Iron Man 3
Director : Shane Black
Screenplay : Drew Pearce & Shane Black
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2013
Stars : Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), Don Cheadle (Colonel James Rhodes), Guy Pearce (Aldrich Killian), Rebecca Hall (Maya Hansen), Jon Favreau (Happy Hogan), Ben Kingsley (The Mandarin), James Badge Dale (Savin), Stephanie Szostak (Brandt), Paul Bettany (Jarvis), William Sadler (President Ellis), Dale Dickey (Mrs. Davis), Ty Simpkins (Harley Keener)
Now that the Iron Man movies have reached entry number 3½ (if we can consider, ala Federico Fellini, that the character’s appearance in last summer’s The Avengers counts as at least half a movie), we can safely say that the series has matured into one of the more resilient and durable of superhero franchises. While they never quite reach the stratospheric heights of truly great comic book adaptations, the Iron Man movies are reliably entertaining, finding a consistent balance between humanity, humor, and, of course, an onslaught of CGI effects. Each movie has gotten bigger and more furious in its action, but that is almost to be expected. It’s the way the game is played, although following The Avengers (2012) and its destroy-New-York-City demolition derby of a climax, the protracted battle at the end of Iron Man 3, which takes place atop several massive cargo container cranes, seems downright subtle.
When I saw the first Iron Man back in the summer of 2008, I was somewhat skeptical, since Iron Man was not exactly a top-tier superhero at the time (I described him as being “taken from the Marvel Comics stable, dusted off, and CGI’ed into big-screen material”) and it seemed risky to bank a potential superhero franchise on the shoulders of Robert Downey, Jr., a gifted actor with a troubled personal history whose most recent big role was as a cynical, alcoholic journalist in David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007). Of course, the casting of Downey Jr. turned out to be nothing short of genius, and the film was so good that I structured my review as run-down of its best qualities that demonstrated how superhero movies could be done well.
With the third entry out in theaters, I thought I’d return to that approach to see if what worked well back in 2008 is still working well three-and-a-half films and five years later.
Casting Robert Downey Jr. The presence of Downey Jr. as the brilliant billionaire scientist Tony Stark is still the series’ ace in the hole, as he continues to tread a perfectly balanced line between arrogance and heroism. Few actors can deliver a line with Downey Jr.’s throwaway zip, which elevates every scrap of dialogue into something potentially memorable (you can see it in action all the way back in the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield vehicle Back to School, in which Downey Jr. plays a social-deviant college student shooting off lines about the inequities of the capitalist system and how “violent ground acquisition games such as football are in fact a crypto-fascist metaphor for nuclear war”). At this point, Downey Jr. truly owns the role, and what is most surprising is that, in his fourth go-round, his take doesn’t feel stale, even though the character hasn’t developed dramatically since the end of Iron Man (there is an attempt to make his Avengers-induced anxiety attacks relevant to the plot, but nothing much comes of it). Nevertheless, Stark continues to be an inherently fascinating and compelling character, which Iron Man 3 highlights by having him spend a good chunk of the film’s middle without his metal armor.
The director. Back in 2008 I applauded the choice of actor-turned-director Jon Favreau, who had already proved his ability to work with complex special effects while also maintaining a sense of humor and character. This time Favreau steps into the role of executive producer (his on-screen character Happy Hogan, who has graduated from being Stark’s body guard and driver to being chief of security at Stark Industries, is still around, though) and hands the director’s reigns over to Shane Black, who co-wrote the screenplay with newcomer Drew Pearce (who also contributed to the script for Guillermo del Toro’s action behemoth Pacific Rim). Black was, for a while in the late 1980s and early ’90s, a darling of the macho action set. His scripts for Lethal Weapon (1986) and The Last Boy Scout (1991) made him one of Hollywood’s highest paid screenwriters (his script for 1996’s The Long Kiss Goodnight fetched an unheard-of $3 million). He then disappeared for close to a decade, resurfacing in 2005 with his writing/directing debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a clever and funny homage to detective mysteries starring Robert Downey Jr. Thus, like Favreau, Black is a somewhat off-handed choice (especially since this is only his second directorial effort), but he stays in sync with the material, playing up the comedy to just the right pitch and using it to both off-set and enhance the ever-increasing moments of action spectacular. In hindsight, Black really makes a lot of sense given that the superhero film has essentially replaced the hardbody action film at the box office, and maybe the studios would do well to resurrect the directorial icons of that era for their franchises (paging John McTiernan and Renny Harlin).
All-around solid cast. As with the previous films, Iron Man 3 boasts an excellent supporting cast (we can thank Marlon Brando, whose appearance as Jor-El in 1978’s Superman established that serious Oscar-caliber actors would not lose credibility by starring in superhero movies). The recurring characters of Pepper Potts, Tony Stark’s girlfriend and CEO of his company, and Col. James Rhodes, Stark’s military ally who has now taken on his own Iron Man secret identity as War Machine, aka Iron Patriot, are both ably filled by Gwyneth Paltrow and Don Cheadle. Paltrow arguably has a larger role than ever this time around, and she somehow manages to be both the damsel in distress and a vengeful superhero in her own right during the film’s climax, although her romance with Stark doesn’t carry much weight. I had been looking forward to seeing more of their developing relationship (How does one make a womanizing cad like Tony Stark monogamous?), but it never really clicks. Her frustration with Stark’s monomaniacal focus on his Iron Man technology (aided and abetted by his anxiety-spurned insomnia) has great potential, but it never quite works out. On the opposite end of the moral spectrum, the villains this time around are particularly well cast, with Ben Kingsley playing the Mandarin, an Osama bin Laden-esque terrorist who takes over the airwaves from time to time to deliver threatening bromides about teaching the United States a lesson or two, while Guy Pearce is particular snaky as Aldrich Killian, a brilliant scientist gone terribly bad, partially because Stark blew him off a decade earlier (the film gets to have its fun with Y2K-era fashion while also getting to indulge in some pre-consciousness-raised Stark hedonism). Pearce and the Mandarin are working together on a biochemical project that allows people to instantly regenerate tissue, which they use to build an army of super-soldiers out of amputated war veterans. Howevver, their relationship is not entirely what it seems, and the exact nature of the power dynamics between these two villains provides the film with its most clever and memorable twist.
Socio-political relevance. Any superhero film that foregrounds the military as much as the Iron Man franchise is bound to have some socio-political bearing, although much of that takes a backseat in Iron Man 3. Granted, seeing Kingsley’s Mandarin in grainy videos in full terrorist mode is bound to jolt and scratch at still-festering post-9/11 wounds, although the manner in which his character eventually plays out gives the film its sharpest bit of commentary by suggesting that the illusory nature of media-fueled infamy is a true power unto itself. The film shows how our focus on stage-worthy supervillains allows other nefarious forces to work behind the scenes undetected.
Complicated morality. As noted above, Tony Stark remains an imminently fascinating character, largely due to Robert Downey Jr.’s performance that turns insouciance into an art form. The villains this time around also benefit from moral shading, as Aldrich Killian is first presented as a shaggy-haired eager-geek for whom we feel sorry after Stark gives him the cold shoulder (here his insouciance feels less like a defense mechanism and more like the behavior of a genuine cad). Thus, his villainy is, to some extent, a direct product of Stark’s egotism—the ultimate revenge of the nerd—something that Stark admits in his arguably unnecessary voice-over narration.
Comic relief. Although the trailers made it look Dark Knight dark, Iron Man 3 is actually quite light on its feet, maintaining the verbal and physical humor that gave the first film such a nice balance. There is a good deal of well-mounted slapstick humor involving Stark’s tinkering with his technology, and his humorous rapport with Jarvis, his artificial intelligence computer (voiced by Paul Bettany), continues to pay dividends, which also means that the film generates the closest thing it has to true pathos when it looks like Jarvis might have breathed his last (figuratively speaking, of course).
Thus, all in all, Iron Man 3 captures much of the same sense of pleasure that Favreau’s original film did, which is all the more impressive given that it still feels relatively fresh, as if the series still has more to offer, rather than simply trying to squeeze out whatever life it might have left. There isn’t much in the way of growth or development, but what it does it does quite well, providing a satisfying sense of escapism while reminding us that such pleasures don’t have to be saturated with overkill and completely devoid of relevance.
Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick
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