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I Don’t Get It

May 10th, 2008

Right now, I’m having one of those moments in which I feel that I’m really not in synch with the people around me.

Look, I knew that I was more jazzed about the Speed Racer film than most, but I’m boggled by the chilliness of its reception. Sure, the critics didn’t like it, but that’s what critics do. They were gunning for it from the moment the first trailer debuted. (I maintain that pre-tumor Roger Ebert–the guy who praised The Phantom Menace for being an empty spectacle–would’ve loved it. Post-op Ebert, however, did not.)

I honestly thought that there would’ve been an enthusiastic reaction from the middle-aged geeks who grew up on the cartoon, plus every ten-year-old boy in the U.S. And so I was not prepared to see perhaps twenty people in the theater at 7:00 pm Friday on opening night.

The crowds didn’t seem much more numerous today, even though Saturday should be more conducive to family viewing. Meanwhile, Iron Man was packed.

Yeah, I know: everyone loves Iron Man, critics and fanboys alike. Having just come from seeing it, I don’t quite get the passion. It’s a solid film, sure, but I was being told that it was in the upper echelons of the superhero genre. I felt it was more Spider-Man than Spider-Man 2, but what do I know? The first Spider-Man film made a metric fuckton of cash, whereas I thought it was “okay.”

The problems I had with Iron Man were two-fold. First, it’s an origin film, which meant that a whole lot of running time was spent in setting up the background. That’s understandable, but it’s still “seen it.” Second–and the filmmakers admit as much–Iron Man doesn’t have a strong villain roster. Here they pretty much go the easy way out and make him fight a bigger version of himself. How RoboCop 2 of them.

Again, it’s by no means a bad film. Downey was very good, as was Paltrow. The comedy bits, especially the ones involving an overzealous fire-extinguishing robot, were fun. I liked the in-jokes: Stan Lee being mistaken for Hugh Hefner, Tony Stark’s phone playing the old Iron Man cartoon theme, and Rhodey (who becomes the hero War Machine in the comics) looking at Stark’s first armor suit and saying “Next time.” It’s just that the film seemed much less than I’d been led to expect.

Speed Racer, on the other hand, was more or less just what I expected. That’s not to say that it’s a better film than Iron Man, but I certainly did have more fun with it.

Contrary to the reviews, I didn’t find the graphics to be that eye-searing, and I never had any trouble following the racing action. As Vic pointed out, Speed’s gonna win; what else do you need to know?

The reviews seemed unfair on one point: a number of them made the point that while the film itself was firmly anti-corporate, it was made and marketed by one of the world’s largest media groups. (Unlike every other mainstream movie, I guess.) And your point is? That because you don’t like the messenger–or rather, the company who paid the messenger–the message itself was invalid?

I thought that the Wachowski brothers did a fine job of capturing the spirit of the cartoon, though I realize that this may have also been what put off potential viewers. Still, no one went broke underestimating the tastes of the American audience: Transformers (which I also enjoyed) did very well and it was no deeper or less frenetic than Speed Racer. I don’t know, maybe adults just didn’t want to see a movie with a monkey in a starring role.

I enjoyed the look of Speed’s world, even though the Wachowskis took considerable liberty from the old show in turning it into a gigantic, psychedelic skate park. The racing scenes, with the cars spinning madly along the course and even grinding the rails, were like none ever seen before.

The cast did a good job with what they had to work with, but I thought that the young actor playing Spritle was the standout. I found most of his comic relief bits playing opposite the aforementioned monkey legitimately amusing.

As a fanboy, I would’ve liked perhaps a bit more fidelity to the original series. Some of the names–Snake Oiler, Cruncher Block, Inspector Detector, the GRX–were familiar, but they were playing different roles in the film’s plot than they did in the cartoon. And since they wound up racing in some locales that were similar to those seen in the show, why not use the names? Those are silly quibbles, I know.

What really does surprise me about Speed Racer vs. Iron Man is that the latter seemed to have attracted more parents with small children, yet the former seemed far more appropriate for them. Iron Man was a bit dark and gruesome at times, what with its Afghan terrorists and scenes of torture. Plus, it had some very long stretches between the action scenes. Speed Racer dragged a bit in the middle too, but it was so bright and cheery that I would think kids would find more to keep themselves engaged.

But again, what the heck do I know? I am clearly out of touch with what other people like.

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