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My 12 for ’13: Iron Man 3 & Shane Black’s Christmas in April

This is my annual countdown of the 12 movies that really stuck with me this year. It only counts the movies released in Ireland in 2013, so quite a few of this year’s Oscar contenders aren’t eligible, though some of last year’s are.

This is number 9…

While Tim Burton’s underrated Batman Returns remains the definitive superhero Christmas movie, Iron Man 3 comes pretty darn close. Which is very strange, for a movie released in towards the end of April in Europe and in the United States in early May. This paradoxical festivity is just one of the many ways that Iron Man 3 feels more like a Shane Black film than a piece of the expansive and ever-growing Marvel Cinematic Universe.

And that’s a good thing.

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There’s no denying the ambition of what Marvel have been attempting with their feature films. There’s an attempt to create an expansive comic book universe on screen, where everything overlaps and ties together, characters intersect and overlap, events have shockwaves the break beyond the narrative of their particular film. If I were cynical, I’d suggest that everything is always building towards the next big blockbuster crossover.

It was a radical approach to take with Iron Man back in 2008, and it has paid dividends. There’s a reason that The Avengers became such a run-away success, and part of that is down to the glee of seeing all the familiar toys beign bashed together. It’s an approach that has been so successful that it has spawned imitators. The Wolverine leads directly to X-Men: Days of Future Past. Man of Steel has been designed to launch an entire shared DC universe on screen. Even Sony is trying to franchise out The Amazing Spider-Man with spin-off Sinister Six and Venom films.

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All of this is really great, and it’s an interesting approach to cinematic narratives, essentially following a comic book model. However, there is a point where this shared universe becomes a little too restrictive, a little too suffocating. I liked Iron Man 2 more than most, but it suffered from having a second act that was designed to tie into The Avengers. (And which The Avengers sort of glossed over, quite quickly.)

There’s a sense of conservatism in a lot of blockbusters, especially those intended to expand or cultivate franchises. It’s understandable that the studio might be afraid to take too many risks or to try anything too ambitious for fear it might damage the brand. While this is a perfectly logical impulse, it does tend to lead to “reasonably adequate” films, where “reasonably adequate” is the faintest sort of praise.

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And that was the biggest problem with Thor: The Dark World, Marvel’s other big cinematic release of 2013. It felt like a movie made by committee, designed to offer more of what audiences liked about the first film, with little thought for the quality of the movie as a whole. So we’re treated to Thor and Loki bantering shortly after the cold-blooded murder of their mother, and an attempt to redeem a much-loved character who was last featured leading an alien invasion of New York City.

In contrast, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films remain a high watermark for the still young genre. Nolan’s films about the Caped Crusader are designed to function first and foremost as great movies in their own right, with no significant amount of thought put towards the demands of crossovers or tie-ins. As a result, there’s an engaging amount of freedom to the storytelling, even allowing Nolan to wrap up his story when he was finished with it.

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While Iron Man 3 is nowhere near that level of quality, it doesn’t feel particularly behoved to some gigantic shared multimedia universe. Like the very first Iron Man, and like Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, there’s a sense that Iron Man 3 is a product of its director as much as a committee. Shane Black’s influence permeates Iron Man 3, and gives the movie its own unique sense of identity.

From the Christmas setting to the military industrial complex villains and sociopathic killer-for-hire henchmen, Iron Man 3 is every bit as much a Shane Black film as it is a Marvel film. And that means that it feels somewhat fresh. One of the endearing aspects of the superhero blockbuster craze has been the variety that it allows. Christopher Nolan’s three Batman films are urban epics, Branagh’s Thor was a fantasy spectacular and Black’s Iron Man 3 is a political action thriller that feels very much like an updated nineties blockbuster.

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That’s plenty to be merry about.

Our top twelve films of the year:

Honourable Mentions

12.) Blue Jasmine

11.) Lincoln

10.) Much Ado About Nothing

09.) Iron Man 3

08.) Philomena

07.) Only God Forgives

06.) Star Trek Into Darkness

05.) Stoker

04.) Gravity

03.) Rush

02.) Django Unchained

01.) Cloud Atlas

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