April 07, 2014

IRON MAN 3 Finally Gets It Right

"Well I panicked, but then I handled it."
Here's the dirty little secret about the Marvel Cinematic Universe:  Iron Man is by far the most popular character, but his movies are also unquestionably the weakest.

The first film is almost shockingly free of action and lacks a strong villain, but it coasts by on the quality of the suit effects and the charms of Robert Downey Jr.  It gets credit for proving not only that the character could work onscreen, but that "second-tier" heroes could carry their own films.  Favreau directs with a lot of energy and he smartly uses a lot of practical effects whenever possible, but looking back it's hard not to see the movie as fairly small scale and somewhat cheap.  Still, it was good enough to launch the most exciting thing happening in movies today.  Iron Man 2 is bordering on unwatchable, a clusterfuck of lackluster action and S.H.I.E.L.D. wankery masquerading as plot.  Whenever I see it now, I mostly just get angry at it for squandering both the insanity of Mickey Rourke and the snake-oil brilliance of Sam Rockwell as Tony Stark's unscrupulous mirror image.

The law of diminishing returns would imply an utter lack of hope for a third installment, and yet somehow Iron Man 3 manages to claim the crown as the undisputed best of the franchise.  First and foremost, with The Avengers out of the way, this entry is not burdened with the overwhelming need to set up future franchises and move chess pieces into place for other movies.  Marvel already made their gamble and it paid off HUGE, so here they're able to step back and take a breath, giving us a strong and streamlined Iron Man adventure, something audiences had yet to truly experience.  The story is still deeply connected to everything that's come before, leaning heavily on Tony's PTSD following his brush with inter-galactic death during the battle of New York, but it works as character backstory and nothing more.  And without the constant presence of S.H.I.E.L.D. and a million Marvel easter eggs, core characters like James Rhodes, Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan finally get something more to do than stand around waiting for Tony to say something clever.

Downey Jr. also brings a whole new depth to Stark, no small feat in the character's fourth outing.  Sure, the PTSD stuff is all good, but we also see Tony grappling with his place in the larger universe.  He's someone who's always gotten by on his smarts and his bravado, yet now he's starting to realize that not only are there threats out there that he cannot comprehend, but also people in his life that he's willing to protect at any cost.  In a world complete with Hulks, super-soldiers and living Norse gods, the one suit simply won't cut it.  Stark goes deep down the rabbit hole, building a fleet of different armors to suit any need or crisis that might arise.  But like a recovery patient who becomes addicted to painkillers, Tony eventually gets lost in his own attempts to overcome his trauma.  It's not until he's forced to play dead and go it alone (along with the help of a smart and precocious moppet, of course) that Stark rediscovers the pleasure and therapeutic value of simply building stuff.  Of being a mechanic.  Probably my favorite sequence of the entire film (save the awesome "house party protocol" at the end) involves Tony going Full MacGuyver on the Mandarin's henchman, dispatching a collection of thugs with homemade tazers and explosives pieced together from stuff at Home Depot.  I've never had to deal with any kind of really serious personal trauma like that, so I can only speak from a limited perspective.  That said, on the few instances when someone close to me has died suddenly, I definitely prefer to keep myself busy with work or whatever, rather than dwell upon whatever's upsetting me.  I find that focusing my attention on other tasks is a good way to remind myself that while tragedy may happen, life still goes on and the most important thing is to keep moving forward.  I don't really wallow anymore.

But it's not all character drama; there's enough action in this film to put its predecessors to shame.  Holy smokes.  On the heels of The Avengers, it was clear that this movie had to take things up a notch.  Thankfully, Kevin Feige and the folks at Marvel understood this and brought out the big guns in the form of Shane Black.  I dig Favreau quite a bit, but it was clear that the franchise needed fresh blood, someone who could rein in Downey Jr. without stifling his natural energy.  Anyone who's seen Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (which should be all of you) knows that Black was exactly the man for the job.  A writer/director who's certainly not afraid of action but also brings a strong focus on character, Black is able to escalate the scale and intensity of the big set pieces without sacrificing the emotional core that makes Tony Stark so compelling.  Black's entry contains no less than three action sequences that are exponentially more exciting and inventively staged than everything in the first two movies combined. The mid-air rescue sequence is a bit goofy and diversionary, but I still love the punch line. And that final battle with 40+ suits fighting on the barge?  Pure joy.  If anything, I wanted even more detail there. Each suit was clearly designed with a specific skill set in mind, so I wish I had the chance to see what made every suit so uniquely badass.  But at the end of the day, seeing Black play with the kind of budget and scale of a successful mega-franchise is enough to fill me with glee. That he's able to work within the confines of a pre-established, highly managed property without losing that essential Shane Black-ness (it's Christmas!) is all the more impressive.

It's also worth noting that the execution of the Mandarin is pretty much perfect, a great head-fake that's simultaneously entertaining and intelligent. In other words, it's the exact opposite of Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness.  Trevor Slattery, equal parts menace and hilarity, might be my favorite new character.  And let's not forget the incredible music by Brian Tyler, who looks to be Marvel's new go-to guy for scoring these films. It may have taken three films, but they finally managed to give Marvel's marquee character an iconic theme befitting his stature, right up there with Batman, Superman and Spider-Man.  Seriously, I defy you to watch this movie and not walk away humming that riff for the rest of the day.  Throw in the delightful 70's style closing credits...simply magic. 

I'll admit that upon my first viewing of Iron Man 3, the movie felt like a bit of a cruise control victory lap following the success of The Avengers.  I'd grown so used to these movies devoting significant energy to larger world-building that I was thrown to find none of it here.  But upon many, many repeated viewings I've found Iron Man 3 to be a refreshing change of pace from Marvel's near constant efforts to expand the scope of their universe.  Instead we're treated to two hours of strong action and charming character work, making for not just the best Iron Man movie, but one of the best Marvel movies to date.

Title: Iron Man 3
Director: Shane Black
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley, Rebecca Hall, James Badge Dale, Jon Favreau, Paul Bettany, William Sadler, Ty Simpkins
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - IMAX (Jordan's)

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