Friday, May 3, 2013
Iron Man 3
I reviewed "Iron Man 2" almost exactly three years ago, and I was very disappointed by it. It was a meaningless movie that varied between "Avengers" fanservice and Tony Stark clowning it up, that ultimately never really went anywhere and never challenged its characters. But it looks like Marvel is slowly figuring out how to make movies that aren't merely mediocre, to movies that are actually really good. "Avengers" surprised me with how decent it turned out to be, and "Iron Man 3" is a great movie, possibly the best out of the three. And honestly, its something of a shock that this movie turns out as well as it does, since the trailers are advertising a very different movie. Its actually a feat of marketing genius, supporting false expectations and making you think this is where Iron Man gets dark and faces his greatest foe. Well, the foes he fights here are impressive, but when Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin says "You'll never see me coming", he means it.
"Iron Man 3" is simply movie fun. This is more a comedy than I think the other ones have been, though it does really test Tony Stark as a character nonetheless. We're definitely not seeing Robert Downey Jr. pull himself out of a giant pit in the Middle East somewhere after having his spine shattered by Bane though, the character journey is more subtle and subdued. Because Marvel movies aren't going to be the dramatic epics that Christopher Nolan and DC are creating, I've come to accept this. They are crowd pleasers, here to entertain. And when you have Robert Downey Jr. in front of the camera with very funny material, I don't see how you could possibly complain. This movie is about Tony Stark, not a million Marvel cameos to set up the next Thor or whatever*. Its a Tony Stark movie, fairly lighthearted, but still exciting and a great time at the movies.
"Iron Man 3" is directed by Shane Black, who is probably best known as an 80s/90s action movie screenwriter, having written "Lethal Weapon", "Lethal Weapon 2", and "The Long Kiss Goodnight". But I'd say his greatest contribution to the film world is a movie called "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang", the Robert Downey Jr. comedy/mystery noir film that started his glorious return to movie stardom. If you haven't seen "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang", do it. Its one of my favorite modern comedies, and every line is excellent. So "Iron Man 3" sees the return of the Shane Black-Robert Downey Jr. duo, which probably explains why this movie feels nicely fresh even for being the third (or is it fourth?) film in the Iron Man franchise. Its also, again, a personal movie about its hero, with the simple goal of explaining how Tony Stark's life can continue following the alien invasion and gods stuff from "The Avengers". Shane Black isn't here to pimp the next phase in Marvel's grand evil scheme to conquer Hollywood, he's here to make as good of a movie as he possibly can with this material. And it really says something about his talents that I cannot imagine that anybody will make a more solid Iron Man movie than "Iron Man 3".
The plot this time is another Superhero mid-life crisis drama similar to Batman's journey in "The Dark Knight Rises", but since this is Marvel and Tony Stark, obviously its a lot sillier and less tortured. Stark has spent the year since escaping that wormhole over Manhattan tinkering his robots, creating a small army of experimental suits, including his newest, the Mark 42, a suit with its own independent propulsion powers that can put itself on from across a room. Sadly, its not quite finished, and it never works exactly right, leaving Iron Man for most of this movie in a weakened state, since the rest of his gear got smashed by that helicopter attack that you see in the trailers. Tony himself is having a lot of trouble sleeping, and again mild marital problems with Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts, since his Iron Man obsession is starting to get dangerous. Like when one of his suits invades their bedroom while he has a nightmare. Worse, Guy Pearce is hanging around and making some moves on Pepper. He's a rival scientist who has created a genetic engineering project with dangerous implications, and almost certainly evil.
The threat comes from Ben Kingsley's the Mandarin, the great villain of Iron Man from the comics (or so I'm told). The Mandarin decks himself out in Asian iconography, has a beard like Osama Bin Laden, talks in the most bizarre accent, but is played by a mixed race White-Indian guy. None of this makes any sense, but it oddly compelling and even chilling when played well. Which is why the big twist of the movie is going to piss people off. And I'm thinking of comic book fans here, you might hate this movie. However, the twist is so well-played and actually fits the movie, and really the overall tone of the Iron Man series, that I did not have a problem at all. Ben Kingsley plays this role so well, with all of its intricacies, that he even manages to steal a scene from Tony Stark! I'm won't give away what's actually going on here, but be prepared: all is not how it seems.
Impressively, this movie manages to pull off a few plot points that most movies would simply fail if they attempted, and almost always do when they try. For example, Tony Stark in the second act befriends a cute kid - stop groaning - because its actually played really well. I had a horrifying vision of that kid in a four-foot Iron Man suit, nothing of the kind happened. The terrorist group is staffed mainly by veteran American soldiers, leading to a very creepy implication of how poorly this War on Terror is going. And Iron Man never really is able to use his full power until the last act, leaving him for most of the movie to improvise with tools bought from a Home Depot, or beat up bad guys using only his Iron Man hand and foot. There was one female character working with Guy Pearce who really didn't go anywhere and was just kinda pointless, but you can't win them all.
To conclude this, I loved "Iron Man 3", its probably the strongest movie this Marvel series has produced. The villains are actually credible, the hero is challenged and given a serious personal problem to overcome, and I'm not even sure if he does by the end. The conclusion looks like a band-aid solution, and the real problems are yet to come. So maybe this actually is just a build-up commercial for "Avengers 2", but its done in a subtle enough way and "Iron Man 3" would stand strong on its own even if this were the last Marvel movie ever made. I don't know if "Iron Man 3" is going to be able to beat the glory that will be Zack Snyder's "Man of Steel", coming out this summer, but that's fine. This is light and pulpy and even mildly subversive to the comics themselves, its great. We can have different kinds of superhero movies, I have enough room in my heart for all of these.
And anyway, we best start learning to live with the Marvel juggernaut, because it isn't going away anytime soon.
* Honestly, I don't give a shit about Thor. Or the new Captain America movie. I guess I'll see them just because they're big movies, but I doubt they're going to be any good. We'll just have to wait awhile until Robert Downey Jr. is back for "Avengers 2" and "Iron Man 4".