A Middle Installment for Middle Earth

I am far from being a Tolkien fan. I remember finding in my high school’s library an old and battered paperback of Fellowship of the Ring during my first year and trying to read it. A chunk of its cover was gone, torn maybe, patched with white heavy paper (cartolina) and it had that musty smell books get inside a library, in the company of fellow volumes, untouched for years. I got through around three-fourths of the book before all the songs with unearthly names tired me.

Like most of my generation, my main acquaintance with Tolkien has been through the eyes of Peter Jackson. While I’m aware that Tolkien purists would scowl at the liberties Jackson took with the material (like, hey Aragorn and Arwen’s love story was never really elaborated in the books), I do consider his work exemplary pieces of cinematic storytelling.

However, I also take the opinion that splitting The Hobbit into three movies is a liberty quite large to take. While I haven’t read the book, I’m pretty certain that the first installment of Jackson’s Hobbit was padded with all those chase scenes and sword fights. Glad as I am to indulge in the scenery and wonders of Middle Earth once more, the most significant scene I can find in the first installment was those which involved Gollum, frail for all he is, a victim of his own greed as much as of circumstance.

Come the middle installment of this ongoing trilogy, I think I’m starting to discern a similarity between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Where Fellowship ends soon after a rather tiring battle sequence with a note of promise of hope-after-hardships for the main cast, so does the first Hobbit installment. Where Two Towers ends after a battle victory which is really just a prelude for a larger-scale war awaiting in the next installment, the second Hobbit ends after the main characters earn a temporary reprieve against the dragon Smaug, and even provides a set-up for a larger battle in the third installment.

Make no mistake, I still find Jackson’s take on The Hobbit, liberties and all, an enjoying experience. Though purists may argue that Tolkien will not be pleased with liberties taken with his work, I think we can at least agree that Jackson did his homework before taking the liberties. His additions and diversions do not break the spell of Tolkien’s Middle Earth but they do weaken the power of the story.

Blame it on the decision to make a trilogy out of a single book but I find that the story lines we follow in Desolation of Smaug not cohesive enough to make for a compelling tale. Early on in the movie, Gandalf separates himself from the main party to investigate the Necromancer’s presence further. A little before the end, just after we’ve reached the climax of Gandalf’s and the dwarves’ story lines, we see Legolas run after some orcs while Tauriel stays behind to take care of an ailing Kili.

Contrast to the story lines we had to follow in Lord of the Rings—which all revolved around the problem of destroying the One Ring and defeating Sauron once and for all—the dilemmas of each story line in Desolation do not move around a central theme. Each party to his own, at least until the last moment when Smaug decides to lay waste on Laketown. By the time this happens, I still had my sympathies divided over the imprisoned Gandalf, the dwarves trying to outwit Smaug, Kili’s near-death brush and his dreamy admission of feelings for Tauriel, and Legolas’ pursuit. And even at that, Smaug only ties up two of the multiple story lines.

The bottom line is that after two hours, the story was unable to make me care for the characters enough. I will surely watch the final installment because I want to see more, not because I want to know what happens with Bilbo and company.

If it’s any saving grace, what Desolation lacks in its plot, it makes up for execution and technical merit. Desolation is as much eye-candy as eye-candy can go. While watching, I found myself smiling at the wrong scenes because I was thinking of the computational effort that went into the construction of the scene rather than on what is actually happening. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen dragons given facial expressions before Desolation‘s Smaug. And it is every-facial-muscle believable at that. The scene where molten gold pours on Smaug is also well-done. The fluidity of molten gold is something no mere movie maker will attempt. Jackson certainly knows how to play his strong cards.

As I noted earlier, Jackson seems to be replicating a certain pattern from LotR into Hobbit. And please, please, I hope that what There and Back Again takes from Return of the King is in how it herds its story into a rousing conclusion, one that viewers can actually care about. After all, it finally concludes what is meant to be a single installment tale.

Here’s to hoping that Jackson has more tricks to play hidden in his sleeve.

Unsuited

“Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?”

“Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.”

I must admit, despite the smug with which Tony Stark has always made the audience feel sure of him, this famous exchange from The Avengers has got me thinking. Of the team, he is the only one whose “ability” relies on something beyond him. Sure all of them, save Thor, can thank comic book science for their abilities but at least the others always have that ability with them, unlike a full-body smartphone.

(More case in point, the race track encounter in Iron Man 2 where Stark was just useless until he got his armor from Pepper and Happy. “Just give me the case!” cried Stark. Pardon the pun.)

So, it was with curiosity that I looked forward to Iron Man 3. The trailers showed a Tony Stark who has to react to another surprise attack, this time bigger in scale than Whiplash in Monaco, while not in his armor. Really, what could a genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist do against surprise incoming missiles? It seemed to me that the people behind IM3 knew how to address Captain America’s jibe against Tony Stark.

I’ll save you my arguments for the next paragraphs but the film didn’t fully live up to the expectations the trailers set. I did not find it as bad as how others would make you believe—overall, it went as Marvel superhero movies are supposed to—but still, I found it lacking. And in those times where it could have made a point, it throws you a sucker punch, pun intended (again!).

Another thing the trailers made sure you didn’t miss is the fact that Tony Stark is troubled. A trailer starts with his voice over of an apology. Tony Stark does not apologize; he’s always right. And when he’s wrong, he’s always got an alibi to make a case that, at least, he’s partially right. Tony Stark doing an apology is like Tim Cook apologizing for Maps.

And Tony Stark is having nightmares. He can’t sleep well at night.

I found it interesting that they are integrating a plot point from The Avengers to IM3. Who would’ve thought that Stark’s daredevil stunt for a finale would haunt him way afterward. Interesting as it is, I found the execution poor and lacking, as if all this I’m-troubled-from-New-York drama was a last-minute addition to give IM3 more continuity from Avengers. Stark’s panic attacks just go at random points in the narrative, bearing no total weight on the film’s plot. Shame, as it could’ve integrated well with the film’s you-create-your-own-demons opening.

I think the film is trying to build-up Stark’s human element more than the previous three films which featured Iron Man. I think this is crucial in answering Captain America’s jibe. I can get all philosophical about it but take away the armor, the intellect, the money, and the ladies and Stark is just a man [1 ]. And their main point of attack is in pitting Stark against super-powered humans.

And I’m quite pleased at how they did it. Though I said earlier that IM3 plays as any Marvel superhero film is expected to play, there are huge chunks of the film where it doesn’t feel like a superhero movie at all and I found that good. Tony Stark fights—and wins the fight—without his armor. And he’s fighting Extremis-enhanced enemies at that. Totally badass. Finally, here’s what Stark is worth as an Avenger without his armor.

The set-up for the final fight sequence is excellent: Extremis-enhanced Killian versus Stark with his legion of Iron Man suits. We see Stark, jumping from suit to suit, trying to get the best of Killian as Killian trashes each [2 ]. Stark ultimately resorts to a surprise move involving the prodigal Mark 42 and yet that is not enough. If you haven’t seen the movie but have read to this point, pardon the spoilers (you should’ve expected them), but you should see what a tight plot corner Stark has been written into here. Iron Man suits are no use. Smart moves are no use. Hell-bent super-powered foe wanting to kill Stark.

But here comes the sucker punch (I’ll warn you: more spoilers ahead!). You know how Stark manages to live through that tight spot for Avengers 2? Help comes from his Extermis-enhanced lady love, Pepper Potts. And for a scene, Potts is the more powerful character; when an Iron Man in autopilot goes after her (having identified her abnormal heat signature for a possible enemy), she punches a hole through the armor’s chest, effortlessly sending it to kingdom come. There you have it. Pepper’s fist > Thor’s Mjolnir.

You can go all feminist about it, say how, at last, Potts is not just a damsel in distress but still, it totally ruins the set-up at how Stark could conclusively prove that he can be Iron Man without his suit. Granted, it’s a really tight corner they put Stark in and I’ll admit that even me, while watching the film, could think of no way it would end well for Stark without the involvement of Extremis (or equivalent) on his side.

Overall, if you’re in for a more logical-take on the comic books and yet retains that comic-book feel, Iron Man 3 will be an enjoyable two hours, if not a bit rushed. Maybe, it’s just the case that I’ve been expecting a Nolan where Nolan is not involved. Maybe, the people behind Marvel’s Cinematic Universe just raised questions for which they have no adequate set-up to provide satisfactory answers. It’s a fact that superhero movies are meant to be enjoyed with quite a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief—Iron Man 3 is no different. Maybe, if you just take the whole thing by face value, you’d find that it plays along finely.

  1. Take away the iron from Iron Man and he’s just a man. Okay, sorry I even made the joke but I can’t help it. []
  2. At this point, I find it funny how the Iron Man suit was able to withstand impacts from the Mjolnir, wielded by no less than Thor (cf. The Avengers), and yet they tear like paper against the  Extremis’ fire power. []