Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
May 2013

Iron Man 3

The last stand?

'Iron Man 3' gets the job done, but may also show a franchise at the end of its rope

Iron Man 3
Walt Disney Studios
Director: Shane Black
Screenplay: Drew Pearce and Shane Black, based on characters created by Stan Lee
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley, Don Cheadle, James Badge Dale and Rebecca Hall
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 10 minutes
Opened May 3, 2013
(out of four)

Only something really special or really risky on Marvel's part could have saved Iron Man 3 from its biggest drawback, which is the virtually inevitable sense of fatigue it elicits. When you're the third (or, let's face it, fourth; The Avengers was basically Iron Man & Friends) entry in a tightly controlled franchise, a sense of sameness is bound to set in. The series and its title character have now gone through three independent variations and one mash-up and I've liked all of them to one degree or another, but nonetheless the four have felt more or less the same.

At a certain point, we've seen every variation of a metal-suit-on-metal-suit fight scene we can see, and seen just about every side of Tony Stark we're going to get. The thing is, I like Tony Stark and have loved Robert Downey Jr.'s interpretation of the character, from the original 2008 origin story to now. But I also love, say, Philip Marlowe and Humphrey Bogart; and even so, I'd imagine that if we'd gotten to The Big Sleep Part 4, the act would have run its course.

The sheer volume of other superhero movies doesn't help matters, either. Aside from those that set themselves apart aesthetically (Nolan's Batman saga, del Toro's Hellboy films, Watchmen, even Captain America to an extent), they all kinda blend together. In fairness, you could make that argument for virtually any genre from any time period, but the sheer bigness of superhero movies (their scope, their budget, their CGI excess) makes their ubiquity all the more exhausting.

It's long been my contention that franchises are best served by a willingness to constantly reinvent themselves. The same goes for TV shows. (The more radical, the better!) This one has never really done that (even The Avengers seemed to take on Iron Man's personality), so the enduring quality of the series is a testament in and of itself. But I found myself watching Iron Man 3 with a sense of enjoyment that bordered on ambivalence.

The big change this time around - and one of the big selling points for me going in - is new director Shane Black. The once-legendary screenwriter, who triumphantly returned from a decade-long Hollywood exodus eight years ago with his fantastic directorial debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (which, along with the likes of Zodiac and A Scanner Darkly, helped revitalize Downey Jr.'s career before he catapulted to superstardom in Iron Man), handles his first mega-budget directing assignment by providing a seamless transition between the earlier movies and this one. Sure, he provides his own spin - the Christmastime setting, the erratic, tongue-in-cheek voiceover - but the style we've come to expect remains largely intact. The sardonic sense of humor remains, only with a bit more of Black's trademark self-consciousness. And the dialogue, naturally, is just a bit sharper.

The story this time finds Tony Stark still reeling from the events of The Avengers. The experience has left him unable to sleep and prone to panic attacks - and, frankly, sick and tired of answering questions about that wormhole. Instead of cultivating his committed relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), he spends most of his waking hours tinkering in his lab, coming up with a series of new Iron Man prototypes.

But time and terrorism wait for no man to get over existential struggles - not even for Tony Stark. So when the mysterious Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) makes his presence felt on the world stage with a series of targeted bombings, Iron Man is his natural, and inevitable, foe. Complicating matters is the appearance of Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a former (brief) acquaintance of Tony's and current mad scientist. We know he's a villain from the start - 1) because, as a young scientist, he's ignored and abandoned by Tony Stark during the film's opening flashback sequence, and we know that's how all arch-enemies begin; and 2) because his name is "Aldrich Killian." There's never been a non-villainous character with a name like that.

In truth, the motivations for Tony's involvement with the Mandarin are flimsy at best (he's feeling vengeful because his old bodyguard Happy Hogan is nearly blown to bits and falls into a coma), the logistics of some of the film's plot machinations make little sense, and the character played by Rebecca Hall is woefully underwritten, her behavior governed entirely by the whims of the screenplay.

But Black does a nice job with the scope of the action, and he and co-writer Drew Pearce give Downey Jr. some nice material for the character. What I liked most - in fact, what partially offset some of my other reservations - were the little bursts of idiosyncratic inspiration that pop up every so often in Iron Man 3. It feels like Black was aware that he was fundamentally remaking a couple of other movies, so he wanted jolt us back into upright position from time to time. The strategy pays off, particularly in the way the film gets away with lightly satirizing its own genre.

It's not surprising coming from Black, who's always been hyper-aware of genre conventions and phenomenally clever in the way he tackles them. He may be retreading through predictable territory, but he keeps things just interesting enough to make it worthwhile. I may not be bullish on the future prospects of the series, but given the track records of other franchises, getting four pretty good movies out of one character is an accomplishment in itself.


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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