Saturday, May 11, 2013

Love: Iron Man 3

Normally, when you get to the third official entry in a franchise after a lackluster sequel, you're probably not expecting too much. When the sequels keep coming, we have a strange way of falling into a routine. Our various fandoms carry us through with a keen sense of obligation, and even when we'd rather look away (I'm looking at you Jack Sparrow) we often find ourselves pressing play or buying that ticket with a sigh of resignation.  Marvel, though, seems to have found a way to reverse the normal drag by blending the franchises so thoroughly that they effectively mimic the comic book universe they're drawn from. With the release of Iron Man 3 we no longer know whether we're watching the completion of the Tony Stark trilogy or the sixth or seventh (depending on whether you count The Incredible Hulk) entry in The Avengers saga.  The world has become less linear and more rhizomatic: we're looking at a tangled root system where the events, villains, supporting characters, and possibility for depth become infinitely more complicated than the old formula of throwing down another formulaic hero blockbuster.  Sure, the old hero vs. villain trope remains, but Iron Man 3 finds a way of working beyond the explosions and keeping the story about its characters.  This is Tony Stark 3, and as soon as the credits stop rolling you sincerely hope he returns sooner rather than later.
After the tepid Iron Man 2, we are reintroduced to Tony (Robert Downey Jr.) as an idling billionaire working to suppress his crippling anxiety issues (PTSD?) in the wake of the events depicted in The Avengers.  The film reminds us, once again, that unlike his hero peers, Tony Stark is a comparatively normal human being. He identifies himself as "a mechanic" and his powers, of course, are nothing more than the results of his technological tinkering.  While those results may be nothing short of fantastical, they're nothing compared to the aliens and gods he found himself facing.  Stark has come face to face with the unknown, with the sort of nightmarish shit that would tax even the most fear-mongering conspiracy theorist's outlook on life.  Since placing his girlfriend Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) in charge of corporate affairs, however, Stark doesn't have to deal with business, doesn't adhere to any sort of schedule, and spends his time obsessively tinkering away at prototype after prototype of his armored suit.  He's left to deal with himself, and can only deal with machines. These are, we quickly understand, what makes Tony Stark feel safe.  The defined split, too, works rather poetically to separate the human being from the costume.  Where Iron Man 2 seemed to revel in the "I am Iron Man" claim and devote as much time as possible to keeping Stark in the helmet, the third film corrects that error and relies more on the skills of Robert Downey Jr. than the special effects team.
Emotions force Stark to jump into action in this film.  While the nation is supposed to be protected by his BFF and proxy Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) in the newly christened "Iron Patriot" suit (aka: War Machine (btw: what I sometimes secretly call my car)), a terrorist threat surfaces in the form of a particularly dramatic character known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley).  Our mysterious villain is a curious aggregate of 'the other', and when one of his bombings impacts Stark's bodyguard Happy (Jon Favreau), everyone's second favorite billionaire gets ahead of himself and issues a direct personal threat that winds up tearing apart his world.  And so, we see Stark torn away from his mansion, from Pepper, from Jarvis, and from most of his operational technology and left to his own devices.  The film is written and directed by Shane Black, who previously worked with RDJ on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and who seems to innately understand the actor's flair for witty banter and non-sequitor put downs in a way that no former handler of the character has quite mastered.  If you can excuse some convoluted mad-scientist stuff featuring Guy Pearce and Rebecca Hall, this is a pretty straightforward movie about one guy dealing with some issues. Black trusts Robert Downey Jr. to convincingly become Tony Stark.  When Stark has an anxiety attack, the film never jumps to Avengers flashbacks for the uninformed, when Stark talks about being in the shit - his face tells you what he's seen, not some cut away.  When Stark is left with a non-operational suit and "nothing"?  He's still a snarky asshole, but the most endearing kind. 
It's the right move, and exactly what we needed to see to breathe new life into yet another year with a giant Marvel release.  After going bigger, better, and more distracting in so many other places, this Avengers film steps back and reminds us how we got into this whole thing back in 2008.  Sure, the action sequences are still there, but compared to watching Iron Man fight a god in the woods, there's something significantly more old school about the whole approach. The battles are fought on a human scale, more often than not, though the pyrotechnics are kept in tact.  As long as you can get a Stark one-liner in there somewhere?  You've got a satisfying kick-off to the summer season.  Tony Stark will return...

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