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Iron Man 3 (2013)

April 29, 2013 2 comments

iron_man_3_poster_final

Summer is a-comin in, so loudly let off a few explosions as the first of this season’s superhero movies hits the cinemas with main force. Up to the end of 2011, there was a certain mechanical efficiency about the more recent adaptations of comic book characters or toys to the big screen. We would go through an introductory set-up and then would come the set-piece inserts. There are almost always car chases, guns are produced and manage to fire prodigious amounts of ammunition without having to pause for reloading, and there are increasingly loud explosions. This is great for those who have hearing difficulty because the fillings in their teeth vibrate to indicate just how loud some of these explosions are when replayed through the new generation of sound systems that pack decibels into the darkness of the auditorium. So, for example, conventional technology excitement comes with the Fast & Furious series, and science fiction gets its thrills from Transformers. This is not to deny these films deliver what we might call spectacle. Some of the special effects generated using CGI are remarkable to behold on a large screen. But as a generalisation, these are soulless vehicles. There are actors standing in front of green screens and in real locations, but their function is to explain the plot and justify the action. The scripts come with very little sparkle or individuality. Thanks to the focus group mentality of the larger studios, everything is aimed at the common denominator core of components that can be built into this season’s blockbuster success. For a while, this brought a steady stream of highly successful films in terms of box office takings. They were less successful in the eyes of those who prefer something slightly more idiosyncratic.

Robert Downey Jr and Gwyneth Paltrow under attack

Robert Downey Jr and Gwyneth Paltrow under attack

 

In the first outing, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) saw the light and decided his company should not be the largest arms manufacturer in the world. Technology should be used for more positive purposes. He therefore has to battle for his soul by fighting the older man running the company alongside him. As films go, it’s a little on the worthy side with our heroic actor allowed one or two moments of egocentric wit to show us he’s cut from a different cloth. Interestingly, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is also played relatively straight as the “love interest”. When we come to the second film, we’ve cleaned house and now face a business competitor who thinks he can get an edge by recruiting foreign talent. I found the relationship between Stark and Potts to be annoying and the fight at the end was overly long and repetitive, but it was still reasonably watchable.

 

In part thanks to the return of Shane Black to directing and joint scriptwriting, Iron Man 3 proves to be something of a revelation. This picks up after The Avengers where the alien invaders met their Waterloo. Now we’re back to more parochial affairs with the arrival of The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a fiendish terrorist who’s out to bring down the US with an escalating sequence of attacks. Also lurking in the undergrowth is Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) who’s been anonymously promoting his ideas through a think tank of increasing importance to the US government. Finally, we have the return of James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) who is Stark’s suit buddy.

Ben Kingsley being menacing

Ben Kingsley being menacing

 

I think the most important observation I can make about this film is how little time Stark spends in one of his suits. Indeed, in part, his latest technological developments have made him somewhat redundant. This frees the actor from having a fixed expression on his visor and lets the man behind the suit carry the action. The result is a more normal relationship with Pepper Pott and a rather pleasing relationship with Harley (Ty Simpkins), a young boy who may have some of Stark’s skills given only a monkey wrench and some high-sugar sweets to keep him hyper. Whatever it is he’s got, the broken suit seems to get repaired while in his possession. When it comes to the fight at the end, we also avoid the suit-on-suit battering contest which always grows tedious quickly and has a fight against humans with added firepower. Noticing the plant in the early scenes doesn’t quite prepare you for the extract applied to people. It’s a delightful fantasy touch.

Guy Pearce catches fire on the screen

Guy Pearce catches fire on the screen

 

I’m not sure everyone will understand all the humour. As a Brit, I found Ben Kingsley’s performance one of the best pieces of self-mockery I’ve seen in years. The accent and attitude when off-camera are wonderfully revealing if you understand British accents. Taken overall, this is one of the most amusing superhero films of recent years and, despite the presence of a callow youth in a key role, it manages to avoid all hints of sentimentality. This is a story about people and the suits are just tools. Indeed, they prove to be disposable tools when a choice has to be made between making the relationship with Pepper Pott work and making the machines work. Throughout, it’s Robert Downey Jr. who keeps the film moving. He remains one of the most charismatic and watchable people on screen. Separating him from the suit was one of the most intelligent decisions taken by the Marvel studio. I remember it happening in the animated series The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, episode 125 when the Avengers team are transported to the nine Realms of Asgard and Stark loses his suit. Surviving until he can find the resources to build another using uru-armour was much more interesting. A human struggling without the aid of technology is something that can give us all a greater vicarious thrill. So it is that I crown Iron Man 3 as clearly the best of the three in this series so far, and a difficult film for all the other blockbusters to beat later in the 2013 season.

 

For my reviews of allied films, see:
The Avengers
Captain America
Iron Man 2
Thor

 

Iron Man 2

I suppose it was faintly perverse of me to go and see Iron Man 2 since I had not stirred from the house to see the first outing. But everyone was speaking so highly of Robert Downey Jr.’s performance. Well, how could I refuse.

The good news is that there are two genuinely outstanding performances. The first belongs to Robert Downey Jr., the other to Mickey Rourke who makes a wonderfully monosyllabic Russian villain (with the parrot to keep him company). If the film had been built around them, it would have been wonderful. Unfortunately, comic-based films come with a weight of expectation from fans who want elements from the original sources included. They line up geekishly and complain if this does or does not happen. This inevitably leads to a dilution of the film in hand. What could have been a tightly focused dance of violent confrontation between two driven men, becomes a fundamentally unbalanced narrative with multiple redundancies built in (presumably to enable a sequel).

So let’s get the bad news out of the way. The banter between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts drove me nuts. If that’s supposed to represent a comic element, it failed miserably. Stark is hugely enjoyable on his own as he preens so orgiastically, holding the screen and playing beautifully off minor characters like Shandling’s Senator. Don Cheadle is virtually invisible and cannot by any standards command a buddy or sidekick status. It’s a mechanical performance (as befits a film about things prosthetic and robotic) and genuinely dull. But the real dud is Sam Rockwell. What were they thinking? This is supposedly the CEO of one of America’s top armament manufacturers yet, literally, the man is an accident waiting to happen. It’s totally inconceivable that such a man could ever be the leader of a major company. The only explanation is that, while Stark is morbidly drinking himself into the ground in anticipation of his death, the Hammer character is supposed to become the comic relief. Well, is that ever a lead balloon. He has no apparent technical expertise. There’s no sign of any leadership ability. Worse, there’s no real sign of even basic self-defensive foresight. He spirits our Russian villain out of jail and gives him the unsupervised free run of his workshops to build killer drones. I know this has to happen for the plot to work, but this abandonment of intelligence is fundamentally disappointing.

Scarlett Johansson is also a dea ex machina (a goddess who doesn’t get into a metal suit) whose fight is shot in a way designed to conceal the fact she probably couldn’t punch her way out of a wet paper bag. Of all the more recent female supposed martial arts experts, she is the least convincing. Worse, she can break through Vanko’s hack to release Cheadle’s Iron Buddy, but can do nothing online to prevent the rest of Vanko’s drones from continuing to fight. Now is that ever a convenient plot hole!

Which brings me to the big fight at the end. The length of time flying around to thin out the drones is boring. It would have been far more satisfying to have, say, ten opponents and for the one-and-a-half heroes to face the challenge of getting them all lined up for Stark’s one-shot coup de grâce. And what has happened to the laws of physics? Long ago, there was an infomercial on British TV designed to persuade divers and their passengers to use seat belts. It showed someone putting an egg inside a box and then shaking it. Every time, the egg was broken. How can the suits take such punishment and not reduce the men inside to an omelette laced with the occasional feather and beak?

All of which might suggest I was not entertained yet, improbably, I was. The first part of the film is wonderful as we watch Stark fend off the Government’s attempts to nationalise his offensive/defensive capabilities while waiting for Vanko to complete the development of his father’s designs. Everything works really well until Stark gives up. All the central section of the film is treading water as Vanko quietly improves on Hammer’s technology and, following Nick Fury’s prompting, Stark does his superscience thing and invents a new element using what appears to be a hastily thrown together version of the particle accelerator at CERN. I was then re-engaged by the fight once everyone was back on the ground. The mandatory ending with Fury pointing to the possible sequel with the Avengers was adequate. Overall, the performances of Downey and Rourke kept the film going with just enough humour to make me stay in my seat when the going got tough.

This was better than the average comic book film which isn’t saying much, but it represents half a very good film. For my reviews of allied Marvel Comic films, see:
The Avengers
Captain America
Iron Man 3
Thor

 

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