03 May 2013

IRON IN THE FIRE

Iron Man, I think, is never going to be bettered, even if one day one of its sequels or spin-offs ends up being genuinely better cinema, because Iron Man had a bit of good fortune that none of them ever will: it was unexpected, and you only get to have that happen once. Just like in the first Pirates of the Caribbean, where Johnny Depp's go-for-broke, out-of-the-blue performance turned a somewhat bloated and routine popcorn movie into a small masterpiece of entertainment, Iron Man wasn't terribly special or distinctive in any way, but Robert Downey, Jr's turn as the title character was exactly the shot in the arm that the leaking superhero genre badly needed in 2008, surprising and delighting pretty much everybody. In the five years since then, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as it likes to be called, has had its ups and downs and even wonderful little surprises along the way (that Captain America boasts a full-on Alan Menken song and dance number, I still count as among the most charmingly off-kilter additions to any popcorn movie in the last decade or so), but there's been no sense of discovery, nothing that remotely resembles that stunned moment when you realised just what, exactly, Downey planned on doing with the role.

And so it is with Iron Man 3, which is certainly a fine movie, not without its distinctive flaws; but they tend to be things that are more, "oh, I didn't like that part", rather than "GOD OH MY LIVING FUCK CAN YOU BELIEVE THEY DID THAT SUCH A BAD MOVIE". Though there is a twist wherein, if I were properly a Marvel comics fan and not just a dabbler, I'd be undoubtedly more peeved than I am about what it does to the villain of the piece. Anyway, my point is, IM3 is solid superhero moviemaking, and I at least found it a more rounded and satisfying experience than the infinitely-ballyhooed, but ultimately shallow The Avengers, but nothing about it was exciting, not the way the first Iron Man was and remains. Dare I say it, but after four movies now where he was more or less the lead, and despite Downey giving a far more alive and clever performance under the hands of director Shane Black than his last two outings with the character, Iron Man simply has nothing game-changing to show us anymore. His third and probably final solo outing is sure as hell entertaining, but it's not special. Given the state of modern blockbuster filmmaking, "entertaining" isn't anything to jeer at, Lord knows, but it takes more than that to make a classic.

The film takes place largely in December, 2012 (and it's specific enough that the "Present Day" slate that gets us there from a film-opening flashback is more than a little bit confusing), where, months after the near-death experience he had fighting aliens in New York, Tony Stark (Downey) is in a bad way: frequent anxiety attacks make it hard for him to sleep well, his romantic relationship with former assistant and current CEO of Stark Industries Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is suffering as a result, and he's all-in-all prone to making bad decisions. It is exactly the wrong time for a shadowy terrorist known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) to be exploding bombs throughout the U.S., and issuing terrifyingly-edited videos to threaten the world, but if something terrible wasn't happening, there wouldn't be any cause for a movie, so as bad as it is for Tony's PTSD, the situation works out well for us. When one of the bombs sends Tony's friend and former bodyguard Happy (Jon Favreau) into a coma, the unbalanced hero decides to make things personal, and one very noisy, very brutal setpiece later, Tony's collection of technological wonders lies in ruins and he is, himself, presumed dead.

Something I only noticed in writing that paragraph: Iron Man 3 doesn't have a very clear-cut, linear plot. It is driven rather more by character than by conflict, and for that reason alone, it would have my gratitude; there are enough superhero movies without much character at all, thank you, and the chief problem of Iron Man 2 was its undue interest in world-building over giving its characters room to breath. The bulk of the film is more concerned with Tony grappling with his demons and trying to uncover a plot, than actually fighting back against the heat-controlling mutants controlled by Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a scientist with a connection to the Mandarin, and the whole thing's just damn weird for a comic-derived story. But it is not terribly weird at all for a Shane Black story, and while with only one prior film under his belt as a director (the Downey vehicle Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), it's asking too much for him to have a recnogisable style (of which none emerges from IM3, anyway), the structure and narrative feel of IM3 is unabashedly right in line with Black's earlier work; a hefty dose of Lethal Weapon, especially in the badinage, and quite a few echoes of The Last Kiss Goodnight in its middle, and in parts of the staging of the climax, and if I'd ever seen The Last Boy Scout, I bet I'd be able to see that, too, even if I had to make it up. I'd go as far as to say that IM3 has more of a personal stamp than any other in-universe film to date, maybe outside of Joe Johnston's affection for gung-ho WWII-isms in Captain America.

That's not to say that it's necessarily better than any of them, though by virtue of concerning itself more with the inside of Tony's head and heart (the word "soul" is employed in this movie in subtle but totally unmissable places), it feels a bit more serious. I don't know if that's a good thing or not: the chief appeal of the first Iron Man has always been to me that it's a great deal of breezy fun, and the bad case of the Steely Blue Grims that has taken hold of comic book movies in the intervening half-decade only makes me enjoy its frivolity all the more. "The most sober-minded Iron Man movie yet" isn't exactly the direction I'd hoped they'd take the franchise, even though it's good that Black is able to make that stick fairly well.

Still, it gets the job of being a busy summer popcorn movie done with aplomb: the action is at least better than in the first two Iron Man movies, though the best parts are not the overblown but somewhat unimaginative finale (a mid-film plane rescue is infinitely more exciting). Where it's at its most entertaining is surely when it's witty: Downey is in terrific form, and Black and co-writer Drew Pearce feed him an unending stream of terrific lines that manage to keep the film afloat even when it should absolutely be taking on water at a fatal rate: the pointless interlude with a little science nerd kid (Ty Simpkins) leaps to mind, as does the mawkish final scene. Of the rest of the cast, only Kinglsey's hammy-menacing performance reaches any kind of level like Downey's (he deserves a far more coherent part than he was given), and the film has its share of missed opportunities: plot developments that might have worked better, themes that could have been more deeply explored (the entire subplot about Tony's friend James Rhodes, played by Don Cheadle, and the rebranding of his own mechanical suit from "War Machine" to "Iron Patriot" is played with just enough that it really sucks they didn't go into the implications of it more), and characters that don't have enough meat on their bones (Rebecca Hall, an actress I greatly admire, is given a total throwaway part). It is fun, though: not quite as much fun as Iron Man the first, as it is not nearly as fresh, but there are worse ways to welcome summer than with the low-key return of an old friend in good spirits.

7/10

10 comments:

Michael James Roberson said...

Tim, DEFINITELY watch The Last Boy Scout. It's both the best Shane Black movie and the best Tony Scott movie, and the best unofficial Die Hard sequel.

MakeItPink said...

I loved seeing a slightly more "mature" Tony Stark. I enjoy his witty banter and character, but at times I've found it tiresome to watch his character continue to behave badly. I found him far more likable in this film and am grateful that they used this film to explore his character more than focusing on extreme action sequences (though I'll agree with you, the plane scene was the best action sequence in the film). I felt that the kid was a necessary foil to Tony, as no one else was able to get him quite to that point of simplicity and reasoning.

Thrash Til' Death said...

I pretty much concur with this review. A few points I'd like to raise, positive and negative. SPOILERS where necessary:

-Overall, I really enjoyed it. By far and away the funniest script, the best action sequences and the most likeable iteration of Tony Stark of all three movies.

-The airplane rescue is the best and most creative action sequence the MCU has yet given us.

-The big central reveal is legitimately well-played both in the script and from a marketing standpoint. I can see why I would be annoyed if I was a fan of the comics, but seeing as I'm not, I thought it was a masterfully executed trick on the audience and the highlight of the film.

-A big problem with the Iron Man series has always been the lack of any immediate threat to anyone but Tony Stark from the villain's schemes, and that, unfortunately, is a trend that continues in this installment. Killian plans to use his stage show involving the Mandarin and the president to, as he puts it, "control the war on terror," but what that actually entails is left remarkably hazy. As far as I can tell, his primary goal seems to be to create jobs for disabled veterans. That's not even evil. You know there's something wrong with your supervillain scheme when your goa;s could be accomplished more easily and profitably through legitimate channels.

-There's a fight scene midway through the film between an un-armoured Tony and a female Extremis soldier, that, for a few seconds, features some of the worst action editing I've ever seen in my fucking life. It's over quickly, during the sequence where they're grappling in a bar, but it plays like a parody of post-Bourne action editing, cutting so rapidly and discontinuously that it's impossible to make out anything other than a miasma of flailing bodies. Strange, considering no other point in the film even comes close to being as bad.

-So, the Iron Man armours that can withstand direct hits from artillery shells, as seen in movie 1, can be disabled by just a moment's exposure to the Extremis soldiers' heat? Lame.

Jeremy said...

7/10 sounds about right. Entertaining, funny as hell, some good action scenes, some ballsy twists...but after Kiss Kiss Bang Bang(a movie I think is basically perfect), I'm sad I didn't come away loving the movie. Lord knows I need SOMETHING to love with this year's bunch of wide releases.

My main problem was that everything seemed to be undercut with a joke, like Black doesn't trust us to buy into drama. The big twist, ballsy as it is, gets to the core of that. Because of this, the movie is frivolous fun at the moment, but with so much being played for laughs, not much of it sticks with you.

But maybe I'm asking too much from these things. Just because it's not Jaws, doesn't mean you can't have fun with Jurassic Park, right?

Also, seconding the Last Boy Scout recommendation. I love that one. I love Shane Black. Nobody writes dialog like him.

KingKubrick said...

I loved the film and MASSIVE SPOLERS OMIGOD the twist with the mandarin. I viewed it as a typical Shane Black style deconstruction of the self-serious, terrorism inflected villains in the recent slew of superhero movies (ironman 1 included). Maybe I'm reading too much into it (kiss kiss bang bang will give you an idea of the territory Shane's entering into here) but I viewed the Mandarin as Shane's send up of the tired trope of a villain using uttering threats via video in an outrageously hammy voice. The only answer for why the villain would be that hammy is he himself is a hammy actor trying to be as theatrical as possible. It's hilarious if you think about it. Bane = the Mandarin.

Brian said...

Well, it was better than The Dark Knight Rises and Amazing Spider-Man from last year, at least.

It was pretty good, but nothing special. 7/10 sounds about right to me as well.

Probably the funniest Marvel film, for better or worse.

Brian said...

Also, I forgot to say, The last Boy Scout is less an unofficial Die Hard sequel than it was a road map on how to redefine John McClane for the third Die Hard film...

javi75 said...

I don't see "The last boy scout" as having that much to do with the Die Hard movies. It seemed to me like Black had taken on cop movies with Lethal weapon and was then taking on private dick movies. The main character feels like an update of the classic pulp detective: externally he's a "loser" but internally he's the paragon of moral amidst society's corruption.

Regular GeoX said...

I just saw this, and I was pleasantly surprised: after kind of hating Iron Man 2, I kinda loved this one. Also: best post-credits easter egg in any Marvel movie, and I hope to hell it's a hint that there's gonna be a new Incredible Hulk movie with Mark Ruffalo, 'cause holy SHIT I want to see that.

Vianney said...

Really, you guys were surprised by the twist? I saw it coming from preeeetty much the beginning, and it seemed pretty.. 'natural'. But I'm not a (US)comic reader and only knew of the mandarin through the movie's promo campaign, so...

Very funny, good hearted, character driven, with still great action if a bit noisy/choppy at times. Agree with all that; the plot wasn't awful but mmmh, I thought the whole point of the movie was that he was losing everything and having to fend for himself from almost scratch, then 'house party' kicks in from nowhere? 'clean slate' felt somewhat off, too.