Suiting up for Tony Stark’s Third Flight
DIRECTED BY SHANE BLACK/2013
Jim Tudor: One of the many old clichés in superhero comic books is a big blurb on the cover promising some massive Earth-shaking event, with the qualifier, “Because you demanded it!!!” “Because you demanded it! The ultimate showdown with Thanos!” Or, “Because you demanded it! The return of Gambit!” Or even “Because you demanded it! The final issue of Dazzler!” (And that claim may’ve more true than any.) That was the stuff of Marvel Comics when I was a kid. My wish was that one day, they’d make movies of these stories, and the rest of the world would then see how good they are (and that I’m not a nerd and was right the whole time and they were really missing out SO THERE!). This was also the wish of most every other comic fan as well. The thought of it actually ever coming true was nigh-unthinkable.
Things have changed in the Marvel Universe (and the real universe as well) a vast amount since then, the biggest change being that the comics seem to have grown up with me. They’re still stories of eccentric people in colorful outfits constantly saving the Earth and each other from evil, disaster, and sometimes, each other. But now they’re all… serious. Definitely of the PG-13 temperament.
In the meantime, Marvel has done a bit of growing of its own. In five quick years, it went from being a successful comic book company to a full blown media entity, making and producing its own globally popular movies. (Ten years prior to that, it was dodging bankruptcy.) The movies are of course based upon their comic books, but nowadays, the current comics exist merely as gloried research & development for the considerably farther-reaching movie & TV divisions. On one hand, the comics have never been better – every writer, artist, and editor wants his/her book to get tapped for potential “big media” ascension. But the days of Marvel Comics existing just for the sake of being Marvel Comics is all but over. Because we demanded it.
Enter Robert Downey Jr. We can all blame him; so magnetic and charming in his irresistible smugness and quips… Prior to 2008’s Iron Man, he was a public basket case and Hollywood insurance liability. Comic book fans immediately recognized that that, among other reasons, made him the perfect Tony Stark. He infused the long-standing four-color character with a streak of humor and zing that Stark had never had before in print. Nevertheless, like no other comic hero portrayal to date, Tony Stark on the page was now forever tethered to Robert Downey Jr. There was no going back for Marvel. Iron Man was suddenly their crown jewel. (Whoda thunk it?) So, they gave us what we demanded… More. And more, and more, and more. Now here we sit, reeling from Robert Downey Jr. having played Tony Stark in four separate movies in five years time. Looking at this latest entry, Iron Man 3, there are signs that Downey Jr. may also be reeling just a bit, too.
Erik Yates: And as everyone clamors for “more”, the danger is that we might have such an insatiable appetite that nothing will satisfy us ultimately. I think that is how I felt when left the theater for Iron Man 3. It was good in so many ways, but yet, it still felt less than what I was hoping.
Make no mistake, it was more than most movies deliver and I have lots of praise to give, yet I agree with you that Robert Downey, Jr. may be reeling and it may be a signal that his days as Tony Stark are numbered.
Jim: The film is a solid “good, not great”. Granted that this is Marvel’s most surefire property, thus making it the only real choice to attempt to directly follow The Avengers. But unlike Iron Man 2 – a fun movie that was derailed by its purpose of paving the way to The Avengers (and Thor… and Captain America… etc.), Iron Man 3 seems to have the opposite goal, of saying, “Look! We can still tell great stand-alone stories of individual characters that still matter!!” So while this is a big event movie, it still somehow has a weird smallness about it. I think that might be part of what you mean when you say there was something unfulfilling about this. It means business, and wants us to know it means business, but if the model that Marvel is attempting holds – that each movie is like another issue in an ongoing comic book series, and that series is one of many comic series’ in a larger universe – then each and every issue is an “event” blockbuster. In comics, that sort of thing happens maybe every twenty-five issues or so. (When it happens to often, fans file claims of “event fatigue”.) In television terms, it would be equal to a season finale episode being every episode. It’s too much, and therefore it somehow feels like not enough. Not even Downey Jr. at his Downey-iest satisfied me here. As talented and watchable as he is, his shtick is unfortunately growing long in the tooth. I didenjoy the film more than not, but at the same time, it just didn’t hit the spot like it needed to.
Erik: Shane Black, I think, does a great job of making this a smaller picture in the sense of allowing Tony Stark to wrestle with his demons, and do a lot more of the work sans the Iron Man persona. Robert Downey, Jr. handles this task very well in that he is a strong actor and can work the more character driven part, but can still keep it balanced with enough of the Tony Stark humor we have come to expect and love. But in answering the question, “does the suit make the man, or does the man make the suit”, Iron Man 3 gives us so much on the character development of Tony Stark that it sacrifices the character and realness of the Iron Man suit itself. They almost become a prop in the movie like Captain America’s shield, if he had 50 shields or more. There are so many Iron Man suits flying around in this movie, apart from Tony Stark, (including Don Cheadle’s War Machine all-American redesign, Iron Patriot) that the film feels a bit disjointed as it balances being a big CGI-popcorn fest, and the focus on Tony Stark’s smaller character driven journey.
I did find the villains to be more over-the-top in this one. Ben Kingsley did a fine job as the Mandarin. I think people will find his performance brought some real gravitas to the role, yet he wasn’t in the film as much as I would have hoped.
Guy Pearce looked to me much like he was channeling Val Kilmer’s The
Saint at times (especially in the 1999 flashback), and the main power-source of these bad guys seemed far-fetched (I know it’s a comic book movie) in a way that was foreign to the other Iron Man entries, and thus detached Iron Man 3 from the realness that grounded the first two films. I also wish they had done more with Pepper Potts than just mainly playing the damsel in distress role for the past 3 films (including Iron Man 2 & 3, and The Avengers). At some point, Tony is going to have to learn the lesson of balancing his relationships. This is why so many other superheroes keep their identity a secret. Tony simply announces, “I am Iron Man!”, and thus must expect to face conflict with those he longs to protect.
That being said, the action was tight, and there were many great laughs. I’m not sure where they go from here and in that regard, Shane Black created a clean slate (he alludes to this in the film as well) for the character that allows him to either move forward or signal the end of Phase 1 of the Marvel universe.
Jim: Glad you brought up the whole Marvel “Phase” thing. That whole way of collecting these movies into certain batches, everything up to now labeled as “Phase One”, with this the launch of “Phase Two” (although it seems to establish very little out of the ordinary in terms of what its fellow films may be dealing with, other than Roxxon Oil, a “Captain America” entity) is a logical way of grouping these projects in the Marvel Studios board room, but when it comes to fandom, it’s merely ingenious marketing. A lot of people seem to get so caught up in the bigger picture of these phases that they miss the trees for the forest. Speculating on future films within these phases is more fun to many than watching many of the movies themselves.
As for Iron Man 3… this is an Iron Man movie. And that’s really about it. Not much obvious “shared universe” going on here, other than they keep talking about the events in The Avengers, which have left Tony somehow traumatized. (And this may be where we’re lost. Why is he traumatized?? Him saving the day was awesome!!!) In working through that, he must reconcile his own identity in terms of being Iron Man. The movie kinda sorta does an okay job of that, in between subplots about a techno terrorist organization called A.I.M., led by a character called The Mandarin using a new technology called Extremis to threaten the world. (All of those references were cherry-picked in name only from the Iron Man comics, where A.I.M. is a legion of yellow-suited nut-jobs who all wear dorky buckets on their heads, The Mandarin is Iron Man’s biggest villain, and Extremis is a technology that fuses Tony’s armor into his nervous system, making it part of him.)
Along the way, Tony meets a boy named Harley (Ty Simpkins), who appears to be about eleven. The film might not really need this kid, but that doesn’t stop him from dominating an awful lot of screen time. This kid lives out a total male child wish fulfillment fantasy: Finding Tony Stark in his garage, and having to help him beat the bad guys. My rule of thumb is, whenever a character like this pops up in a film like this, the age of the kid is actually revealing the age of the movie’s target audience. (E.T. is a classic example, as I was the same age as Elliot when that film opened.) Others can and will enjoy such a film as well if it’s well made, but it’s the eleven year old boys in the audience who should come away most pleased. (Which is not a bad thing; it’s just what it is.) In the meantime, Harley’s very presence is a kind of kid-audience opium, and not the sort of thing that fits into Shane Black’s filmmaking canon. Black, like Downey Jr. before him, is a one-time major Hollywood talent (he was arguably the biggest writer in Hollywood in the late 1980s, writing Lethal Weapon movies and the like) who went AWOL but is now having a major resurgence. That started before the first Iron Man, with a small but nearly perfect R-rated audatious caper called Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Kiss Kiss Bang Banghappened to star Robert Downey Jr, and was the consequently the film that sold Marvel on casting him as Tony Stark. So yes, the hiring of Shane Black as director (replacing Jon Faverau, who still acts in the movie) is a nice kind of full circle. But while Iron Man 3 is a halfway decent film, but it’s not a quarter of what Kiss Kiss promised. It’s just a single “Bang“.
Erik: While the movie might be aimed at the 11 year old in all of us, Shane Black delivers a lot of the bag of tricks we grew up loving in the films he wrote such as Lethal Weapon. I found myself recognizing lots of similarities to the Lethal Weapon series in Iron Man 3. There are the Christmas settings (why is this the setting in a summer release?), a fight scene in a Christmas tree lot, helicopters shooting their targets from an ocean vantage point, a house on stilts being pulled down, the hero being crushed by a heavy object in the water, and more. If you are a Lethal Weaponaficionado, there may be even more for you to discover. Though it is not as rich as a Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon/Wizard of Oz matchup.
Technically speaking, the 3D is done very well, in my opinion. It doesn’t provide all of the gimmicky camera shots to manipulate the audience as many 3D movies do, but instead it simply provides depth and a larger canvass to bring the story to life. Most 3D is unnecessary, but here at least it doesn’t distract.
Jim: I agree that it doesn’t distract, but I don’t think the film would suffer without it.
Erik: This is another solid entry in the Marvel universe, and a good Iron Man film. As good as it is, unfortunately, I think it falls slightly short of its own expectations, and ours… but at least we got what we demanded.