Sunday, May 5, 2013

movie review: 'iron man iii'

The year was 2008, and arguably one of the best years for film nerds since 1982. I mean, between Tropic Thunder, The Dark Knight, WALL-E, The Incredible Hulk, Hellboy 2, Rambo, that Punisher sequel nobody saw (and everyone should see - seriously, The Punisher: War Zone was surprisingly good). Hell, I even liked that Get Smart movie with Steve Carrell, Anne Hathaway, and Dwayne Johnson, and while the fourth Indiana Jones movie was a trainwreck, it still made a ton of money that summer. 

But the surprise hit that nobody saw coming was Iron Man, and really, what reason did we have to be excited? A movie from the director of Elf, starring a washed-up SNL comedian who had spent years in a drug-induced burnout opposite a female lead who had squandered all of the likeability she had from her Academy Award for Shakespeare In Love in a series of completely uninspired performances? And all of this from a studio who had shown naked contempt for its intellectual property by licensing the Fantastic Four to 20th Century Fox and hiring the semi-professional hack Tim Story to direct two horrendous movies? And all of this to tackle a franchise for a character who had never fronted a TV series and had never had much market penetration outside of the comics and a few solid sidescroller beat-'em-ups and arcade fighters?

It was the film that caught everybody by surprise, became one of the big hits that completely revitalized Robert Downey Jr.'s career in 2008 (the other being Tropic Thunder), and was the opening salvo of Marvel's attempt to bring comic book continuity to the big screen, a salvo that paid incredible dividends with the critical smash hit The Avengers last year. I don't think I can truly describe for you how much of a risk Marvel Studios was taking with this film, and the fact that it paid off so well is one of the biggest reasons the comic book blockbuster is now a major player in Hollywood.

And yet, the more I think about it, the less I like Iron Man. 

Not the movie, let me stress this - the movie remains extremely solid because it gets nearly everything it needs to right. Robert Downey Jr. is born to play Tony Stark, Gwyneth Paltrow brings surprising energy as Pepper Potts, Terrance Howard is surprisingly decent as Rhodes, and I always got a chuckle that Paul Bettany was playing JARVIS (the computer that runs Stark's manor). And what I like most about Iron Man is that it nails the human element so well - it's not afraid to show Tony Stark as the genius millionaire playboy who made his fortune selling weapons and behaving something of a dick, but also putting that character through real pain and suffering so he can grow. There are character arcs here, and the best parts of the film are when Tony is out of the suit and talking. And while the film has problems (I don't think Jeff Bridges is given quite enough to do, and the third act is more than a little anti-climatic), I still think it holds up incredibly well.

And thus it wasn't until Iron Man II that I started realizing my problems with the Iron Man character. Now, don't get me wrong, that film's perfectly serviceable too, nailing the same basic beats as the previous film with some great acting backing everything up, particularly from Don Cheadle (replacing Terrance Howard, arguably for the better) and especially from Sam Rockwell (who plays arguably the main 'villain' of the story). But it really does say something about Tony Stark as a character that I prefer the movie when it's focusing more on character development than all the splash and explosions.

But it's also here where I realized my issue with Tony Stark, and ultimately it ties back to a number of the factors that made him so popular in the modern world, along with his DC counterpart Bruce Wayne. In short, Tony Stark is a teenager who never grew up, and he is the wish-fulfilment fantasy of every engineering nerd man-child who idolizes him regardless. And with geek culture taking over so much of the world, it's no surprise this kind of character is popular - on the surface, he's an idealized fantasy, the 'genius millionaire playboy philanthropist', which the last word only thrown in to provide some vestige of maturity. But unlike Bruce Wayne, Stark chooses to tackle his parental abandonment issues with a mask of wry humour and a bottle of alcohol.

Now it's a credit to Robert Downey Jr.'s performance that this character turns out as likeable as he does (he could have very quickly turned into an asshole), mostly because Downey Jr. imparts some real empathy in his delivery. That said, there's a certain shallowness to Tony Stark's character, at least on the surface, that I don't think most of the audience picks up on - mostly because Tony Stark can really be a selfish, arrogant prick to people he doesn't care about, and occasionally to people he does care about. The frustrating part of Iron Man II is how much this element comes to the forefront, and even though it is a mask for his ongoing heart issues, it really becomes more than a little insufferable to listen through in the meandering second act of that film. 

And really, that shallowness seems to undercut all of the heroism Tony Stark advocates. Sure, he might be attempting to find world peace, but he's doing it to assuage his own ego, not for any higher purpose or mission statement. He's out for himself and the precious few in his inner circle, and you can tell he doesn't care much about anyone else. It's no surprise that Marvel Comics had him as the hero fighting Communists in the 60s, because that self-interest and naked embrace of capitalism make him a far more potent symbol than even Captain America in this regard. But all of that said, he's not a character I'd aspire to be, and while I know that it's always been part of Marvel's mission statement to write characters we empathize with (rather than DC's heroes which are meant to be inspirational), there are still a lot of young men my age who will completely embrace that shallow world view. Sure, it's a better view than Batman's schtick, but only marginally. 

And on that note, it's also why Tony Stark's arc in The Avengers worked so well - because he's forced to confront the death of a friend and thus must put aside his own petty self interest and give something of himself. It shows Joss Whedon's understand of the deeper elements of a character like Stark, and it also shows his willingness to push that character to grow and evolve. But with that in mind, what can come next? Where does Tony Stark go from here?

Well, in Iron Man III, we get an answer to that question, and while I wouldn't call it a completely perfect pay-off to Tony Stark's arc, I still think it's phenomenally strong in a way I never could have expected. But to explain it - and explain why I think this movie is pretty exceptional, all things considered - I'm going to have to spoil the entire damn plot of the movie. I also want to talk about the 'twist' regarding a certain character that's had comic-book fans in a frothing rage, but it's a twist I think is positively inspired.

So, spoilers after the jump (or about four paragraphs down), but let me talk about everything else regarding the movie. As always, the acting is great across the board. Robert Downey Jr. is inspired for the choice of Stark, Don Cheadle is awesome as Rhodes, and while I wish she was given more to do, Gwyneth Paltrow was pretty great as Pepper Potts. The surprising revelatory turns came from Guy Pierce and (of course) from Sir Ben Kingsley, both of them giving surprisingly multi-layered performances with some character beats I didn't quite expect. Hell, even the child actor who meets up with Stark during a period in the second act does a halfway solid job.

And I really do have to mention the directorial work of Shane Black, who was actually responsible for Downey Jr.'s original return to film in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, a shockingly awesome little movie that came out in 2005 and remains one of the best directorial debuts  I've ever had the fortune to see. Shane Black spent a lot of time writing action-comedies, so he's a natural fit for Iron Man III, and his signature flair for fast conversation, a proper tonal balance, and the holiday season (it's hilarious how many of Shane Black's movies are Christmas movies) are a great fit for this film.

Any big criticisms that I have? Well, it's not a perfect movie by any stretch: there are moments of CGI that don't quite click (heads don't always seem to fit well on the bodies against the green screen), the ending of the film feels a bit rushed, and the film has a few pacing problems that a tighter screenplay could have alleviated. A bigger issue is that these pacing problems feel like a lack of narrative momentum, which has been a frequent criticism of Shane Black's work, in that events don't always seem to flow well or they happen by coincidence. In particular, the number of malfunctions that occur with Tony's armour do get a little exasperating and hard to believe, particularly considering the majority run on the chest arc reactor (which is supposed to be pretty damn solid for this sort of thing). And while the film does have its moments of slowdown and comedy, I think that some of the moments could have been better placed to allow more breathing room. And as with all of the Iron Man movies, it could have done without a few of the gratuitous action sequences - these movies, funnily enough, work best as character pieces, and I would have liked to have seen more from the various characters like Rhodes and Potts and Guy Pierce's character Killian outside of the special effects.

So yeah, definitely go see this movie if you're on the fence about it, but you might have noticed that I didn't really mention Ben Kingsley. There's a reason for this, and to talk about him, I need to talk about the plot of this movie and why I think it ultimately works. Spoilers are incoming next paragraph: you have been warned.

Okay, so the big twist that every comic book nerd and their cousin has been furious about has been the change regarding Ben Kingsley's character The Mandarin, who has been one of the biggest heavyweight villains in the Iron Man mythos since the creation of the character. He's a terrorist with a taste for the Orient, and his superpowers consist of ten magical rings with various powers - at least, that's what he was in the comics.

In Iron Man III, Ben Kingsley's Mandarin has no superpowers at all - he's a British actor, hired by Guy Pierce's scientist/businessman Aldrich Killian to play a fake terrorist claiming responsibility for the bombings that are really the tests of Killian's Extremis Project (which is a nanotech project that basically manifests itself in the movie as a heat-based regenerative serum that if done wrong causes the subject to explode). 

Oh, and apparently Extremis is partially backed by the United States government in the aftermath of the events in New York during The Avengers film - seemingly by the vice-president without the president's knowledge. Oh, and the test subjects that are being used for Extremis are disabled veterans who have lost limbs thanks to IEDs in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, on the possibility that the Extremis project might allow their limbs to regenerate.

And once all of these plot elements come into full view, Iron Man III reveals what it really is: a direct attack on the military-industrial complex and the American myth of the 'perfect soldier' in the post 9/11 world. It posits that the terrorism 'threat' that remains is something not driven by some evil terrorist cell in the Middle East, but by the military-industrial complex that has made billions in the weapons industry throughout the War on Terror. And while everything is staged so that the public thinks the president is in bed with Big Oil and that his motivations are corrupt, it's all a stage for naked commercial exploitation. Hell, even the oil exec that Ben Kingsley 'kills' is all done through movie magic and the oil exec doesn't actually die. And it's also a film that doesn't hate to show Rhodes' newly christened and repainted Iron Patriot armour as a symbol of American foreign policy at its most brazen and inelegant, to the point where it is co-opted by the enemy.

Now one could see Tony Stark - the billionaire weapons developer - as just as bad as Killian and his ilk, except for two points. First is the existence of Pepper Potts as CEO of Stark Industries, and who viciously condemns any attempt to allow Stark Industries to make weapons, rejecting Killian's Extremis Project proposal (showing that businesses can indeed have ethics). The second point, and the more important one, is Tony Stark himself. Suffering from vicious PTSD flashbacks and anxiety attacks after his near-death experience in The Avengers, he has made an arsenal of Iron Man suits in order to protect everything and everyone he loves, but even still he's barely holding it together - and never once does he refer to himself as a soldier. He calls himself 'The Mechanic' throughout the film, because when placed against Norse gods and super-soldiers and aliens and the Hulk, what is Tony Stark? 

What this film understands, and why it works, is that Tony Stark is in reality the real post-9/11 soldier, just as Captain America is the idealized 1940s man. Between Tony's real conscience, intellect, and real mental health problems, Tony Stark isn't what the military-industrial complex wants from their soldiers. Instead, they want what The Extremis Project gives them, and the unsubtle metaphor of those poor subjects blowing up when the procedure goes wrong is a grisly allegory for when that military-industrial complex fails catastrophically.

So yeah, it's not subtle in any way, shape, or form, and I can bet some people will be pissed about this film come Monday, particularly anyone concerned with veteran's affairs (although to be fair to the movie, the villains are the ones exploiting these poor souls, not the heroes, who if anything seem to have the most sympathy for the modern soldier in our world today). And I'll be the first to admit that it feels a bit heavy-handed and clumsy, and Ben Kingsley's reveal can be a bit frustrating because his terrorist propaganda films are so damn effective (which one could argue is part of the point - propaganda being designed to terrify - but it doesn't help the movie's tonal balance all that much). 

But then again, all three Iron Man films have been about the military-industrial complex in some way, shape, or form (okay, a bit less the second one, but I'm trying to make a point here). The first movie had some very unsubtle parallels between the terror cells in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda, and like in Iron Man III, it's revealed that the American military-industrial complex is the real enemy by selling to both sides, with the former weapons-designer Tony Stark turning his company towards good in order to damage the system. And in Iron Man III, Aldrich Killian's plan is near-identical to that of Obadiah Stane, except his desperate rage at being snubbed and ignored by Tony's genius hubris drives him even closer to the edge by seeking a more direct route to control all elements of the war.

And at the very end of the film, Tony does something that pissed fans off, but which I think is a perfect thematic pay-off to the Iron Man trilogy as a whole: after defeating Killian with Pepper's help, he blows up all of the Iron Man suits he created. At this point in the movie, Pepper is has been converted through Extremis and she's terrified of what she could do (twin metaphor here, both showing the real fear soldiers have when they rationalize their destructive potential, and showing that even those intend peace can be dragged into the war and must be ready to fight), but Tony tells her it's going to be okay, and that he'd manage to find the cure for her. And by blowing up all of his armours, Tony has both committed himself to the preservation of life over the dealing of death, managed to move away from his PTSD trauma, and shown that he will not be responsible for the creation of a new military-industrial complex through his machines. It's a phenomenal conclusion for Tony Stark's dramatic arc, and while I wished the ending could have done a bit more to hold onto those moments and provide a better summation of themes, it was still a great pay-off. 

So, to conclude all of this, I would tell you to go see Iron Man III, but odds are you probably are going to already. So what I'd like to stress is the message behind the movie - Shane Black took a summer blockbuster and behind it smuggled a biting criticism of the military-industrial complex, an indictment that definitely needs to be shouted in North America. Not only is it proof that action movies can have richer, deeper meaning, but that superhero movies can have it as well. The deeper themes here are engaging and definitely worthy of conversation, and it's the idea-based filmmaking that we need more of in Hollywood these days.

Shane Black, good hustle. For the rest of you, go see Iron Man III, and don't be afraid to start the conversation afterwards.

1 comment:

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