Sunday, May 5, 2013

Iron Man 3

Alternate Title:  The Steps Without the Music

One sentence synopsis:   Tony Stark battles the shadowy terrorist mastermind known only as the Mandarin.

Things Havoc liked: Robert Downey Jr. is so good at playing Tony Stark that I'm getting tired of saying so. Never, in the history of characters with origins outside of the movies have I seen a pair as perfectly matched as Downey and Stark, and if there's anything that the up and down (but mostly up) history of the massive Avengers series has taught us, it's that Downey can play Stark in his sleep (and in this film, often does, albeit in reverse). It's possible I will never get tired of this Tony Stark, irreverent, playboyish, monomaniacal, thoughtless, brilliant, committed, delinquent, you all know what he's like. In Iron Man 3, the (oddly) fourth movie in which we get to spend an extended period of time with him, Robert Downey Jr. is no less entertaining to watch than he was in the other three. The film (wisely) leaves Stark out of the Iron Man armor for most of its run time, giving him plenty of time to simply be, act, and even fight as Tony Stark, the billionaire genius, and he manages to sell every single line, be it a throwaway one-liner or a surprisingly candid admission of his own fallibilities. Downey is Tony Stark. Period.

Iron Man has been through some chop insofar as the rest of its casts have gone, but they seem to have settled on a workable set. Gwyneth Paltrow's turn as Pepper Potts remains the only role I have ever been able to stand Gwyneth Paltrow in, and while her character is used here as the usual damsel in distress for a good portion of the runtime, the movie does manage to find ways to do several new things with her. Don Cheadle, reprising the role he took from Terence Howard in Iron Man 2 (a change for the better, then and now), has a surprisingly limited role as Colonel Rhodes/War Machine/SPOILER. His screen-time is limited by the requirements of the plot, but his interactions with Stark have just the right note of almost buddy-cop humor amidst all the chaos, as he brings a professionalism to the business of saving the world that Tony patently lacks.

But two of the bigger surprises to me were actually new characters to the series. One was Ben Kingsley, here playing the Mandarin, leader of the Ten Rings terrorist organization. Kingsley was a surprise, not insofar as he was good (for he always is), but insofar as where they go with the character. For a villain that always rode the line in the comics between racial stereotype and generic "evil league of evil" member, Mandarin here is taken in directions I, for one, absolutely did not expect. The investigation of his backstory and role in the film is, culminates, to me, in the single best sequence of the film, a sequence bereft of special effects or choreography, that simply explores a concept I don't believe we've seen in a comic book movie to date. The other surprise was eleven-year-old Ty Simpkins, who plays Harley, a boy that Stark encounters through a series of events too elaborate to relate here. I know most of you are already rolling your eyes at the very notion of Iron Man with a kid sidekick, but this one actually works through a combination of a very good child actor and excellent writing, some of it sardonic, some of it not, that elevates the scenes with the kid into some of the best in the film.

And yes, the writing, always a high point in Iron Man films, is still excellent, perhaps not quite as crisp as it was in the Avengers, but perfectly workable, with all the self-effacing human touches that the other films relied so heavily upon (the bit involving War Machine's security password was hilarious). The film's writer, Shane Black (of Lethal Weapon and the Long Kiss Goodnight), here sprinkles generous quantities of references, in-jokes, comedic asides, and other such craziness, all of which fit the tone of the perennially irreverent Marvel cinemaverse. Directing (also Black) is unobtrusive, with few obvious 3D-payoff shots (I saw the film in 2D) and effects that never serve to get in the way. Marvel and Disney know that this series is their bread and butter, and there are no corners cut to make the film as professional-grade as possible, and while none of the crew-work shines out as a particularly memorable example of the genre, the film is overall very well made.

Things Havoc disliked: *Sigh*

I wanted to love Iron Man 3, I really did. I'm on record as having loved every single previous run-up-to-the-Avengers film, to say nothing of the Avengers itself. I had misgivings about the third Iron Man, sure. Third-movie-curses are a real thing, guys (Godfather), especially in the Superhero genre (Spiderman, X-men, Superman, the original Batman series), and the materials for this film gave me the uneasy feeling that, for all Disney-Marvel's skill at producing high-quality work, we might be in for a fresh round.

Short answer: Shit...

Long Answer: What the hell happened to the plot of this movie?

So, yes, this is a superhero movie, and thus, I should not be surprised when the plot involves a genetically-modifying super-drug which can literally regenerate lost limbs in seconds and give people not only Wolverine-style healing factor but super-strength and the ability to superheat parts of their body enough to melt steel. We have to come up with credible antagonists for Tony Stark's traveling circus of one-man war-stoppers after all, and this will do in a pinch. But the plot of this movie left me wondering if I'd missed large sections of it. No explanation is ever offered as to why the Mandarin's henchmen, a group of formerly disabled US army veterans, have all joined up with the Mandarin to brutally murder civilians, women, and children, to kill Tony Stark, and to destroy the United States. No explanation is ever offered as to where the Mandarin gets his preposterous level of access, military hardware, and legions of well-placed traitors. I do not object necessarily to the notion that the Mandarin simply has these things, but in a film that tries to talk cogently about such topics as the aftermath of war and the contradictions of the War on Terror (more on this later), you can't just arbitrarily drop all question of motivation.

Part of the issue here is due to Guy Pearce, here playing Aldrich Killian, a well-connected Biotech magnate in the employ of the Mandarin. For one thing, I hate Guy Pearce. With the exception of LA Confidential, Animal Kingdom, and Memento, everything he's been in was either garbage, occasioned him acting like a moron, or both. There's an unwarranted smugness to every character he plays that just grates with me, and while he's a villain here, and grating smugness is not necessarily a bad quality, the fact remains that his character, a major one all things considered, has no motivation whatsoever. Other than literally the pettiest grudge I've ever seen in film, Killian does not have any reason at all (throwaway lines about "controlling the War on Terror" notwithstanding) to do what he does, and while I grant that grudges can be petty in reality, to ground a film like this in such an inconsequential "failing" of Tony Stark's (he literally brushes him off once at a cocktail party) robs the film of one of its strongest assets, the ability to make the central conflict a personal one. Superhero movies live and die on the personal conflict that goes on beneath the costumes and armor, and a villain this arbitrary scuppers everything you could do in that direction.

Not that the movie needs much help in scuppering things. Iron Man 3 hints constantly at interesting and cool ideas: Tony Stark dealing with the aftermath of his traumatic experiences in Avengers. The contradictions and sometimes artificial nature of the War on Terror. The nature of terrorism and of America's role in the world. Yet all the film does is hint at these topics, never pausing on any one of them long enough to actually explore anything. Tony suffers from panic attacks and symptoms of PTSD, something he tries to combat by throwing himself into his work. Yet beyond the simple fact that these things exist, nothing is done with them. We do not see how they inconvenience his life. We do not see how he works to overcome them. We do not see how he ultimately is able to triumph over this problem, as it is simply dropped without comment once the movie has established that it exists at all. The same is done with all of the other potentially interesting ideas that the movie has, as well as large portions of the cast. During the time that Tony pairs up with the aforementioned kid sidekick, the movie seems to be hinting towards one series of things for their relationship, and then rather than developing further or even subverting this expectation, simply drops the matter entirely. In this way, the film, which is very good at generating interest, proves itself even better at defusing it.

Final thoughts:    I don't want to give the wrong impression here. I didn't hate Iron Man 3. I didn't even dislike Iron Man 3. In certain ways, I can even say I liked the film, but given the exalted heights that my expectations had reached thanks to a string of awesome movies capped by a stupendous one, I must admit to a sense of almost crushing disappointment with the product I ultimately received here. It is, by one standard, fair to point out that my expectations were perhaps too high, that nothing could have satisfied me, and that my review is biased. But to take another viewpoint, if my expectations were high, it was because they had been set there. Disney and Marvel created a series of escalating masterpieces, all with the intention of bringing me in to see film after film. They established these expectations for themselves, and cannot now hide behind them when they fall short of the mark.

It is not bias to expect greatness from a series that has been great. And it is not fanboyishness to be disappointed when one does not receive it. Iron Man 3 is a movie worth watching. But it is not the one I wanted to see.

Final Score:  6/10

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