Sunday, May 12, 2013

Iron Man 3 (Shane Black, 2013)

Iron Man 3

Quick Take:

Hollow, full of lies, leaves a bad taste in the mouth . . . kidding! Ben Kingsley is the greatest. The rest of the movie is good—better than Iron Man 2—but fairly by-the-numbers summer superhero flick fun. Recommended.

SPOILERY Thoughts:

Iron Man 3's "Barrel of Monkeys" scene, wherein Iron Man, equipped only to carry, at most, four people in his arms, must somehow rescue a dozen people falling from an airplane, by having the first person he catches then helping to catch the next falling person and so on in a human chain, is maybe the greatest superhero sequence in movie history. I've always loved these moments when the regular people the superheroes protect are then able to assist in small ways as participants in the action. Those were some of my favorite parts of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films—when New York bystanders would rally to Spider-Man's defense against the Green Goblin or Doctor Octopus, or when the tiny Asian child in Spider-Man 2 tried to pull Peter Parker to safety from near-death in a burning building. Maybe it's hokey, but I guess I find these moments of random ordinary people rising to the occasion to be especially inspiring—more so than just the idea that a superpowered hero will save us all. Iron Man 3's scene might be the most amazing of all such scenes, and yet, speaking honestly, I don't expect I'll remember it in another week. It's a great, well-constructed scene, but it feels largely disconnected from the main story of the movie. It's the sort of set piece that one can imagine they filmed before they ever even had a script locked down. So, even as cool to behold as it is, there's a certain lack of consequence to the scene that kept me from fully engaging with it.

What I found more striking and likely to be remembered was the lady with the scarred face, showcased briefly but notably in the middle of movie to rumble with Tony Stark in probably the best action sequence in any of these Marvel Cinematic Universe movies so far. Between actress Stephanie Szostak's natural good looks and performance and the great hair and makeup work, this character may have been the most visually well-realized character in any superhero movie to date. She looked like she had stepped right out of a comic book, and I mean that in the best possible way. I hope I didn't just say all that because I thought she was hot.

Above all else, if Iron Man 3 is to be remembered for anything, it will be for the Mandarin and for that big twist. I can't think of any other case where all of the marketing was so deliberately deceptive in setting up audiences' expectations for something that would turn out so far off what the movie would actually be. I think back to those trailers, where Ben Kingsley's voice-over as the Mandarin was prominently featured to such chilling effect, and meanwhile Guy Pearce barely appeared and I assumed he would have a minor supporting role. Boy, they sure got me! No wonder Ben Kingsley's character was never seen doing anything but sitting or standing, nor even glimpsed in a single shot with any of the other characters. The question now, however, is whether it was worth it.

I know a lot of comics fans do not care for the movie's take on the Mandarin, and I do sympathize, but, really, Ben Kingsley is, far and away, the best part of Iron Man 3—already before the twist, when he plays it rather like a more effortlessly menacing version of the Tom Hardy Bane, and then even more so after the twist, which is when we truly come to appreciate his genius as one of the most amazing actors in the biz. I can't help wondering if his character's turn here was intended as a sly commentary on all the over-the-top villain roles he's inexplicably taken on in some truly wretched productions. Ben Kingsley's performance aside, the Mandarin's reveal is also the only moment where the film is elevated to being anything more than just a predictable superhero action movie. And it may have been the only way we were ever going to see the Mandarin in these movies in any form.

For those not familiar with the comics, the Mandarin was, from the 60s through the 90s, as close as Iron Man had to an archenemy (i.e. the Joker or Lex Luthor to Iron Man's Batman or Superman). He never had a particularly compelling story (but then Iron Man himself was always a B-lister in the Marvel stable anyway), but he was the most popular and successful of Iron Man's foes because his powers—ten alien rings, each bestowing upon him a different ability, collectively allowing him to go toe-to-toe (or, better yet, at range) with Iron Man (or almost any superhero)—were simply the coolest. Also, like Doctor Doom or Magneto, albeit to a much lesser degree, he was a villain who could be interesting apart from his principal heroic nemesis, because the Mandarin, unlike, say, Iron Monger or Crimson Dynamo, was not defined by his relationship with Iron Man.

Then political correctness became a thing in this country, and people realized that maybe having a Communist Fu Manchu-looking sorcerer named "The Mandarin" was a little dated. (Personally, I also suspect that the rise of British comics writers has had an influence, leading to stories where Iron Man himself plays the bad guy (or at least the capitalist American tool) with alarming regularity.) So when I heard that they were going with the Mandarin as the villain for Iron Man 3, I was surprised, but also excited. What they ultimately ended up doing with the character is perhaps an admission, in the cleverest way possible, that the character really is too over-the-top and dated to believably adapt to film.

I do get that some fans are disappointed that we didn't get to see the real Mandarin in this movie. Even though I liked the twist, a part of me is disappointed too. Mostly, I'm saddened that this effectively rules out any possibility of ever seeing the real Mandarin in these movies. Dated though the original comics character may be now, there are nevertheless ways that they could conceivably have adapted the best parts of him for film (like, maybe just don't refer to him as "The Mandarin," and don't make him look like Fu Manchu). And it's not like the character was completely written out of the comics at the turn of century. He was even a main character in the 2009 Iron Man: Armored Adventures cartoon, which I felt modified the character enough to make him inoffensive, while still doing justice to the Mandarin's role in Iron Man mythology. In Iron Man 3, the best we get is Guy Pearce's character declaring himself the "real" Mandarin, Not even close, sorry, but I suppose it allows us a way to fool ourselves, if we must, into insisting that Iron Man did fight the Mandarin in the movies, and the Mandarin was formidable and not just some absurd fiction.

As for the rest of the movie, I found it much more enjoyable than Iron Man 2. Robert Downey, Jr.'s performance in the first film was brilliant. As with Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, one could afterward scarcely imagine that character or that franchise existing apart from its star. Downey simply was Iron Man. By Avengers, however, I was kind of starting to hate him. Iron Man 3 manages to somewhat scale back his abrasive egomania (it probably helps having Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts to stand up to him and keep him in check), and it's nimbler overall than Iron Man 2—more self-contained, without any appearances by Nick Fury or that other S.H.I.E.L.D. guy. I did not at all buy, however, that Tony Stark would suffer some sort of PTSD from the events of Avengers (not after the at-least-as-harrowing experiences of his solo movies), though Iron Man 3 is largely predicated on the premise that he's going through something.

The movie was consistently funny in short bursts without ever trying too hard or carrying on a joke too long. I particularly enjoyed a scene where Tony Stark and Rhodey snuck aboard the oil tanker that served as the enemy base. Equipped with only small arms and no armors, they reminded me of my experiences playing co-op shooter video games like Army of Two or Splinter Cell: Conviction. Stark especially, technically a civilian, reminded me of myself—reckless and inept.


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