Monday, May 6, 2013

IRON MAN 3 Has Its Moments, But Not Quite Indestructible

IRON MAN 3 Review:

- How important is it that a movie subvert expectations and deliver a major twist? As I tried to process some of the curve balls that Iron Man 3 throws at its audience, I noted that some major movie critics were singing the film's praises in large part due to its element of surprise. On some level, I see their point. The big-budget superhero movie has become so paint-by-numbers, in so many ways, that it's undeniably refreshing when a major franchise film like this one dares to be different. But what is the twist without a purpose? Is a twist really that great if it's more of a "gotcha" and less of a true, jaw-on-the-floor "holy $%&#" moment? It's hard to talk more about this without walking into major spoiler territory. But I will say this: while I appreciate a film that isn't beholden to cannon and that takes pains to be original, I ultimately put more value - especially in a superhero epic - on high drama. The novelty alone of the big "WTF" moment isn't enough in and of itself.

That's not to say that IRON MAN 3 doesn't have its moments. In a way, I really admire that this is an auteur-style Marvel movie. Think about it: in the world of comics, Marvel began on the backs of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, and then eventually had a very defined in-house style for years to come. But then you think about the creative dynamos who came into the House of Ideas and created the most exciting stories and artwork, re-imagining classic characters under a unique lense. In general, some of the best modern superhero stories have come when a classic character is paired with a visionary creator or creators. In comics, we've been living in an auteur era for a few decades now, and we're still feeling the reverberations from the likes of guys like Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Ed Brubaker, Warren Ellis (whose Extremis story forms some of the basis for this flm) and many others putting their own unique spin on the big superhero universes. So why not let the same thing happen in movies? Marvel's whole Phase 2 plan seems to be opening that door. Shane Black on Iron Man, James Gunn on Guardians of the Galaxy, Edgar Wright on Ant Man (and before that, of course, Joss Whedon on The Avengers). And so what we have here is most definitely "Shane Black's IRON MAN." And that's cool - sort of awesome, really. In some ways, Black and Iron Man are a natural fit. Black specializes in the kind of snappy dialogue and sardonic humor that was already a big part of the first two Iron Man films. Robert Downey Jr. is also, of course, a near-perfect vehicle for Black's style (see Kiss Kiss Bang Bang for further evidence). I like it. I like that we are now in a place where we can get not just the uber-generic superhero movie, but the film noir superhero movie, the urban crime superhero movie, the cosmic space epic superhero movie, the fantasy/magical superhero movie. Bring it on.

But maybe the problem here is that there's too much push and pull between a pure Shane Black Iron Man, and the big, franchise, post-Avengers event-movie Iron Man that fans expected and the corporate overlords at Disney likely felt comfortable with. What I mean is, Shane Black seems to want to do a stripped-down movie about Tony Stark. He finds an interesting angle - a Tony Stark who is now a hero, who has settled down with Pepper Potts, who is at a good place, on paper ... but in practice, he is still haunted by the sins of his past. This Tony Stark spends long hours alone tinkering in his workshop, suffers from anxiety attacks brought on by his battles with evil aliens in The Avengers, and who can't quite give his relationship with Pepper the attention it deserves.

I'm all for the stripped-down, Tony Stark-in-a-crime-caper version of Iron Man - especially in a third movie where the usual formula's gotten a bit tired. But this movie can't fully commit. The moments that lend themselves to Shane Black's trademark style tend to shine. When Tony Stark finds himself invading a hostile compound sans his armor - having to assemble makeshift weapons from common household items - it's an awesome moment. That sort of clever, slightly-subversive stuff ... Black nails. Same goes for the scenes between Tony and a young boy named Harley who helps him out in a bind, and becomes a sort of defacto kid sidekick. Scenes that could have been positively painful in the wrong hands are funny, smart, and surprisingly touching under Black's guidance. Even little moments - like Tony and Rhodey (formerly known as War Machine, now known as Iron Patriot) - bickering back and forth in the heat of combat ... this is the stuff that Shane Black knows and loves and 100% gets.

And I will give Black and the movie some major credit - Iron Man 3 has some of the best, big-time, major-league "superhero" moments we've yet seen in a Marvel film. When Stark has to fight a battle with only pieces of his Iron Man armor in place - one leg and one arm - the result is thrilling and badass. An aerial raid on the Stark compound is similarly breathtaking - a violent, explosive assault that makes you wonder how the hell Stark and co. will make it out alive. And the big finale - a notable weakness of the first two Iron Man films - is suitably lengthy and action-packed. So I don't want to imply that Iron Man 3 simply coasts on clever bits of dialogue ... it delivers the goods when it comes to epic action as well.

So what keeps this from being the classic that it could have been? There are several elements - some new, some inherited - that derail the film a bit. One is the Tony Stark / Pepper Potts relationship. Stark and Potts rarely seem like star-crossed lovers - and their bickering seems more like genuine mutual annoyance and less like playful sparring. What this means is that when Pepper inevitably becomes the damsel in distress, we as an audience don't feel much sense of real danger or urgency. In fact, in a climactic moment when Pepper seems potentially dead and gone, Tony barely seems to bat an eye, and continues wise-cracking with barely a moment's pause. I do also slightly blame Paltrow. When she has her big moment in which she gets to turn the tables and kick some ass, there's barely a hint of excitement in her eyes. When Pepper kicks ass, it should have been the big money shot of the whole film - and it's filmed in a way that practically invites us to stop and applaud. But there was no applause in the theater I was in. Paltrow's line-reading of "wow, that was violent" (or something to that effect) came off less like the clever musings of an empowered woman of action, and more like the resigned observation of a disapproving mother. Meanwhile, there's an attempt at some forced tension between Pepper and Tony with the introduction of a scientist played by Rebecca Hall, who Tony once had a one-night-stand with years earlier. Not only is Pepper's instant "I hate you" reaction pretty contrived, but Hall's character is pretty problematic from the start. Keeping track of which side she's on (let alone her motivations for switching sides) is a chore. I don't blame Hall - it's just an element of the script that is given short shrift. It's probably no coincidence that this element - the one that feels the most pulled from the superhero cliche-book - is also the one that Black seems least interested in really developing.

Paltrow has rarely been a standout in these films, and perhaps she was a bit miscast from the get-go. I feel similarly about Don Cheadle as Rhodey. He just doesn't have the right stuff for the role - I don't buy him as a badass soldier. He seems like he'd rather be in a boardroom than out kicking ass for his country. Cheadle is featured in some great set-piece action scenes, but they're more notable for the choreography than for anything he really brings to the table. He's a great actor in general, no question. But an action hero? Iron Patriot? Not so much.

The second problematic element of the movie is, well, the plot. Earlier I mentioned all of the cool individual scenes in the film - the stuff with Tony and young Harley, the cool banter, the big action. But it all feels tied together on the loosest of threads. I mean that from a pure narrative standpoint, and also from a thematic standpoint. Guy Pierce plays Aldrich Killian, a scientist with a screw-loose and a mad-on for Tony Stark. Pierce is one of my favorite actors, and he makes the most of what he's given. But the fact is, Killian as presented here is a pretty weak villain. And as his role in the movie becomes more prominent, I kept waiting for him to take on a grandiosity worthy of Iron Man. But everything about his character feels half-baked, from his stalker-crush on Pepper Potts to his been-there, done-that evil plan to profit from a manufactured war on terror (heck, his plan is practically identical to Jared Harris' scheme in RDJ's last Sherlock Holmes movie). It's even more frustrating in that Killian's status as Big Bad comes at the expense of the initially-promising Mandarin, played with theatrical verve and presence by the great Ben Kingsley. I won't say what happens to the Mandarin that sort of takes him off the board, but I don't really get the point. To me, it comes back to: what is the movie saying? What is the theme? Iron Man vs. an Osama Bin Laden-esque terrorist (The Mandarin) - I would have liked to have seen that. Iron Man tends to have a political slant as a character, so there's rich thematic territory to explore there. And indeed, in the movie's first half, there is some interesting mini-satire as we see The Iron Patriot's futile quest to track the Mandarin. But once Killian usurps the Mandarin, the movie becomes about something else entirely - it becomes something that Black probably wanted all along - a movie about Tony Stark fighting his past. But if that's what the movie is about, then why the bait and switch? Why include the Mandarin at all? To me, the net result was a movie that initially feels big and high stakes, but that ends up feeling sort of small and inconsequential. The subversion of expectations works against the movie's narrative momentum, in my opinion. And Guy Pierce's Killian - while potentially perfect as a sleazy, unhinged henchman - feels way too lightweight to be the movie's main antagonist.

And maybe that's why Iron Man 3 entertained me throughout, yet left me with a slightly sour aftertaste. Deep in this movie's DNA, there is a huge action epic waiting to come out. And perhaps a straight crime caper Iron Man - the kind that Shane Black would have made if left completely on his own -would have been awesome and badass in its own right. But this movie is never confident enough to go all-out and just *be* that version of Iron Man. The fact that it had to go to all the trouble of messing with expectations and playing a bait-and-switch with the audience is, I think, proof of that.

It's a small thing, I guess, but even the post-credits scene annoyed me. I won't spoil it, but it's ultimately just a cutesy, jokey little epilogue, and doesn't really leave you with anything too meaty to chew on. I was dying for something awesome to get me pumped for Marvel Phase 2, and what I got was a comedy bit. It added to the feeling that this movie was clever and funny, yes, but ultimately perhaps too much so for its own good. And there's no denying that this perception was colored by The Avengers. Joss Whedon was clever and funny, but he also took un-ironic joy in playing in Lee and Kirby's sandbox. There's not much of that joy that shines through here. I'm not saying that this had to be a "Marvel" movie in the traditional sense. But there has to be a love of the world and characters as a starting point for any genre-subversion or deconstruction to really work. There's a temptation to say "suck it fanboys, this is Shane Black's Iron Man and it's different and awesome." But remember what I was saying before about how comics evolved when auteur creators put their stamp on classic characters? Well, for every Frank Miller Daredevil or Grant Morrison Superman, there are examples where the blend of creator sensibility and character just doesn't 100% mix. Auterism alone does not a great story make.

I'll remember many of the coolest scenes and moments in Iron Man 3 as some of my favorites in the Marvel movie canon to date. The movie gets the little moments right in a way that so many superhero flicks do not. But the broad strokes and big-picture narrative don't fare as well. So I think my lasting impression of the film is one that tried to be many things to many people, and ended up as sort of "meh" because of it. The first two Iron Man movies had their flaws, but they coasted by on RDJ's charisma and the general feeling that we were watching something very exciting happen - the birth of the Marvel movie universe. Now, the universe is here, the Avengers have assembled, and this return to the less-exciting cast of characters in the Iron Man-verse marks a drop in momentum from last summer's epic high.

My Grade: B

1 comment:

  1. I will remember this "B" greade when you eventually give better grades this summer to a lot worse films I am sure.