Tron (1982)

I always liked the video game of Tron more than the movie, even though I wasn’t very good at it. I could never finish the third level. Do you remember the game? The cabinet was all black light and faux neon, and you had to clear four sub-games on each level: the tanks, the light cycles, the grid spiders, and the breakout. It got exponentially more difficult with each clear of the four and I don’t know I ever completed even one of the sub-games on level three, but it was incredibly fun and I didn’t mind spending all those quarters trying.

I also liked the toys a lot, and have been chuckling over this one little kid freaking out in the action figure aisle of our local Lionel Play World for almost forty years now. The light cycles used zip-cords and would be really perfect for our place now, with our hardwood floors. The package read “the futuristic light cycle,” and some small boy didn’t know that word and thought it said “fantastic.” So the child flipped out and started screaming “Mom! Mom! It’s the fantastic light cycle! The fantastic light cycle!” Mom said “That’s nice, dear,” and wasn’t about to spend seven or eight dollars on a piece of plastic, leaving the kid desolately crying and choking out between sobs “fantastic light cycle, faaaaaaantastic liiiiiiight cycle…” for what I remember as just short of forever.

I remember the game and that kid much better than I remember the movie. I know I saw it in theaters once as well as a few times on HBO, but the details were all gone before this morning.

Don’t try that on the Helicarrier, David Warner. Tony Stark’ll bust you.

Our son wasn’t completely blown away, but it certainly entertained him. He said that he loved the look of the film, which is what most people remember more than the story, which is really by-the-numbers. Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, and David Warner are the stars, with smaller roles for Barnard Hughes, Peter Jurasik, and former Shazam! star Jackson Bostwick as one of the henchmen. It was the music, which was written by Wendy Carlos, that stood out most to me this morning. During the solar-sailed ship sequence, I was thinking that having a soundtrack of this would not be a bad idea at all, which I never think, even when I’m watching something Bernard Herrmann scored.

It’s impossible for a kid born in the 21st century to see this movie’s animation with the same perspective we had then. It remains really interesting to watch – the front-seat view from the cycles during the race is quite exciting – but, much like the video for the Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing,” animation has progressed so far that we just don’t “see” the 3D that we did the first time around. Even though the spectacle has been blunted by time, it’s not a bad flick for what it is: the rebels escape and move from A to B to destroy the enemy complex, a perfectly engaging plot for kids. Wikipedia suggests that some critics from the day thought it was “incoherent,” which means they must have had a very long nap in the middle of the press screening.

Of course, the biggest element that’s been blunted by time is the idea that we need to fear an evil supercomputer like the Master Control Program taking control of the Pentagon and the Kremlin. No, these days we’re more aware that human garbage can disrupt the hell out of our world using much smaller systems. I wish the Master Control Program would zap Zuckerberg into a video game and de-res him in a round of electronic jai-alai.

Iron Man (2008)

Mainly we watch older movies here at Fire-Breathing Dimetrodon Time, but we’re going to cycle the Marvel Universe movies into a rotation so that he’ll have the chance to see some of them before next summer. Maybe we’ll see five or six of them before the next Avengers movie? Seven might be a good age to see these on the big screen. He’s pretty mature for his age and very well-behaved in theaters. And if this is any indication, he might just love that Avengers film. He told us at lunch that Iron Man is second only to his beloved Captain Underpants as his all-time favorite movie.

That’s not to say it didn’t baffle him in places. It’s interesting to look back in the series; I’ve seen two of the films twice, and the rest no more than once, in theaters. I’ve been picking these up when I find copies, usually used, at a sensible price. They never seem to be on sale, and Marvel Studios has not released any sensible collected-in-sequence editions to take up less space on fans’ shelves. So I bought some six-disk boxes and wish I had a copy of Photoshop and the talent to make new artwork for them!

It’s amazing how comparatively slow this movie is. It takes a long, long time for Tony Stark to appear in his first suit of armor. The more recent movies, particularly Doctor Strange, work in shorthand compared to this. Iron Man spends a lot of time, and I mean a lot of time, emphasizing how insufferable and arrogant Tony Stark is. It’s all hugely entertaining and I wouldn’t change a minute, I’m just interested in how the later origin films follow the early ones’ template, trusting the audience, once they’ve seen a few of these, to understand the main character from much shorter sketches.

There are lots of reasons I don’t see many modern movies. One of them is that I prefer the comfort of the character actors of the sixties and seventies; I just don’t see enough modern movies and television to really know the actors. Honestly, I’m not kidding, I’ve seen Scarlett Johansson in literally one film that isn’t a Marvel movie. I know her as a singer first, and Black Widow second! I’ve even missed most of Robert Downey Jr.’s career. According to IMDB, I’ve seen him in exactly four roles other than Tony Stark, and I was in high school for two of those. (He was in a movie version of The Singing Detective? There’s a movie version of The Singing Detective?)

Anyway, it’s become standard in blog posts about Marvel movies to praise the casting. These might be the movies’ real genius, because the plots aren’t anything that outrageous. The stories don’t thrill me and CGI special effects don’t make my jaw drop any more, so it’s all about the casting and the humor for me. Iron Man introduces us to Stark, to Gwenyth Paltrow’s long-suffering Pepper Potts, Jon Favreau’s loyal Happy Hogan, and Clark Gregg’s SHIELD agent Coulson. Samuel L. Jackson shows up right at the end as Nick Fury, setting an unhappy precedent of sitting around through a million credits for maybe sixty bonus seconds.

Terrence Howard played James Rhodes in this movie. I’m not sure why, but Don Cheadle took over the part after this one. Blink and you’ll miss Bill Smitrovich (Inspector Cramer in A Nero Wolfe Mystery) as a general. Leslie Bibb plays a reporter and Jeff Bridges – okay, him I’ve seen a fair bit – is the villain. They’re all excellent.

While Bridges is terrific as the villain Obadiah Stane, this story does suffer more than a little from the same malady that infects so many superhero movies: the odd need to have the hero’s and the villain’s stories intertwined. As such, Stane’s betrayal is never even remotely surprising. I was once told that I should have known that immediately, but I wasn’t reading Iron Man comics in the eighties, when it appears that the character was introduced, and never heard of the Iron Monger until they made a piece for him in Heroclix, a collectible combat game I once played.

The business about Stark Industries’ stock prices plummeting was over our son’s head, and he was probably tuned out for about six of this movie’s 120 minutes. But Jon Favreau, who directed the movie as well as playing Happy Hogan, knew how to keep things busy and moving for even the younger viewers. Some of the humor was over his head, but the slapstick of Tony learning to fly had him riveted and guffawing. I like how you just know one of those cars is going to get crushed; place your bets on which one. The action scenes had his eyes popping out of his head. I was just a little worried that Iron Man’s first appearance in the caves would frighten him, but it didn’t. This morning was all talk about Iron Man, and how he can’t wait for the next Marvel movie. Then we rented him the complete Hanna-Barbera cartoon Wacky Races and he might have forgotten about Tony and his friends. (Car # 6, the Army Surplus Special, is his favorite. I like the Gruesome Twosome most myself.)