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Non-Review Review: Iron Man 3

Where do you go after The Avengers? Marvel brought together four separate superhero franchises to produce one mega-blockbuster last summer, producing the most successful film of 2012 and one of the most lucrative films in the history of the medium. It’s a tough act to follow. If Iron Man 3 is any indication, it seems like Disney and Marvel understand how they want to progress from here. Shrewdly deciding not to compete with The Avengers on scale, Iron Man 3 is instead a character-driven action thriller specifically tailored for the character of Tony Stark, with writer and director Shane Black very clearly having his own idea for the hero who first launched Marvel’s shared universe.

While Iron Man 3 isn’t quite perfect, it’s a solid superhero blockbuster, and perhaps second only to Kenneth Brannagh’s Thor as the best superhero film produced by Marvel Studios.

Who da Iron Man?

Who da Iron Man?

Iron Man 3 keeps its focus tight. The Avengers are mentioned in passing, but there’s not too much clutter spilling over from the blockbuster. We only see fleeting images from the film as part of Stark’s nightmare. The plot is very clearly driven by Stark as a character. When he meets with Rhodey early on, Rhodey assures him, “This isn’t a superhero problem. This is an American problem.” Despite this, the film doesn’t completely ignore its massive predecessor. Instead, Iron Man 3 suggests that Tony is haunted by the consequences of that film.

He’s suffering anxiety attacks following his almost-death in New York, and he seems a little insecure about his place in the scheme of things. “Gods, aliens, other dimensions,” he confesses, frustrated. “I’m a man in a can.” What place does Stark have in a universe with demi-gods and aliens? I have to admit, I like the idea that the solo Marvel movies spinning out of The Avengers might actually deal with some of the character reactions to the events of that film. One of my problems with that mega-blockbuster was the way that character was prone to get lost between the witticisms and the action.

"Kneel before... what do you mean that's already a catch phrase?"

“Kneel before… what do you mean that’s already a catch phrase?”

Indeed, that’s one thing that fascinates me about this on-screen superhero universe that Marvel have crafted. There’s a sense of serialisation to it, of actions and consequences, of overlap and coexistence. On a structural level, it’s fascinating. We are watching Tony Stark’s character growth not only through his own films, but through the lens of other films featuring the character. Iron Man 3 shrewdly assumes that we are invested in the characters and their drama.

When Aldrich Killian shows up in Pepper Potts’ office and shows her his “big brain”, we know that he’s a romantic threat, even though Pepper and Tony really only share their first extended scene together later. When Tony refuses to talk about New York, we know why. There’s an assumption that these characters come with baggage, and it’s not necessarily the baggage traditionally carried over from film sequel to film sequel. For example, nobody would need to watch Die Hard 2: Die Harder to appreciate Die Hard With a Vengeance or Live Free or Die Hard.

You won't believe how much a paint job costs...

You won’t believe how much a paint job costs…

This aspect of serialisation is fascinating, because it represents perhaps the biggest nod to the medium where the characters originated, with characters spinning off and crossing over. Don’t get me wrong, Iron Man 3 is full of comic book geeky treats. It cherrypicks from the best of modern Iron Man stories, including Warren Ellis’ Extremis and Matt Fractions’ The Five Nightmares. It includes in-jokey references to comic book organisations like Roxxon or A.I.M.

The introduction even features a cameo appearance from a vital part of Stark’s origin in the original Iron Man film, in a scene that is the only evidence in this international and American version of the movie of a character apparently vitally important to the Chinese cut of the film. I would be very interested to take a look at the Chinese version of the film, at some later point.

It's all plane sailing from here...

It’s all plane sailing from here…

However, the way that movie universe has become so serialised and so interconnected is perhaps the way that Marvel have found a way to channel the original comic books into the films. It’s also something of an affectionate throwback to old motion pictures serials, and even feels just a little bit like a serialised television show with an absolutely massive scale. Iron Man 3 finds the perfect balance between its title character and the wider universe around him.

The cinematic Marvel universe hasn’t always managed this serialisation gracefully. Remember how the title character was completely cut off from Earth at the end of Thor, only to arrive in The Avengers with only a throw-away line explaining the matter? Or how Loki went from a well-developed villain to a cardboard megalomaniac? Or how Tony Stark was ruled out of the Avengers at the end of Iron Man 2, only for the blockbuster to make a fleeting reference? It seems like this second slate of films might tie things a little tighter, a little more fluidly.

Rhodey sure blue them all away...

Rhodey sure blue them all away…

Still Iron Man 3 is very much a movie about Tony Stark. “We create our own demons,” he explains at the start of the film, and it feels like an appropriate statement from a former weapons’ designer and a man who built a suit of armour that inspired the villains in his first two movies to emulate him. Here, we open with a prologue set in 1999 (rather wittily and wryly set to “Blue” – remember that?) where Tony inadvertently sets the seeds for the chaos to come, his trademark arrogance (and possibly Jon Favreau’s delightfully retro nineties look) blinding him to the consequences.

This is a Shane Black film, and it feels like a Shane Black film. The very best Marvel movies have been the ones were the studio have been willing to step back and let a director offer their own artistic vision for a character and their world. Kenneth Brannagh created perhaps the best faux-Shakespearean homage to superheroes ever in Thor, and Jon Favreau was allowed to make the original Iron Man his own way, on his own terms.

Suits up...

Suits up…

You can feel the influence of Black here. For one thing, there’s the fact that the US government is apparently made up of eighties action movie co-stars, with William Sadler playing the President and Miguel Ferrer cast as the vice-president. There’s also a rather wonderful chaotic superhero fight unfolding with high-tech assassins in the middle of Tennessee which feels as if it strayed from one of Black’s classic action films, the sort of chaotic improvisation and inventive brawling that works very well.

Iron Man 3 works largely because Black gives it a unique voice, pitching it as a technological Tom Clancy-esque thriller. It’s an approach that works very well for Iron Man as a character. Another of the things that Marvel have done quite well is to distinguish each of their films and franchises. Thor was a fantasy dressed up in a superhero film. Captain America: The First Avenger was a summer blockbuster war movie with a super-powered protagonist. In an age where summers are packed with more and more comic book adaptations, it helps to give each a unique flavour, and Iron Man 3 feels distinct enough that it works.

The man in the Iron Man...

The man in the Iron Man…

Iron Man has always been a bit of a troublesome character, politically. It’s very obvious reading the original run on Tales in Suspense in the sixties, when Stan Lee clearly had trouble writing about a superhero arms dealer at the height of the Vietnam War. While later writers have tried to explore the character’s role, and his iconography, there’s still something quite tricky about handling a superhero who used to make guns and bombs for the American government.

I actually really appreciated the second film’s attempts to deal with the sort of questions about the possession and application of such force by a private individual. Iron Man 3 actually teases the possibility of exploring what Iron Man might mean to foreign affairs, as the character finds himself pitted against a sinister international terrorist known as the Mandarin, an international man of mystery prone to make bold philosophical statements while threatening America’s security.

The Mandarin? It has a nice ring to it...

The Mandarin? It has a nice ring to it…

The movie does try to keep it relatively international. As Stark points out, he has a Chinese name and uses Latin American tactics. He is also played by a British actor using a distinctive and hard-to-place accent. Despite this, the imagery used is very clearly modelled on the War on Terror. His first attack is on an American institution in the Middle East and he broadcasts live executions in his statements to the American President.

For a little while, it looks like the film might have something bold to say about Stark’s association with the establishment, about his former manufacture of weapons and about the consequences of his actions. However, Iron Man 3 quickly swerves away from that. While pursuing the Mandarin, Rhodey seems to routinely land in Asia and the Middle East, following up on hunches that don’t lead anywhere. You’d imagine there’d be political ramifications if a guy in a suit of armour branded in the American flag started randomly smashing and grabbing overseas, but the movie never explores that aspect.

Check out the new Guy...

Check out the new Guy…

I won’t spoil anything about the exact nature of the way that the script avoids those issues, but Black executes the twist with enough skill and wit that you can almost forgive it. Besides, given the problematic nature of the Mandarin (created as the descendent of Genghis Khan, dispossessed by the Maoist Revolution and empowered by an alien space dragon), this is probably the best way to do any adaptation of the character.

That said, the movie does offer some nice jabs at the way that media handles the war on terror. Stark is reluctant to be goaded into confronting the Mandarin live on air by reporters outside a hospital. As the Mandarin prepares to give one of his speeches, we discover he’s a bit of a diva. “No talking,” one character assures the staff making the recording. “And no eye contact unless you want to get shot in the face.” It’s all performance art.

Sticking the landing...

Sticking the landing…

Rhodey’s armour is given a paint job and the character is renamed from “War Machine” to “Iron Patriot.” He argues, “The focus groups loved it.” When the President is accused of being involved in corrupt dealings with big oil companies, he wonders if that is what it could be all about. The villain responds, “I just wanted a reason to execute you that would play well.” Of course, it’s also vitally important to do a rehearsal with the cameras before the big event. Black’s cynicism lends the movie a nice edge and a sharp wit.

The film has some other problems. There is some rather loose plotting involved here, and – like its two predecessors – the story isn’t exactly the most well-oiled machine. It turns out that the bad guy has really left all the vital information about his evil secret villainous organisation on a server that can be accessed using a password available to a high-ranking member of the military. I love it when the bad guys handily document their villainy. Still, Black keeps the film moving along at a decent enough pace that these shortcuts are forgiveable.

Disarmed?

Disarmed?

Black very clearly wants to take Tony Stark back to basics, to explore the idea that Stark is a self-made (iron) man, and that his wealth and trappings are not essential ingredients. So Stark spends a lot of the movie on the run and on his own, using his own ingenuity to survive and to reinvent himself. This is a great idea, particularly when dealing with super-wealthy characters in the wake of the economic recession. Christopher Nolan used the idea to great effect in The Dark Knight Rises.

Black even uses the metaphor in his action sequences, where it seems Stark’s biggest tactical advantage during the final confrontation is his ability to remove himself from the armour. Those sequences are imaginative and well choreographed, and they take advantage of the attributes that distinguish Iron Man from other heroes. Iron Man 3 seems have been developed specifically to play to Stark’s unique character traits, and it is – broadly speaking – a shrewd move. However, you can’t really play to those strengths while trying to argue that Tony Stark is Iron Man even without his suits and his resources and his money.

Snow escape...

Snow escape…

While it’s a good idea, the execution feels a little clumsy here. The movie’s climax hinges on the fact that Tony Stark is a rich guy with lots of stuff and enough money and resources to hide and maintain that stuff very securely. It seems just a little hypocritical to try to strip your character back to basics when his secret weapon is buried beneath his wine cellar. While the film ends with Stark engaging a “clean slate”, it all feels rather disingenuous when we’ve had a movie about how Stark’s wealth and resources aren’t essential to Iron Man, except for the bombastic climax when they are.

The movie also fails to really hold Stark as a character accountable for his actions. Stark is pretty directly responsible for the threat here, both in terms of the technology used and in the people involved. Had Stark been more thoughtful, or more compassionate, or more understanding, things would never have escalated so badly. The film acknowledges this, but never really treats Tony as a character responsible for anything.

(Iron) Patriot Games...

(Iron) Patriot Games…

Given that Stark is a former arms dealer wounded by his own weapons, and who started his crusade to take responsibility for the application of these designs he invented, it feels like a significant character beat was missed. Although the aforementioned tie-in to The Avengers is nice, the script might work better if Tony’s restlessness and nightmares were less directly related to events in New York and more closely connected with the fact that a lot of what is currently happening is a direct consequence of his actions.

Black handles the action sequences well, and has drawn a solid supporting cast together. The returning regulars (Downey, Paltrow, Cheadle and even Bettany) are all great. In particular, it’s nice that the script finds a use for Pepper as a character, rather than treating her as a “trophy.” This continues a trend of relatively strong female characters in Marvel films, something that blockbuster could do with a lot more of. Of course, it seems we’re quite a while away from a Marvel blockbuster headlined by a female character, but it is great that Paltrow is made more than a damsel in distress.

This guy is falling...

This guy is falling…

The new cast are great. It’s a pleasure to see eighties action movie actors like Sadler or Ferrer given work, and Ben Kingsley is superb as the Mandarin. It’s a wonderful performance, and a deft use of the character which will undoubtedly be a tough sell to die-hard fans. Rebecca Hall is solid as Maya, the biologist who helped design the technology behind the film’s threat. Unfortunately, Hall’s American accent occasionally slips, a little awkwardly. James Badge Dale is a super douchy evil henchman.

Guy Pearce does an excellent job as Adrian Killian, the movie’s dark mirror to Tony Stark, a ruthless reinvented industrialist willing to do whatever it takes to keep selling arms. He’s the flip side of the coin to Sam Rockwell’s wonderfully ineffective Justin Hammer, both serving as a contrast to Downey’s sex symbol industrialist. Killian is a great character and a worthy foil. It feels like, after two attempts with varying degrees of success, the films have produced a dark counterpart to Stark.

Admit it, this probably pretty high on Tony Stark's romantic fantasies...

Admit it, this probably pretty high on Tony Stark’s romantic fantasies…

Iron Man 3 isn’t perfect. But it’s great fun. It’s a solid start to what looks like a fun summer, and a demonstration that Marvel seem to have a clear idea of how they’re going to follow up The Avengers.

Note: This review was originally published before I was notified of the embargo. So I took it down, and replaced with an embargo note until the embargo passed. Now the embargo has passed, the review is on-line again!

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23 Responses

  1. I gotta know, what exactly was the Brief Suggestive Content rating given for?

    • Don’t know exactly. There’s the same innuendos and suggestive remarks as is typical in a modern blockbuster. There is the suggestion that some female characters may be prostitutes or groupees, even if not explicitly mentioned.

  2. Censored! You’re big news man 😀

    • Don’t I wish!

      Nah, I wasn’t contacted about it. I’m still tiny fish in the pond. I hadn’t been told about an embargo. I wrote the review, saw that various bigger media sources had published theirs and assumed it was okay to publish. After all the premiere in London was last night, so one would assume that word of mouth is going to be impossible to suppress.

      But I checked around and discovered the embargo is next week, so I pulled it. Because it’s fair. After all, everybody else who saw the film should be holding their review, why shouldn’t I? Nothing ticks me off like a major source flaunting something like that because they are too big to be struck from a press list, so if I did it I would just be hypocritical.

      Besides, the review will go up before the first paid screenings, even if not before the first people have chosen to book their tickets. Then again, one might argue that reviews wouldn’t convince or deter those looking to book their tickets a week in advance.

  3. Oops! Looking forward to reading your review next week as well as seeing the film 😉

    • I enjoyed it. Not perfect, but great fun and a good start to the summer. It’s a very Shane Black film, if that makes sense, and I love Shane Black’s style.

  4. I’m very curious what you think of this film, especially with Shane Black directing. I respect your decision to hold off rather than jump the gun.

    • I hope you enjoy it. It’s obviously a very different beast than, say, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but I liked it. Can’t say too much more though.

  5. I was all set to post my review last Friday when Disney emailed to inform me of the embargo. They never mentioned anything before the screening. It’s annoying how the big UK papers constantly break the embargo yet us little fish have to abide by it.

    • Part of me was very happy when Sony banned David Denby from attending press screenings for breaking the embargo on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I wouldn’t mind seeing that employed over here.

      I don’t mind too much, but I spent two hours writing the damn thing, and it could have waited until the weekend. Also, it sucks knowing that the debate on the film has already been framed by those who broke the embargo.

  6. Need to know if its ok to take 8 7 & 8 year old boys to see this when it comes out?! My son really wants to go for his Birthday next Friday and I said ok and so did other parents, but nervous about any nakedness or cursing that may be involved in this movie. Opinions???

    • Hi Kt.

      I’m reluctant to offer any advice, as what a parent deems appropriate for their child is so variable.

      I can say that there is nothing here any worse than the first or second Iron Man. It has been a week since I’ve seen the film, but I don’t recall an “F-word”, or even an “sh-word”, but there are a few “damns”, “son of a…” and maybe a “bastard” or two. But I’m not 100% on that. It’s no better or worse than most similar films.

      In terms of nudity, Guy Pearce spends a great deal of the climax shirtless. There is a sequence in the middle of the film which features scantily-clad women who are implied to be groupees or prostitutes. And a very quick shot of Rebecca Hall in her undies at the start of the film. But nothing any more severe than the previous two films.

      In short, if you would be comfortable letting them watch Iron Man 2, then it should be fine. I don’t think there’s anything quite as intense as the whole “hole in the heart” bit from the start of original Iron Man.

      • Thank you! That helps! Im ok with my son seeing it but the other parents that said it was ok, well im just hoping they know its pg-13 and are aware. I don’t need a mob of angry parents lol. Thank you for your opinion!

  7. Also I heard girls were in their under ware? Is that in the back ground? Would they even notice it?

    • I think they would. They aren’t the point of the scenes, but they are definitely there.

      SPOILER:
      (They are more a clue that there’s more to the Mandarin than people might expect in a “there sure are a lot of scantily-clad women around here for a character who seems to be an Islamic extremist” sort of way. There’s nothing too untoward. I think two are playing ping-pong.)

      Hope this helps.

      • is it a very long scene?

      • Not really. It’s during a siege montage (you know one of those “the hero finally takes the fight to the enemy” bits). Stark knocks out a few guards and gets inside, and then things get weird – it looks a bit dingier than you’d expect. He finds the Mandarin pretty quickly and then it turns into a dialogue-heavy scene between Ben Kingsley and Robert Downey Jr. which is probably my favourite scene of the film, but which I suspect will be pretty divisive. So they are definitely there, but they aren’t there too long. (I’m also trying to avoid spoiling the sequence too much, because it’s something that is very clever.)

  8. ok great! Thanks again! Im so excited to see it!

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