Iron Man 3

Twice in a row now with the baking sheets...

Let’s get real for a moment here, and say that the multi-billion-dollar juggernaut of the Marvel Cinematic Universe needs no introduction. I’ll just briefly run down the stuff you haven’t heard before: i.e. my opinions on the movies I’m too late to the party to cover.

The Avengers is a flawed movie, but I can tell already that it’s a classic of our times – no matter how contrived all the fighting is.

Thor is the worst film in the franchise at time of writing  – mostly for the long swaths of nothing going on that permeate most of the film.

– I don’t care about the Hulk enough to watch it.

Captain America: The First Avenger was lots of fun, but it really dragged around the middle and lots of the plot threads were left hanging by the rushed and incongruous “freeze” ending.

Now, from those opinions and my obvious film- and comic-book-nerd status, you’d think I’d have been on board with the franchise since Iron Man, but that isn’t true: Before Iron Man 3, I had never actively sought out a movie in the MCU to watch. I supervised a group of kids who watched the first Iron Man, I had paid very little attention to Thor on a plane ride, and that was it. This is not a lie or an exaggeration – I just didn’t care.

And Iron Man 3 changed that. On a fateful, very hot day last spring, I decided to sit down and take a look at this controversial action comedy. And I didn’t regret it – not only was it a great movie that I really enjoyed, but it convinced me to check out the rest of the franchise. For anyone who says that these interconnected movies don’t stand up on their own, I beg to differ.

But I only went to see the movie after I used the litmus test I’ve mentioned once before: The question of whether I would be interested in the movie solely based on the premise and its creators’ previous works. In this case, this test returned a definite positive. Writer-director Shane Black is best known for his work on the Lethal Weapon series of action movies, but I remembered him as the mind behind Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The movie combined two of my three favorite genres (meta-narrative comedies and film noir pastiches – it’s a pity it didn’t feature New York getting blown up or it would have gone three-for-three), and starred Robert Downey Jr. in the same deadpan, genre-savvy performance that would define the Iron Man movies.

He acted his heart out for that part (please forgive me, I couldn’t resist).

This really got my hopes up for this next collaboration between the two, and the movie met them right out of the gate. We start with some philosophical narration, by Tony Stark, that very quickly devolves into a commentary on the concept of philosophical narration. We then go to a prologue: Tony at a party on New Year’s Eve of 1999. He gets to indulge in some callous billionaire playboy antics, brushing off an awkward scientist. He has a name in the grand tradition of Iron Man movie villains like “Obidiah Stane” and “Justin Hammer”, but it’s barely worth mentioning here, and regular readers know I’m a sucker for the exaggerated name running gag so it doesn’t really matter anyway.

Anyway, not only does Tony ignore the ideas of Wilberforce Evil, but also those of the mentor scientist from the first movie and Dr. Woman, who’s doing research into accelerated healing technology which somehow also causes big explosions, because this is an action movie.

Quick note here – this party Tony’s at was briefly mentioned by that guy, with no intention of being elaborated on. This is one of the movie’s strengths, making the most of story elements it was saddled with by design or circumstance.

Cut to the present day. Tony Stark has changed his ways (except for the constant deadpan humor) and is loved the world over for his antics as both a benevolent captain of industry and a world-saving superhero. He does some neat tricks with his latest Iron Man suit in a fast-paced, visually exciting, and slapstick equivalent of the Q scene from a Bond movie. And as long as we’re doing Bond movie conventions, we need the big, vaguely topical bad guy: Sir Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin, a kinda sorta Middle Eastern/Far Eastern terrorist leader with aviator glasses and an exaggerated Southern accent which reminded me more than a little of Bane from The Dark Knight Rises.

And this isn’t the only similarity between the two movies. Iron Man has been compared to Batman so many times it doesn’t even need to be explored here, and it’s no secret that this movie took some inspiration from Christopher Nolan’s landmark trilogy, but I think it went deeper than that.  I see Iron Man 3 as being, inadvertently or not, a parody/pastich of The Dark Knight Rises – and a really funny one, at that.

I first got this idea when I saw the next scene, where Gwyneth Paltrow as Cinnamon Carter (Tony’s girlfriend/caretaker) meets with Augustus Menace, who pauses during his “visionary bad guy who plans to better mankind” speech to make fun of the overuse of visionary bad guys who plan to better mankind and give speeches. This is how you can tell a movie has crossed over from action comedy to action genre parody – when the generic character archetype makes jokes about how generic he is.

He’s like a snail – he just leaves a trail of slime wherever he may go.

Meanwhile, we see Tony talking with Roadie, his military liaison, best friend and yet another one of his straight men. They discuss the Mandarin, who is using Dr. Woman’s explosive healing technology to commit terrorist acts. But a single trigger word gives Tony a severe attack of PTSD which he’s gotten after fighting Loki in New York. This is another good story decision – it’s a smart way to add some depth to the pretty darn shallow events of The Avengers, as well as justifying Tony’s constant mid-danger quipping as a coping mechanism.

And this is extended in the next scene, where Tony and Cinnamon meet up and we see another symptom of his trauma: He’s isolated himself, developing lots of extra Iron Man suits and a cyborg style subdermal chip that allows him to control them remotely. This is another good counterpoint to T-D-K-R – while Bruce Wayne was traumatized by the events of The Dark Knight and decided to withdraw himself and stop being Batman, Tony Stark’s fearful isolation don’t stop him from still being Iron Man because the sort of person who becomes a superhero of their own accord won’t stop it for anything. And besides, who the hell would want to stop being Batman?

Anyway, in the next scene the plot starts to kick off. Yet another one of Tony’s straight men investigates Reginald Malice, and sees him trick a man into turning bright orange and exploding Grauman’s Chinese Theater (Oh, forgive me, Chinese electronics giant that currently owns it, I meant “The T-C-L Chinese Theatre”). The Mandarin calls this a way to strike back at America’s disrespect of Chinese culture, but Tony suspects something more (which makes sense because, to reiterate, ownership is currently in the hands of the Chinese). After Tony visits the straight man in the hospital, he vows to get revenge because it’s become Personal™, and starts tracking the pattern of his attacks for clues. Unfortunately, just as he tracks down a lead in Tennessee, his house gets blown up by bad guys.

This is exactly the sort of thing Barbra Streisand was worried about.

This is the first real action scene in the movie. Previous action sequences in the Iron Man series has been hit-or-miss, but we start out strong here. This scene is one hundred percent smart action – the same style of punctuating every single pivotal blow or event with some story payoff, character moment, or even just a witty line of dialogue, that was one of The Avengers’ greatest strengths. Since we’re in southern California and not midtown Manhattan, I can’t get the same level of investment, but it’s still exciting to watch, as Tony barely escapes the action scene alive after saving Cinnamon and putting her into contact with Dr. Woman.

Tony lands in Tennessee, low on power, sleep and ideas. He breaks into a garage to try to fix his Iron Man suit, and is discovered by a little kid. Anyone familiar with eighties action movies is familiar with this old trope (It’s a particular sticking point with me because it led to the explosion of Little Miss Ethereals in the mid-90s – cf. The Fifth Element). Fortunately, so is Tony Stark, who shoots down any possibility of surrogate-parental-figurehood as he enlists the kid in his search for the Mandarin. The kid causes another anxiety attack as he leads Tony to some evidence, which some of Sherringford Spite’s goons are trying to erase. Everyone has another action scene that feels much more scaled-back and personal because Tony doesn’t have his Iron Man suit, despite the fact that it probably caused more in property damage than the entirety of Iron Man 1 (This isn’t a bad thing – this is a good thing, because it shows Shane Black’s command of directing meaningful action).

Since Tony now knows that he should be investigating Worthington Torment, he no longer needs the kid’s help, so little Timmy/Bobby/Rusty is unceremoniously kicked out of the plot, with the requisite film-awareness jokes. It’s obvious from the way the kid’s plot thread was handled that hewasn’t part of the story from the start – his scenes last less than 20 minutes in total, and he plays almost no role in the plot other than as yet another person for Tony to play off of. And he doesn’t fit in anywhere in my “T-D-K-R parody” theory, unless you wanted to really go out on a limb and say he’s meant to make fun of the “Robin” plot twist.

*sound of Batcave entrance opening*

Anyway, we check in on the Mandarin, who makes another terrorist video with help from both Winthrop Nefarious and a professional camera crew (a note of self-awareness that they don’t feel the need to draw attention to – good stuff), where he specifically calls out the President for doing the usual bad things presidents do.

I’d like to point out that the President is the Apocalypse Now-style bad guy from Die Hard 2, which is an interesting precedent to set in this universe.

The President sends Roadie to deal with this, but he talks to Tony and finds out it’s a dead end, though it actually turns out to be a trap, and he’s captured. Meanwhile, Tony is engaging in some more fan antics (or – you guessed it – fantics), in the first comedy scene that really falls flat for me. It’s one instance where the grim and serious DC movies are objectively better than the lighthearted and metatextual Marvel way – remember that bit in The Dark Knight when Batman has to discourage all the guys who are wearin’ hockey pads! because he doesn’t want anyone else in harm’s way? It was important to the plot and the themes of that movie, unlike a few stale jokes about nerds who love comic books.

After using the amazing hacking powers of Stan Lee’s requisite cameo (another joke I didn’t like, since it feels more forced than his usual appearances), Tony discovers that Dr. Woman has been working with Terrence Vile to help the Mandarin with her explosive healing research. We also get a scene of Dr. Woman explaining this exact thing to Cinnamon – which is unnecessary except to remind us that there are people in this movie without Y chromosomes.

But things start to pick up in the next scene, as Tony locates the Mandarin’s lair, and prepares to attack it without any Iron Man technology whatsoever. People complain that this movie was more of a small-scale action comedy then a big, fast-paced Iron Man movie, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s satisfying to see that our hero can rely on his own skills and know-how to fight bad guys, as he uses homemade stealth gear and a makeshift Taser to sneak his way into the Mandarin’s inner sanctum to confront him. And speaking of which, the first Iron Man movie didn’t become a cultural institution for being epic and exciting, but because it took some risks and threw everyone some real curveballs.

Which, of course, brings me to the next scene, which is also the only part of Iron Man 3 that anyone really wants to talk about: The Mandarin Twist.

I think it’s tasty, whatever else you want to say about it.

Before I tell you what I think of this idea, I’ll lay it out completely. You see, Tony finds discovers the Mandarin is secretly a lower-class, booked up chav – it turns out that he’s just an English actor who’s been hired by Maximilian Diabolical to present a big, showy, and obvious threat to the USA, so he’ll be able to exercise complete financial and political control over the ensuing war. The mastermind later says that this idea came from the events of the previous Marvel movies – since it’s obvious how easily superheroes can capture the hearts and minds of the public, a supervillain can do the same thing to different ends.

But that’s not really why the twist is here – it’s so they can have a big shocking twist that will drum up more publicity, so they can avoid offending the Chinese by having a bad guy with no substance other than “is Chinese” and “is evil”, and so Ben Kingsley can act like a complete buffoon for a few scenes.

Because this twist seems to be the make-or-break factor for your enjoyment of the movie, let me first say to everyone who didn’t like it that I feel your pain. I haven’t been a comics fan for a very long time, but as a lifelong fan of many other sci-fi or fantasy series, I get how much of a personal betrayal and objectively bad decision this must feel like. I mean, taking one of the oldest and most formidable villains in the whole continuity, and reduce them into a laughingstock for the masses and an excuse to do the same “evil businessman” plot we’ve had twice in Iron Man movies already?

I will admit that the latter is a problem for me, but I’m willing to overlook it.

But that’s the thing. On top of the reasons for making the twist which I listed above, there’s the parodic lens through which I’m viewing the movie. This is an awful lot like the revelation in The Dark Knight Rises that Bane is secretly being controlled by the generic foreign lady, but played for comedy – it’s obvious from the very first scene that the businessman is evil, and the red-herring intimidating bad guy isn’t just a fraud but a complete moron who can barely tie his shoes without the help of his mastermind. It’s humorous exaggeration, and it works as a joke, as a character moment for our heroes, and as a plot point.

And there’s one detail that almost everyone has missed when comparing it to other superhero movie plot twists (like, say, that of Iron Man 1, which also added a realistic yet irreverent dimension to the film by fundamentally altering the status quo of the comic books). The actual “penny dropping” moment of the twist comes at around an hour an fifteen minutes – a little over halfway through the movie. I don’t think any other different-from-the-source twist has been done this early before – they usually save it for just before the climax, so the hero can have the big final fight with the newly revealed baddie. Since we have so much time for this twist to sink in, there’s more opportunity to explore its significance and use it for jokes.

Anyway, after this, we get back to the actual stuff-going-on plot of the movie, where things happen to the characters and they feel emotions about that. Specifically, Tony is ambushed and captured by Dr. Woman, who tells him that Roadie and Cinnamon Carter have also been captured. Dr. Woman gets killed by Oswald Cruel just after she tells Tony she was blackmailed to inject Cinnamon with her patented heal/explode/give you fire powers serum. Cruel’s been using this stuff himself for the latter reason, meaning he has various heat-based that manifest  when he tortures Roadie, and leaves Tony to banter with some of his henchmen.

People have criticized this scene and the movie’s setup in general for borrowing heavily from The Incredibles, but I can think of at least one popular superhero movie that people seemed to enjoy specifically because of its similarity in story and tone to previous works…and it was called The Incredibles. So, lay off this one, folks, it’s doing enough on its own to put it in the realm of homage rather than rip-off.

Homage – right. Rip-off – left.

Speaking of ripping off, that’s exactly what Tony does to his restraints (I rule at segues) when he remote-controls his busted and half-working Iron Man suit to bust him out and save Roadie. This scene is fun because he’s also bantering with the evil henchmen the entire time, but it marks the beginning of a large swath of nigh-uninterrupted action that lasts pretty much ‘til the end of the movie. The bad guys have stolen Roadie’s personal military grade Iron Man suit, you see, and have used it to sneak onto Air Force One and take the president hostage. Tony and Roadie follow, but they’re too late to save the president. This part is less fun, and goes on for a little too long with lots of action but no substance. It’s redeemed, though, when Tony has to save all of the passengers from falling to their death after the plane decompresses – it’s a smart action scene, and it feels very high-stakes and fast-paced while always staying coherent and having a clear purpose to it.

The stress of this destroys Tony’s Iron Man suit, which they were going to use to break into the heavily guarded oil tanker where Chesterfield Nasty is holding both Cinnamon and the captured president. Luckily Tony’s got that cyborg interface, so he can control any Iron Man suit from anywhere – which includes the several dozen suits he’s been building during his trauma induced isolation. Tony and Roadie trade some Gibson-and-Glover-style buddy cop banter as all the Iron Mans beat up all of the thugs.

It’s sort of inevitable that all the Marvel movies are going to end in large-scale, explosion-filled battles, and this is one instance where I’m definitely on the side of those who dislike this film. Not only is it a pretty boring and dumb action sequence as Iron Man combat goes, but it completely contradicts the point the movie is trying to make about the world and character of Tony Stark – that he doesn’t need a robot suit to be Iron Man. In fact, this goes in the exact opposite direction. “Tony Stark doesn’t need a suit to be Iron Man…he need 3 dozen suits! And some straight men! And a generic corporate bad guy! And a side of cheese fries! Make that two!”

36 Iron Man suits means there’s over 72 for each crap I give about all of them put together!

It’s not all that bad, though – just a serious letdown when compared to the otherwise sparklingly witty and tightly written screenplay. There’s some lame attempt at a closure to everyone’s character arc when things come down to Tony in a one-on-one with Nicholas Fury (hey, hang on a second…), arguing over their respective philosophies vis-a-vis Cinnamon, only to have Cinnamon end the whole thing herself by blowing the bad guys up.

I will admit that the first line after all the action ended being “Oh my god…that was really violent…” almost made it worth it.

After all that we get our actually satisfying ending. Tony hugs Cinnamon as he decides to destroy all his Iron Man suits (quick digression – the President and , and his voiceover shows he’s finally completed his arc from the first movie, as the last vestiges of the man he used to be are gone. He finds a way to permanently fix his heart condition and make his chest-beam unnecessary, and decides to ride off into the sunset, saying that he doesn’t need all his fancy technology to be Iron Man (Which doesn’t sound as convincing if you skip five minutes forward on your DVD player, when he needed all his fancy technology to be Iron Man).

As a rule, I prefer stories that wrap everything up and leave no room for sequels, because some sense of closure really helps me appreciate a story and its characters more. I’m almost sad to hear that Robert Downey Jr. is coming back for the Avengers sequels, because this was a fine way to close the book on his character, as opposed to closing the book and immediately picking the next book off the shelf.

The Dark Knight parody stuff I’ve alluded to throughout this review isn’t really a big part of the story, but I feel there’s enough evidence to support it. It balances making exaggerated parodies of story beats from the Dark Knight movies (like the love interest dispatching the main villain, and so on) by making serious pastiches of them to illustrate the difference between Batman and Iron Man, and indeed between DC and Marvel’s filmmaking philosophies. When you think about it, this is a pretty darn didactic action comedy. (There’s your pull quote, Marvel Studios – “The funniest didactic superhero movie of the year!”)

Iron Man 3 wasn’t perfect, and quite a few of the criticisms against it are justified, but the good stuff far outweighed the bad in my eyes. And, again, the real clincher for this movie is that it was good enough to make me go out and see half a dozen other, less good movies. You can’t deny that level of effectiveness.

TWO THUMBS UP: The script, the acting

THUMBS UP: The twist, the effects

THUMBS DOWN: Some of the action

TWO THUMBS DOWN: The generic stuff when it’s not being played for laughs

 

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