300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE

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By R. David

Viewed March 7, 2014

The sequel, “300:  Rise of an Empire”, takes place before, during and after Zack Snyder’s original “300”.  It’s an odd, potentially confusing, yet interesting framing device for a film that is otherwise fairly devoid of original ideas.  The narrative proves successful in keeping audiences interested in all this simplistic battle-to-rule-it-all nonsense, if for no other reason than we maintain some interest as to how the two films will ultimately align.  Because this is not a immediate sequel to the 2007 hit, and doesn’t feature any of the prominent cast members of that film in major roles, providing a concurrently-running backstory to – not only what became of those characters, but how these new ones relate – is a rather ingenious bit of melding what is otherwise a completely separate film to its namesake source material.  This is a far more interesting approach than, say, lazily informing us via an opening title card crawl or half-hearted action montage that everyone from the first film is simply gone and we’re moving on.

Like the original “300”, “Rise of an Empire” is based on the graphic novels by Frank Miller, who is all but deified among comic book aficionados and film fanboys alike.  Noam Murro takes over directing duties from Zack Snyder (who stills serves as producer) but the difference in their technique and style are negligible.  Snyder’s fingerprints are all over this film, from the famous freeze-frame, slow-mo effect in the battle sequences, to the geysers of blood and severed limbs that fly across the screen, to the entire production taking place in front of green screen, digitally altered backgrounds and locations.  Murro (whose only other directing credit is the little-seen and long forgotten 2008 dramady “Smart People”) makes a fine substitute as all but the most discriminating Snyder faithful (if there is such thing) will likely notice the replacement.  I can only assume this is very much intentional on Warner Bros.’ part as this sequel arrives a couple of years too late and couldn’t feel more like a cash-in move by the studio VS something resembling an actual project that anyone involved here was in any way passionate about beyond its box office potential.  The last thing they want to do is draw attention to the fact that nobody from the first film cared to return for a second (at least not in their same roles and capacity).

But for a soulless, cash-in sequel that no one was really clamoring for at this point, “300:  ROAE” is surprisingly engaging.  It all but pauses to admit to the audience that there is no justification for its existence, but it will give it the old college try just the same.  And that bit of heart – its desire to please and entertain – carries it a good long way towards approaching something resembling passable entertainment.  The story arc, as mentioned, is intriguing, and its a fine excuse to hang all the gonzo, bloody battles and snarling dialog that is now this series stock in trade.  ROAE is really no better or worse than its predecessor (despite what that film’s oddly dedicated followers would have you believe).  If you found “300” thrilling on a visceral level, I can’t fathom how that same audience would not be elated here has well.  It really is more of the same.  So, at the very least, ROAE gives its target audience what they want rather than trying to up the ante with a bunch of highfalutin, earnest melodrama in an effort to disguise itself as something better or smarter than the silly matinee-level bloodbath it is.

The plot here is more or less beside the point.  It’s a bit more complicated (well, convoluted anyway), but in a nutshell – and all anyone really needs to know in order to understand the point of all the carnage on the screen, if any – in a separate but parallel mission to Gerard Butler’s King Leonidas in the first film, Greek general Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton, from the Cinemax series “Strike Back”) and his hoorah-merry band of Spartan warriors have set sail to unite all of Greece against Persian invaders, led by man-God (and gay icon, apparently) Xerxes (a returning but barely used Rodrigo Santoro).  Xerxes has dispatched Artemisia (“Casino Royale” Bond Girl, Eva Green), commander of the Persian navy, to lay waste to Themistokles and his men.  Bloody battles and lots of mantra shouting ensues.

This is all pretty basic stuff, but it’s poured through a high gloss, CGI filter of cinematic tricks to distract from its less-than involving story and slack pace (it’s even being shown in 3-D for those who really want to feel as though the crimson viscera is hitting them in the face).  ROAE isn’t boring exactly – it never goes more than a few minutes between epic battles – but there’s not a whole lot for the audience to invest in, rendering all the supposed danger and would-be excitement rather nonexistent.  The movie looks terrific but that doesn’t translate into audiences caring about these characters or their motives.  As a result, all the heavy-breathing talk of a mission that must be completed at all costs, for the greater good, and that is more important than life itself elicits eye rolls instead of anything resembling emotional investment.

But ROAE does have one ace up its sleeve, and her name is Eva Green.  While all the men are your garden variety grunting and shouting warriors we all remember from the first film, Artemisia is a cunning, sexy and razor-tongued enigma.  She chews scenery, as well as any one who gets in her way.  She is by far the most interesting and intimidating character in film where everyone is brandishing swords and hacking off limbs.  And she plays with the big boys in kind.  Green was ravishing and heartbreaking in 2004’s “The Dreamers”.  This performance doesn’t exactly require nuance, but she is a stunning and sexual creature of a different sort here.  Her hate-fu*k scene with Themistokles is one the more surprising and memorable sex scenes in recent movie memory, and in this film, with all of its bellowing and 3-D assisted mayhem, it is ironically the one thing audiences are likely to remember more than five minutes after the film ends.  It’s a brilliant character choice and casting move, and easily the best thing about ROAE.

“300:  Rise of an Empire” looks great and gets the job done in terms of spectacle entertainment; and thanks to Eva Green’s delicious performance (the rest of the cast all carry themselves adequately, if none too memorably) even manages to provide a surprising amount of levity and intrigue.  It’s not a great film, but it should please its intended audience, and certainly could have been so much worse.

2½ Stars (Out of 4)

A WORD OR TWO ABOUT ‘BATFLECK’

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photo credit: npr.org

By R. David

On August 22, 2013 – a date that will live in internet infamy – Warner Bros. announced that Ben Affleck will be the new Batman in director Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” sequel.  And immediately, as is now universal custom whenever a major pop culture casting decision is revealed, the Twitterverse and blogospheres lost their collective shit.

Frankly, no matter who was named the new Batman, things likely would have gone down pretty much the same way.  After all, what else is social media for if not to bitch about pop culture news?  Well, okay; that and shit like Grumpy Cat.

Actually, for once, I’m not sure the Internet had come together in agreement on the perfect choice for the new Dark Knight.  I don’t think there was even a fanboy Top 5 that formed something resembling a general consensus.  I heard Ryan Gosling’s name floated a bit (which would have been a terrible pick) and there was some (apparently premature or flat-out false) indication that Josh Brolin was the front-runner (I can see that).  Beyond that, there was a lot of talk about virtual unknowns and guys that you’d only want to be Batman because you watch “True Blood” getting the part.

Ultimately, Warner Bros. decided to go with a big name star and someone who’s career is on a critical and commercial hot streak at the moment (if you’ve forgotten, the last movie Affleck was in – which he also directed – just won the Best Picture Oscar).  If nothing else, from a business standpoint, I can’t fault their logic.

Oh, but the all-knowing fanboy masses apparently can.

Early internet chatter on the casting news has been overwhelmingly negative; with comic book fans, movie buffs, and even people who clearly don’t really give a shit who plays Batman caught in some weird Twitter competition to determine who can deliver the zaniest pun.  The real crazies went so far as to say things like “I’ll never see another Warner Bros. movie again,” and wishing harm to Affleck so the role would have to be recast.  Hell, within 24 hours there was already a change.org petition protesting Affleck’s casting.  Petitions, fer cryin’ out loud, people!

Most of the outrage comes from people who, ten years later, still feel burned by Affleck’s turn in “Daredevil”.  I’ll grant you guys, he wasn’t exactly an acting powerhouse in that one, but it was a shitty movie all around; a Marvel Comics’ movie before Marvel started making decent movies about their second-tier characters.

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image credit: tasteofcinema.com

Also, Affleck was a much different actor – and all-around person, some would argue – 10 years ago.  So this also goes for the people bringing up “Gigli”, “Reindeer Games”, or “Pearl Harbor”:  Whatever work the guy did at the height of his “Next Big Thing”, paycheck(no pun intended)-cashing, “Beniffer” days is probably not the greatest barometer with which to judge his acting skills – never mind his ability to portray Batman/Bruce Wayne.

I used to be as big an Affleck-hater as the next guy.  He seemed incapable of giving a performance without projecting an irksome air of bland smugness into every role (because, I figured, he probably was an irksome, bland and smug dude and just too shitty an actor to hide it on screen).  And nearly all of his film choices in the first two-thirds of the 2000s were utter crap (except for the time – ironically – when he portrayed “Superman” actor George Reeves in “Hollywoodland“).  But he has made a career turnaround in the last 6 years or so that is right out of a classic Hollywood comeback tale.  “Gone Baby Gone”, “The Town” and “Argo” is as impressive a trilogy as any current director has delivered, never mind as their first three films out of the gate.  Granted, his directorial chops say nothing about his ability to play Batman, but it’s worth noting that he also starred in “The Town” and “Argo” – both brooding character dramas, not unlike Batman thematically– and to great dramatic effect.

image credit: film.com

image credit: film.com

Also, Superhero movies have a way of chewing up and spitting out the guys who seem perfect for the job, while proving those initially thought to be miscast as revelations.  Michael Keaton, generally a comedian and in no way physically imposing, as the first cinematic Batman; Heath Ledger, untested in anything resembling dark, psychological drama, as The Joker in “The Dark Knight”; relative unknown Hugh Jackman as Wolverine; and to one generation Robert Downey Jr. was a Hollywood punch line and to another he was, “who?”, when cast as Tony Stark/Iron Man – all were met with the same sort of venom-spewing indignation from obsessive comic book fans as Affleck is receiving at the moment .

Conversely; George Clooney, an up-and-coming Hollywood A-lister, was seen as the perfect choice to carry on the  Batman torch; Eric Bana was supposed to bring a certain gravitas to the role of the Hulk that often proved unattainable in big, Hollywood blockbusters; Nicolas Cage – still doing better-than-average box office numbers on his name alone at the time – in “Ghost Rider”; and Ray Stevenson (here’s your argument for – or against, depending on how you want to look at it – casting a relatively unknown TV actor as the titular hero in a comic book movie) was supposed to be the guy that saved “The Punisher” movie franchise.

Obviously, how those supposed bone-headed casting decisions worked out VS the supposed sure-things says a mouthful about trying to predict what type of actor will make a great superhero.

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image credit: nerdacy.com

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image credit: www.telegraph.co.uk

But choosing a quality Batman doesn’t simply boil down to bold, eyebrow-raising casting decisions. Michael Keaton and Christian Bale were the only Batmen to make an impression because they shared one simple but generally overlooked trait that Val Kilmer and George Clooney lacked: the ability to give two separate and distinguishable performances – one as Batman, one as Bruce Wayne.  Keaton was (surprisingly) effectively stoic and heroic as The Caped Crusader, but had a completely different attitude and demeanor as Bruce Wayne; convincing as both the shrewd business man and cocky playboy of Wayne’s public persona, but also as the tormented recluse of the character’s true self.  So successfully inhabiting both sides of the Batman/Bruce Wayne character is what made Keaton arguably the best Caped Crusader yet.  It’s a shame Tim Burton’s two Goth-deco epics with Keaton never truly mined the depths of the Wayne psyche the way Christopher Nolan’s films and – to an even greater and darker extent – Frank Miller’s comic adaptions of the character did. I would have loved to see Keaton dig even deeper into the Batman/Bruce-public/private divide.

Christian Bale pulled off a similar feat in Nolan’s Batpics, though I was never as convinced of his fun-loving playboy persona, of course that was no doubt an intentional choice on his and Nolan’s part to portray and explore a much darker Bruce Wayne. That makes Bale’s Wayne less removed from his titular alter ego, however he was no less convincing in drawing a line of distinction between the two.

The two Joel Schumacher Batman films of the mid-90s had many problems beyond the choice of actors to play Batman. Perhaps if they had been in films less cartoonish, poorly written and overstuffed with supporting characters; and that were less of a gaudy, fetishistic visual nightmare – maybe in completely different movies – Val Kilmer or George Clooney could have been a quality Batman/Bruce Wayne. As it is, their portrayals offer no distinction between the two personalities and no exploration into the mind and motivations of the two alter egos.  They give the same performance out of the Batsuit as in, and mistake both characters for fun-loving, gadget-obsessed thrill-seekers.  James Bond in a rubber suit (and this time with nipples and a codpiece, everybody!)

image credit: www.avclub.com

image credit: www.avclub.com

image credit: comicbookresources.com

image credit: comicbookresources.com

I have no reason to assume Ben Affleck – or Zack Snyder for that matter; he is the guy giving Affleck his direction after all – understands this distinction and will not make the same mistakes that Schumacher, Kilmer and Clooney did.  However, I have no reason to assume he will make the same mistakes either. Christopher Nolan (you know, the guy who gave the world what is overwhelmingly considered the most complex and narratively ambitious rendering of the Batman universe on screen so far) is producing Affleck’s first stab at the character; Warner Bros. would never allow another debacle the likes of the Schumacher Batflicks; and Affleck has grown by leaps and bounds as not just an actor but as a true filmmaker who, by that very definition, should understand the necessity of character development and giving an in-depth, multilayered performance.

As much as I’ve come around to accepting The New Ben Affleck, I too admittedly have some concerns about him being the right guy for the cowl. Something about his demeanor just doesn’t scream Batman to me. And even though I think he’s been good in several dramas, I have yet to see Affleck go really dark, or tackle any psychologically complex characters. And I fear as Bruce Wayne, he will simply pull out the same smirky, smug, smart-alecky posturing he coasted on for so much of his early career, before donning the Batsuit and then simply grimacing his way through the action sequences.

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But honestly, those are concerns I would have of nearly any actor set to take this role.  But that’s why they call it acting.  Ben Affleck may not have a lot of the necessary cred under his belt to justify him landing this gig; but then again, neither did Michael Keaton or Christian Bale or Heath Ledger. Producers and directors have to be trusted to know which performers embody what they are looking for in their characters and give them the part based on how they fit into that mold – and hopefully how capable they are of breaking it. My hope is that Warner Bros., Snyder and Nolan genuinely see that in Affleck, and not simply a big name to potentially beef-up grosses when a lesser-known actor may have brought a more complex performance to the table.

Only time will tell and I may eat my words (and I will gladly admit fault if that time indeed comes), but I say Ben Affleck will end up surprising us all, and his Batman will be the next step in his impressive career evolution.

Frankly, I’m more concerned that Snyder and Co. botch the whole ‘Superman VS Batman’ concept and set Affleck up to fail by sticking him in movie that treats Batman as an afterthought or stunt-casting coupe simply to get people to pay for another bombastic-yet-empty “Man of Steel” flick.  We’re assuming Snyder’s take on Batman will even want to be as dark and morally complex as Nolan and Burton’s renderings. They could be shooting for a much more family-friendly, Marvel-like take on the character(s) simply to set-up the inevitable “Justice League” behemoth and position it as an “Avengers”-style, easily accessible crowd-pleaser.

Christ, I hope not.

There too, though:  deep breath, remain calm, positive thoughts.

IRON MAN 3 / MAN OF STEEL

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By R. David

The ever-crowded field of superheroes wreaking havoc on our movie theaters is once again at fever pitch this summer.  Like last summer’s “Avengers” VS “The Dark Knight Rises” battle for box office and fanboy supremacy, this year “Iron Man 3” and “Man of Steel” both arrive within mere weeks of each other, and each riding a wave of lofty buzz and expectations – both from comic book-film fans and their respective studios.

Warner Bros.’ “Man of Steel” is undoubtedly the riskier and more interesting of the two competitors.  The studio has had tremendous success throughout the past decade with Christopher Nolan’s rebooted Batman franchise, but they haven’t found a way to produce a Superman film that has resonated with audiences in over 30 years.  Despite the superhero-friendly climate of the mid-aughts, 2006’s Bryan Singer-directed “Superman Returns” was a solid box office performer, but it failed to “break out” the way Nolan’s Dark Knight films did – never inciting a similar level of intense fanboy love (and this was before the game-changing juggernaut that was “The Dark Knight”) – and fell about $100 million short of the kind of box office receipts the Marvel Comics-based films were raking in at the time.  The general consensus – especially amongst the all-important fanboy community – was audiences were underwhelmed by Singer’s sincere take on the hero.  He tried (admirably, some would argue) to capture and continue the light, family-friendly tone of Richard Donner’s iconic 1978 theatrical take on the Man of Steel in a climate where dark, angsty superheroes were all the rage.

Now, six years later, Warner Bros. is wiping the slate clean and attempting to make a place for Superman in this ever-expanding universe of comic book movie competitors.  This time, they have made an obviously calculated decision to drag Superman – kicking and screaming if need be – into the darker, hyper-realized superhero-chic aesthetic of today’s comic book film adaptations with “Man of Steel”.  Director Zack Snyder (“300”, “Watchmen”) has never been one for subtlety, but has long been championed for his visual flair.  He gives “Man of Steel” a visceral punch lacking in any of the previous Superman film attempts.  But it’s the inclusion of Christopher Nolan as the film’s producer and obvious guiding light – and long-time Nolan collaborator, writer David S. Goyer – Warner Bros. is no doubt putting most of its faith in to (finally) jumpstart a new Superman franchise, just as they did with Batman for the studio nearly a decade ago.

Unfortunately for Warner Bros. – and for audiences – Nolan and Goyer don’t seem inspired to bring the same sort of complex narrative structure and gravitas to their Superman reboot as they did to their methodically intricate Dark Knight trilogy.  Perhaps this is because Nolan is simply producing, rather than directing “Man of Steel”, or perhaps Superman’s backstory and the ultimate, inescapable nature of the character simply does not lend itself to the same weighty real-world parallels as those of The Caped Crusader.  Goyer has deservedly received much praise for his Dark Knight scripts, but it’s important to remember that he has also written (“Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance”), produced (“Blade: Trinity”) and directed (“The Unborn”) his share of forgettable genre exercises.  When not collaborating on a story with Nolan, he seems content to simply go through the motions.  “Man of Steel” is no exception.  Despite being a reboot, there is very little in the way of storytelling here that feels fresh or new – either in terms of crafting a character origin story or as an attempt to explore or add to the Superman mythos.

“Man of Steel” begins on Krypton (a world that looks like the inside of a volcano, as opposed to the ice crystals of previous films), introducing us to Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his pregnant wife Faora-Ul (Ayelet Zurer).  Krypton is in the midst of literal self-destruction.  As the planet is engulfed in rolling flames and spontaneous explosions, General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts a coup d’etat to save Krypton by overthrowing the council of elders and taking command of the Codex, which will apparently prevent the impending apocalypse because, well, the film says so.  Neither why the planet is so briskly decaying (it is mentioned that this has all been trigged by environmental factors – because Important Political Commentary!) or how exactly Zod plans to reverse this is ever made very clear beyond the usual convoluted comic-booky reasoning involving all-powerful objects and sins-of-the-powerful-type speak.

Jor-El swipes the Codex and returns home where his wife gives birth to a son they name Kal-El.  Zod shows up to reclaim the Codex, leaving Jor-El no choice but to launch it – and his newborn son – into space, headed for an unknown planet.  (Spoiler:  That planet is Earth.)  Zod murders Jor-El, then is captured and tried for his crimes.  He and his henchmen are sentenced to some sort of outer space, cryogenic banishment, just as Krypton devours itself.  This all appears to take place over the course of a single afternoon (that’s one hell of an efficient justice system those Kryptonians have).

The movie then skips ahead 30-some years to a grown Kal-El, now played by Henry Cavill, working on an oil rig off the coast of Nova Scotia; going by the name Clark Kent and already fully aware of his Superman powers.  The movie fills in the blanks with flashbacks, showing us that Kal-El’s ship landed in the cornfields of Kansas, where he was taken in by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane – both well-cast here) and raised to carefully hide his otherworldly powers so he wouldn’t be ostracized by the masses, or worse yet, targeted by the military.  Throughout his life, Clark has found himself in situations that threatened to expose his true abilities, and carrying the weight of that burden has led him to a nomadic existence.  That is, until Zod tracks him down, exposes his true identity and makes it his mission to rebuild Krypton – on Earth.

“Man of Steel” is at its best in those flashback moments.  Not only is seeing Clark discover and learn to live with his alien powers a lot more interesting than any of the intergalactic conspiracy nonsense Goyer cooks up, but it is a far more effective film in these quieter moments than when Snyder cranks up all of the genre-standard bombast. The quitter moments between Clark and his adoptive father are among the film’s most memorable, giving it (and the characters) a humanity that is absent from the movie’s second half, despite the fact that Snyder keeps beating the save-the-human-race drum even after the film has long since collapsed into cartoony sci-fi (so much so that he overtly and awkwardly positions Superman as a Christ-like figure in several shots).

For his part, Cavill is something of an enigma; though that may be more the script’s doing than his own.  He certainly looks the part and seems capable of giving an effective performance, but he is saddled with a script that gives him hardly any dialog early on and then nothing but do-gooder, superhero clichés to spout when he is finally set loose.  Mostly his performance boils down stoic brooding, indifferent gazes and puppy-dog-eyed sentimentality.  He also strangely never seems to be very amazed or excited by his powers.  I get that he discovered most of them as a child, but the film shows him discover he can fly for the very first time.  He seems happy enough about it, but there is none of the, “Holy-effing-shit, I CAN FLY!” excitement you’d expect to see at a moment like this.  The whole movie lacks a certain sense of wonder and amazement.  Maybe it’s because Snyder and Goyer figure we’ve seen so much of this before in five previous Superman movies, and dozens of other superhero films.  Or maybe it’s simply because we indeed have seen these things in all of these other films.  Either way; that they couldn’t seem to find a way to up the ante here robs the movie a lot of potential excitement and payoff.  As a result, there’s very little for Cavill as an actor to hang his hat on, and even less so for us an audience to find ourselves truly invested in the outlandish conflict presented here.

And that’s a shame because, for a while at least, “Man of Steel” seems to be on to something.  Snyder’s visual flair is firmly intact here – with the flashback sequences recalling the wistful, daydream-like nature of Norman Rockwellesque Americana, and a bit of polished-cinema verite style to many of the action sequences (think a glossier version of the destruction in films like “Cloverfield” and “Chronicle”).  But Snyder just doesn’t know a good thing when he’s got it.  He’s like a poker player sitting pretty with 19 who says, “hit me.”  He just can’t help but overplay his hand.  He doubles down with a tedious second half filled with ridiculous exposition and an endless barrage of climactic sequences that are so noisy, chaotic and numbing, they make the finales in the “Transformers” movies look refined by comparison.

That I don’t even feel the need to mention should-be major plot points like Clark’s relationship with reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) shows just how insignificant the film treats their burgeoning romance.  They have very little interaction and know each other for only a few days, yet there they are kissing and getting all teary-eyed over one another by the end of the movie.  Adams does what she can with the role, but their relationship just doesn’t wash.  It doesn’t help that she’s the rebellious, adventurous type and he’s the strong-silent type – hardly a convincing or interesting couple.  But Goyer has a franchise to reboot, so I guess he had to shoehorn the Lois Lane character in there somehow, right?

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A convincing romance is not a problem in “Iron Man 3”, however.  In fact, Tony Stark’s love for Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is his main motivation throughout much of the latest installment in this cash-cow series, which now by extension also includes “The Avengers” (AKA The Highest Grossing Superhero Movie Of All Time).  This time around, Stark faces threats new and old.  The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) is a psychotic Middle-Eastern terrorist bomber who intimidates our nation with murderous viral videos before launching each attack.  Meanwhile, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) is a one-time would-be Stark protégé who still harbors scornful rage towards Stark for blowing him and his ideas off over 13 years ago.  Now he is a biological weapons-manufacturing scientist who’s genius is on par with Stark’s, and if he can’t get Stark to buy his latest idea, he’ll use it against him – and the world.

The problem is, Stark has been so rattled by the events that concluded “The Avengers” that he now suffers anxiety attacks at the slightest mention of “New York”.  Taking a page from Nolan and Goyer’s “The Dark Knight Rises”, Stark spends his days as a tormented recluse, toiling away in his Malibu mansion-cum-workshop, and letting Pepper take care of Stark Industries.  It isn’t until she is targeted and placed in immediate danger that he becomes determined to step back into action.

And that’s only “Iron Man 3’s” plot at face value.  There are several reveals in the film – scripted by its director Shane Black (who takes over for Jon Favreau, who helmed the first two installments and has a cameo here) and Drew Pearce – that turn several plot strands upside down.  They aren’t necessarily believable or satisfying – or make the film better than it would have been had it stayed the course – but in the bargain we also get a second act that has more in common with Black’s “Lethal Weapon” or “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” scripts than the usual non-stop stunts and explosions of the more typical superhero flicks.

After The Mandarin sends Stark’s cliff-side mansion – and his entire weapons workshop, housing all of his Iron Man gear – crashing into the ocean, Stark spends the entire mid-section of the film as himself rather than the titular hero.  It’s a bold move on Black’s part but it pays off thanks to some terrific writing and dialog.  Not only is Robert Downey Jr. as impressive as ever as the humorously sarcastic and smug Stark, but he also has winning moments with Paltrow, Ty Simpkins as a small town kid Stark is marooned with for a spell, and his de facto partner, Don Cheadle’s Colonel James Rhodes.  Stark and Rhodes buddy-cop speak and their sarcastic one-liners are right in writer/director Black’s wheelhouse; and the movie, characters and dialog feel fresher than they otherwise might have had Black not deviated from the Iron Man course for a good chunk of the film.  Indeed, when the movie returns its focus to the usual razzle-dazzle special effects and convoluted exposition of the rather contrived plot points, the movie loses zip in the place where it should be gaining it.  Only a mid-air rescue aboard an exploding Air Force One feels truly inspired.  The finale that follows is entertaining enough from an action standpoint, but memorable it is not.

Still, “Iron Man 3” is a great deal better than the second movie.  For one thing, it feels like an actual film, not simply an excuse to get the remaining necessary characters introduced before “The Avengers” film.  “Iron Man 3” is also a bit less exhausting than “The Avengers”, even if it lacks a good deal of that film’s energetic pizazz and great comic moments.  That’s not to say “Iron Man 3” doesn’t have enough of its own; most of them courtesy of Downey’s typically masterful portrayal of Stark(I still say there is no reason a guy can’t be nominated for an Oscar simply because he wears a giant metal suit), though you can’t praise him without acknowledging Black and Pearce’s script.

“Iron Man 3” may stumble when trafficking in some of the more tired superhero tropes, but just because it has a more familiar style and tone than “Man of Steel”, doesn’t mean it can’t be the more satisfying film.  Snyder’s attempt to break new ground for the Superman franchise has many admirable qualities, but he and Goyer largely drop the ball where it counts:  giving us a story we can care about and action sequences that are something more than an exhausting, endless blur of uninspired special effects.  “Man of Steel” looks great and boasts some nice moments and clever ideas.  Too bad they only serve to makes us all the more aware of the kind of film it could have been.  “Iron Man 3” is not as ambitious or grandiose (only relatively speaking in this case, of course), but it gives the series a breath of fresh air while still giving fans what they want.

Snyder should take notes.

Man of Steel: 2 stars out of 4.

Iron Man 3:  3 stars out of 4.