Saturday, May 4, 2013

Iron Man 3

We're in uncharted waters now.  Prior to The Avengers, there were five Marvel Universe movies (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America: First Avenger) that all served, in some fashion, as leadups to the big, Whedon-directed team-up film.  The burden on each, besides building their own worlds and their own characters, was to build anticipation for The Avengers, and building anticipation is, all things being equal, not really that difficult.  A glimpse here, a glimpse there.  Just enough to whet the appetite.

We're in the next phase of the Marvel film saga now and even though Avengers 2 is already on the horizon, each of the next batch of films has to convince audiences that yes, these characters each bring value to the screen all on their own, and their adventures are worth following even when they are split up.  Of the four major members of the Avengers, director Shane Black should, on paper, have the easiest time reintroducing a solo Tony Stark, since the first Iron Man movie took place more or less in a world in which an Avengers movie was more fantasy than reality, and Robert Downey Jr.'s performance has always been the most solid anchor in this universe, imbuing Stark with his own self-confident-verging-on-cocky charisma.

Black is reunited with his Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang star in Downey, and there is a conscious effort to bring some of that film's light/dark dichotomy into this movie.  The film opens and closes with Downey speaking in voiceover, a direct homage to their earlier collaboration, and Downey gets his own Val Kilmer to bounce off of in this film in the form of, of all things, an adorable moppet.  Stark's second-act sojourn that brings him into the orbit of a child named Harley (Ty Simpkins) seems like the most shamelessly pandering bit of horseshit this side of Clark's irritating "son" in Superman Returns, but Black and Drew Pearce's script somehow makes it work.  In the midst of Stark's very personal and mostly small-stakes battle with the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), his ability to banter never leaves him, even when he only has a young boy to bounce off of.

But hanging over Iron Man 3, like an unwanted guest, is The Avengers, and the film never finds a satisfying way to grapple with it.  Leave aside the fact that Tony Stark has a bunch of superheroic friends who never bother coming to his aid in his battle here - we'll just assume, like we will probably have to with everyone else's solo picture, that everyone else is busy with their own life-or-death struggle, and don't have the time to answer the call at the moment.  Iron Man 3 tries to find something to say about the way the events of The Avengers, with its cosmic focus, had a profound effect on Tony Stark's distinctively down-to-earth persona, and it almost entirely fails.  To be more explicit, and I don't think this is much of a spoiler, the film give Stark panic attacks that are supposedly related to what happened in that previous film, positing that his battle with the forces of another universe or dimension or whatever it was changed his outlook, and harmed his ability to interact with the world as it normally is.  The problem here is that, for anyone who has seen The Avengers, the threat in that film, other than Loki's scenery-chewing, is almost entirely superfluous, simple plot mechanics that are necessary to accomplish the primary goal, which is to bring our heroes together and allow them to bounce off one another.  So to deal with that film here through his connection to its (pedestrian) plot, rather than through his new friendships, is pretty much a complete misfire (one of the other Avengers shows up in the post-credits sequence, and it's pretty funny, so at least they're still around, somewhere or other).

The action in this film is a mixed bag, although more good than bad.  The best action sequence is a doozy, the Air Force One rescue scene, but the worst action scene is, unfortunately, the final one.  It occurs to me that all three Iron Man films have set their final action scenes at night, and I think it's not a coincidence that the final battles of all three movies have been fairly disappointing.  The final action sequence in The Avengers was filmed in daylight, and it is arguably the best scene in the film.  Iron Man, the character, is alive with primary colors, and why filmmakers insist on muting them with night shoots is a mystery to me.

Aside from that, the villains in this movie are probably the most interesting out of all three films - they're certainly better than Mickey Rourke's sleepy villain in the second film, and are probably better than Jeff Bridges' afterthought of a character in the first.  Besides Kingsley, Guy Pearce gives the film a decent shot of energy as Aldrich Killian, an entrepreneur with the heart of a sociopath, and James Badge Dale is appropriately sinewy and weird as the film's most pro-active henchman.  I'll confess that the 3rd act twist caught me completely off-guard, so much so that it took me a minute or two to even figure out what it meant to say; I'm not sure if that reflects a failure on the filmmakers' part, or a massive success.  It is an exceptionally weird twist, and I won't spoil it.  Gwyneth Paltrow, an actress who I mostly don't like, has acquitted herself well as Pepper Potts throughout this series, and some of the film's uncomfortable sexism (there is a scene that almost perfectly echoes the worst scene in Skyfall, and women are way too often treated as props here) is at least partially mitigated by the role Potts ultimately ends up playing in the final showdown.  I like Black as a writer and filmmaker, but the women of the Marvel Universe still mostly deserve better than they're getting, and that  was unquestionably on display in his script.  Don Cheadle continues to be mostly stranded as Jim Rhodes, and both his and Terrence Howard's inability to find anything terribly interesting in the character speaks to how superfluous he's been over the course of three films.

Robert Downey Jr. has played this character in four films now, with at least one more on the way.  It's been a good fit for him, allowing an actor of his remarkable gifts to inhabit a B-list character like Tony Stark and turn him into a de facto A-lister.  Iron Man 3 feels, at least to some extent, like a capper to this character, even though there is at least one more contractually-obligated Avengers movie, if not more.  But Downey's version of Stark belongs to a bigger universe now, and this film's small-scale threat is too small for Iron Man now, in much the same way that it feels like it's time for Downey to move on to bigger challenges as well.  B

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