Monday, May 6, 2013

I Sing of Arms and The Man - Iron Man 3

(Working very hard to keep this spoiler-free; please let me know if I let the side down!)

Skimming the user reviews on IMDb, as well as surveying the people I saw it with on Friday, it is clear that despite its initial success (second highest opening weekend of all time, after last year's The Avengers) Iron Man 3 is a very divisive movie.

It is pretty unusual for a blockbuster film like this to generate as much negativity as IM3 has.  Some, but not all, of the less than 4 (out of 10) crowd are fanboys who are disappointed at how little the Mandarin has in common with the same character from the comics, especially since he was Iron Man's arch-nemesis for many years.  I get that, but still, a Fu Manchu knock off whose powers stem from magic rings taken from an alien spaceship would have been a pretty hard sell to today's movie audiences.  Portraying him as a nationless terrorist backed by an organization called Ten Rings (and hinted at in the very first Iron Man film) was a good idea, and Ben Kingsley's layered portrayal just made it that much better.

Others are upset that there is much less in the way of heroic set-pieces featuring Tony Stark in the suit of his creation, as in, "hey, shouldn't my Iron Man movie have more Iron Man in it?"  Again, reasonable, it is almost as though Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. have created their own genre here, and new writer/director Shane Black is kind of making it up as he goes, but is an Iron Man movie one which features Iron Man in it, or one in which you get more Iron Man than anything else?

If you want the former, you are bound to be disappointed.  IM3 opens with Tony Stark struggling to deal with the repercussions of what happened in The Avengers.  After all, this is all old hat to us funny-book fans, but gods, aliens and monsters (on both sides!) converging on New York and almost resulting in your own demise would be a lot for anyone to take in, even a billionaire-genius-playboy-philanthropist.  As a result, he can't sleep, and is having growing trouble relating to others, even those closest to him.  As one person remarks glibly in the film, "When that guy with the hammer fell out of the sky, subtlety kind of...went."

Some may call it overacting, but I think Downey's take on Tony Stark's tragic deconstruction is nothing short of brilliant, maybe his best work since Chaplin. Sure, a lot of this effect could stem Shane Black's excellent dialogue, but RDJ carries a lot of emotion in many of his scenes, often without raising his voice.  Once again, he shows that if you want a nuanced portrayal of a charismatic genius with issues, whether it is a Victorian detective or super-powered Howard Hughes, Robert Downey Jr. should be your first call.

The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, from Guy Pearce as the ominous Aldrich Killian, to Rebecca Black as the conflicted bio-science researcher Maya Hansen, and the always awesome Gwyneth Paltrow.  Don Cheadle gets a little more to do as the newly re-branded Iron Patriot, and even former director Jon Favreau gets to bust out his acting chops a little as former bodyguard 'Happy' Hogan, now head of security for Stark Industries.  That's a lot of talent to have on hand for a summertime comic book movie.

I think the worst thing you can say about Iron Man 3 is that it is bold.  Shane Black said from the onset that he wanted a departure from what had gone before, something more in the vein of a Tom Clancy techno-thriller, that didn't end up with a guy in a metal suit beating up on a guy in a bigger metal suit.  The plot is a bit convoluted and maybe even a bit contrived in places (of all the garages in Podunk Tennessee, you end up at the one where a kid who likes to tinker lives? Really?), but I think it succeeds far more often than it fails.  The story also does a great job switching gears in terms of the nature of the villain, so I highly recommend seeing it before someone ruins the surprise for you.

There are a lot of us who were eagerly awaiting this movie, people who said from the get-go that a Tony Stark movie could be awesome, even if Iron Man never showed up in it at all, and this is what gives me the greatest hope for the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television show coming this fall. The Marvel Universe has always been a funhouse reflection of our own, and this goes just as strongly for the new Cinematic universe as it has for the half-century of the comic one.  Seeing how people both ordinary and extraordinary deal with larger than life situations and threats is the source of the entertainment, so for me, watching Tony Stark defending himself armed with only one gauntlet and one boot of his vaunted Mk 42 armor was as good a set-piece as any of the fights in the previous two films.

Should you see this film?  Probably.  If you dislike surprises, you should maybe wait until video.  If you really dislike inconsistencies or loose ends in a plot, you might want to give IM3 a miss.  If you were hoping for a broader view of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there is almost none to be had here: Nick Fury gives the series a miss for the first time, and S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't even get a mention.  Parents of young children should be advised: this movie is both darker in tone and tighter in intensity than any Marvel movie to date, so you may want to preview it sans children.  My own 10 and 14 year-old daughters enjoyed it immensely though.

If you enjoyed the first two, I don't think you will be disappointed this time around, unless the divergences from the comics gets your proverbial knickers in a twist.  If you like the directing or more probably the writing of Shane Black (Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang being probably the best example), the screenplay he has written with Drew Pearce has all the twists, turns, and whip-smart dialogue you could hope for, as well as a couple of quieter moments. If you appreciate misdirection, this movie delivers like a journeyman stage magician.

Personally, I think Iron Man 3 is just as strong an entry as the first one, with better performances and dialogue.  I think it is a better superhero trilogy capper than even Christopher Nolan's excellent Dark Knight Rises.

No, if I have a complaint it is that this is probably the penultimate appearance of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man.  I believe he is contracted for Avengers 2, and I am willing to bet that is the last we see of him.  Marvel's Phase 2 is ramping up, with all new titles and licenses like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant Man, so even if they did want to make Iron Man 4, it would be, what, 2017 or so?  No one is talking about that far ahead, but no one is talking about IM4 as being anywhere close to inevitable at this point.

At any rate, a tip of the hat to Shane Black and Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige for having the guts to make such a bold departure, and for having it turn out to be such an entertaining film.  If this can be maintained, every film they make will see me in the audience.

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