Tuesday, May 7, 2013
Review - Iron Man 3 (2013)
A big issue I've had with Iron Man 2, Captain America, Thor, and the Avengers is that I simply don't care about SHIELD, Marvel's secret organization that keeps the world safe/shady while somehow covertly flying giant airborne aircraft carriers over major population centers and threatening to nuke New York at a moment's notice while wiretapping the world's population with a minor shrug from our heroes. They're the ultimate embodiment of Might Makes Right in these films, using methods that the films acknowledge as dangerous but without outright condemning them. Avengers tries to have it both ways by using Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) as the "good" side of SHIELD who's only slightly skeezy and some sort of secret council as a "bad" side who is OK with killing everyone in New York because it's under attack by ineffectual alien forces.
There's plenty of potential for good storytelling there, but ultimately the big problem with SHIELD isn't that it's morally uncomfortable or underdeveloped; it's that it's incredibly boring. In both Iron Man 2 and Avengers, SHIELD's drama grinds the plot to a halt, in Captain America it serves no purpose but to set up that the film as a two hour long trailer for The Avengers (Iron Man 2 is exactly the same thing) and in Thor they're a bumbling, inconsequential sideshow. When he's at the top of his game, Samuel L. Jackson is a phenomenal actor. In the Marvel films, as with his role as Mace Windu in the Star Wars prequels, Jackson is largely an exposition device that shows up to move the story along. It's a waste of a great actor.
Iron Man 3, wonderfully, does away with the needless world-building that bogged down the films that preceded it. It serves as a sequel to Avengers and obviously to the previous Iron Man films, but stands on its own without setting up future films or feeling like an advertisement for another movie (Iron Man's 42 suits of armor on the other hand explicitly ARE an advertisement for merchandise, but at least it's self-contained merchandise.) Iron Man 2 had no room to breathe; its plot and performances felt stifled by the inclusion of the SHIELD plot, which was totally devoid of the energy that the rest of the film had. Iron Man 3 is absolutely a better film than the second, and while it doesn't quite capture the energy of the original Iron Man film, it still has a lot of life to it.
As with Sam Rockwell and Mickey Rourke in Iron Man 2, much of the film is driven by the manic campiness of its villains, The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) and Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). The supporting cast does a great job too; Don Cheadle gives a better performance here as Colonel Rhodes/War Machine/Iron Patriot than he did in the last film, and Gwyneth Paltrow returns as Pepper Potts, who finally gets some solid, leading scenes that do a good job reversing the Damsel in Distress finales that plague a lot of superhero media.
While Downey certainly gives an enjoyable performance, he's still coasting on the same sarcastic jackass note that he's played in his three previous Marvel films and in his two Sherlock Holmes films. It's starting to wear thin, but on top of that, it just doesn't match the tone of this film, which blends dark humor with camp rather than just giving us a rehash the lighthearted goof fest of Avengers/Iron Man 2. Tony Stark spends a lot of screen time taking digs at a child he befriends by breaking into his family's house and stealing their tools to repair a damaged Iron Man suit. Stark's quips work in other scenes because his villains and support crew are quick to fire back at him. With Harley (Ty Simpkins), it just feels like Stark's being a bully, which is ironic since he spends time trying to teach this kid to stand up to bullies. This feels like a commentary on how screwed up Stark's view of the world really is, but at the same time it's awful to watch in a way that's not interesting. It's hard to fault Downey for this, as his character's personality just doesn't mesh with the world of this film as well as it did in his previous appearances.
The plot centers around two threats; The Mandarin, a character only loosely taken from the comics, is presented as an Osama Bin Laden analogue, bombing American sites and broadcasting videos to gloat about his handiwork, is the first threat introduced, but it quickly becomes evident that the main villain is Pearce's Killian, who is working behind the scenes with The Mandarin to introduce Extremis to the world, a drug/nanomachine/genetic engineering cocktail of technobabble that can be used to regrow limbs/cure illnesses but has the side effect of turning its hosts into cartoonishly evil villains with fire magic who spontaneously combust if they aren't properly maintained. Stark seeks out the truth behind Extremis long after it's already evident to the audience, with, mercifully, no help from his SHIELD buddies. It does feel rather incongruous to not have other Avengers along after the events of the last film, especially since national security is being threatened, but Iron Man 3 is a better film for their lack of appearance.
Being an Iron Man film, there are plenty of big action set pieces, including a really well choreographed attack on Stark's mansion. The final battle is huge, crazy, and feels like a video game, but there's nothing inherently wrong with that aside from the fact that the villain's minions really have no reason to show any kind of loyalty to him at this point. Unlike the final battle of Avengers, there's actually a sense of danger, and the heroes actually do get hurt. While it's still super cartoonish, it feels a lot more human than the Big Huge Fight Scenes in the rest of the Marvel Studios' films. In keeping up the video game feel, we get a villain who feels like a direct analogue of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance's Armstrong and Resident Evil 5's take on Albert Wesker. Iron Man 3 is probably the best video game movie in spite of not being based on a video game.
From here forward, I'll be discussing deeper themes and major spoilers for the film's plot, including its ending. Do not read on if you want to go in unspoiled.
By far the most interesting part of the film, both as a performance and a symbol, is Ben Kingsley's take on The Mandarin. In comics, Mandarin got his start in Tales of Suspense #50, 1964. The character initially appeared as a fairly offensive Fu Manchu style criminal genius, embodying American fear of China/Communism/Others. Though the character has received numerous makeovers over the years and is no longer quite the uncomfortable racial stereotype he once was, a villain whose very name says "The Chinese Guy" is hard to rehabilitate.The Mandarin's other biggest characteristic is his use of ten powerful alien/magical rings.
The film takes these elements and revises them to a modern image; while panic over Communist China was a part of the American psyche of the day, the depressing racial panic of the 2000's is absolutely over people of Middle Eastern descent. The Mandarin keeps his name, but is instead portrayed as a terrorist mastermind with a love of theatrics, a modern, Hollywood Osama Bin Laden. He is an omnipresent force that can strike anyone, anytime, anywhere. He's a philosopher king leading a faceless army, called The Ten Rings in reference to the character's comic book origins. Mandarin is on the surface the embodiment of American fear, the reminder that 9/11 wasn't that far in the past and its effects are still felt every day.
What makes the character interesting is that this is all a sham. When Ben Kingsley was cast as The Mandarin, it was hard not to ask, "Why didn't they get a Chinese actor?" Once we actually saw what the character was reinvented as, it was hard not to say, "All right, he's not supposed to be Chinese this time. So why not get a Middle Eastern actor?" For once, there actually was a legitimate reason to cast someone against racial background; there is no Mandarin. The character Kingsley portrays is actually Trevor Slattery, a drug-addled British man whose acting career bottomed out and left him in shambles. Slattery is hired by Killian to create a theatrical boogeyman for America, someone they can hate and fear as they pour money into the war economy to stop a threat that doesn't exist.
Once the charade is dropped, Slattery isn't a villain at all, but rather a charmingly stupid goofball who provides the funniest role in the film. It's a great reversal of both what audiences expect from a modern villain and the fact that Ben Kingsley has been cast in so many movies to play so many ethnic groups. The reveal is foreshadowed by one of The Mandarin's "lessons" to America, in which he explains that fortune cookies are not Chinese in origin, but rather an American creation made to look and sound exotic, just like The Mandarin himself. He's a cheap, manufactured prop, and Kingsley's Slattery/Mandarin is satire of The War on Terror.
Of course, this isn't without problems. While The Mandarin is just an act, Killian is still orchestrating bombings across the country, and he still tries to murder plenty of people. While Killian's motivations aren't very well stated, it would seem that he wants to spark the fires of global war while positing his corporation, AIM, to reap the profits. What could be more profitable than starting a war when you're a company that can sell a product that magically heals wounded soldiers? The Extremis project isn't stable, so Killian captures Pepper Potts to try to blackmail Stark into helping him perfect his formula.
The problem here is that in specifically using 9/11 imagery with a character whose terror attacks are orchestrated by Americans for American profit, the film lends support to the awful "False Flag" conspiracy theorists of the world, the ones who claim Bush had a hand in 9/11 for war profiteering and Obama had a hand in the Boston Marathon bombing for some unknown reason. Conspiracies like this fuel sites like Infowars and countless fringe blogs, and it's a disgusting, offensive line of thinking. I don't believe at all that this film intends to say "Hey, maybe you should listen to the Infowars guys." I think it's meant to be dark satire of American politics, business, and media awareness, but the combination of topics being satirized ends up having some messy side effects. I fully feel that it's coincidence, but it's a gross coincidence that's really hard to ignore.
Iron Man 3's American war satire goes beyond just the character of The Mandarin, though he's clearly its biggest example. Colonel Rhode's War Machine armor is repainted with flashy American colors and rebranded the Iron Patriot as a way of turning a deadly weapon into a family friendly action figure. He becomes a reluctant celebrity, in stark contrast to the way Tony embraces celebrity for his war fighting in the previous two movies. In the Iron Patriot suit, Rhodes becomes a bumbler; after being fed bad information on The Mandarin's whereabouts, he breaks into the home of an innocent family and aims his arsenal of rockets at them when they laugh at the lame conversation he has over the phone with Stark. Later, he busts into a factory, aims his weapons, and says to the confused workers, "You're free, if you weren't already." The government of this film intends Rhodes to be a symbol, but that symbol is clunky, dumb, and incompetent. It's only when Rhodes is out of the armor that he's effective, strong, and strategic.
In Avengers, Captain America derides Stark by telling him that without the iron suit, he's nothing. In that film, it's pretty much true. Here, both Rhodes and Stark show a level of bravery and skill while disarmed that it proves Captain America's statement totally wrong; without the suit, they're still heroes. Iron Man 1, 2, and Avengers said, "Deadly weapons aren't the problem, the problem is letting them fall into the wrong hands." Iron Man 3 says, "Maybe we don't need those weapons at all." Stark builds a total of 42 Iron Man suits and survives the final battle by using them all at once (in unmanned drone strikes against a proxy force trying to ignite a War on Terror) but they aren't what saves him and stops Killian; Pepper actually drops in, abilities boosted by Extremis injections and a thin shell of Tony's armor, and both saves Mr. Stark and kills Mr. Killian. She serves as a means of saying that neither technology nor biology is evil, but rather than keep the crazy weapons for ourselves, let's blow all this crap up and be done with it. Her saving Tony is the moment that he realizes that he doesn't need to be Iron Man anymore; he can be The Mechanic, helping to fix the broken parts of the world rather than just helping to burn things down. It's also a great reversal of the role love interests usually play in superhero movies.
My biggest problem with this movie is that after the conflict with Killian is over, the film speeds through a ridiculously brief ending consisting almost entirely of exposition in which major problems are solved mostly off screen with just a couple of words. I immediately wondered, "What will Pepper do now that she's a fire-powered super human?" The film answered this question in the most boring way possible. In a short montage, Tony says "I fixed her" and all the consequences of Extremis are instantly removed. How about Tony's heart, which has metallic shards ready to pierce it and has been the character's humanizing weak point for the entire series, symbolizing the fact that this man must become one with a machine in order to live? "I decided to fix myself," and the problem is solved with a simple surgery and with no explanation beyond that, negating all of the human drama of Iron Man 2 in which Stark is on the verge of death due to his heart's artificial reactor slowly running out of juice. I didn't want a technobabble explanation, and I appreciate the symbolism of Tony no longer needing to rely on his fantasy machines to survive, but within the context of the story it just doesn't work.
Overall, Iron Man 3 is a good film with some messiness. I think its message is a legit one, but told poorly at times due to an inconsistent tone. It's good satire, but not really careful satire. It spends too much time with Stark and his child sidekick, a team up that never feels interesting or fun. Guy Pearce breathes fire like Godzilla and it's magnificent, but he only does it once and never in battle. I don't think Robert Downey Jr. has another Iron Man film in him after this one, and I think that's ok. The end credits are a spectacular flourish of 70's style filters and music, serving as a retrospective of the last three movies. There's text that says, "Tony Stark will Return" at the end, but my question is "Why?" I think this film closes his character arc quite well, and it would be best for Marvel to let him rest for now. Given that Avengers 2 is already in pre-production, I know they won't.