Cheap Tricks and Cheesy One-Liners
Ah, it's the first Marvel movie of the year, summer must be almost upon us. Actually, it looks like being another relatively light season for the company, with only one film on release (although the sequel to Thor is dipping its mighty toe into the hitherto-untested waters of the pre-Christmas blockbuster season). This is, obviously, Iron Man 3 (actually, Iron Man Three if you judge by the title card), written and directed by Shane Black and starring Robert Downey Jr (who previously worked together on the too-little-known 2005 comedy thriller Kiss Kiss Bang Bang).
Now, as always, with any Marvel movie there is one burning question to be answered, and in Iron Man 3's case the answer is: yes, it's worth staying all the way to the end of the credits, provided you're the kind of person who follows Marvel's unique franchise-of-franchises. This is their first movie since last summer's The Avengers, which did rather well for itself both commercially and creatively.
You could be forgiven for thinking that Iron Man 3 has basically been slipped the hospital pass by The Avengers' – it can't have been easy to contemplate following such a huge, colourful, massively popular film. After seeing half a dozen Marvel superheroes ripping up the screen, how can a movie only starring one of them not feel a little disappointing? Hasn't The Avengers lifted the bar too high for comfort?
Well, Shane Black is obviously a clever man, and the script of this movie suggests he's aware of this potential problem. As it opens, playboy-billionaire-genius-adventurer Tony Stark (Downey Jr) is struggling to come to terms with his experiences taking on the alien invasion in New York (yes, there are flashbacks, just really short ones)' – this is destroying his ability to... well, do whatever he would otherwise be doing, the film is a little vague as to how he actually spends his time when not either wearing the suit or working on it.
However, his attention is grabbed by a reign of terror, responsibility for which is claimed by an enigmatic terrorist warlord known only as the Mandarin (His Imperial Eminence Professor Field-Marshal Sir Ben Kingsley BSC MFI GCHQ). Detonations across the world are causing carnage, but, strangely, no sign of actual explosives has been found at any of the locations. When one of the presumed bombings strikes close to Stark's home, he issues a public challenge to the Mandarin in person: but it appears his ego may once again have got the better of him, as his adversary's first response is a full-scale rocket attack which topples Stark's house into the Pacific Ocean with him inside...
This is just the first act of a very solid bish-bash-bosh action movie structure, which Black deploys with great assuredness: take everything away from the hero so he can show his mettle (thanks, I'm here all week) by building himself back up again in order to sort out the miscreants in an everything-explodes-deafeningly climax. And all this is present and correct, as you'd expect: Marvel are careful to assemble their movies so they at least work on a basic narrative level (and to be fair, none of their films has been an outright stinker so far).
Having said that' – well, look, I have an odd issue when it comes to the Iron Man movies, probably because the first time I saw the original film I was living in Puglia and it was dubbed into Italian. I thought it looked pretty good, but the subtleties of the script and performances were really lost on me. When I saw it again in English, my expectations were that much higher, but, coupled to the fact I'd already seen it...
(On the other hand, I feel I should point out that nearly all the films I originally saw in a foreign language felt disappointing when I later caught them in an intelligible form: Iron Man, Quantum of Solace, Star Trek, Watchmen, Crank: High Voltage, and Wolverine. You may with some justification respond that most of those are pretty bad films in any language' – but even so...)
Then, Iron Man 2 felt to me like the work of a bunch of people who'd unexpectedly made a massive smash hit and weren't quite sure what to do next. So I turned up to this one without very great expectations. But, I have to say that I enjoyed Iron Man 3 rather more than either of its predecessors, and as much as the best of the individual Marvel movies. Then again, this is a movie which seems to be dividing audiences' – most of the respectable critics seem to have been broadly favourable, while the comics-loving fanbase has in places been venomously hostile towards it: one review cited its 'rancid somnolence', which is a nicely-turned expression even if I don't see how it applies here.
However, my enjoyment of it is very much based on the fact that it's not just a standard superhero movie. All the requisite elements are included, with the usual bunch of familiar characters, mostly well-played (Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, and so on), a crash-bang-wallop finale, immaculate CGI, and so on. But on top of this, Black has managed to come up with a storyline which allows Robert Downey Jr to wander through the movie being an unfeasibly witty smart-ass, rattling off inspired one-liners and contending with a bevy of diverse stooges (a small boy who keeps trying to ask him questions about the Avengers, a rather creepy uberfan, and so on). Stark obviously remains a rather more competent protagonist than Harry Lockhart in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but there were still faint echoes to my mind' – the movie even opens with Stark as a not-entirely-reliable narrator ( but who's he actually narrating to...? Ah...). For me, the success of Iron Man 3 is that it works as a comedy as well as it does as a superhero action film.
Then again, this may be part of the problem for some people. Ben Kingsley's performance is brilliant, rip-roaring stuff, and suggests to me that he's a much better sport than his image suggests, but the fact remains that the film's treatment of the Mandarin is radically different from the way in which most classic comics characters are handled. To say any more would be to spoil a very bold plot twist, but I can imagine how long-term fans of the character might feel a little aggrieved by the way he's treated' – this is probably a key reason why Iron Man 3 is drawing fanboy flak.
Well, I don't care, I enjoyed it enormously. The timing of the film feels odd' – I'm not referring to the fact that a summer movie is set at Christmas (it's a Shane Black script, that' practically his trademark), but to the fact that' – in some ways' – this film would have seemed unexpectedly topical and satirical, had it only been released a mere eight or nine years ago. And the climax suggests a series running out of space in which it can feasibly operate' – Iron Man's capabilities are now so sophisticated and powerful that it's hard to think of a situation which could seriously threaten him for long.
But these are issues which will have to be addressed by whoever takes up the reins on this particular area of Marveldom' – it seems unlikely there'll be another Iron Man movie this side of Avengers 2, anyway. If so, then at least the character will be heading into his second team outing on a high, because this is a very strong example of the kind of thing Marvel do best.