MCU Retrospective: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Are we sure this isn’t a John Hughes movie? (Yes, we are.)

80/100

Spider-Man: Homecoming is the sixth live-action Spider-Man movie to be produced since 2002. A decade after the original Sam Raimi Spider-Man, and only five years since Spider-Man 3, Marc Webb directed The Amazing Spider-Man, closely followed by The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which performed well below expectations and quickly tanked the burgeoning Sony Spider-Man universe. (For a refresher on Spider-Man rights and Sony, click here.) So, finally, we wind up here: Spider-Man: Homecoming, directed by Jon Watts and starring Tom Holland as the titular web-slinger, finally a member of the MCU. It really did feel like a homecoming, and to have Spidey folded into the MCU proper seemed a much better use of his character than Sony’s floundering attempts to make their own universe (though Marvel being forced to rely on their lesser-known characters such as Iron Man to kick things off certainly helped keep them on their toes as they started this endeavor). But how to differentiate this Peter Parker from Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield?

The first answer: ditch the origin story. Have Peter’s parents and his uncle Ben be long dead. There’s no “with great power comes great responsibility”—we got our version of that in Civil War, but from Peter himself: “When you can do the things that I can, but you don’t, and then the bad things happen, they happen because of you.” Everyone had been inundated with Spider-Man origin stories for a decade-and-a-half. Everyone knew Peter Parker’s parents died in a plane crash, and that Uncle Ben bit the bullet afterwards. By respecting the intelligence of his audience, Jon Watts trimmed any excess fat so we could jump right in with Peter (of course, Peter’s appearance in Captain America: Civil War helped, making doubly pre-established by both pop culture at large and the MCU). 

Who is our Peter, though? His origin story might be cut, but is he just going to go through the same plot beats as his predecessors? And so we arrive at the second answer: have this Peter actually act like a 15-year-old. Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield were 26 and 27, respectively, when they first played their Spider-Man, and by their later entries they were 30 and older. Tom Holland was 19 when he was first cast in Civil War, and his small stature and bit of a baby face let him pass as a high schooler much more easily than Maguire or Garfield. But it’s not just his appearance that makes MCU Peter seem so much younger than his counterparts: it’s him getting excited over a LEGO Death Star, jumping on the bed, awkwardly trying to impress the girl he likes, struggling to look intimidating to criminals, walking down the halls and seeing excruciatingly awkward student news, making a jumprope out of web when he gets bored.

He even starts the film by making a vlog about his time in Germany during Civil War, and if his overeager, fast-talking nature doesn’t immediately win you over, then I don’t know what to tell you. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, Peter jumps at the chance to be an Avenger, and even after months of no contact from either Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) or Tony’s head of security, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), he still bolts to get into his suit after the last bell rings and leaves long voicemails for Happy detailing the bicycle thefts he stopped that day. The realization that he’s just a kid is almost overwhelming, especially when he’s silhouetted against the enormous backdrop of New York City.

His interactions with Tony and Happy provide the third answer on how the MCU sets their Peter apart: have him immediately connected to the universe at large. This is a solo movie, but it’s one that never lets you forget you’re watching an interconnected world, as Peter spends so much of his time trying to live up to Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Grappling with the expectations of the adults in his life not only gives Peter a good arc and characters to butt heads with, but also reminds everyone that there is a world outside. (Chris Evans also makes a cameo in his ridiculous, ear-less suit from The Avengers that perhaps eclipses even his Loki impersonation in Thor: The Dark World.)

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

Peter has been spending a bit too much time thinking about the world outside, though, to the point where he even quits his last remaining extracurricular, the academic decathlon, much to the chagrin of his friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon), and the team captain, Liz (Laura Harrier), whom Peter has a raging crush on. Luckily, the MCU has never been one for secret identities and the long, drawn-out dramatics they entail, and so Ned finds out very quickly about Peter’s double life, though it’s still hidden from Peter’s aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and the rest of his classmates, including bully Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) and loner Michelle Jones (Zendaya). 

Despite Tony’s advice to be a “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man,” we can’t watch Peter eat churros on rooftops all day, and so Peter soon stumbles upon a weapons deal between Jackson Brice (Logan Marshall-Green), Herman Schultz (Bokeem Woodbine), and Aaron Davis (Donald Glover); however, these weapons are no ordinary guns. Peter confronts Brice and Schultz after they pull their weapons on Davis, and a merry chase ensues that lovingly rips off Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Soon, however, a Vulture sweeps down from the sky, and Peter gets introduced to the film’s villain, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton, who loves playing his bird-inspired roles). Toomes, as with so many Marvel villains, owes his origin story to Tony Stark: he and his salvage company were hired to clean up New York after the events of The Avengers, but when Tony partnered with the U.S. government to assist the efforts, the Department of Damage Control came in and seized Toomes’ job, leaving him high and dry. Toomes managed to steal some Chitauri technology and create weapons with it, and soon found himself wealthy, with high-powered weapons and a big bone to pick.

Peter only makes it out of this confrontation alive because Tony sends one of his suits to help, but he insists on taking down Toomes himself to prove his worth as an Avenger; after various fun sequences, including a delightful montage of Peter discovering all the high-tech things the suit that Tony gave him can do, he follows Toomes to a weapon deal on the Staten Island Ferry. His overeagerness proves his undoing, however, and in his rush to stop Toomes, he foils an FBI raid (one called by Tony) and fails to stop a weapon from slicing the Staten Island Ferry in half, yet again needing to be saved by Iron Man.

The ensuing verbal beatdown between the two is a fantastic little scene, with Downey making the most of his very limited (and very expensive) screentime. When Tony calls Peter 14 and he weakly protests, “I’m fifteen,” he absolutely feels 15 in a way that no other onscreen Spider-Man has. He feels very, very small. “This is where you zip it, alright? The adult is talking,” Tony snaps. 

Much of Homecoming’s strength lies in its willingness to not only be a superhero film, but a coming-of-age dramedy; Watts does a tremendous job integrating the life-or-death stakes of Spider-Man’s world with the high school drama of Peter’s world (after all, high school certainly feels life-or-death at the time), and the resulting balance is by and large superb. The MCU is at its best and most creative when it stretches the superhero genre and fits it into new shapes, such as Winter Soldier’s political thriller and here, where Homecoming takes a cue from John Hughes. While the other Spider-Man movies were set in high school, they seem only to acknowledge the fact obliquely; here, Watts neatly marries Peter’s coming to terms with his newfound power with his coming-of-age, making them one and the same. They don’t just happen to coincide, they’re entangled with each other, and it makes for a well-structured, more engaging story. (One that even gives Tony some more depth, too: Peter says, “I just wanted to be like you,” and Tony replies, “And I wanted you to be better.” Tony, go to therapy, buddy.)

And so Tony scolds Peter like the child he is and takes away Peter’s suit. Peter, with nothing else to do, begins to pay more attention to his high school life—he even works up the nerve to ask Liz to the homecoming dance, and she accepts. Things seem to be looking up, if not looking as exciting, for our hero. Until, that is, he goes to pick up Liz for the dance and discovers that her father is none other than one Adrian Toomes, a twist that blindsides both the viewers and Peter himself.

The resulting car ride to the dance, as Peter tries to keep his cool and figure out how much Toomes knows, and as Toomes slowly begins to realize that his daughter’s date isn’t just a nervous 15-year-old, is among one of the tensest scenes in the MCU. Keaton is fantastic, and cements himself among the best Marvel villains (the bar is middling, but still): he easily switches from loving father to merciless killer in seconds, and the flicker in his eyes as he realizes Peter’s true identity—and the stoplight changes from red to green—is eerie. He gives Peter one last chance, though, and offers to let him go if he promises to leave Toomes alone. But with great power comes great responsibility, and so Peter ditches the homecoming dance and goes after his date’s father. (We have pretty firmly left John Hughes territory at this point.)

Vulture, like Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger in Black Panther, is one of those Marvel villains whom the movie has to go out of its way to establish as a murderous bad guy, because otherwise we would sympathize with them too much. When Peter points out that “selling weapons to criminals is wrong,” Toomes retorts, “How do you think your buddy Stark paid for that tower, or any of his little toys? Those people, Pete, the rich and the powerful, they do whatever they want. Guys like us, like you and me… they don’t care about us. We build their roads and we fight their wars and everything… We have to pick up after them. We have to eat their table scraps.”

Everything Vulture says is true. Were he not been attempting to kill a 15-year-old kid, he would be quite reasonable; in fact, he might even be likeable. Yet the validity of his points goes undiscussed—at least in Black Panther, Wakanda found a way to help execute Killmonger’s dream, just in a different way (though the effectiveness of that way—through United Nations bureaucracy—could certainly be questioned, and how exactly they plan to eliminate oppression remains vague and politically formless); here, neither Tony nor Peter acknowledge the root of Toomes’ grievances. They make him a compelling villain, but it would make for a more compelling film if Toomes’ motivations had any effect on Peter. As it happens, they glance off Peter even though they should force him to do some serious self-reflecting on his mentor, especially as Peter himself comes from a lower socioeconomic background, something which typically informs much of his character. But the MCU version of Peter Parker, helped by wealthy benefactors, largely skates around this issue and never disrectly addresses his financial state; in fact, Civil War does a better job at this than Spider-Man’s titular movie, so what could and should cause inner conflict for Peter only serves to make Toomes a more interesting antagonist, doing nothing for his heroic counterpart.

Even if this dynamic gets underexplored (a frustratingly common theme with Marvel films and their villains, but alas), the mano-a-mano beatdown between Spider-Man and Vulture is exhilarating and anxiety-inducing—perhaps even tear-inducing as Peter, having been buried under piles of rubble by Toomes, cries out for help, and we are once again reminded of just how young he is. If Tom Holland was superb at playing the comedy towards the beginning of the movie, he’s even better here: Peter hyping himself up to push away the rubble by yelling, “Come on, Spider-Man!” is not only a reference to this comic scene, it’s a beautiful encapsulation of his character arc in this movie. Even without his fancy suit, even in glorified pajamas and buried under a mountain of concrete with blood caked everywhere, Peter is a superhero. “If you’re nothing without the suit, then you shouldn’t have it,” Tony tells him earlier in this movie. Well, he certainly isn’t nothing, not anymore. (And yes, it’s very interesting that Tony, who relies so heavily on his suit, is pushing his protégé to be more than one. “And I wanted you to be better” indeed…)

Though charged with the unenviable task of reinventing Spider-Man for the third time within 15 years, Spider-Man: Homecoming rises to the occasion with aplomb, bolstered by a damn good performance from Tom Holland—though the franchise and character comes with a hell of a lot of baggage and expectations, Homecoming meets all of them beautifully, smoothly introducing Spider-Man to a new generation of moviegoers while simultaneously setting itself apart enough to appease older fans wary of another rehash. It’s a Marvel movie comfortable enough in its own Marvel-y skin (and free enough of behind-the-scenes drama) to tinker with the formula a bit, and the result is a joyous romp through adolescence with the added bonus of superpowers. What’s not to love?

Groundwork and stray observations: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • The “8 Years Later” title card at the beginning of the movie caused a lot of head-scratching when it first came out. Adrian Toomes was cleaning up after the events of The Avengers, which was in 2012, and so eight years later would mean Homecoming takes place in 2020, which makes zero sense as it’s supposed to pick up right after Civil War, which came out in and was set in 2016. It was only years later that this was rectified (sort of), and even then… why don’t you just retroactively change the title card to “4 Years Later”? Is it that hard? How did this happen when you have so much money? I could have fixed it, if only Kevin Feige would hire me! I am available, Kevin!
  • The principal of Peter’s high school, Principal Morita, is the grandson of Howling Commando Jim Morita from Captain America: The First Avenger, whose picture is on the wall in the principal’s office; both are played by Kenneth Choi.
  • A painting of Howard Stark (the John Slattery version, not Dominic Cooper) is seen in a mural at Peter’s high school, and a picture of Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner hangs in his science classroom.
  • The guy (Zach Cherry) who yells at Spider-Man to “do a flip” appears in Shang-Chi during the bus fight and busies himself with livestreaming the fight around him.
  • Aaron Davis is known as the villain Prowler in the comics and is the uncle of future Spider-Man, Miles Morales. (Donald Glover’s appearance is likely a nod to his campaign to become Spider-Man in The Amazing Spider-Man and his voice role as Morales in the animated Ultimate Spider-Man TV series. Here’s hoping the MCU Spider-Man movies bring him back and don’t let Donald Glover go to waste.)
  • Jennifer Connelly voices Karen, Peter’s “Suit Lady,” and is married to Paul Bettany, who of course got his MCU start by voicing J.A.R.V.I.S., Tony Stark’s “Suit Man.”
  • Martin Starr plays Peter’s teacher Mr. Harrington, who apparently went to Culver University in The Incredible Hulk. (This is definitely just one of those coincidences that the Marvel heads just kind of rolled with and said that Starr’s character in The Incredible Hulk was just a young Mr. Harrington, just like how Marvel said that of course that kid in Iron Man 2 was Peter Parker all along. Sure, why not?)
  • Michael Mando’s Mac Gargan, known as Scorpion in the comics, has a rather sinister (ha ha ha) post-credits scene, but nothing’s come of that (yet).
  • Angourie Rice plays Betty Brant, though I don’t believe Betty’s name is ever said in the movie, but she’s important in the comics.
  • My friend Hannah is clearly visible as an extra in the gym and homecoming scenes. She probably won’t ever read this and will never know I name-dropped her, but I did.

Anna’s Favorite Scene: I’m cheating and saying three: the Tony and Peter confrontation after the Staten Island Ferry incident (“Oh my god, it’s Robert Downey Jr.!”), Vulture driving Peter to Homecoming, and the “Come on, Spider-Man” scene.

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. Captain America: Civil War, 3. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, 4. Guardians of the Galaxy, 5. The Avengers, 6. Spider-Man: Homecoming, 7. Captain America: The First Avenger, 8. Iron Man 3, 9. Iron Man, 10. Doctor Strange, 11. Ant-Man, 12. Thor, 13. Avengers: Age of Ultron, 14. Thor: The Dark World, 15. Iron Man 2, 16. The Incredible Hulk

Spider-Man: Homecoming Trailer

Spider-Man: Homecoming is currently available to rent or purchase on most major VOD platforms.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

MCU Retrospective: Iron Man 3

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Buckle up for some hot takes (mostly, that Iron Man 3 rocks).

75/100

“You know who I am.”

That’s the refrain that constantly dogs Iron Man 3: it’s written glibly by Tony Stark on a nametag in 1999, said by him in the voiceover that frames the film, broadcast by the supposed Mandarin as he threatens more terrorist attacks. And, of course, three movies in, we do know Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, and so does everyone else, from kids in a restaurant to a local news cameraman. He’s an even greater celebrity than he was in his pre-Iron Man days: he was the hero in The Avengers’ Battle of New York, after all. He’s the biggest box office draw since the Skywalkers, the best thing since sliced bread. Everyone knows Iron Man, whether you’re a citizen in the MCU’s world or our very own flesh and blood reality.

“You know who I am,” but this movie spends most of its runtime challenging that. We know Iron Man, but what of Tony, when you strip him down to his bare essentials? Who does he become? That’s the question at the heart of Iron Man 3, tackled in its own superhero movie way. Another question haunting the movie: how do you follow The Avengers, a movie that—like it or not—forever changed the cultural landscape? (Or, at the very least, altered for quite some time.) The door has been blown open in the cultural consciousness, and also in the MCU, where the populace has been rudely exposed to aliens and a god flying around with a hammer. Iron Man 3 addresses all these questions by, well, mostly ignoring them. The Avengers went big, so this goes small. Of course, there are superheroes beating up bad guys and plenty of cheap tricks and cheesy one-liners (“Sweetheart, that could be the name of my autobiography,” as Tony says), but our titular hero spends most of this movie without his armor and without a superhero team to back him up. 

On the one hand, this is where the interconnected nature of the MCU starts to first show some of its fundamental flaws: logistically, not every superhero actor can show up in every movie. But if Tony is dealing with a terrorist threat, why don’t the other members of the Avengers show up? Where is Captain America, who could help? Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye? On the other hand, isolating Tony from his super friends and even his own suit makes for a better movie, one more interested in Tony than his other metal persona (though if you want to see Iron Man blow stuff up, there’s plenty of that, too).

Of course, Iron Man 3 doesn’t start with Tony separated from his suit, but just the opposite: since the events of The Avengers (where, to remind you, aliens came out of a wormhole in the sky and New York would have gotten nuked if Tony hadn’t made the sacrifice play and flown said nuke through said wormhole), Tony has been driven even deeper into his obsessive tendencies and holes himself up in his workshop, making new suits and avoiding sleep. Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) is at the end of her rope as she watches Tony circle the drain of self-destruction again, a different kind of destruction than Iron Man 2 but destruction nonetheless. Tony’s not sleeping, he’s having anxiety attacks at the mere mention of New York, he inadvertently sics a suit on Pepper. Things aren’t going great.

Tony’s declining mental state isn’t helped by the terrorist attacks going on lately, apparently carried out by a man styling himself as “The Mandarin” (Ben Kingsley), who sounds like John Goodman and Mick Rory had a child. Tony’s buddy Rhodey (Don Cheadle) gets rebranded as Iron Patriot, his own suit getting a nice new paint job to rally our crestfallen American spirits, and Tony stays to the sidelines: “It’s American business,” Rhodey tells him, though seeing as all our superheroes seem to have originated from or at least allied with America, the division between superhero business and American business is faint at best. Marvel doesn’t ever address this except obliquely, leaving any commentary on American exceptionalism to things like Watchmen and The Boys—which is probably for the best, considering Marvel’s lack of subtlety. (Though I don’t think anyone would call The Boys subtle…)

Regardless, Tony leaves this particular issue to the US military until former bodyguard/current head of security for Stark Industries and Downton Abbey fan Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, no longer in the director’s chair but still producing) gets caught up in this plot and injured. Then it becomes personal: Tony provokes the Mandarin, the Mandarin’s people destroy Tony’s house, and Tony, presumed dead, ends up in Tennessee with a broken suit.

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

This would-be tale of woe is offset by a) the fact that this is a Marvel movie, so it’s probably not going to be too much of a downer, and b) writer and director Shane Black’s comedic sensibilities. (The movie is also set at Christmastime, a period that Black is rather fond of.) It’s got quips and banter for days, but they have a bit of a rougher edge to it than most MCU entries: upon landing in Tennessee, Tony meets precocious child Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins); upon learning that Harley’s dad left the family six years ago, Tony replies, “Dads leave. No need to be a pussy about it.”

For a big superhero movie, it seems odd that the best scenes would be set in the middle of nowhere in Tennessee, but Harley and Tony make for a great comedic duo as Tony tries to sniff out the Mandarin’s origins. Kids can certainly be a hindrance in films and tend to be cloying and/or annoying, but Shane Black eschews those pitfalls (as he does in The Nice Guys) and makes Harley endearing more than anything else, his clear-eyed optimism a good foil for Tony’s snark and cynicism.

Tony eventually connects the Mandarin plot back to businessman Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), whom Tony had rebuffed at a New Year’s party back in 1999, giving Killian a thirst for revenge and power. Killian, it turns out, created the character of “The Mandarin” and hired actor Trevor Slattery to portray him; the Mandarin conveniently serves as a scapegoat for the explosions Killian’s experiments with the regenerative drug Extremis causes. (The fact that most of these explosions are caused by disabled veterans who volunteered for this drug in order to regrow a limb is largely ignored, though it presents a potentially intriguing take on our treatment of veterans. However, the movie opts to sidestep this entirely by not addressing it.) 

The villains of Iron Man 3 are, to put it lightly, controversial. The Mandarin twist—where the imposing terrorist figure is an actor, and the real villain is the corporate suit—has continued to be a sore spot for fans, largely those already familiar with Marvel comics, who complain that Iron Man 3 wasted an iconic villain, that the twist was juvenile, that it was an insult to the fans, etc. However, the Mandarin of the comics that fans were apparently foaming at the mouth to see has a rather sticky legacy, as the original Fu Manchu-type character plays on ideas of yellow peril; this solution neatly avoids those issues—or perhaps it lampshades them, seeing as Killian purposely orchestrates the Mandarin’s appearance to prey on fear of a vague Middle Eastern “other.” As he says, “Ever since that big dude with the hammer fell out of the sky, subtlety has kind of had its day.” Killian aiming to rile up the military-industrial complex by manipulating Western iconography and conjuring imagined, otherized threats dressed in non-Western clothing all so he can fill his own coffers is far more interesting than a character whose origins are rooted in actual racist caricatures.

Unfortunately, Killian himself, though played with a sinister suaveness by Pearce, is a bit too thinly sketched to handle the weight the Mandarin twist dumps on him. Had Killian’s motivations been more fleshed out, or his threat greater than breathing fire (yes, that happens), the twist might have been better received even by the comic fanboys. (Pepper, it should be noted, is the one to land the final blow on Killian, taking her revenge on him for nonconsensually injecting her with dangerous drugs. This marks the third Iron Man villain Pepper has dispatched: she was the one who powers up the arc reactor that killed Obadiah Stane in Iron Man, alerts the authorities to Justin Hammer’s illegal tendencies in Iron Man 2, and here directly kills Killian. Don’t get on her bad side.)

Initially, Killian wasn’t even the main villain: that task instead fell to Rebecca Hall, though whether Hall’s character was a female version of Killian or the character she would go on to play, Maya Hansen, remains unclear. However, this was nixed when a call from Marvel corporate came and informed Shane Black that a female villain wouldn’t sell toys, and therefore the villain had to be a man. 

While Black says he doesn’t know who exactly placed the order, common speculation lands the blame at Ike Perlmutter’s feet. Perlmutter’s storied history with Marvel includes claiming that all Black people look alike and pushing back against the characters of Black Panther and Captain Marvel, so while this is all speculation, it doesn’t seem like a big leap to blame Perlmutter, at least in some capacity; in fact, Perlmutter is known to have limited Black Widow action figures for the same reason. (Black Panther and Captain Marvel would only get made after Perlmutter had been pushed away from Marvel Studios.) Rebecca Hall has voiced frustration at last minute changes to her character that made Maya little more than a footnote in the film, and given Killian’s just-okay-ness as a villain, more Maya could have been a welcome addition. 

But a villain change isn’t the only alteration made to Iron Man 3 to appease investors and audiences (though, for the record, changing a villain’s gender because of toy sales is both frustrating and imbecilic). A different version of Iron Man 3 played in China, featuring Chinese actors Fan Bingbing and Xuqei Wang (only the latter appears in the film outside of China), though the added scenes largely serve as product placement. Apparently, there were even discussions around making Harley Chinese to flatter Xi Jinping. More diversity, especially within Marvel, is always welcome, but perhaps it’s better to have diversity to more accurately represent our current world rather than solely to appease a, uh, problematic figure, to say the least. Marvel has consistently courted China’s market in such a way that their films suffer for it, from Iron Man 3 to Doctor Strange, where Tilda Swinton was cast as the Ancient One, typically portrayed as Tibetan, so as not to ruffle any Chinese feathers. 

Interestingly, Marvel’s upcoming Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, ostensibly a win for the China market as it features Chinese actors and is at least partially set within China, has received pushback for everything ranging from accusations of stereotyping to star Simu Liu not being attractive enough by Chinese standards, with some claiming that he looks too Western. (Liu was born in China but raised in Canada.) Director Chloé Zhao’s upcoming Eternals also faces an uphill battle, with Zhao’s critical comments on China (where she was born) potentially haunting her box office. Whether Marvel will take these setbacks in stride or try once more to appease remains to be seen.

Even with all this drama behind the camera, Iron Man 3’s finished product remains the best Iron Man film, even if it is a bit uneven. (Come for me with pitchforks, I beg you.) While at the time the first Iron Man was a fresh phenomenon, its novelty wears off after 20-plus similar films; Iron Man 3’s character-driven focus (character-driven for a big superhero movie, I should amend) gives it an edge over its predecessor; now that Tony has been established, the films can get meatier. Giving Tony PTSD and anxiety from the Battle of New York undercuts all Tony’s fake swagger, the persona that he crafts around himself like his suits; we are reminded that he is, at his core, painfully human, even if he is a superhero. When Harley asks for Tony’s name, he simply says, “The mechanic. Tony.” No big press conferences, no Stark Expo, just a mechanic trying to build things, trying to fix things. One of the best scenes comes from Tony assembling a prototype Iron Man repulsor from various items at a hardware store, fashioning everyday objects into something better. He doesn’t need the suit to be Iron Man. 

Too bad Joss Whedon will toss much of this characterization out of the window in Avengers: Age of Ultron (more on that later), but that’s the thing with comic books and their adaptations: they’re all about what Stan Lee called “the illusion of change.” Robert Downey Jr. was still game for more films, so Tony has to bring his suits back. Still, Iron Man 3 remains perhaps the most pivotal movie for Tony’s journey and certainly the one that best defines his character, and that vaults it above its peers (as does the post-credits scene, because it’s just fun).

Oh, sure, there’s an argument to be made about the problems of latching onto a certain character at the expense of the rest of the film, and how that drags us a bit too close to the hideously toxic world of stan culture. There’s no doubt that Iron Man 3 zigs and zags a bit, but in a cinematic universe where every film ends with some big bad evil guy fight scenes, it’s the smaller moments that make something stand out, and that’s what puts Iron Man 3 above its fellows, if only slightly.

Groundwork: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • The response to the Mandarin twist was bad enough that Marvel made a short in 2014, All Hail the King, which had Trevor Slattery taken by a “real” member of the Ten Rings who threatened to bring him to the “real” Mandarin. (Cowing to angry fans almost never works out, and while the short is fun, its existence is, well, stupid.) The Ten Rings and the “real” Mandarin, this time played by Tony Leung, will (re)appear in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
  • This marks the first verbal mention of Roxxon in the MCU. In the comics, Roxxon Corporation is a nefarious oil company that’s usually up to no good. In the MCU, its logo was shown in Iron Man and Iron Man 2; it doesn’t get namedropped until here. It’s mentioned in Agent Carter, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Daredevil and other members of Marvel’s now-apparently-forgotten non-Disney+ TV legacy. Roxxcart, presumably an offshoot of Roxxon, appears in the Disney+ show Loki.
  • Extremis is used in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., most notably on Bill Paxton’s John Garrett. 
  • Not groundwork, but there was a lot of speculation that Harley would go on to become Iron Lad; this hasn’t happened yet, but his appearance at Tony’s funeral in Endgame at least proved Marvel hasn’t completely forgotten about him. We can pretty safely rule out Iron Lad, however, seeing as Iron Lad is actually a young version of Kang the Conqueror, and Jonathan Majors plays Kang, who (spoilers?) first appears in Loki.

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Tony has a panic attack on the side of the road and Harley has to bring him back down to earth. “You’re a mechanic, right? Why don’t you just build something?” Great acting, great character work, great scene. 

MCU Ranking: 1. The Avengers, 2. Captain America: The First Avenger, 3. Iron Man 3, 4. Iron Man, 5. Thor, 6. Iron Man 2, 7. The Incredible Hulk

Iron Man 3 Trailer

Iron Man 3 is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

MCU Retrospective: Iron Man 2

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Next up is Iron Man 2, which made the first Iron Man seem like a one-time stroke of good fortune.

60/100

If the MCU started with a bang with the first Iron Man, its two immediate follow-ups more closely resembled whimpers, making this burgeoning cinematic universe look like a flash in the pan rather than something that could stand on its own two feet. While Iron Man 2 is less laborious than The Incredible Hulk and possesses some of the wit that made the first Iron Man soar, its overstuffed plot and boring action set-pieces make it land with a bit of a thud, moving the MCU to rocky ground.

Where Iron Man’s opening act—Tony Stark in a cave with a box of scraps—is careful and meticulous, stripping our hero of everything but his wits and thereby giving him humanity, Iron Man 2 opts for a more haphazard approach even as it consciously tries to echo those opening moments from its predecessor. Instead of Tony in a cave, we have Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) in a derelict building in Russia, but he too has a box of scraps—and a thirst for vengeance upon Tony Stark for some unknown wrong done to Ivan’s dead father, Anton (Yevgeni Nikolayevich Lazarev). All of this is truncated into the span of about five minutes, so where Tony’s grief at Yinsen’s death in Iron Man lands, Ivan’s overexaggerated howl at his father’s passing comes off as satire even as the movie tries to play it straight.

But, thankfully, we still have Robert Downey Jr. as our anchor, and Tony Stark continues to be endlessly frustrating and endlessly charming. As we reacquaint ourselves with our hero, we learn that the palladium core in Tony’s arc reactor that keeps him alive is also killing him, something that has sent Tony into a depressive spiral. 

Since the beginning, Tony has had a rather self-destructive streak; he can never let himself rest, and instead keeps pushing and pushing. He gets obsessive. He talks about using the Iron Man suit to protect the world, but often it’s really to protect himself from the guilt he feels over his parents’ deaths, the guilt he feels from Stark Industries’ murky legacy, always the guilt over something. His impending doom in Iron Man 2 accelerates this, his suicidal tendencies making him even more reckless than normal and sending him back to his old, pre-Iron Man self: he drinks, he parties, he ogles new assistant Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), and generally acts like a prat, though we know him enough to know that he’s faking it and putting on a front—at least to some extent. However, his actions result in Rhodey (Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard) confiscating one of Tony’s suits after a mano-a-mano beatdown. To cap off his string of bad decisions, Tony decides to compete in the Monaco Historic Grand Prix, where Ivan is lying in wait for him. Aside from a great suit-up (and Pepper and Tony’s back-and-forth while director Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan tries to run Ivan over), the fight is largely dull.

Tony learns that Ivan is seeking revenge on behalf of his father Anton, whom we learn worked on the original arc reactor project with Tony’s father, Howard, before Howard had him deported after Anton leaked secrets. This sets up the central idea of the movie: legacy. The legacy of Anton, the legacy of Howard, the legacy of Tony’s suits and Tony himself. (“If you could make God bleed,” Ivan says, “people would cease to believe in him. There will be blood in the water, the sharks will come. All I have to do is sit back and watch as the world consumes you.”)

Again, the movie tries to play up the parallels between Tony and Ivan: they both create suits with the technology their fathers built, they both wrestle with their fathers’ deaths—the movie almost suggests that the only difference between the two is money. Tony has it, Ivan does not. Unfortunately, Mickey Rourke cannot give Ivan the same nuance as Tony, due both to the script and to Rourke’s own acting, so this concept—one that could have been potent in the right hands—largely fizzles.

However, to Rourke’s credit, not all of this failure rests on his shoulders; in fact, according to Rourke himself, studio interference resulted in much of his performance getting left on the cutting room floor, stripping Ivan of any complex interior life in favor of a run-of-the-mill baddie made to sell cool toys (more on selling toys when we get to Iron Man 3). The production of Iron Man 2 was rushed and frantic even outside of Rourke’s complaints, with Marvel trying to capitalize too quickly on its initial success and rushing production in order to churn out another film, and it shows. Coming off an Oscar nomination for The Wrestler, it’s not as though Rourke had suddenly lost any acting abilities, and comments similar to Rourke’s would be made down the line by other directors and actors who worked with Marvel, though largely before 2015, when the so-called “Creative Committee” was disbanded and Marvel allowed directors a looser rein (more on studio meddling when we get to Age of Ultron).

Where Rourke—or, rather, the studio—fails, though, Sam Rockwell swoops in to save the day. As Tony’s rival Justin Hammer, Rockwell (who was originally in the running to play Tony himself) hams it up, clearly having a blast as he struts around and breaks Ivan out of prison. Hammer wants to use Ivan to make his own version of the Iron Man suits to sell to the US military, failing to consider the consequences or the fact that other people like Ivan have their own wants too. (Here’s another underexplored parallel that never goes beyond surface level: Hammer is the greedy corporate man who throws morality out the window in favor of profits, a path that Tony was going down until the events of his first movie. But the movie opts instead for a shallow comparison, portraying Hammer merely as a peacocking Tony-wannabe rather than a slightly warped mirror image.)

Luckily for Tony, S.H.I.E.L.D., in the form of Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson, shows up again to save him from himself. Turns out that Tony’s new sexpot assistant, Natalie, is also S.H.I.E.L.D., and her real name (most of the time) is Natasha Romanoff. Scarlett Johansson has spoken out against the sexualized nature of Natasha’s first MCU outing, and these missteps are glaringly obvious upon rewatch: multiple shots of her derriere, a completely unnecessary scene where she changes in the car while Happy tries to sneak a peek, et cetera. It feels like a very 2000s approach to gender equality: she’s sexy and the movie very overtly draws attention to this, but she can beat up people and is smart, and therefore it’s really a win for feminism. (It’s not.) As the MCU has gone on, Natasha has become one of the more interesting characters—and not because she has a nice ass—however, her introduction has aged poorly. 

S.H.I.E.L.D.’s arrival not only reveals the truth about Natalie, but also about Howard Stark—turns out he was its co-founder. S.H.I.E.L.D. is part of his legacy, but again, Iron Man 2 drops the ball by barely addressing how blindsided Tony is by this revelation, leaving it up to Robert Downey Jr. to do the heavy lifting here. He’s more than able, but he should have a script that backs him up as well. 

With the help of his dad from beyond the grave, Tony fixes his arc reactor, which is good news because Ivan has double-crossed Hammer (color me surprised) and rigged his Iron Man drones to run amok and destroy Tony and his legacy. What follows is a mind-numbingly boring and tediously long affair where various featureless iron suits shoot lasers at each other. It’s the Iron Monger fight from Iron Man, but longer and without any personal stakes because the movie never took the time to build up any sort of relationship between Ivan and Tony (unlike Tony and Obadiah), even though the seeds of something more interesting were right there.

The seeds of something more interesting seem to be always just out of reach for this MCU entry. Much of the film concerns itself with who gets to make and have the Iron Man suits, which raises many thorny moral questions: should technology be in the hands of only a select few? Should the American military have access to this, and if so, what does that mean for the rest of the world? Tony proclaims, “I have successfully privatized world peace.” What dangers could arise from this? Is this really something to aspire to?

But Marvel skates over these questions, giving them less than even a cursory nod. Tony is our hero, and therefore he as an individual should have the suit because he is the main character and thus deserves it. Rhodey can get a suit because he’s also a good guy, and he can use it for the American military because freedom, hell yeah! Comics have always been slightly better at handling weightier themes because they are less beholden to investors and have a smaller audience (for example, the “Demon in a Bottle” comic arc featuring Iron Man delves much deeper into Tony’s alcohol issues than Iron Man 2 does), but to have all this discussion on the military-industrial complex via Stark and Hammer Industries, to set up this proto-Cold War between Tony and Ivan, and then to ignore the complications that arise from these ideas feels disingenuous.

Iron Man 2’s saving graces are found within its smaller moments, in the relationships it builds upon from the first movie and in the easy rapport of its cast—at least, other than Rourke. Cheadle smoothly slides in to replace Terrence Howard, his Rhodey a little less down to party than the prior version but a better character for it. (To help the audience get over this speed bump, Cheadle’s first line as Rhodey is, “Look, it’s me, I’m here, deal with it. Let’s move on.” Guess the movie didn’t listen to Ike Perlmutter’s claim that no one would notice the replacement because all Black people “look the same.”) Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr. continue their chemistry from the first movie, making Pepper and Tony’s first kiss at the end feel earned, especially in comparison to some of the rushed Marvel romances that would come after; Clark Gregg and Samuel L. Jackson’s inclusion, however brief, points to the bigger universe that Marvel is building to. Sam Rockwell, as stated before, owns. For a movie with such boring action sequences and an overly convoluted plot, Iron Man 2 manages to have (mostly) good performances and strong character work.

Yet Iron Man 2’s failures mean that Marvel is, so far, only one for three. Not exactly a great ratio. They are balanced on a precipice, liable to tip either way depending on the success of the next several movies, and while we now know how they land, Iron Man 2 did not do much to help at the time.

Groundwork: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • If there is any justice in the world, Justin Hammer will show up in the new Disney+ show Armor Wars. (It’s only a rumor right now.)
  • Senator Stern (Garry Shandling) appears again in Captain America: The Winter Soldier as a Hydra agent.
  • The movie all but states this outright, but the issue in New Mexico that Fury and Coulson deal with ends up being Thor. Here’s something fun.
  • Howard Stark is dead here (obviously). Later, it’s revealed that Bucky Barnes as the Winter Soldier killed him, though Marvel didn’t know that yet. A young Howard will show up in a couple movies, looking nothing like John Slattery.
  • There really isn’t much groundwork laid in this movie, honestly—or, rather, no groundwork that just isn’t part of the plot already (like introducing Black Widow). 

Anna’s Favorite Scene: “If you try to escape or play any sort of games with me, I will taze you and watch Supernanny while you drool into the carpet,” Coulson tells Tony. Not really a scene, more of just a single line. (Scene-wise, it’s probably when Tony apologizes to Pepper by bringing her strawberries—which she is allergic to.) Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is great and everyone needs to stop sleeping on it. I don’t care it’s not really canon anymore, the Framework arc is damn good television.

MCU Ranking: 1. Iron Man, 2. Iron Man 2, 3. The Incredible Hulk

Iron Man 2 Trailer

Iron Man 2 is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streamable on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

MCU Retrospective: Iron Man

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. We start at the very beginning (of release order, that is). 

Update, July 15, 2021: Upon reflection, and upon watching Captain America: The First Avenger, I had amended my initial score of 80 to become a 75/100; I still had my nostalgia-tinted glasses on when rating this. Iron Man holds up well, but not overly so.

80/100

“I am inevitable.”

These words, spoken by Thanos in Avengers: Endgame, seem as if they could easily be applied to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole; from our viewpoint now, where Marvel has saturated nearly every corner of our lives, it can be easy to think that the MCU was a given, and that its rise was just waiting to happen, but that would be disingenuous. With Iron Man, Marvel Studios pulled off a miracle, and they kept doing so until they finally climbed to the top of the media landscape—and then they did it again with Endgame, creating a (largely) satisfying end to a 22-film saga that somehow managed to balance its ridiculous multitude of characters. Of course, your mileage may vary on how much good you think these miracles do, and how good they actually are, but inevitable? Hardly.

And it all started with 2008’s Iron Man.

Having slowly clawed its way back after filing for bankruptcy in 1996, Marvel was still on unsteady ground in the aughts, and had sold off many of its biggest characters to other film studios: Spider-Man belonged to Sony, the X-Men and Fantastic Four to 20th Century Fox. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies and the X-Men trilogy performed like gangbusters, but Marvel Studios itself made little from these films, the bulk of the profits instead going to Sony or Fox.

Their solution? Take out a $525 million loan from Merrill Lynch and hire an independent director best known for the cult hit Swingers to make a largely-improvised movie around a C-list superhero played by an actor widely regarded as damaged goods. It hardly seems foolproof, and indeed, it wasn’t.

Yet against the odds, Iron Man worked, and it worked well, laying the blueprint for future MCU entries with its blend of action, humor, and heart (though Mamma Mia ended up outgrossing it that year). Much of its success rested upon the shoulders of Robert Downey Jr., who came roaring back to stardom with a pitch-perfect performance as Tony Stark, who would become the linchpin for the budding MCU. Tony would go on to undergo one of the most dynamic character arcs in the MCU, and it all starts here.

The first third of the movie could almost function as a standalone: Tony Stark, drinking and flirting his way through life, gets captured in Afghanistan after showing the US Army Stark Industry’s latest weapon design. Tony learns that his weapons have been being used for nefarious purposes by the terrorist group that captured him, dubbed the Ten Rings. (No one has ever accused Marvel of too much nuance.) The Ten Rings asks that Tony make a new weapon for them; Tony and fellow captive Yinsen (Shaun Toub) pretend to do so while secretly making a suit that will allow them to escape. From there, and after Yinsen’s inevitable death, Tony sets out to make things right and disarm his business, our perfect post-9/11 superhero out to single-handedly stop the War on Terror. (Iron Man is about the closest Marvel ever gets to critiquing the military-industrial complex, but we’ll table the discussion about Marvel’s relationship to the military for later.)

It is hard to overstate how much Downey owns Tony Stark. Here is a superhero who can’t shoot webs, who doesn’t have adamantium claws, who isn’t a nigh-undefeatable alien; hell, he doesn’t even have a six pack. He is just a man in a can, skating by on his wits (and his money, of course), by turns charming and infuriating, his every action streaked by a sense of desperation that pushes him to nearly a suicidal obsession with righting his wrongs and protecting those he initially failed. It’s a lot to juggle, but Downey does it with such ease that it’s hard to believe the studio was against his casting at first.

Director and fellow co-star Jon Favreau surrounds Downey with a talented cast of players, most notably Jeff Bridges as Obadaih Stane and Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts. While much has been said over Marvel’s forgettable villains, Bridges makes Obadaih by turns genial and menacing, leaving an impression despite the rather unremarkable third act that largely devolves into men in metal suits punching each other. But Obadaih is still fun, chomping on his cigar and yelling at this subordinates; he doesn’t want to eliminate half the population or rule over the entire galaxy, he is just a greedy corporate crony willing to gloss over human loss for a bit of money and power, and his existence serves to remind Tony of what he can never become. (Again, this is about the closest Marvel ever gets to critiquing corporate greed and capitalism run amok. But it’s fun to watch.)

Much has also been said over Marvel’s forgettable romances, though there are a few exceptions, Tony and Pepper being foremost among them. This is due in large part to Favreau’s willingness to wait a couple films before throwing them together, and also because of Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr.’s great chemistry. Even if you don’t buy into Goop, it’s hard to deny the charm she displays in the film. Pepper herself, of course, is a great character, and she will become increasingly important in these films.

Terrence Howard is there too, obviously, though the character of Rhodey has become Don Cheadle’s so much so that the original Rhodey feels like a placeholder (the rumor goes that Howard left over a pay dispute, having gotten more money than Robert Downey Jr. for the first Iron Man and getting upset when that trend was reversed for Iron Man 2). Still, though Howard may believe that 1×1=2, he makes a good foil to Downey, his Rhodey a bit less responsible than Cheadle’s and a bit friendlier.

Iron Man, in retrospect, does not stand out as the most daring or inventive Marvel film, though that’s easy to say when comparing it against the 20+ films that have come out since. (It does, however, have the MCU’s steamiest scene: some dry humping that lasts about thirty seconds. It seems that Paramount was a more forgiving distributor than Disney would become in 2009.) But let’s not forget that while critics might complain about the now-staid nature of the MCU, it was founded on several enormous gambles, not the least of which includes Samuel L. Jackson’s cameo as Nick Fury: with the words “I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative,” the cinematic door suddenly burst wide open in a way it never had before. This was not just going to be a standalone movie, or part of a trilogy centered around one character; as Fury puts it, “You’ve become part of a bigger universe. You just don’t know it yet.”

Ah, but that’s for another day. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Groundwork: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • The Avenger Initiative, obviously, leads to the formation of the Avengers later down the line.
  • Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson and the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division become more and more important, most especially in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (and, of course, the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., neglected by Marvel at large but eking out its own bizarre, fun existence).
  • Rhodey says, “Next time, baby” while looking at an Iron Man suit. In Iron Man 2, he becomes Iron Patriot. Wow. Crazy!
  • The Ten Rings will appear in the upcoming Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which will no doubt retrofit Tony’s backstory a little bit.
  • Yinsen mentions meeting Tony at a party several years ago, though Tony—drunk at the time of the party—cannot recollect this. In Iron Man 3, Yinsen and Tony will appear via flashback at this aforementioned party.
  • The guy to whom Obadaih yells, “Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave with a box of scraps!” pops up in Spider-Man: Far From Home
  • Who could have guessed that this voiceover gig for Paul Bettany as the artificial intelligence J.A.R.V.I.S. would eventually result in his own TV show with Elizabeth Olsen?

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Pepper switching out Tony’s arc reactors. Funny and then sweet (“I don’t have anyone but you”). I can’t help it, I’m a schmuck.

MCU Ranking: 1. Iron Man

Iron Man Trailer

Iron Man is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streamable on Disney+.

Sources: Slate, Digital Spy, my own unholy amount of Marvel knowledge

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

The Secret in Their Eyes: A Collokino Conversation hosted by Jim Wilson

The Secret in Their Eyes

Directed by Juan José Campanella, 2010

Jim Wilson: Hi, Taylor. Welcome to Collokino.

Taylor Baker: Thanks for having me, Jim! This has been a long time coming. I’m glad we’re finally able to sync up for a discussion.

Jim: Agreed. I’ve been meaning to have you on for a while now, since you co-host the Drink in the Movies podcast with Michael Clawson, my most frequent guest. In fact, I just completed a talk with Michael a couple weeks ago, so it’s fitting to have you on next.

Taylor: I’ve shamefully only seen one film out of the six that you two have discussed, that one being Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Your most recent discussion has inspired me to watch L’humanité. Dumont is another longtime blind spot in my viewing and your characterization of him has piqued my interest a great deal.

Jim: I hope you do. Dumont is a challenge, even for those who, like myself, love every frame.

You’ve brought Juan José Campanella’s The Secret in Their Eyes to talk about. Though I’m a fan of Argentine cinema, his films have been a blind spot of my own, until now. Why did you choose this film to discuss? What’s your background with it, and with Campanella’s work in general?

Taylor: As an adamant lover of mainstream challenging filmmakers Aronofsky, Zahler, and Noé I’m hopeful and intrigued!

Thank you for allowing me the courtesy of dumping one of my longtime loves on your doorstep. I’ve always intended to engage with it again but the right timing never seemed to occur. Shortly after receiving your invitation I realized that this would be a wonderful way to grapple with both the film and my feelings toward it.The addition of Felix Monti as cinematographer of both The Secret in Their Eyes and The Holy Girl, a Martel film you rate quite highly on Letterboxd, also made me feel that this would at bare minimum be a fruitful discussion for each of us. The Secret in Their Eyes was brought to my attention in a podcast (I believe it was called Nerdist at the time and is now ID10T) with Jon Favreau around 2014, in which he postulated that it may be his favorite film. At that recommendation I sought out the film, reacted very strongly during that single viewing, felt that affection continuously grow, and now we’re here talking about it! I’ve only dipped my toe into Campanella’s oeuvre once since The Secret in Their Eyes. This last December his newest film El cuento de las comadrejas (The Weasel’s Tale) finally had a North American release, and Graciela Borges the “star” of the picture delivered one of my favorite performances of the year 2020. The film itself is a delight, that I’d recommend to anyone with a penchant for whodunnits that have a comedic tone.

Jim: I’ll keep it in mind. I didn’t make the Monti connection between The Secret in Their Eyes and The Holy Girl. Good eye. You’re right; I love Martel.

So let’s jump into it. Could you give a brief synopsis of the film? Where and when do we find ourselves as the story commences? Who are the main characters, what are they doing, and what do they hope to find?

Taylor: Absolutely! As it stands, I’m still within 24 hours of completing the film for the first time in years as well as the novel on which it is based. There are a number of minor and major differences between the two. I’m sure I’ll delve into a handful of those later (the stadium scene is not in the book for instance), if I misspeak please correct me as the two are blending a bit.

The film revolves around Benjamin Esposito (played by Ricardo Darin), a retired legal counselor with a longstanding and unacted-upon love for Judge Irene Menendez Hastings (Soledad Villamil) and the proverbial “one last case” that all great men with long careers in criminal justice seem to have. Those two items, the final case and the unacted upon love–invite the title of The Secret in Their Eyes quite clearly. Whether the looks between Hastings and Esposito or Isidoro Gomez to Liliana Coloto. The motif, which I think is a strong one, is laid bare quickly for all. And at some level that is the entirety of the point of the story, the meaning in those looks, and where the differences between them lie.

As the film begins, we are introduced to the oldest timeline in this dually progressing narrative. The starting images are a brutal flashback of the rape and murder of Liliana Coloto (Carla Quevedo, notably her first role in a film). This case is the center of our narrative, and the life of our protagonist as far as we see it in the film. We then quickly skirt to Esposito; the year is 1999 and it is the day of his retirement. He fittingly avoids his own retirement party, and inquires with Hastings about being loaned out his old typewriter, with an A key that doesn’t work. With this typewriter in hand, he can properly pursue being a novelist. His writing of the story is our backdrop to the simultaneous timeline, and though a common refrain in these sorts of mysteries. One that I found worked elegantly here, mostly. It seems that in this act of reflection Esposito is searching for peace. Morales on the other hand, desires justice.

Jim: I’m of two minds about the effectiveness of the “novel” that Esposito is writing. What does it contribute to the film’s narrative structure? It’s a useful device for externalizing Esposito’s internal struggle about how to cope with his feelings for his old boss Irene, and how those feelings are entangled with his obsessions about the old Morales case. But I can’t help thinking nothing would be lost if it were entirely excised. Not to mention how obviously short it is, which the “old” Morales points out. Maybe there’s something I’m missing, but it never means as much to the story as it seems Campanella wants it to mean. I do like the earliest scenes of him writing it in his notebook, before he reacquires the clunky typewriter. When he tries to capture his feelings for Irene, he rips the pages out and crumples them up, clearly dissatisfied, but when he tries to describe what he imagines was the scene between Liliana and Morales during their final morning together, and is equally as unsatisfied, he doesn’t tear the page out, but removes it tenderly. He’s frustrated with his renditions of both, but there’s a reverence for the details of the Morales story he doesn’t feel for his own, which is, of course, in important point of tension in the film as a whole.

But to back up a bit, I have to say I really enjoyed this film, and thank you for bringing into the conversation. Crime dramas aren’t my thing at all, but Campanella brings a sensitivity to this that’s extraordinary, which he portrays so well in the looks the characters exchange. There’s a darkness to this film I love, a density formed by the compression of time and la pasión, of history, and the romance history grinds beneath its heel.

Speaking of history, the film is both backgrounded and foregrounded by the Dirty War in the 1970s, of which Argentina was a part. As Esposito and his collegue Sandoval zero in on Liliana’s murderer, some of the ugliness of this time in Argentina’s history comes directly into play. Since Lucrecia Martel and other Argentine directors have educated me to the insidious effects of that time on the psyche of all Argentinians, I recognized it right away. Do you think that to viewers who aren’t aware of it, like we Americans, it’s handled effectively?

Taylor: Your point on excising the framing device is well taken. I suspect that at its removal the dual timeline of the narrative would then not be in play as a consequence. Such a seismic shift from the source material I think (though we’ll never really know) would prove fatal to the many aspects of the narrative that do work in this presentation. Though it can be boiled down to a framing device I think it also allows a point of observation to the viewer on the thematic and personal content that is complimentary. We don’t just straddle years here but decades and a sequential procedural through these events in that way would underscore a lot of the pieces and pacing choices that moved me and kept me engrossed. On the other side of the book, I don’t think Campanella was precious with the source material so much as the feel and the events. A lot of choices he made I find to be astute reinterpretations of the narrative that takes largely uncinematic material (internal narration to the reader) and reappraises it to be both visually engaging and propulsive. At a basic level I just don’t see how you can tell the story in the novel that I read without using the device. It is the entire foundation the project is built on. Being able to jog between those decades without even a label of what year it is, is very, very rare. At least in my viewing habits. I’d be much less interested in a beat-by-beat timeline procedural of these lived events than the story presented here.

I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Ah yes, la pasión! It’s such a basic premise to provide to characters but so rich and universal. A dense darkness is found in so many frames of the film. One of the most memorable of which for me is a scene near the end in the shed in which Morales, Esposito, and Gomez are in frame simultaneously. The pathos each character walks into that frame with, their entangled lives, their shared unhappiness. The despair of that shadow cast room, with its deep focus and fuzzy edges is tangible. Something you could practically take a scoop of. I will say “certain” crime dramas are very much my thing. This, Mosaic, Millennium, and Unsane to name a few are in that stratosphere of excellence in this psychological crime drama subgenre.

Great question. Obviously, I have a subjective reaction here that may be off. But so far as I can tell rather than make the Dirty War a pointed fulcrum of the inexcusable abusive behavior of the Argentine government, Campanella instead goes for a broader visually transitive abuse. Letting the viewer feel the unrest on the periphery of society, allowing us to see the kill squads in action in Sandoval’s death, the racism exhibited in the beating of the innocent construction workers, and the depth of corruption in the subsequent freeing of Gomez after they’d finally put him away. That is a long way of saying I think he handled it most effectively because he prioritized allowing us to “feel” it, rather than making us “know” it. Do you think it was handled well?

Jim: Generally, yes, but I wonder how much Americans, especially, understand the concept of state-sponsored terror. Though the film doesn’t extend it out as far, I read Gomez as someone who’s been on the government payroll since before the events of the film. Perhaps the book is more explicit about this. The point is that Gomez, the suspect whom Esposito, Sandoval, and Hasting reel in for the rape and murder of Liliana Coloto, is a regime goon. It embarrasses the government that he’s been revealed. The point isn’t whether he committed the crime or not, because that’s a forgone conclusion at the point he whips his dick out and declares his dominance, but whether he manages to save his own skin after he’s hung out to dry. The extent of dehumanization here is alarming. So to answer your question, I think the monsters are evident enough, though the system that enables them remains mostly faceless, except for Romano – the most crooked judge – who lets Gomez go. Romano’s a slick, memorable character, when he should be a lot scarier, and more forgettable. His smirks are too cute, his retorts too clever, for such a stupid, craven man. But Campanella leans more toward theatricality than naturalism, a point I do find tiresome with certain characters.

To your first point above, I see no reason why the dual timeline would be impossible without Esposito’s novel. Plenty of films have dual timelines, with no characters writing novels. But yeah, if it’s part of the film’s source material, so be it. As I see it, it’s not so much a diminution as an insignificant excess.

But let’s stick with Gomez. Esposito and Sandoval defy judge Fortuna’s command not to pursue Gomez, and visit the town of Chivilcoy, where they steal their way into Gomez’s mother’s home, looking for evidence. It’s easily the funniest segment of the film, though I do have to say that Campanella keeps an effective balance between the horrible and the humorous throughout. The only useful thing they find are some letters written from Gomez to his mother, the portent of which eludes them for days, until Sandoval divines from them Gomez’s pasión for football, or soccer. This leads us to the film’s most astonishing episode of cinematic bravura, at the stadium. Set up this scene for me, Taylor. It is pretty singularly amazing, the point on which the entire narrative turns.

Taylor: First I should elucidate in greater detail some of the background of Gomez’s release. I can see how with only the film to lean on you would get that feeling. Gomez took a construction job at a 20 floor building in Buenos Aires, to follow Liliana into the city. His murder of her is unclear in it’s premeditation but of the rape one can have no doubt. He came to the city specifically to commit that atrocity. If you recall our previous interaction with Romano, in which Esposito confronts him and the two are held back from fighting by a crowd of people. Esposito tells Romano he is going to report him, for ordering the beatings of two innocent workers doing a job at Liliana’s neighbors apartment. He files that complaint and Romano is removed from his position as Judge. But he has a decorated uncle from the army in his family. Instead of being destitute Romano is relocated to head up a position in State Intelligence. In this new position he can continue to abuse power, but this time unchecked and without a way for formal reprisal. As time goes on eventually Gomez surfaces in the Argentine prison system, and Romano has a chance to get even with Esposito. He can use a piece of legislation to free a political prisoner (due to the nature of corruption he can change anyone in the prison system to the designated inmate status to allow them to be released into his employ.). Thus he frees the guilty man in the case that caused his fall from grace. Not for any reason other than to get even with that son of a bitch Esposito. This is also a precursor to the death of Sandoval, which directly correlates with when Morales kidnaps Gomez. Romano is sure that Esposito has killed him to get back at Romano and thus orders a kill squad to his apartment. I do like the depiction of evil being a man that you would have a hard time picking out a lineup on the suspicion of war crimes at first glance. Though theatrical I think there’s a truth there of how these people are perceived while at the heights of their power. Duterte’s current regime springs to mind with this type of maniacal whimsy.

Oh boy, you’re putting a lot of responsibility in my fingertips. Alright as you mentioned Sandoval is at a local watering hole with the stolen evidence,  Esposito bursts into the bar yelling at him for this. Sandoval urges him to calm down, and when he’s finally quieted down, he introduces Esposito to another denizen of this local haunt. Whom he inquires the meaning of the names in the letters that Gomez had written. This upstanding notary immediately begins to recount the position and year of the footballers. Sandoval and Esposito now seemingly know how they will locate Gomez, at the Tomas Duco Stadium. The scene begins at night flying over Buenos Aires with a looming helicopter shot that dips through thin clouds and alights on a play on the football (soccer for your American readers) pitch. An attempt on goal is made and it bounces off the crossbar, our camera swoops deeper and while looking 90 degrees down directly our editor Campanella himself seamlessly blends from a helicopter shot to a robotic arm crane shot that zooms along the faces of an enamored crowd. If you watch closely you can see a CG transition as the camera flips during this scene. This robotic arm crane shot switches to a handheld camera as we land between Esposito and Sandoval. They are frustrated, and finger the wrong man. As they walk back to their spots the camera almost accidentally profiles a close up of Gomez’s face on the right portion of the screen and we see in the deeper frame Esposito as he realizes it’s him. They charge back toward the camera, a goal is scored, the handheld camera shakes raucously with the crowd and now we’re in a proper chase. This introduces a long tracking shot with no break mainly following Sandoval in pursuit of Gomez. There are a handful of things I absolutely love here, firstly the confrontation with Baez as a practical way for Javier Godino, who plays Gomez, to reset and rest and for the cameraman himself to get a breather. The next is when we follow Gomez out of the bathroom after bashing Sandoval’s face on the wall and shoving Esposito into a corner. He runs down some steps and we see him in a beautifully performed deep shot confronted by police, he turns and runs back up, meeting the camera. Now he has to jump off this floor and as the camera swoops from one ledge to the other and pitches down 90 degrees again like the helicopter we see CG being used to stitch it together for one continuous-feeling shot. He falls and our cameraman subsequently falls behind him allowing the viewer to feel the drop and the chase physically. Gomez then runs onto the pitch and is tripped by a player before being placed under arrest at the end of a police baton. It’s an arresting sequence and one of my favorite extended scenes in all of cinema.

Jim: Right, it’s that point right after the camera passes over the end of the field and into the stadium, a direct 90 degrees down, where the splice is. It just makes sense, to transition during the blurry bit. But what’s remarkable about that sequence, to me anyhow, is how most of the bravura doesn’t steal the scene. The interior spaces of the characters, their thoughts and anxieties and relations to the hundreds of bodies circulating around them is always primary. Esposito’s urgency, Sandoval’s cunning, Gomez’s terror, the way each of them navigates the massive concrete structure, are all in advance of the film craft. All the amazing tech stuff is entirely in service of the experiences of the characters. It’s pretty beautiful. It makes me think of Noé.

I think there are three critical character angles any discussion of this film has to include, maybe even a fourth, if you include Sandoval. Esposito observes Irene, obviously, since he’s infatuated with her, but it’s through his eyes we also observe Morales. Sandoval is independent of Esposito’s perspective, it feels to me. He exists in his own right. Maybe that’s why his death, his murder, feels so devastating. Through his eyes, we were given an alternative to Esposito’s view. The film noticeably darkens after his death, and we’re alone with Benjamin.

Esposito’s infatuation with Irene, and its frustration, seems shaped by a class separation, which Esposito doesn’t dare bridge, even when Irene’s ardor is clear. The way class and politics dominates these peoples’ lives is tragic.

But more than Irene, Esposito is obsessed with Morales. I think Benjamin recognizes in Morales a tragic version of himself, an externalization of his own internal yearnings, except that both men mix up, and ultimately spoil, the point of mourning, as does all Argentina.

In the spaces between the principal characters, there are loads of metaphors about the nature of Argentine society specifically, and western cultures more generally. Did any of that stand out to you?

Taylor: That’s a great point. While the logistics and cinematography are entirely enamoring it is the interiority of these characters that draws us with such intent into the scene as it unfolds. And more specifically, it doesn’t overshadow but rather embellishes and brings out the feelings. Fascinating, you managed to make me love that scene even more. I resonate with your comment on Noé deeply. His camera choreography is second to none.

I have to largely agree with your comments here. I hate having to digress again, but just so you know where I’m coming from it’s extremely difficult to separate the characters in the book from the characters within the movie. And while they’re not “very” different, they are indeed different, as are quite a few crucial thematic points, and specific points that are hammered home. So restricting myself to just the film, I will say firstly that a large amount of the context of the class separation between Benjamin and Irene is lost on our American ears. Like so many Latin-based languages outside English, there is an enormous amount of information to be gleaned from the article preceding these spoken words between them as well in the word choices. To my ears this dance of class and rank that I know is present is entirely lost. As to deeper metaphors about society. I think outside the experience between Irene and Benjamin, the clearest illustrations are, the seeming expansion of wealth in Buenos Aires against the poverty of the working class, the racism in the region(which interestingly enough Campanella may have chosen to reframe, as in the book Morales was an around 6′ tall, fair haired fellow.), the systemic brutality that is only challenged by individuals in regards to the two men beaten to force them to confess, and perhaps most plainly the clear delineation of who has wealth and who doesn’t–by the mere ownership of a car. Was there anything I didn’t mention that stood out to you, or anything that I did that have you a keen read on?

Jim: I was particularly taken by the way Campanella arranges the big reveal scene, when Esposito discovers what Morales really did with Gomez. Earlier, Morales tells Esposito that he kidnapped and killed Gomez, but as Esposito reflects on this, including things Morales had told him years prior, he doubts the confession. Morales had told him back in ’74 (or thereabouts, I forget the exact years) he didn’t want Gomez executed, but that he wanted him to live “a life full of nothingness,” which is, ultimately, what Morales ensures Gomez suffers.

But what’s stunning about that scene, when Esposito discovers the homemade prison in which Morales has confined Gomez for twenty-five years, is the impression of them both being imprisoned, of Morales and Gomez sharing that confinement. Because isn’t that what happens in a society when the justice system collapses? Everyone, the victims, the criminals, the bystanders, the corrupt officials, everyone, becomes a prisoner, confined by guilt, shame, indifference and inhumanity. Innocence dies completely. Morales’ homemade prison is a physical manifestation of what each citizen experiences cognitively and emotionally. Everyone is locked away in their own heads (Morales refuses to talk to Gomez, which is the worst punishment), atoning silently for their collective sins. This has been a constant theme in stories out of places like Germany and the old Soviet-bloc countries. And I’ll bring up Lucrecia Martel again, Campanella’s fellow-Argentinian, whose two films La Cienaga and The Headless Woman are entirely about this theme, both set in an otherworldly, purgatory-like place where the inhabitants are hollowed-out and zombie-like, their humanity literally stripped away after so many years of living in a society where nothing matters except survival. “A life full of nothingness” indeed.

I do want to say a few words about Sandoval, too, Esposito’s drunken compatriot and fellow clerk. I’m sure there’s much about him I’m not getting the cultural references to, but he’s clearly the rebel character, an unabashed anarchist who has little respect for the formal rules of the game. But he’s smart, honest, and honorable, all the things society would like to beat out of him. That he’s literally sacrificed (maybe even self-sacrificed), held up like an offering to a vengeful god, means as much to the gravity of this story as any other part. And he’s the comic relief. Sandoval is the smart, funny insubordinate, who cracks the case and pays for it with his life. I love Sandoval.

Take things where you want to, Taylor. I’ve been directing too much. Frame the film in the terms that best describe how it impresses you.

Taylor: It’s a brilliant shot, reminiscent of the depth of field chase scene when Gomez goes down the stairs briefly, your tens of feet away from the center of focus but have a particularly clear feeling evoked by the shot. The lighting, sound design, and physical acting each echo back at the viewer a depth of despair. Not one that either man is enacting on the other but despair for each, at the sense of this is what it’s come to. And our stenographer Esposito, clearly affected by the horror, but not party to it. I don’t think I was particularly conscious of the macro metaphor in play there as I was so caught up with the interiority of each character. This is juicy. I need to ruminate on it further.

I too love Sandoval. He frequently goes where Esposito can’t and comes back with the knowledge, or pushes him over the edge in ways that he wouldn’t go otherwise. Such as the comedic theft from Gomez’s mother that you previously referenced. Moving both Esposito forward and the case along despite his personal problems and demons. An interesting anecdote on the topic of Sandoval would be that originally the confrontation with Gomez in which he bares himself and screams that he did it while interrogated was originally performed by a very, very, very drunken Sandoval against Esposito’s will. The nuances to the changes in the adapted screenplay are something I haven’t unlocked yet. There’s something deeper than just “this works better in a movie” going on. There’s clear choices Campanella made to get at a point that partially eludes me.

I’d like to spend some time addressing the immaculate location shooting. There’s not one instance of disbelief at the authenticity of what I’m viewing. Everything appears to be tangible. These landmarks each have meaning after the viewing too, which is somewhat unique. We were just talking about that shed and the look of those homemade prison bars. The stadium and voluminous concrete structure, metaphorical in and of itself but especially in context to the Dirty War. In which many citizens are watching on while a few men fight to win a game on a field, which is eventually where our arrest takes place. From the grimy night time bar, to the looming pillars and marble slab floors of the court. It’s just background, but its reliability begets a deeper trust in the very image. A magnitude, a heft belongs to the film through these locations and their incorporation to the body of the film.

And I think we must address the maestro, Campanella himself. The Secret in Their Eyes sits as the most prominent achievement in his oeuvre by far. Neither before or since has he made a film that resonated so deeply at home and outside of Argentina. None have had the prominent staggering bravura of the stadium scene. He Directs, Writes (adapted screenplay), Produces, and serves as Editor (for the first and only time in his entire career here). Every single drop of the film we see has gone through his hands in different forms and at different levels. It feels sculpted to me, hand crafted, and lovingly stitched. I found the editing in the film to be tremendous, at times fascinating. I don’t really know how to contextualize such great potential from him as an editor, being put aside entirely. It seems to me he is dedicated first and foremost to storytelling and if you have exhibited greatness with one of those tools it’s odd to me that he would put it down. Is there anything here you want to expound on or help me make sense of here?

Jim: The editing really is excellent, I agree. I’ll tell you, before I watched the film the first time, I read the plot summary at Wikipedia. It overwhelmed me a little, with all these characters and timelines and history and various moving parts, and it worried me a little, thinking the film would be a confusing jumble. But a lot of credit, if not all of it, has to go to the editing for crafting a fluid path through all those elements, so that I never felt lost, or at least not for very long. It’s quite an achievement.

The locations and sets are, like you say, entirely authentic. The massive, sublime quality of the stadium, the train station, and the courthouse building are breathtaking; they miniaturize the people inside them. I don’t know how intentional it is or what to take from it, but the architecture dwarfs the people, perhaps as a reinforcement of the other oppressive and diminishing forces in the story. There’s a scene where Esposito is speaking with Irene, while an intern lurks nearby, waiting to report something to Benjamin. They’re standing on a mezzanine of the courthouse, overlooking the cavernous atrium at its center. Right behind them is an enormous, hulking base of a single column – merely the base of only one of many columns – on the other side of which the intern waits, and it lends this palpable sense of mass and gravity pressing down and looming over the characters’ tiny selves. It evokes an awesome sense of solemnity.

Provided the perfect score you award this film at Letterboxd, maybe you’ll have nothing to answer this with, but is there anything in the film you don’t like, or find deficient?

Taylor: That’s interesting. You’re right, though our “heroic” main characters are at some level larger than life, the masses are miniature. I think you’re really onto something there. I have to say a lot of the non-primary side characters were miniaturized in the novel as well. I’m sure there’s a choice Campanella made there specifically to evoke the feeling you’re referencing. The subjectivity of importance literally being contrasted by their diminution next to a column. A metaphor toward impermanence, and the drop in the bucket this case is. Like using a pail to slow the Titanic from sinking.

A bit off topic but one of my favorite things in this story is how Sandoval sews together the case files to be bound. It’s this little detail that informs us of a process, his role in the building, and visually transmits the feeling of sewing a cold case shut.

For clarity I should specify at least this range of score. When I use a 5 on Letterboxd it’s not necessarily perfect. I probably only have around 3 ‘perfect’ films, I’d have to double check. Anything between 95-100/100 I translate to 5 stars. The Secret in Their Eyes is around a 95-96 for me upon rewatch. I love the question; I’ve been thinking about this since last Friday. I don’t think there’s anything I truly dislike. On the topic of deficiencies though, yes. I think there are at least several. Here’s a few that have come to mind.

1. I think that some of the clarity of who’s who in the courthouse in the first third of the film is not as tight as it could be to provide clarity.

2. I really, really wish we’d gotten to see Sandoval do the drunken interrogation as it was written in the novel, it was a buffoonish slapstick scene that I think would have translated in these performers’ hands into something really special.

3. The transference of city to countryside could have been a bit more experiential to the viewer, I tend to like it when a film “feels” like it took you somewhere new and different. That didn’t really happen here, even when we’re at the pivotal scene at the end it didn’t feel tangible just how far away from the city we were. The same goes for ‘where’ the stadium is, ‘where’ the scene of the crime is, etc.

4. I’d have liked to see Esposito file the report on Romano, that sequence in particular for the weight it has doesn’t build as cleanly as I would like. If Campanella could have shot it as a multilayered scene without telegraphing the importance of the moment, I think that would have paid dividends in grounding us into the rigmarole this entire system is subject to. Rather than just let the nameless cases sit in piles, we could have seen one besides our central case be made to contextualize the near hopelessness they’re drowning in.

5. Lastly, there’s something off about the depiction of Hastings. She seems to be in a sort of uncanny valley of agency. More prop than person with interiority. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I simultaneously got to know her too well without really knowing her at all. For example, we get to know Sandoval’s haunts, his wife (who is understandably fed up with him and his antics), his apartment, etc. We know what Hasting’s office looks like, we see her in other locations but they don’t feel like her locations. She’s almost always secondary, never the dominant character foundational to the location being introduced.

Did you have any similar feelings? I’d love to hear your thoughts on anything you disliked or found deficient outside what I’ve listed as well.

Jim: Well, first I’ll start inside and endorse your last point. Look, a lot of films are guy films, and that’s fine. Campanella is very comfortable with all his male characters, the women not so much. Aside from Irene Hastings, there really aren’t any female characters, except Morales’ wife Liliana, Sandoval’s wife, and Gomez’s mother, all of whom are only representations of general female roles in society, not individuals. Again, that’s fine, but it does leave out the critical perspectives of fifty percent of the population. But then there’s Irene. As you say, Irene is never a complete character. She’s placeless and incidental. She’s only there to serve as a vessel for Benjamin’s various emotional torments. And that’s not fine, and is my biggest problem with the film. Irene Hasting’s is an important character, but it feels like every time the camera turns to her, it’s not to explore her, not to find out more about her, not to even recognize her as doing anything in the scene, except being a respondent to Esposito. The only time she seizes the action within a scene is during the interrogation, when she sexually intimidates Gomez. It’s not the best look.

But I don’t want to make too much of that. It’s an extraordinary film. Like a great many male directors, Campanella isn’t very good with female representation. I’m not gonna take it all down for that.

I have a little bit of a problem with the broadly over-dramatized script. Everything feels just a little too ripe and overplayed, but that’s probably just me. That interrogation scene is a prime example, as is the train station departure scene. The strings feel a little too strained there, as Campanella tries to squeeze out more consequence from a scene that it can realistically give. I could complain some about the aging effects, but it’s too common a problem.

The first time I watched it, I liked the compositional style of having something or someone partially foregrounded and out of focus, while the focus is on the middle-grounded subject. The second time I watched it, I realized how overused it is. It’s cool, but excessive.

It feels like we’re nearing the end, so I’ll let you wrap up talk about the film. Anything else on your mind about it?

Taylor: I too found the train scene forced. There’s simultaneously too much reverence toward the source material in making the train a more important part of the narrative and a lack of believability that these characters as we’ve seen them thus far, behaved in that way. I actually didn’t much mind the aging make-up, it did a swell job when the character is in the background. On close-up though, and especially with Morales it was noticeably off. I’m a sucker for this contrasted depth style of cinematography. While I agree it does at times feel overplayed, it just consistently looks damn good, and allows multiple reference points within the scene to be used effectively. I can appreciate the sentiment though.

There’s one lingering thing I’d regret not mentioning. The intimidation elevator scene with Hasting’s, Esposito, and Gomez. It’s played completely silent, and relies on exchanged looks and Hasting’s to transfer a sense of terror to the viewer. It cements the film’s tone without drawing more attention to itself than it needs, both in its execution and in that once it’s over it isn’t referenced within the film. It just is.

Thanks so much for having me and allowing me to bring this title. It’s been a great conversation to process my thoughts and refocus on it with intent. This is exactly what I was hoping for when I picked it back up. And to those reading that would like to watch The Secret in Their Eyes it’s currently available to rent from most VOD platforms.

Jim: Thanks for accepting the invitation! But before we wrap up, I want to give you the same opportunity I gave Michael last time to promote your favorite five films from 2020.

Taylor: I’d be delighted to share them, thanks! Top 5 in descending order:

5. J’Accuse or An Officer and a Spy (Roman Polanski)

An adaptation of the infamous Dreyfus Affair, two of my favorite performances of the year from actors Louis Garrel and Jean Dujardin. If one is able to separate art from artist, you’ll find a fantastic historical film. With lurid outdoor cinematography and a propulsive pace. At this time, I think it’s still unreleased in North America.

4. Let Them All Talk (Steven Soderbergh)

Soderbergh’s flitting walk and talk built on improvised conversation, gorgeous cinematography, and delightful turns by Streep, Wiest, and Bergen. There’s not one bad performance, and it oozes breezy coolness. One of the most rewatchable films released in 2020 for me. It’s available on HBO Max.

3. Normal People (Lenny Abrahamson & Hettie Macdonald)

I’m cheating here as Normal People is a limited series. But since it was in my top 5 on the show, I’ll include it here. Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal play Marianne and Connell, two students who begin a complicated relationship in high school that morphs over the period of their early adulthood years. It’s one of the moving narratives I experienced in 2020, and continually find myself drawn back to its dramatic power and emotional gravitas. It’s available to stream on Hulu.

2. My Mexican Bretzel (Nuria Giménez)

My Mexican Bretzel is close to unexplainable, it weaves together home footage, diary entries, and clever sound design into something bigger than life and more personal than a true story. It’s one of my absolute favorite discoveries and continues to elude my abilities to explain it coherently. At this time, I believe it is unreleased in North America. It was briefly available on an independent film channel as part of Prime Video, but I’m unable to locate it there now.

1. Last and First Men (Jóhann Jóhannsson)

Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Directorial Debut Last and First Men is an adaptation of noted Science Fiction writer Olaf Stapledon’s book by the same name. In which our species has evolved, gone off planet, and is attempting to communicate with us across millennia as they begin to go extinct in the hopes that with our actions in the past we can save them. The camera lingers on gargantuan concrete structures, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score evokes a well of emotionality, and Tilda Swinton’s almost otherworldly narration tells us of these ancestors’ lives and experiences. Closer to a Visual Album than a narrative feature, this is my most treasured experience with a screen from 2020, and something that I’ll never forget. Though sadly this is a posthumous release, it is a remarkably fitting headstone for Jóhannsson. A feeling I’m confident anyone who sees it will share. Available thru Physical Media purchases from European Amazon Sellers, but unavailable in North America currently.

Since Michael already pried 1-5 out of you, could you share your 6-10?

Jim: I really look forward to J’accuse. Louis never fails.

Six through ten? Sure. Ten is proudly Bruno Dumont’s last film Jeanne (Joan of Arc in the US), the weirdest take on that tale you’ll ever see. Brian Duffield’s Spontaneous so awed me when I saw it, I knew it would make the list, here at nine, about a teen romance developing and enduring in the middle of an absurd, but no less horrifying, wave of inexplicable terror. At eight is Justine Triet’s Sibyl, about an out-of-bounds psychotherapist. Black Bear was another pleasant surprise, from director Lawrence Michael Levine, starring Aubrey Plaza. Feverish and surreal, it’s a metatextual story about inspiration and the creative process that I really love, so it’s secure at seven. Six is Babyteeth, from Shannon Murphy, starring Eliza Scanlen, a girl with terminal cancer who isn’t dying the way some might prefer.

I really enjoyed talking with you about The Secret in Their Eyes, Taylor. Thanks for bringing it. Along with the Martel films I mentioned, I also want to recommend The Official Story, from Argentinian director Luis Puenzo. Written during the twilight of the right-wing dictatorship implied in The Secret in Their Eyes, it was filmed during the dawn of a recovering democracy, in the mid-‘80s. The title might suggest it’s a documentary, or adjacent, but it’s not. It’s the story of a teacher searching for the true identity of her adopted daughter. If Argentine cinema and history are of interest, do not miss it.

Thanks, Taylor. Lots of fun. We’ll have to do it again.

Taylor: So long, Jim! Thanks again for going through this one with me. Looks like I have some homework in Jeanne and Spontaneous. I loved Babyteeth too. Puenzo film is now on my Watchlist, sounds intriguing. I look forward to doing this again, be well!

The Secret in Their Eyes Trailer

The Secret in Their Eyes is currently available to rent and own digitally from most major providers.

You can connect with Jim Wilson on Letterboxd, as well as review his entire list of Film Conversations.