Tuesday, May 21, 2013

"Iron Man 3" Proves a Solid Entry to the Increasingly Popular Iron Man Series

Tony Stark spends a large portion of Iron Man 3 out of the Iron Man suit.
I saw Iron Man 3 a few weeks back and thought it was pretty good. It’s definitely better than the lackluster second entry, but not quite on the level of the original. I’d say it’s about on par with The Avengers, even if it doesn’t have the same inherent scope and nerd value.

My overriding takeaway is that it’s amazing how far the character of Iron Man has come in such a short time. Little more than five years ago, he was a second-rate super hero. Now, he’s headed up four films that have amassed more than $1.5 billion at the domestic box office alone and well over double that number internationally. That draw puts him in pretty elite company, shared only by the likes of Harry Potter, James Bond, Batman, and Darth Vader.
Impressively, it seems Iron Man is only getting more popular, as Iron Man 3 has already netted over a billion dollars worldwide* and is on track to make more money than the first two solo outings combined. At this point, it seems pretty clear that Iron Man resides alongside Batman at the tippy top of the super hero food chain. I guess people prefer their super heroes to be eccentric billionaires with no real discernible powers.
* An interesting addendum to the international success of the film revolves around a modified version for the Chinese market. The tailored cut contains four minutes of extra footage, including a subplot with popular Chinese actors and bizarre product placement for Chinese milk. This article does an extremely thorough job of exploring the gimmick.
Other than that, my thoughts on the film are all over the map and sort of hard to pin down in a traditional review. As such, I thought I’d post a point-counterpoint article on things I liked and disliked about the movie.
(Oh, and, ummm, spoiler warning).
The film successfully deploys a kid sidekick in the middle of the film.
Positive #1: The General Vibe

Shane Black has a very particular cinematic voice, and every minute of this movie projects his Shane Blackiness. Christmas setting, meta-voice over narration, witty wisecracks and repartee – all his staples are here. Black seems to have used this opportunity as a way to send up a number of action movie clich├ęs (the precocious kid side kick and the righteous terrorist, in particular), and it’s just a whole lot of fun watching him do it. 

Also, I definitely got a welcome James Bond vibe from much of the film’s middle section, something that’s further evoked by the familiar beats in the score and the line at the end of the credits – “Iron Man Will Return.” I’m not sure if this was overtly intentional, but Marvel president Kevin Feige is talking up his plan to turn Iron Man into the next James Bond in terms of franchise longevity and the ability to keep passing the mantle to new actors.

Negative #1: Lackluster tie in to the Avenger Initiative

The movie very clearly positions itself as a sequel to The Avengers, as a great deal of Tony Stark’s personal journey revolves around what happened in that film. The man can’t sleep, is experiencing panic attacks, and is feverishly working to create an army of suits because of the possibility of intergalactic threat.

And yet, in no other way does the film even acknowledge how the events of that film have affected the world itself. I know the movie should be judged on its own merits, but when you open up the story like this, it’s hard not to be confused when the film treats Iron Patriot (formerly War Machine) as America’s only defense of terrorism. No mention of Captain America or any agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., despite the fact that a lunatic terrorist is killing people left and right, and the leader of the free world is kidnapped.
I’m not saying other Marvel heroes should’ve been in the movie, because I understand they would take away from more intimate story. I’m just saying a throwaway line or two explaining the absences would’ve gone a long way toward silencing the bullshit alarm.

Despite the inanity of this right here, Gwyneth Paltrow continues to add a
great deal of heart and wit to the Iron Man series.
Positive #2: Concentration on Tony Stark

This series has always been at its most interesting when focusing on Tony Stark, due in large part to the iconic performance of Robert Downey Jr., but here, an extra concentrated effort seems to have been put on echoing the final line from the first film – “I am Iron Man.” Unlike Batman in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, Iron Man is not a symbol or a role that any man can take on. Tony Stark is Iron Man, and as a testament to this Tony spends a large portion of the film out of his suit, using ingenuity and intelligence to act the hero.

Of course, this exposure also highlights his humanity and vulnerability, an ongoing development that has been well handled as this series has played out. Not only is he in a mature loving relationship with Pepper Potts (something that makes him less immune to the threats around him), but he also is experiencing panic attacks related to traveling through the wormhole at the end of The Avengers.  It’s a nice beat for the character that can often seem a bit too unbeatable (he’s smarter, cooler, and just flat-out better than everybody else).

Negative #2: Convenient Plot Points

Throughout the film’s first half, a great deal of focus is given to Tony’s panic attacks, but once the film starts hurtling toward its conclusion, the whole thing is dropped, which seems like a missed opportunity. I’m thinking something like the moment when Pepper falls to her apparent doom (even though she was obviously going to be as indestructible as all these other Extremis folk), would’ve had more heft if it had been due to another attack.

There’s also the issue of why, if Tony has all of these great suits underneath his mansion, he doesn’t utilize them earlier. I suppose one could argue that until close to the film’s conclusion, they are trapped under the wreckage, but that doesn’t explain why he wouldn’t request their assistance during the assault on his home. But you know what does? Plot requirements. And that kind of sucks.
Iron Man 3 finally brings great action to an Iron Man solo outing.
Positive #3: Awesome Action Scenes

The first two Iron Man movies were largely devoid of great action scenes. Other than the decent raceway assault by Ivan Vanko in Iron Man 2, there’s not much memorable action in the first two films, probably because so much of the sequences just involved men in iron suits blowing things up or unimaginatively hitting each other.

That’s not the case here. Despite keeping Tony Stark out of his armor for most of the film, Iron Man 3 still manages three distinctly awesome action set pieces – the assault on Stark mansion, the skydiving rescue sequence and the climactic battle.

I know many corners of the Web have been unkind to this last one, but to be honest, I thought it was pretty solid. I didn’t like the silliness of blowing up all the remaining suits (this whole scenario showed how beneficial they can be, so, umm, WTF), and would’ve preferred Aldrich Killian’s death to be of the result of Stark’s very clever (and very well set up) method of throwing his suit on him and self destructing it to the silly and telegraphed Pepper Potts smack down. However, I loved that the sequence played down the importance of the hardware and made it very clear that Stark is the super hero by making each suit so dispensable.

Negative #3: Overreaching Continuity Angle with Rushed Epilogue

Third films often attempt to tie a great deal of elements back into the first movie as a way of indicating “See, you should be impressed, this was all one interconnected story.” This can be successful (The Dark Knight Rises), so-so (Die Hard with a Vengeance), or awful (Spider-Man 3). Hell, it can even be meta (Scream 3).

In all of those examples, the screenwriters tied the main villains from the first movie with those in the threequel. Iron Man 3 doesn’t really do that, but it does attempt to graft that type of thinking onto the film by giving our hero a previous connection with these bad guys, a connection that conveniently took place the same night Tony Stark happened to briefly encounter Yinsen, the man who would go on to help him forge the original Iron Man suit while hostage in a Middle Eastern cave.

Furthermore, it tries to put a nice little bow on the series via a rushed epilogue that explains Tony decided to have surgery to remove the shrapnel from his chest. This last point comes out of nowhere, makes Stark less interesting and renders pointless a great deal of the narrative from parts 1 and 2, both of which strongly indicated this was a medical impossibility. Nevertheless, the film rushes through this plot point as a way to thematically close the series, which isn’t really necessary and sort of works against the story overall.
Ben Kingsley's Mandarin offers a surprising element to the film.
Positive #4: Bad Guys

The greatest stroke of genius in Iron Man 3 is what it opts to do with the Mandarin character. When Ben Kingsley was first cast in the role, many wondered how Marvel would incorporate the character, a genius scientist and martial arts expert with 10 magic rings infused with various powers, into the mostly reality-based world they had created with these Iron Man films. The suggestion was that since Iron Man had now been linked to the more fantastical Thor, the door had been opened to continue down the rabbit hole.

In some ways, that would’ve made sense, as it would’ve built on The Avengers, thus addressing some gripes expressed in negative #1. Despite that, I thought what Black did was fun and fresh, even if it did piss off a number of hard core fans.
I also was quite pleased that the true villains of the piece were not just Iron Man knock offs. Instead, the Extremis villains seemed to evoke Spider Man’s the Lizard. Not entirely original, but at least it’s better than more of the same.

Negative #4: Bad Guys
I know, it seems odd to list the bad guys as a positive and a negative, but that’s just how it is. While, I really enjoyed the Mandarin bit, and was happy to be freed from the formula of iron baddies, Iron Man 3 continues the series’ trend of under whelming villains.

Outside of his excruciatingly over the top performance in the flashback sequences, Guy Pierce does a solid job with Killian, but his efforts don’t hide the fact that he’s just a mediocre compilation of former Iron Man foes. He’s a rich business rival (like Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer) with a cold-blooded thirst for power (like Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane) and a personal vendetta against Tony (like Mickey Rourke’s Vanko).
All of these bad guys were well cast, but none were all that memorable, which is something that does leave a glaring hole in the Iron Man series thus far.  A quick glance at Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy highlights just how much a commanding and memorable bad guy can add to a film, but, excluding The Avengers (where he tussled with Thor’s baddie), Iron Man has dealt with boring, uninteresting adversaries. B+