Last month, my editor, Brian, reviewed Iron Man 3, the latest movie to come from the Marvel movie studios, and while I respectfully disagree with his opinion of the movie. I found it to be my favourite of the trilogy, concluding a story arc that had been in the works for three movies while creating a captivating villain and focusing on the more human aspects of Tony Stark – and yes, I even enjoyed the incredibly unsubtle “Everything’s changed since New York” angle. I don’t think the movie itself is worth talking about at this stage. If the sales figures are to be believed, everyone and their dog has already seen this movie twice, which means I think it’s finally time to get into spoiler territory surrounding the controversy that has been the center of comic fans’ discussion of the movie since it was first released. If that bugs you, go watch the movie and come back when you’re done. Don’t worry; I’ll still be here, and the movie is more than worth your money if you care about comic books or superhero action movies, in my humble opinion.
Life in the The Nolanverse
Oh wait, don’t go. Yes, I know I talked about continuity last time, but that was a conversation about how Hollywood’s corporate angle tends to mess with everything good about comics, using diversity as a side note and turning prominent side characters into little more than eye candy. This is a conversation about the times Hollywood gets it right, and by Hollywood, I mean Marvel Films and Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, because honestly, those are the only two examples I can think of off the top of my head where Hollywood doesn’t screw this thing up.
It’s ironic to put Marvel Films and Christopher Nolan into this category because both operate in such different, tangential ways that it seems almost ludicrous to compare them. One is a large company run by their head comic office that’s sole job is to make comic book movies based off their own properties, and thus can’t afford to half-ass it, while the other is a talented director known for many different movies with only two true common elements, a unique visual style, and a desire to mess with the audience’s heads…a lot. The former makes movies that seem almost silly in their premises, but tends to follow through on the craziness fans of the comics have been dreaming of since they were little, while the other made a trilogy almost completely isolated from the original comics to create a more cerebral and dark atmosphere. And both are great at what they do (excluding Dark Knight Rises. I hate that movie, but that’s for another day).
So why the comparison? Well, they each do one thing equally right: they recognize that while the desire to follow comic book continuity is strong, the ability to drift away from what was previously established in a way that makes sense for the atmosphere of the movies one is trying to create is what separates a good comic book movie from a great one.
The most obvious example of this is Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. When you watch that movie, it doesn’t feel very comic book-y. It’s a very dark movie with almost no humour to be found, and there’s an incredibly high death toll when taking everything into account. It pushes the angle of the Joker being more of a deranged lunatic than ever before, with his craziness dropping any mildly humourous element it may have had in the books and replacing it with a sinister undertone and sheer contempt for mankind. It’s got political allegories everywhere, especially in the dynamics between Harvey Dent and, well, every other named character. And Batman’s forced into this darker, desperate place where he’s even willing to spy on the entire city just to shut the Joker down. It doesn’t carry any of the typical comic book beats, focusing instead on smaller, more intense mini battlegrounds on which this entire battle of order vs. chaos is played out. Most importantly, it’s a brilliant piece of film that’s enjoyable throughout precisely because of these elements.
Look, Batman’s a tough character to get right. Focus on the darker, more sinister elements of his comic book stories and you get the mess that was Tim Burton‘s Batman Returns. But focusing on the lighter elements just gives you the overwhelmingly stupid Batman & Robin by Joel Schumacher. Christopher Nolan’s answer was to not worry so much about the actual comic books and tell the story he wanted to tell with his interpretation of what Batman should be. That doesn’t necessarily mean his process would work well with every hero (I’ve been worried about his involvement on Man of Steel since it was announced), but for Batman and that particular trilogy, it just worked.
Meanwhile, over at Marvel
Marvel Films, of course, is far more interested in ensuring that characters follow the arcs and stories that original drew comic book fans into the characters since, after all, Marvel told those stories to begin with. That said, Marvel’s done a great job in showing an ability to change up the formula whenever it makes more sense for the cinematic universe to go in a different direction. Take, for example, the overwhelmingly awesome Avengers. When you first saw that movie, there were probably a million variants of “That. Was. AWESOME!!!” swirling around in your head, but when it came time to explain one of the your favourite elements, the friendship between Tony Stark and Bruce Banner had to be up there. After all, Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo both submitted great acting performances, and their on screen chemistry as the two geniuses with a lot in common just made sense.
Here’s the funny part, Iron Man and the Hulk actually don’t get along in the comics. Heck, it wasn’t all that long ago that Tony Stark headed a group of Illuminati to trick the Hulk into entering a satellite that was then sent deep into space because the Hulk had become too powerful to remain on Earth (no really, that happened). To say no love was lost between the two men is probably an understatement. Yet in the cinematic universe, their friendship made sense. The two were both very intelligent, equally untrustworthy of SHIELD, and neither really saw themselves as heroes. Since both were at similar points in their lives of having to accept their hero identities for what they are, it made sense they would bond over that fact and become close. Marvel could have let a need to let comic continuity reign supreme get in the way of this relationship, but instead, they let the Marvel Cinematic Universe do its own thing, and it’s far better for it as a result.
Which, finally brings us to Iron Man 3. If you don’t want to be spoiled, turn back now. I’m serious; this knowledge will change your movie watching experience pretty dramatically if you haven’t seen it yet. Last chance. I’m warning you.
Okay, cool, you’re still with me. In Iron Man 3, the big villain was supposed to be the Mandarin, an epic villain of Chinese descent with ten power rings, a brilliant mind, and a martial arts master to boot. Given he was being played by Ben Kingsley, it was sure to be a portrayal of epic proportions, with this villain being the zaniest thing the Marvel Cinematic Universe had introduced to this point, which is saying a lot given the whole “Norse gods are real” thing.
Then a funny thing happened. Turns out the Mandarin as he exists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is actually nothing more than a front man. In reality, he’s a drug addicted actor who’s in way over his head, with Aldrich Killian, the real villain of the piece played by Guy Pierce, pulling the strings. This has been the center of much controversy in recent weeks, with some going so far as to claim that the movie ruined the character.
Given the current trend of this article, you can probably guess what side of this argument I’ll be on, but I’ll outright state it anyway; I love this twist. Look, guys, I know the Mandarin is pretty cool, but in all reality, it’s not like the character is done an injustice here. Having Ben Kingsley play a bumbling idiot pretending to be a powerful terrorist leader is hilarious, and when Aldrich Killian claims to be the Mandarin later, the whole thing makes sense. No, Killian doesn’t have the power rings, but he is able to fight expertly in hand-to-hand combat, hatch incredibly brilliant plans, and, oh yeah, breathe fire. This isn’t Marvel abandoning the sillier elements of the character; this is just them trading one silly element for another, and in the space of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this twist is both entertaining and makes a lot of sense. And don’t forget: there’s nothing that says the more traditional Mandarin and his power rings couldn’t come back later in a number of different ways.
At the end of the day, it’s hard for comic book fans like me to let go of our beloved continuity. You saw the anger I had two weeks ago about Jimmy Olsen becoming a girl, and I don’t even read Superman comics often. But when the decision is made with the purpose of making sense in this new movie universe, you have to examine it for what it is, not what it was elsewhere. If you look at any of these movies in terms of purely following the comics, there will always be inaccuracies and things that separate the two, but at the end of the day, what matters is if the movie works on its own. And these movies work.