Sunday, October 27, 2013

Iron Man 3 (Paramount, Marvel, DMG Entertainment, Disney, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I watched the DVD of Iron Man 3, which depending on how you count the omnibus multi-hero film The Avengers is either the third or fourth of the current cycle featuring Robert Downey, Jr. as one of Marvel Comics’ second tier of heroes from their golden years in the 1960’s. Like Batman, Iron Man was really a fabulously wealthy tycoon, part of the 0.01 percent, who used his riches to train himself, physically and intellectually, to be a superhero, though Iron Man’s alternate identity, Tony Stark, was also a scientific genius and developed a metal suit and something called “repulsor rays” which gave him the ability to fly — or at least to propel himself in short rocket-like bursts through the air — and were a powerful weapon against baddies. Lacking the angst of Marvel heroes like Spider-Man or the Incredible Hulk, or the weird family dynamics of the Fantastic Four, Iron Man had a following but not that much of one. (I remember the magazine Not Brand Ecch!, in which Marvel parodied their own heroes, in which Iron Man’s weapon was called “repulsive rays” — and when he fired it at one of the baddies, said baddie said, “Wow! That’s repulsive, all right! What’s in it?,” to which Iron Man replied, “Essence of skunk, I believe.”) When I first heard that Robert Downey, Jr. was going to play him in a big-budget superhero film from Paramount, I was a bit nonplussed because at the time Downey’s reputation was as a man who got so wasted from all the drugs he did that he did weird things like walk into other people’s bedrooms naked, though he’d just made the film The Singing Detective (quite good, actually) and seemed poised for a comeback. The first Iron Man was a big enough hit that it’s spawned two solo sequelae as well as Iron Man’s appearance with the other major Marvel heroes (Spider-Man excepted) in The Avengers, a film Charles and I hadn’t seen and were therefore somewhat at sea watching this one. In particular we were a bit baffled by the references to the “Battle of New York” with which The Avengers concluded — did it simply damage New York or obliterate it completely? (It’s an indication of the cheeky audacity the writing committees on these movies bring to them that they’d pick as the principal terrorist target the city that in fact sustained the greatest damage on September 11, 2001 — not unlike Japan, the only country ever on the receiving end of a nuclear attack, responding by making Godzilla and a whole raft of movie series about monsters either created or unleashed by atomic radiation.)

I’ll say one thing for Iron Man 3; under the command of a new director, Shane Black (who also co-wrote the script with Drew Pearce), for once a modern-day superhero movie was fun, achieving at least some of the campiness of the 1960’s Batman TV series instead of the earnest seriousness of the Christopher Nolan Batmans or the Sam Raimi Spider-Mans. As Charles pointed out, this time around Black and his cinematographer, Jon Toll, as well as the makeup people did not try to reverse the effects of years (some of them pretty wild) on Robert Downey, Jr.’s face and body; he looks like a man in his mid-40’s (he’s in fact 48), and since much of the plot of this movie casts him as a literally homeless person (his home, a state-of-the-art creation that looks like what Richard Neutra would have designed if he’d been inspired by a bunch of mushrooms, has been blown to smithereens by a terrorist attack led by someone or something called “The Mandarin”) with a malfunctioning suit and only sporadic assistance from Jarvis, Stark’s super-computer that serves him much the way John Gielgud served Dudley Moore in Arthur, his seedy appearance is actually appropriate for much of the story. Iron Man 3 actually has a bit more plot than usual in a superhero film of the 21st century — it’s not just a series of action-porn scenes and a few plot contrivances to get from one big action set-piece to the next à la a Republic serial — centering around a super-scientist named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). In 1999 Killian crashes a big New Year’s party at a scientific conference and extracts a promise from Tony Stark to meet him on the roof to discuss a project called AIM for which Killian wants Stark’s research and financial support — only Stark, then still in his pre-Iron playboy days, stands him up because he’s more interested in screwing pretty little dark-haired scientist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall).

Being a character in a comic book-derived fantasy, naturally Killian spends the next 13 years harboring thoughts of revenge, and he achieves them by recruiting Maya to his operation. The two of them create something called “Extremis,” which appears to be a human genetic-modification program that takes ordinary people and runs them through a painful transition, following which they gain super-powers but also become slaves to Killian’s will. Killian also hires an out-of-work actor, Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley), who’s disgraced himself with drug-fueled antics and thereby wiped out all his chances for an above-ground career (it seems like Black and Pearce were doing a weird in-joke plotline based on Robert Downey, Jr.’s own much-publicized antics while on drugs!), to pose as a super-terrorist called “The Mandarin” who ostensibly heads the terror ring actually commanded by Killian. This is supposed to be a big surprise reveal made only when the film is two-thirds over already, but it’s absolutely no surprise at all, at least to anyone who’s seen more than six movies before in their life. Slattery has been lured by Killian’s promise of all the drugs he can take and all the women he can fuck to make periodic appearances before a video camera — broadcast worldwide through Killian’s high-tech video technology, which can cut in on the world’s TV broadcasts any time he likes — and spout rhetoric which sounds like Noam Chomsky has gone really, really bad: “Some people call me a terrorist. I consider myself a teacher. America. Ready for another lesson? In 1864, in Sand Creek, Colorado, the U.S. Military waited until the friendly Cheyenne Braves had all gone hunting. Waited to attack and slaughter the families left behind. And claim their land. Thirty-nine hours ago, the Ali al-Salam Air Base in Kuwait was attacked. I, I, I did that. A quaint military church, filled with wives and children, of course. The soldiers were out on maneuvers. The ‘Braves’ were away. President Ellis, you continue to resist my attempts to educate you, sir. And now, you’ve missed me again. You don’t know who I am. You don’t know where I am. And you’ll NEVER see me coming.”

Also among the plot lines in this movie are Iron Patriot, a.k.a. War Machine (Don Cheadle), a U.S. government super-soldier equipped with one of Tony Stark’s high-tech suits; a president who’s a grey-haired white male (which probably made more conservative members of the theatrical audience heave sighs of relief after five years they’ve had to look at an African-American in that job for real) and ends up in one of the Iron Patriot suits; a meeting between Stark and a refreshingly unsentimental street kid, Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins), with whom he has some of the funniest and most sparkling bits of dialogue in the film. It ends with Stark’s girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, whose presence in this role practically defines “overqualified”) being subjected to Extremis by Killian and apparently gaining superpowers herself — a Mr. and Mrs. Superhero story for Iron Man 4 would actually be a fun and creative way to take the franchise (though perhaps the decision-makers at Marvel figure they’ve done that already with The Fantastic Four) — while at the same time successfully persuading Iron Man to have all his Iron-suits self-destruct (one conceit behind this series is that the suits can fly and use their weaponry whether there are people in them or not) to try to get the burden of him being a superhero off their relationship as it continues after the final spectacular action scene that for once is not an anticlimax (as it was even in something as otherwise finely honed as the 1989 Tim Burton Batman, which if pressed I’d declare the greatest superhero movie of all time). There’s also a cameo appearance by Marvel honcho Stan Lee as the judge of a beauty contest (though both Charles and I missed it) and a final sequence after the credits have concluded in which Tony Stark, who has been doing a film noir-style narration throughout, is revealed to be talking to a doctor and revealing his innermost secrets — only (and this is something neither Charles nor I registered while watching, though it’s clear on the page) he’s not a psychiatrist, or even an M.D. He’s Dr. Bruce Banner, nuclear physicist and also the Incredible Hulk!