Sunday, May 5, 2013

Movie Review: Iron Man Three

Summer movie season has started with the latest phase of Marvel Entertainment's grand master plan to just make all the movies and all the money ever. "Iron Man Three" (yes, that's the title they show in the movie credits, they popped a "Three" in there) opened yesterday, and I went to see it right away because I am a massive nerd.
Why is it 3 on the poster but Three in the movie? Don't they proofread these things?
This movie has a lot riding on it. The Marvel Entertainment juggernaut hit peak cultural saturation with "The Avengers" last summer, which was the culmination of Phase I of their Marvel movie universe. "Iron Man Three" kicks off Phase II, and as the first of the post-Avengers movies, there's got to be tremendous pressure for this movie to do well so it doesn't fuck things up for the four or five other sequels barreling down the road after it.

The fact that "Iron Man Three" has these high corporate expectations placed on it, but still manages to find its own unique voice and its own story to tell, bodes well for the future of the franchise. This is a good movie

Before I can discuss this movie on its own merits, though, I have to judge it on its existence as a sequel and put it in its place in the Marvel movie universe. That's both the blessing and the curse of the interconnected movie universe, because while it's great to experience the episodic nature of comic books on the big screen, it's difficult to experience each individual installment as a work of art when you're busy comparing the movie to its predecessors. I'll keep it simple. "Iron Man Three" is much better than "Iron Man 2," but not quite as good as "Iron Man" and "The Avengers." So the sum equals good but not great, and let's discuss why.


This movie missed being truly great because it had lousy action scenes. Director Shane Black is wonderful at dialogue, character development, and storytelling, but unfortunately, he's not so hot at action, which is a problem in a movie like this. There's one decent action scene, where Iron Man has to catch fourteen people who just fell out of a plane, but the rest of the action sequences fall into the trap of too-dark, too-fast, and too-blurry. The climactic battle scene of "Iron Man Three" is just a mess. There's this big reveal where all forty or so of Tony's Iron Man suits appear in the air to battle the bad guy's super-powered henchmen, and it's meant to be so cool that all the different suits with their different appearances and powers show up to save the day--but the whole thing is shot at night on a pitch-black wharf, so all the audience ever sees of these awesome suits are their glowy lights and the occasional close-up of them before they blow up, melt, or get crushed. Why have a big reveal where you can't bloody see anything?!

It's weird that the sloppy actions scenes bug me so much, because I don't actually like action in movies. The action scenes are good times for me to get up to use the bathroom or wash the dishes. I make jokes a lot about how if a movie doesn't have 'splosions, I'm probably not going to like it, but I mostly use that rubric to avoid watching boring movies where people look at themselves in mirrors and sigh a lot.
I will never watch this.
The truth is that I like superhero movies and sci-fi movies for the story that happens between 'splosions. Like the man who reads "Playboy" for the articles, I watch "Iron Man" movies for the character development. And in that way, "Iron Man Three" is the perfect movie for me, because the action scenes are so poor and forgettable that I literally can just walk away during them and come back for the stuff between the action, which is everything I want to see in a superhero movie and an indication of good things to come from the Phase II movies.

I said earlier that this movie wasn't as good as the first "Iron Man," but I think that's because very little can top the first forty-five minutes of the original, where Tony Stark is captured by terrorists and has to build his first crude Iron Man suit in a cave while his heart is powered by a car battery. I get goosebumps thinking of the look on Tony's face when his captors remove the burlap sack from his head so they can film him for their ransom video. It's such a realistic and moving scene, dirty, terrifying, and devoid of ordinary comic book bombast and sparkle. The second half of "Iron Man," once the corporate espionage plot line took off, wasn't actually that great, but I still regard "Iron Man" as the best of the trilogy because of the strength of its first half. "Iron Man Three" doesn't have anything that quite matches the raw emotional power of the cave scenes in "Iron Man," but overall it's more consistent in both quality and tone than either of its predecessors.

The story in "Iron Man Three" is drum tight. Shane Black last worked with Tony Stark actor Robert Downey Jr. on the film noir homage "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," a great movie with so much plot packed in that I had to watch it twice to figure out what the hell was going on. There was a lot of story packed in to "Iron Man Three" as well, but unlike "The Dark Knight Rises," the plot never felt crowded to the point of incoherence. In fact, "Iron Man Three" is basically "The Dark Knight Rises" without any of its flaws. It's a complex story that made sense instead of imploding under the weight of its own plot holes; it has villains with schemes that will actually bring them money and power instead of basically being a "nyah-nyah, you suck!" taunt at the hero; and it stars a hero brought low by his past demons who is still actually heroic instead of lurking around his mansion working on his brood-beard.

I used to think you were cool.
"Iron Man Three" is a smarter and more complex movie than most superhero movies in the Marvel crop, closer in plot and thematic elements to cerebral sci-fi flicks like "Inception," "Blade Runner" and "Minority Report." There are mysteries to solve, double-crosses, and layers within layers that unfold so subtly under the glossy veneer of the summer blockbuster imperative that I didn't realize until I left the theater just how smart this movie really is. Tony Stark may be the "genius billionaire playboy philanthropist," but this is the first time since the original "Iron Man" that we actually get to see him live up to the genius part. He solves mysteries, infiltrates enemy strongholds, and builds amazing weapons from Christmas ornaments and materials he finds in a hardware store.

Black made the good decision to state the theme of the movie outright, and then hang most of the story and character motivations on it. He didn't pick a very complicated theme--the road to hell is paved with good intentions--but it's a solid one on which to build an Iron Man movie because Tony Stark is a genius and therefore vulnerable to hubris. Iron Man has always been a hero with Frankenstein undertones, with a sort of "what-has-my-science-wroth!" angle driving many of his adventures. The characters in Iron Man's world are capable of many feats of scientific ingenuity, but frequently forget to ask "should we" in their rush to answer "can we." They create monsters because they fall short of creating miracles, leaving themselves open to exploitation and manipulation by villains who are only interested in the monsters.

Stark isn't above such manipulation, although he likes to imagine that he is. The first two movies saw Stark reject a violent legacy and embrace his identity as a hero, placing himself above those who would twist his technology into something monstrous. He surrounded himself with good people he could trust, giving his technology to the only person in the military he could trust to use it for good and justice, Colonel Rhodes; and carefully picking a Stark Industries CEO replacement, Pepper Potts, who would instantly recognize and reject projects and individuals that might go against his new heroic philosophy, as we see at the beginning of "Iron Man Three" when she refuses to invest in Aldrich Killian's A.I.M. research because it would be too easily weaponized.

But his good intentions go awry because he forgets to account for the human factor: himself. "Iron Man Three" takes the events of "The Avengers" to their logical conclusion and shows us an Iron Man who literally crossed over to the other side and thought he was dead. Now, having not died but lived, he struggles with insomnia, nightmares, and crippling anxiety attacks, unable to come back from that one, terrifying moment when his display screens flickered out in the deepest reaches of space, on the other side of a wormhole that had just unleashed an alien army on his world. He's burdened with the knowledge of his own mortality, and struggles to reconcile his identity as a mighty hero with the realization that despite all his strength and armor, he can still die. There is a powerful moment in "Iron Man Three" where Tony drags his useless, broken Iron Man suit through a snowy forest, a striking image of the fallible man weighted down by the burden of his heroism.

Despite all this, "Iron Man Three" manages to avoid falling into the trap of the superhero angst machine. Tony may be unraveling, but he's still Tony Fuckin Stark--the charm, the snark, the narcissism--and the movie finds a good balance between the heavy stuff and the funny stuff. There's the usual sparring with his girlfriend Pepper and his best friend Rhodey, always welcome, especially in the hands of a director with a flare for memorable dialogue. And there are also some wonderful encounters with various members of the adoring public as Tony journeys across the country. I think this may be the first superhero movie that actually handles the issue of superhero public relations realistically and well, showing us encounters between the hero and his fans that ring delightfully true to anyone who has ever been to a Comic-Con.
It's--it's you! Oh man, I have all your work, you're like, an inspiration!
Overall, I'm very pleased with "Iron Man Three." It's not "The Avengers" or "The Dark Knight" (as the BF says, what is?), but it's fun, well-acted, and aside from some bad action scenes, well-made. Most importantly, it''s not afraid to be smart and play with expectations of what superhero movies should be. Much like how "Captain America" was a World War II movie with superheroes, "Iron Man Three" is a superhero movie with a bit of the romantic comedy and the buddy-cop genre mixed in with some espionage and political thriller. I can only hope that the next batch of Marvel movies charging their way into theaters are at least as good as this one.

Stray thoughts (and another SPOILER ALERT):

-I loved the reveal at the end of the credits, that this movie was a story that Tony was trying to tell to Bruce Banner (the Hulk), and Bruce had just slept through the whole thing because he was so bored by it. I'm a little disappointed we didn't get an end-credit tease of one of the other Marvel universe movies, but I think this way was better because it built on the wonderful bro-scientist friendship Bruce and Tony had in "The Avengers."

-Ben Kingsley knocked it out of the park as "The Mandarin." Not to compare "Iron Man Three" to another Batman movie, but it basically took the R'as al Ghul twist from "Batman Begins" and made it way better because Kingsley played it for laughs and poor Tony just looked so confused.

-Nitpicking fan-girl time! So at the end of this movie, Tony destroys all his Iron Man suits, fine; and he fixed Pepper so she's no longer on fine, that's fine too; and then he gets the shrapnel removed from his heart so he doesn't need the arc reactor in his chest anymore. Wait, what? Wasn't the whole plot of "Iron Man 2" that the metal in his arc reactor was killing him? And that it was a catch-22 because he couldn't live without the arc reactor in his chest keeping the shrapnel away from his heart, but he couldn't keep the arc reactor in his chest because it was poisoning him? If he could just get the shrapnel removed the old-fashioned way, with doctors and surgery, why did he go through all the trouble of making a new, safer element to put in his arc reactor in "Iron Man 2"? In fact, why didn't he just get it removed in the first "Iron Man" if such a thing was possible?

-Another nitpicky fan-girl moment: so the Extremis formula makes people regrow lost limbs. Where does the extra mass to make those limbs come from? In the movie, limbs just seem to regenerate from the host body, but where is the new limb getting its matter? Scientifically speaking, those A.I.M. henchmen should be cramming food into their mouths constantly in order to have enough mass and energy to regenerate limbs. This is the same thing that bugs me about the Incredible Hulk, who is much more massive and apparently denser than Bruce Banner, but where does the extra mass come from?!

I leave you with a comic that addresses my feelings about the mass issue.
From the amazing webcomic, "American Captain."

No comments:

Post a Comment