It seems awfully quaint today, but it really wasn’t that long ago that King Kong was close to the pinnacle of gee-whiz special effects entertainment. I was born in the mid ’70s, and my formative moviegoing years were colored by the Star Wars movies and the ever more realistic effects that sprung up in their wake — but in the years before CG domination, special effects were truly special, a dark art practiced by guys with mystical names like Harryhausen, Henson, and Lucas.
It’s true that there was always something a little hinky about the stuff those guys did, and looking back now at some of their more spectacular efforts, it’s easy to scoff at what made us ooh and ahh. But if they never really achieved the verisimilitude they were aiming for, those movies gave us something else — an identifiably human component. You could see the filmmakers’ fingerprints; you could smell their sweat. I realize I’m not saying anything here that hasn’t been said before, and it isn’t my intention to sound like an anti-digital crank. But watching the new King Kong Blu-ray and following it with Iron Man 2, I kept thinking of that famous Louis C.K. routine about the amazing technology at our fingertips, and how little we appreciate it. (Side note: I’m writing this review in a moving car, using my iPad and a Bluetooth keyboard. Score another one for technology.)
So here’s what I’m talking about: In 1933, Hollywood made a giant monkey climb the Empire State Building, and left an imprint on generations of thrilled filmgoers. In 2010, they united some of our finest actors for an awesome display of digitally sculpted action, and we all just sort of shrugged. Is Iron Man 2 that much worse than King Kong, or are we just numb? And whose fault is it?
First, let’s back up a little. For a movie about a stop-motion giant ape, King Kong has done pretty well for itself over the years; it’s an undisputed classic, and even though it’s been remade twice with superior special effects, our collective fondness for the original has remained undimmed. Here’s the proof, a beautifully assembled digibook Blu-ray offering a handsome book, roughly five hours of bonus features, and a 1080p conversion that looks cleaner than you’d have any right to expect, given the age of the film. If you love movies, you probably love King Kong — and if you love King Kong, this gives you everything you could ask for, right up to the legendary lost spider pit scene.
For most of us, King Kong is something we saw when we were kids — a mental slide show of iconic images, like Fay Wray shrieking and trying to wriggle her way out of Kong’s fist, or Kong battling biplanes from the top of the Empire State Building. What we tend not to remember is the human acting, and watching the movie through modern eyes, it’s easy to understand why; though the movie acts as a wonderful showcase for Wray’s underrated gifts, pretty much everyone else is reduced to stock hambone theater. It isn’t anyone’s fault — this is what passed for drama, and you can see it in just about any vintage film — but I defy you to get through a viewing without laughing, at least once, at something you aren’t supposed to.
Flaws aside, Kong is a thrilling film. It’s interesting to note that even then, directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack had to fight RKO over what the studio felt was an overly deliberate pace; executives wanted to trim the lengthy lead-in to Kong’s first appearance, but they argued that it would only increase the eventual payoff, and he was right. King Kong is a spectacle, but it’s also a story, and that’s a balance that filmmakers have always struggled to maintain. They did it here.
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Which leads us, in a roundabout way, to Iron Man 2, the sequel to one of 2008’s most surprising critical and commercial hits. In the pre-digital era, Iron Man never could have gotten made — picture the inherent hokiness of the Spider-Man and Hulk TV series, then imagine the unintentionally hysterical majesty of a movie about an actual man in an actual iron suit. And besides, outside of comics fan circles, few people knew or cared about Iron Man; he’s one of the most important characters in the Marvel universe, but he’d never achieved the level of cultural penetration enjoyed by Superman or Batman.
So Iron Man was a movie that no one really expected to be a smash hit, in spite of a terrific cast and the fact that director Jon Favreau seemed to have a fanboy’s earnest grip on the material. Ultimately, it was one of the year’s biggest blockbusters — and in the year that also gave us The Dark Knight, that’s saying something. Unfortunately, sequels don’t enjoy the element of surprise, and when Iron Man 2 soared into theaters over the summer, with Mickey Rourke, Scarlett Johansson, and a whole lot of inflated expectations in tow, it simply couldn’t recapture the shocked delight of the original. It’s one of the biggest hits of 2010, but when you think of Iron Man 2, you probably can’t help remembering the air of faint disappointment that surrounded its theatrical run.
This is a shame, because it’s a lot of fun. As an action movie, a superhero adventure, and a sequel, Iron Man 2 is better than most; it’s a seamless combination of solid acting and popcorn thrills. Reprising their roles as Tony Stark and his no-nonsense assistant, Pepper Potts, Robert Downey, Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow anchor the movie with their palpable chemistry; their scenes together, liberally seasoned with acidic banter, are some of the best in the film. And the supporting cast ain’t bad, either, from Don Cheadle (taking over for Terrence Howard as Tony’s military pal, James “Rhodey” Rhodes) to Rourke (as Ivan Vanko, a demented engineer with an axe to grind — or a whip to lash) to Sam Rockwell (as Tony’s chief rival, the shifty Justin Hammer). If you’re in the mood to quibble, you can point to Johansson’s rather wooden performance as Natasha Romanoff, the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent also known as Black Widow — but the script calls on her to be a curvy, emotionless badass, and that’s exactly what she is; besides, she helps carry one of the best, and funniest, fight scenes in the movie.
It’s well-acted, and it avoids the overstuffed feeling of many superhero sequels by uniting its two villains in a common plot. But it doesn’t thrill in the same way King Kong does — watching those sleek, airless action sequences feels like the movie equivalent of freebasing. There’s just so much stuff, and it all looks so perfect and easy. Where special effects once seemed labored over, now the goal is to never let ’em see you sweat, and the end result, while technically superior, just isn’t as impressive. I liked Iron Man 2 — more, I think, than most critics — but it isn’t the kind of movie that stays with you.
There’s absolutely no arguing with the added content in this bundle, though. Probably the neatest extra is the BD-Live feature called the S.H.I.E.L.D. Vault, which collects clips and information about the various Marvel Studios-owned film heroes (Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, Thor) and lets you watch them as the studio works its way toward The Avengers in 2012. On top of that, you get the usual stuff — behind-the-scenes featurettes, deleted scenes, a funny and informative commentary track from Favreau — and enough of it to spill over into a second disc. (The third disc offers a DVD/digital copy of the film.)
King Kong is worth owning; Iron Man 2 is worth watching. And seeing them together offers a study in how far we’ve come in some ways — more naturalistic acting, more realistic special effects — as well as another reminder that all that technology hasn’t made it any easier to tell a timeless story.
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