By Marc S. Sanders

It’s fair to say in 2008, a new pop culture phenomenon occurred and that was the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The first of a collection of highly successful crossover films was Iron Man featuring a Robert Downey Jr that was offering little promise in box office and commitment following stints in prison for his personal drug addictions. Director Jon Favreau felt that Downey was right for the title role, also known as brilliant, genius, wealthy playboy Tony Stark. Favreau’s confidence, as it turned out, was right all along.

Iron Man is an origin film. Tony Stark is a man with everything, but because of a lack of surviving family following the deaths of his parents, really, he sadly has nothing.

After being captured by Afghan terrorists, Stark, the world famous weapons manufacturer, has an epiphany and opts to take his billion dollar company in a new direction by halting production on all weaponry. Stark’s partner, Obadiah Stane played by Jeff Bridges, tries to contain Stark’s new campaign, and in turn becomes an adversary to contend with.

This is a summary of a great story, and even better, I have yet to discuss the main attractions of the film, the Iron Man suits. Sci fi and adventure movies work best when the highlighted visuals are not the story, but rather what accompanies the narrative. Iron Man is not so much about the suit. Moreover, it’s about the guy who built and wears the suit.

Downey is perfect in the role. Sure, his sarcasm and impulse to perform off script can get a little tiresome, but Downey also stops to give Tony Stark some heart as he bashfully pines for Pepper Potts played by Gwyneth Paltrow as his adorable sidekick in business. Also, his maturity comes into focus following his will to undo what he’s wrought prior to his captivity. It’s a great character arc of dimension and change.

Jeff Bridges plays one of my favorite MCU villains. At least I think so, because I understand where Stane is coming from. He’s gotta answer to his stockholders. Stark and Stane are in the money business regardless of the products they market and manufacture. He’s not all about global domination. He’s a man of responsibility. Bridges went with the comic book iteration of Stane from the late ‘80s publications by going bald with a devilish goatee. His height and broad shoulders plus his age match well against Downey. Bridges’ stature is intimidating opposite Downey’s reckless lack of care and immaturity through the first half of the film. Stane puts an arm around your shoulder, and you know you’re in trouble. So, it works really well here. Jeff Bridges really ranks as one of MCU’s most overlooked gems, now over 10 years and over 20 films in.

Favreau depicts some all too real and scary moments of terrorism and violence. This is all a step above the fantasy actions later to be seen from the likes of other Marvel villains like Loki, Ultron or Thanos.

It’s sadly ironic. One terrorist kicking a local in the head is harder for me to watch than a godlike giant who eliminates half the world’s population. Still, Favreau takes advantage of Downey’s comic timing and playful chemistry with Paltrow as well. Plus, there’s Terrence Howard as the no nonsense army colonel and friend “Rhodey” Rhodes (played in later films by Don Cheadle). Had Favreau not found that balance of heavy and light, we might not have seen the longevity of this continuing franchise.

The action scenes work well too. The Iron Man and Iron Monger (Stane’s costume) engage in a well edited and choreographed fight scene in the streets and evening skies of Malibu. Stark is plagued with weaknesses to add some “yikes” moments as he faces off against the hulk size Monger with Stane in control. These scenes are not blurry. It’s really what the action scenes of the Transformers films needed.

“Iron Man” foreshadowed a lot of fun material we were meant to see in later films. Blink and you’ll miss a certain patriot’s shield and stay for the first of many legendary end credits scenes that introduces an important character, leading to an eventual hit television series as well as becomes instrumental for all of these fun crossover moments.

Iron Man is an important film in cinematic history. It blazed a trail in big box office that’s given audiences lots of escape. The success of this franchise has attempted to be matched, but no other franchise has yet to come close. Sorry Star Wars and DC Comic films.

For now, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is as bulletproof as the Iron Man.

NOTE: Stan Lee cameo salute….Was that the real Hugh Hefner?!?!?!?

CRASH (2004)

By Marc S. Sanders

Paul Haggis’ vignette themed script for Crash should not have won Best Screenplay. The film he directed should not have won Best Picture. Could it be that because this picture is masked as that special movie with that especially poignant message that it got the recognition I don’t think it ever deserved? I can appreciate the attempt at bringing hot button social issues like racism and injustice to light, but it does not need to be as immaturely contrived as this picture.

Crash occurs over two days within the city of modern day Los Angeles. A select group of characters of different social classes and ethnicities are covered, and the film circumvents back and forth among their perspectives. For the most part, all of these people have major social hang-ups with people outside their race. The first example shows us that if a white woman who is simply cold on a winter night hugs her husband tightly for some warmth, apparently a couple of black men will automatically believe this woman is fearful of their approach.

Especially today, I know that prejudice exists, but to this extreme and this contrived…I’m not sure. I guess I’m not sure because I have not experienced it enough to be convinced yet. When I read a friend’s testimony of falling victim to racial prejudice I lean towards believing everything they tell me. I guess it’s this movie, Crash, that left me feeling dubious and maybe that’s because the circumstances seem way too forced.

A racist cop (Matt Dillon) will pull over a well to do Muslim man (Terrence Howard) driving a high priced SUV and perform a sobriety test for no reason. Then the cop will deliberately frisk the man’s wife (Thandie Newton) with digital penetration. The next day, it’ll just happen to be that this woman will have no choice but to be rescued from a burning car by this same racist cop. Now I’m supposed to believe that the racist cop is not so bad, and the woman learns to become more tolerant. Well gee, thank heavens for coincidences!

The Muslim man (a television show director) gets car jacked the following day, and in a tense pull over moment he’s mistaken as the criminal. Fortunately, the partner of the racist cop (Ryan Phillipe) is there to subdue the situation. I’m sorry, but life doesn’t work out to be this tidy. Call me cynical, but more often than not we are not given a second chance at first impressions.

One of the real car jackers (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) gets a moment of clarity and suddenly he’s generously giving out his last forty dollars to a group of Asian people being held in a van for human trafficking. Forgive me. If I want to begin respecting this car jacker who has held multiple people at gun point and even runs over a man, only to toss him out on the drive up to the Emergency Room, I’ll be more apt to do so if the criminal turns himself in.

I dunno. Maybe I’ve got a personal issue with Crash. It could not be more apparently preachy in how it patronizes me to simply understand the seething hate and criminal violations of its characters. I’m supposed to empathize with the racist cop because his ill father can’t get the health care he’s entitled to? I’m supposed to understand the prejudicial anger that the WASP wife (Sandra Bullock) of a District Attorney (Brendan Frasier) expresses because she no longer trusts her dedicated Hispanic housekeeper or the locksmith (Michael Pena) changing the locks on their house following a car jacking?

No. Paul Haggis didn’t earn that response from me in almost all of the short story scenarios his film offers. Maybe it’s because I tend to compartmentalize my episodes. I like to think that I don’t allow one experience with one kind of person cloud my judgement on the next person I encounter. A waiter can totally screw up my order and can even mouth off to me in a heated moment. Yet, I’ll return to the restaurant on another occasion because it’s likely I’ll run into a different waiter.

Haggis depicts people who appear to have a blanket opinion of other people with different backgrounds. These are all extremely prejudiced people with next to no understanding of where each of them stem from. An angry Persian man (Shaun Toub) puts blame on the locksmith after his convenience store is ransacked. The locksmith was only trying to explain that the back door needed to be replaced. The Persian refused to listen because his English is limited. So he just gets angry and curses the locksmith out. Haggis opts to insert a language barrier between the two men to serve up an eventual tense and dramatic moment in a neighborhood driveway with a loaded gun and a little girl. A loaded gun and a little girl! Yup, I think they teach these are the true ingredients for effective drama on the first day of screenwriting class. Again, it all comes about a little too forced.

The conveniences and ironies that bubble up at times are surprising. “Oh that guy is that guy’s brother! I see.” Things like that. However, I don’t think that is necessarily the strength of the picture.

In a film like Magnolia, we are treated to the vignettes of a handful of people too. However, not every single one of those people are sketched by means of their prejudiced natures. They are drawn by a variety of different elements whether it be a traumatic past or an inclination to do good. Then it’s kind of fun to uncover how each player is connected to one another.

In Crash, the players are only connected by the hate they carry within themselves, and Paul Haggis forces a redemption upon most of them with small gestures or a line of dialogue or the purity of a welcome snowfall to close out the film. Sorry, life is lot more messy and complicated than that. I guess I’m saying I may have learned a lot more about human nature from a downpour of frogs than a downpour of snow.