattered rays of hope. The main theme that God remains ever present even in the midst of seemingly unrelenting terror shines through strongly.
  • Character: the writers, director, and actors deserve high praise for avoiding the cliched cardboard cutouts seen in too many horror movies and instead populating this film with believable characters whose problems we easily and immediately care about.
As for the film’s few drawbacks, the most egregious are a couple of scenes featuring obvious CG animation that’s visually and tonally dissonant with the setting. If you’ve seen Wan’s other, similarly themed series Insidious, you’ll instantly recognize the scenes I’ve described, as well as the director’s self-indulgence.
My other beef with the movie might be specific to those who are familiar with Catholic theology and ecclesiology, but in a movie that claims to be based on true events, this one sticks out.
The plot point in question–don’t worry about spoilers; it’s dumb, anyway–is the reason given for Ed and Lorraine’s involvement in the Enfield case. In the movie, the Church gets ahold of taped conversations with a self-identified 72 year-old dead guy spoken by an 11 year-old girl.
The Conjuring 2 trailer
“Priests like me are sworn to serve others’ spiritual needs hand and foot…but we don’t want to look bad, so we’ll just send a lay couple in case this one’s a hoax.”
The English hierarchy supposedly ask the American hierarchy to approach the Warrens about evaluating the goings-on  in Enfield, with the justification that the Church can’t be seen to be directly involved if the story turns out to be a hoax, because besmirching their reputation would hinder their ability to help people.
Such as the people they’re not helping already.

By sending proxies not empowered with the seal of Holy Orders into potential contact with demonic forces.

Proxies who publicly trade on their close affiliation with the Church anyway.

In real life, this isn’t happening. The local diocese is responsible for investigating claims of possession. Enfield is under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Westminster, home of English Catholicism’s mother church. The archbishop is unlikely to need assistance from a couple of Yanks.

Supporting this assessment, original Enfield Poltergeist investigator Guy Lyon Playfair said that in real life, the Warrens turned up uninvited.

Also contra the film version, it was a priest; not the Warrens, who helped the Hodgsons get their paranormal problems under control.

But in the finest movie tradition, The Conjuring 2 doesn’t let real life get in the way of a brilliant, climactic ending.

@BrianNiemeier

Which Iron Man Film Is the Best in the Series?

Iron Man

It’s the series that turned a comic book character nobody had cared about since the Cold War into the hottest IP on the planet and redeemed its star’s career in the process. Initially considered a huge gamble, the Iron Man franchise kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe–a coup that the competition has been scrambling to replicate; so far without success.

Marvel Cinematic Universe

There’s no question that the MCU–and the Iron Man films in particular–have left an indelible mark on the pages of cinematic history. But do these movies live up to the astronomical hype they’ve generated? That loaded question aside, which epoch-making installment is the best of the bunch?

The quick and dirty answers: not really, and Captain America; Civil War.

Team Iron Man
Everything the Russos touch turns to gold–or in this case, gold-titanium alloy.

Alright, invoking the Russo brothers in this context is like entering Carl Lewis in a high school girls’ track meet.

To find the answer without cheating, I shall conduct a thorough analysis of the three standalone Iron Man films. Join me as I compare the relative merits of each movie according to objective standards of the cinematic and general storytelling arts.

WARNING: It’s impossible to run this kind of analysis without venturing into spoiler territory. If you haven’t seen Iron Man parts 1, 2, and 3 yet, a) welcome back from the desert island and b) correct your omission immediately.

OK. I’ll grant a dispensation from watching Iron Man 3. In fact, if it saves somebody the 90 minutes and five bucks I wasted on that flick, this post will qualify as a PSA.

Main Antagonist
A hero is defined by his enemies. It’s no exaggeration to say that the main villain can make or break a film.
Iron Man
Obadiah Stane Newsweek
Possibly the most badass picture of Jeff Bridges
A little-known fact about the first Iron Man: the original antagonist in early drafts of the script was none other than Howard Stark himself, who would have donned the War Machine armor to do battle with his own son.
Marvel almost certainly made the right call by scrapping that idea. They did carry over the father-son rivalry dynamic to the finished film, in which Howard’s lifelong friend Obadiah Stane violently turns on his late business partner’s heir.
I’m torn by Jeff Bridges’ turn as Stane. On the one hand, he tackles the role with maximum effort, as is his wont. On the other hand, Bridges himself admitted to having some discomfort with the production’s improv style.
 

Obadiah Stane’s real weakness has nothing to do with Bridges’ performance, but with the writing. He’s never given a compelling motivation to order the hit on Tony. He even highlights the foolishness of his decision by confessing that Tony is a “golden goose” whose lucrative ingenuity Stand can’t hope to match. Such petty, short-term thinking undermines his portrayal as a corporate tech genius.

Then, because clunky final battles were mandatory in MCU Phase One, the Dude goes crazy or something and suits up in an ambulatory Soyuz for frenetically shot yet plodding showdown with Shellhead.
Iron Man 2

Whiplash and Justin Hammer
Not pictured: Iron Man 2’s main antagonist

Let’s cut to the chase. Most critics of Iron Man 2 call out Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell for giving lackluster performances as the movie’s dual antagonists. These critics fail to understand a number of mitigating factors.

First, a lengthy amount of footage establishing Ivan Vanko’s motives and background were cut from the final version. So hate on Whiplash if you must, but blame the editing; not Rourke’s acting.

Second, Rourke went to absurd lengths to infuse his character with authenticity, even going so far as to spend some quality time in a Russian prison. Say what you will about his effectiveness as a villain. You can’t say that Rourke isn’t utterly convincing as a Russian lowlife.

Third, if you think that Justin Hammer is passive-aggressive and grating for no good reason, you’re not paying attention. From what I can tell, most critics assumed that Hammer is a pale imitation of Obadiah Stane. Viewing the character through that lens will produce a distorted image.

Stane was out for revenge. Or money. Or…honestly, it’s hard to say why he tried to have Tony killed. By contrast, Hammer’s motivation is much clearer. He’s not after Tony Stark’s head. He wants Tony’s approval.

Like Stane, Hammer knows he’s not in Tony’s league. Instead of murderous rage, Hammer’s envy turns into a deluded obsession with proving himself Tony’s equal. Stark repeatedly makes it clear that he views Hammer as an annoying tag along at best, but Hammer’s self-worth relies so heavily on Tony’s acceptance that he can’t let himself acknowledge his rival’s contempt.

Think I’m grasping at straws? Revisit Hammer’s dialog. The man makes a positive reference to James Joyce’s Ulysses for crying out loud! 90% of people who say they enjoyed that book haven’t read it, and 100% are lying about liking it just so highbrow literary types will think they’re smart.

All of the preceding is moot, however, because neither Vanko nor Hammer is Iron Man 2’s main antagonist.

Remember: the main antagonist is the character who poses the biggest obstacle between the main protagonist and his goal.

There’s no question that Tony Stark is the main protagonist. What does Tony want in Iron Man 2? He has two complimentary goals.

  1. Continue operating as Iron Man free of outside interference.
  2. Continue running Stark Enterprises as he sees fit.
Hammer and Vanko certainly obstruct the attainment of Tony’s goals. However, they merely complicate the major source of conflict imposed by this guy:
Garry Shandling - Senator Stern
A big prick hurts even more.
If Senator Stern, brilliantly portrayed by the late Garry Shandling, weren’t orchestrating a government shakedown against Tony for control of the Iron Man armor, Hammer wouldn’t be a threat at all and Vanko would’ve been neutralized in Monaco.
Not that Hammer and Whiplash are superfluous. Unlike most superheroes, Iron Man’s civilian persona is a force to be reckoned with in his own sphere. The best Iron Man stories give the Armored Avenger a super-powered foe to tangle with on the battlefield and a viable threat in the boardroom. While Stane ably filled the latter role in the first film, only Iron Man 2 presents our hero with equally formidable challenges in both arenas.
Dramatically upping the stakes, Iron Man 2 pits Tony against the most implacable foe of all: the United States Government.
Iron Man 3
Fake Mandarins
“I am the Mandarin!””No, I am!”Somehow, they’re both wrong.
Fake Mandarins.
Next.
OK. You want more exposition on the bait and switch that Iron Man 3 pulled with its main villain? How about Fake Mandarins Prompted by Cynical Pandering to the Chinese Market Passed off as Creative Integrity?

The minute you start to govern your creative impulses based on anticipation of someone else’s response or their expectations, then you’re going to fail. You’re going to fail them, too. Because you’re not going to surprise anybody – you’re going to be busy second-guessing what other people want and indulging that people-pleasing side of yourself.

Iron Man 3 co-writer/director Shane Black

Have I mentioned lately how Hollywood hates its own audience?
Hey Shane, “they” are the people who pay your extravagant salary. It’s all well and good to surprise them. Just make sure you give them pleasant surprises; not pandering, PC, dirty tricks that betray the audience’s trust.
Best Main Antagonist: Iron Man 2
Stakes
While the main antagonist places obstacles in the hero’s path, the consequences of failing to surmount those obstacles largely determine the level of dramatic tension and audience engagement.
Iron Man
Obadiah Stane attempts to assassinate Tony Stark with Wile E. Coyote-level tenacity. If Tony doesn’t foil these schemes, he will die. Which would be a huge bummer.
Iron Man 2
The US government, represented by Senator Stern, will stop at nothing to acquire Iron Man’s technology for themselves. Unless Tony can stave off Congress while countering Justin Hammer’s industrial espionage and surviving Ivan Vanko’s vendetta, Stark weapons tech will be proliferated worldwide, reigniting the arms race and certainly heightening US foreign and domestic military intervention.
Iron Man 3
If Tony can’t stop Fake British Mandarin, Trevor Slattery will continue interrupting contrived, duplicitous television with equally contrived, marginally less duplicitous television.
Iron Man must stop Fake Hollywood Nerd Mandarin to escape an unwanted job offer at a corporation that makes super soldiers. The super soldiers explode, but only when it’s convenient to the plot.
Iron Man 3 Creepy Fire Monster Lady
Hey Shane, my creepy fire monster lady can beat up your creepy fire monster lady.
Highest Stakes: Iron Man 2
Plot
A protagonist vying for stakes against resistance supplied by the antagonist is what forms a plot. Let’s face it, all three Iron Man movies have pretty convoluted, sometimes nonsensical, plots.
But we need to pick a winner, so here goes!
Iron Man
An arrogant billionaire arms dealer gets a sharp lesson in humility from his own handiwork. With deadly shrapnel in his heart and a price on his head, he must use his natural genius and discover untapped reserves of courage to save his own life and atone for his mistakes.
In other words, the same superhero origin story that Hollywood–especially Marvel Studios–keeps churning out ad nauseum. Robert Downey Jr’s career-resurrecting performance elevates the material, though, and energizes the proceedings with a refreshing dose of fun.
Iron Man 2
Having embraced his pledge to make up for a lifetime of war profiteering, Tony Stark finds his successful privatization of world peace threatened by US government intervention. Heightening the tension, the only known treatment for Tony’s heart condition is proving as fatal as the malady itself.
The pressure sets off a midlife crisis which places Tony’s business, relationships, and life in even greater jeopardy while interference from an unscrupulous competitor and a vengeful nemesis further compounds his peril.
Will Tony find a reason beyond his own interests to be a hero before his time runs out and his powerful technology is set loose on the world?
Iron Man and War Machine
The most awesome fight in a cherry orchard since Bleach
Iron Man 3
Traumatized by events that happened in another series but are only vaguely alluded to here, Tony Stark throws himself into his work. No, not ensuring world peace. Puttering around in his basement. Meanwhile, his love life–and life on earth in general–circles the drain.
A character with a Chinese code name who’s played by a British actor of Indian extraction to avoid racism and certainly not to appease an audience that Hollywood desperately hopes to milk now that they’ve alienated most of the West, claims responsibility for a series of bombings.
When the director of the first two Iron Man movies is blasted into a coma, Tony argues with Pepper about their relationship, fails to prevent three helicopters form destroying a house packed with enough firepower to turn North America to glass, and visits Chattanooga, Tennessee. His panic attacks sporadically grind the story to a halt.
Pepper is abducted and infected with the same nanotech virus that makes some people explode, but turns most of them into super soldiers capable of shredding multiple Iron Man suits apiece. The dramatic tension needle remains fixed at zero.
Tony and Rhody team up. A sub-par episode of Riptide ensues.
Riptide
How Bill Gates really made his money
Culminating in…
Fake Mandarins
Fake Mandarins
Least irritating plot: Iron Man 1 and 2 tie.
The Best Iron Man Film
Iron Man 2
It’s not even that close. The first Iron Man set up an intriguing character and laid the groundwork for an enduring superhero mythos, but the sequel did what a good sequel should: deliver on the promises made in the original while raising the stakes and expanding the secondary world.
Yes, the first movie is good. But being an origin story, it only hints at the hero’s full potential. Only in Iron Man 2 do we get to see Tony Stark at the top of his superhero game squaring off against equally formidable superpowered opposition.
This movie keeps every promise made by its predecessor and does it in style. Rhody finally suiting up as War Machine and kicking drone ass after ogling the Mark II and vowing “Next time, baby” is one of the sweetest payoffs in the MCU to date.
I could go on, but the point has been made with mathematical precision. Iron Man 2 is the best film in the franchise. Case closed!
Special recognition for entry in the series that bends over the farthest to indulge the stars’ egos, the director’s condescending PC bullshit, and the studio’s servile greed goes to Iron Man 3.