Sunday, May 5, 2013

IRON MAN 3: Back in Black

Iron Man 3 is a Shane Black movie, and this is a wonderful thing.

For those of you who don't think you know who Shane Black is, you actually do. The man was something of a superstar in the screenwriting scene of late 80's/early 90's Hollywood, scoring big with Lethal Weapon and soon becoming the highest paid writer in the industry. But his early (largely entertaining) work is nothing compared to the movie he made with Robert Downey Jr.

Back in 2005.

Written and directed by Black, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang was the lifeline that eventually lead Downey Jr. to the superstar role of Tony Stark, and is a modern noir masterpiece. The film boasts wicked humor, snappy banter from actors bringing their A-game, and ingenious subversion of the genre.

Which, not coincidentally, pretty aptly describes Iron Man 3 as well

I'm going to get this out of the way right now - Iron Man 3 is great. Easily the best Tony Stark film and rubbing shoulders with Captain America: The First Avenger as the best stand-alone Marvel film period. It's not quite the graceful grand slam of popcorn magnificence that The Avengers was - there are a couple niggling issues, mostly to do with pacing, and some deviations from expectations and source material that I know will rub some folks the wrong way.

But everything it does is in service to a compelling, surprising, and beautifully character-driven story that also just so happens to have the laughs and thrills you expect from a Marvel Studios movie. It takes more risks than Joss Whedon's mega-hit, is more challenging, and packs more drama. Highly recommended.

And with that, we're done talking in broad strokes, so from here on out:

**********SPOILER WARNING**********

I'm not kidding, this movie has some big surprises up its sleeve, and I'm about to spill. DO NOT READ if you haven't seen the movie yet, or don't care about huge elements of the plot being given away.

. . . 

Still with us? Okay.

One of the most ingenious choices this movie makes is to open with Tony Stark an emotional wreck. Not only is this an easy way to up the stakes for a guy who was already ridiculously awesome before he started flying around in a robot suit, but it retroactively gives more dramatic weight to the events of The Avengers. Tony is  going through PTSD, suffering anxiety and insomnia in the aftermath of his near-death experience during the Battle of New York. The layer this adds to his relationship with Pepper Potts (a surprising strength in this film) is impressive, as is the narrative excuse it provides for the suit-filled finale. But perhaps more noteworthy is the fact that we're seeing this in a huge summer blockbuster at all.

It's an angle of superhero movies that we've never really seen before: the psychological toll that sort of situation would take, especially since - apart from his intellect and resources - Stark is arguably the most out-of-his-league of the entire Avengers team. Hawkeye and Widow are both super-spies with years of training, Banner gets to literally check out during combat, Thor is an actual god, and Captain America - apart from being a super-soldier - fought in World War II. Stark is, in his own words, just a guy in a can.

These psychological elements really bolster the upped stakes and emotional weight of the film, both of which were sorely lacking in the messy-but-enjoyable (mostly thanks to a solid finish) Iron Man 2. It also gives the audience pause for some self-examination. The film-makers are well-aware that people loved the spectacle of The Avengers, and by echoing this child-like glee (from an actual child, no less) only to have Stark start breaking down at the mere mention of New York is brilliantly subversive. Yeah, we thought it was awesome, but we didn't have to walk away from that.

The way the film deliberately uses New York and the terrorist threat of the Mandarin as an allegory for post-9/11 paranoia in America really drives this point home. It also results in one of the best "pull the rug out from under you" moments in the genre when the Mandarin we've seen turns out to be a fake, a strung-out character actor (in a brilliant dual-act from Sir Ben Kingsley) who's staged broadcasts are being used to cover up real villain Aldrich Killian's experimental failures with Extremis. As a divergence from the comics, I can see people not warming to this, especially if they had been wanting what the trailers sold (Bane/the Joker with a beard). But for my money, it's a brilliant move that both distances the movie from the "Madman ruling through fear" trope that has become so prevalent and makes Iron Man 3 even more beautifully subversive.

The final feather in this particular cap comes in the form of Pepper Potts, who's always been straining to find a role other than just "damsel in distress" in these films. Iron Man and Iron Man 2 both go to great lengths to define her by her own actions rather than reactions (creating a "grown-up" Mary Jane, if you will), but Iron Man 3 is where she comes brilliantly into her own, rising from a "woman in a refrigerator" fake-out to save Tony and defeat the real "Mandarin" (Killian) as a super-powered phoenix analog. Not only is it another moment of turning genre conventions on its head, but it caps the arcs for both main characters and results in the best female character in any Shane Black-written film to date.

There are many reasons I'm pleased with the third Shellhead movie, but perhaps the biggest is the point I started this piece with - for all that it's definitely an entertaining summer blockbuster, Iron Man 3 stands as a distinctly auteur work by its director. If this level of creative freedom and experimentation is at all representative of what we can expect for Phase 2 of Marvel's films, this could be something special indeed.

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