Monday, May 6, 2013
Iron Man 3 (***)
Directed by Shane Black
In the entire twenty-first century comic book movie explosion, no actor has better fit into his superhero role than Robert Downey Jr. has with Iron Man. From the very beginning, the boozing, schmoozing apathy that radiates from Tony Stark was a perfect fit for Downey, if only because he's one of the few Hollywood performers that knows how to create a character like that and make him unbelievably likable and watchable. Iron Man has always seemed like the frivolous alternative to Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, but in reality Iron Man came much closer to true characterization than Nolan's Batman films ever attempted to. Which is why I've always preferred the one-liners and BANG-BANG-POW of Iron Man than the plodding moralistic meditations of the last three Batman movies.
Iron Man 3 was directed by Shane Black, most famous as the lucrative screenwriter from the late 80's and 90's (his most famous credits: Lethal Weapon, Last Action Hero, The Long Kiss Goodnight). But Black's only other directorial credit is for 2005's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a noir-ish comedy that also starred Downey Jr. in a performance so ridiculously hilarious that it should've been the role that reignited his career (just three years later, Iron Man would all but make Downey Jr. the most popular actor in Hollywood). His snappy dialogue and eye for satirizing American consumerist culture seems tailor-made for Tony Stark and Iron Man, but I think jumping in on the third installment (and last? *laughs* Just kidding, we all know there's gonna be a shit ton more) created a bit too much contrast between the needling sarcasm and the principled, good-guy-always-wins-in-the-end flag-waving that's a necessity in these superhero franchise films.
The first two Iron Man films were directed by the actor Jon Favreau (who also has a role in all three films as Stark's over-enthusiastic bodyguard, Happy), who's never been mistaken for a terrific filmmaker but has always had a gift for getting the best out of the very talented people around him. Favreau can make a damn good popcorn movie, if only because he even looks like somebody who loves to eat a lot of popcorn. There was no sarcasm in Favreau's films, other than in the dialogue of Tony Stark. Shane Black is not as nice nor is he as respectful of Hollywood. I imagine that, as a writer, Hollywood has done a lot more to knock him down than to prop him up. And there are some moments in this Iron Man film that seem very dark (Black co-wrote the screenplay with Drew Pearce), but the tone is always either violently shifted or downright thwarted by a joke or some striking visual motif and it feels dangerously like undermining.
But I guess this is the point of the review where I mention that even an mediocre Iron Man movie is a pretty thrilling, entertaining experience. I was one of the very few people that really loved Iron Man 2 despite its glaring logical inconsistencies, and I really feel like the reason is because movies with explosions are a lot more interesting when the explosions are effecting people we actually care about. Tony Stark (and more specifically, Downey Jr.'s embodiment of him) is one of the most fascinating characters in studio movie history, to the point that Iron Man never feels quite as processed as the other Marvel movies - even though they are probably more processed than all those movies put together. Even The Avengers, the multi-faceted superfilm extravaganza, is at its very best when it accepts that Tony Stark is its central figure. Chris Evans' Captain America and Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner were terrific, but think of their best scenes and you'll realize that RDJ was usually standing right across from them.
Iron Man 3 starts where we left off with The Avengers, and all of the carnage and wormholes has left Stark with serious PTSD, ravaged by panic attacks that leave him without sleep for days. Even Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his girlfriend and CEO of Stark Industries, is beginning to become alienated by his erratic behavior. He spends all his time manufacturing new suits, trying to perfect his crime fighting machines. Meanwhile, the world is being terrorized by The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), who is setting off bombs all around America in a ruse to get the attention of the American President. Why does the Mandarin despise America and its leader, so mush so that it leads to horrific acts of violence that kill innocent people? The Mandarin seems to be filled with the nameless sadism that characterizes most of the villains in comic book movies, leaving you with little recourse but to call him "insane, but with a purpose". (SPOILER ALERT (I guess?): That is, until Blake takes Mandarin's character into a totally unexpected direction unlike anything I'd seen in a superhero movie.)
Iron Man 3's second villain is Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a former invalid turned brilliant scientist and the leader of the think tank Extremis. Killian once approached Stark in a Swiss New Year's Eve party (as we see in a flashback early in the film), only to be blown off and left alone on the roof of a hotel room. A decade later, Killian has cleaned himself up and is looking for a buyer of his new technology that can regrow lost limbs and heal simple injuries in no time. His prototype is problematic and prone to some scary side effects, so he's turned down again by Stark Industries, but this time by Pepper. With these two powerful men against him, it's little surprise when Stark's home is destroyed by helicopter torpedoes. Tony is feared dead, but he's really stranded in Tennessee where only a little fatherless boy named Harley (Ty Simpkins) can help him rebuild the suit and take the necessary revenge against Killian and the ominous Mandarin.
But there's a whole lot more going on in this movie than the first two Iron Man movies. Stark's buddy James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) is still working with the government using Tony's suit as "War Machine", though in order to make him a bit more PC, they rename him "The Iron Patriot". And also, there is Stark's relationship with Harley. Superhero requiring the help of a young boy is such a cliche that mentioning it as a cliche seems like a cliche in and of itself. But the way Stark treats young Harley with such apathetic disdain is such a self-aware wink to the audience that it's hard to grin or roll your eyes. Either way, there are so many times where it seems like Black just can't help himself, driving the wedge into so much comic book movie tradition. I've never read a comic book reaction, but I can tell by the reaction alone that he wasn't exactly dutiful in his ability to be totally faithful to the source material.
Iron Man 3 is probably better than Iron Man 2, which was an entertaining mess at best, but this film's best accomplishment is showing that great characters can stay the same even as they mature. As long as these films continue to give Robert Downey Jr. a platform to do what he does best, I will always be in attendance. There's a lot of bad movie franchises out there - right before watching this movie, I was reminded that a SIXTH Fast & Furious movie is going to be in theaters this year - so I find it pretty important to appreciate the good ones.