Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Suit Up

With the release of Iron Man 3 this past Friday, Marvel studios officially kicks off their much-awaited "Phase Two", a series of films that leads up to 2015's anticipated sequel The Avengers 2. Starting the ball rolling with Iron Man and making it work was very important for two big reasons. First, Robert Downey Jr.'s irreverent interpretation of Marvel's "genius billionaire playboy philanthropist" is easily the most popular of its superheroes, widely out-grossing the still-successful films featuring fellow Avengers Captain America, Thor and the Hulk at the box office. Second, while the newest sequel is seen more as a followup to Joss Whedon's excellent The Avengers than it is to the previous Iron Man titles, it still carries the stain of coming after 2010's terrible Iron Man 2, easily one of the worst released that year. And so Iron Man 3's co-writer/director Shane Black (taking over from the departing Jon Favreau) upped the ante by introducing Iron Man's strongest foe (The Mandarin, played by Ben Kingsley) and one of the original comic book's most famous stories, as the movie is loosely based on Warren Ellis' 2005-2006 Extremis storyline. Top it off with more Iron suits than one man could possibly have use for (or so one would think) and you have all the makings of a potentially amazing Iron Man sequel.

This is his indoor attire.
Following the events of The Avengers, Tony Stark (Downey) is trying to get back into his daily routine as a billionaire inventor with a great girlfriend in Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and an amazing gig as famous world-saving superhero Iron Man. But he's having difficulties sleeping, his worldview irrevocably changed by the events in New York City, and exacerbated by the terror attacks of The Mandarin (Kingsley), an international criminal guilty of bombings around the globe. When one of those attacks hits a little close to home, Stark gets it in his head that he will handle the menace, exposing himself and everything he holds dear to urgent danger. But everything is not what it seems, and soon his past comes back to haunt him. Surrounded by enemies, Stark must rely on his wits if he wants to survive what comes next.

However, he cheats at Rock Paper Scissors
Shane black does an excellent job pulling together his own rendition of an Iron Man story while melding it with the existing cinematic mythos. His signature black humor fits in nicely with where Favreau had gone before, and his history with Downey (the pair worked together on the cult favorite Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) makes great use of the tongue-in-cheek storytelling that comes from their pairing. Black has a great feel for directing - as much as Downey does playing - Tony Stark, one of the few superheroes more interesting in his everyday manner than he is in costume, unlike "mild-mannered" Clark Kent or boring entrepeneur Bruce Wayne. In fact, the whole second act of the film features Stark without working armor in the middle of Tennessee (sans southern accents, strangely) and teamed up with a precocious brat (Ty Simpkins), and it's the best part of the whole movie. Black's ability to avoid cliched pitfalls works wonders for his star; Stark is eccentric and confident and yet plagued by demons, as three-dimensional as a character in comics can get these days. And that's even BEFORE he straps himself into a flying tin can and fights evil. To that end, The director also does a great job humanizing Stark's world and pits him against more grounded villains, while still keeping the supernatural and super-powered elements of the Marvel universe.

Might be time for a tune-up.
Black also does an excellent job directing the required action scenes, especially considering his relative lack of experience. Sure, he carries a massive special effects budget behind him, but had he failed he certainly wouldn't have been the first director to balk under the pressure of a major production. Instead the visual effects are flawless, the fight choreography is well-done, and there always seems to be a reason behind every action. The action sequences, from my personal favorite of Iron Man attempting to rescue seventeen people thrown from a plane to a battle royale between dozens of automated armored suits and an equal number of super-powered baddies, are expertly conceived, and while not everything works perfectly it does manage to at least match the intensity of what we've come to expect from this franchise.
You never see a good performance from him coming.
Unfortunately, while Downey is amazing as Stark, his side characters leave a lot to be desired. In most cases, it's an example of incomplete character development rather than lack of acting talent that sabotages these roles, though in the case of Rebecca Hall it manages to be both. Sadly, Paltrow wasn't much better, despite being a perfect down-to-earth foil for Downey's perfectly flamboyant performance. She's simply not given enough to do, and when she is the results are underwhelming. The same can be said for Don Cheadle, whose return as the military equivalent of Stark can be summed-up in two words: "paint job." Favreau also returns in an acting role, and shows that the expansion of his character wasn't remotely necessary. The villains are definitely better, with Guy Pearce once again showing that he should have made it to the big time years ago. But while Pearce is great, moreso is Kingsley, who terrifies despite relatively little screen time. Both make excellent bad guys, although if there is a failure it's that their motivations are never fully made clear. Still, it's better than the plain silly villain we sat through in Iron Man 2. That was just insulting.
And now, the ultimate test of her antiperspirant.
There are also some storytelling gaffes, not the least of which are the murky goals of the bad guys or the pointlessness of the secondary characters. Besides that, Iron Man 3 gets a little... dark in the latter half, with Tony Stark becoming a bit more amoral than most of his superhero bretheren (actually, he's about on par with Christopher Nolan's Batman, and not in a good way). While that might not be the best side-effect of Black's command, at least it can be forgiven by the fact that it matches the mood of the scene. Also, minor plot threads such as Tony's supposed post-traumatic stress disorder and relationship woes with Pepper are introduced in the first act, only to be resolved without explanation by the end of the second. Okay, they might have been a bit out of place (especially the PTSD) in a family-friendly action flick, but in that case why introduce them at all? There's also a nice, probably unexpected twist that might upset a few fanboys, but audiences ought to get a kick out of it. Finally, the ending is a bit TOO clean, to the point where an opening isn't left for potential future sequels. When we were introduced to this new Marvel movie universe, our understanding was that heroes would continue on, with or without their original actors. If this is Downey Jr's last Iron Man flick, Black and company definitely didn't leave it open for anybody else to take up the reigns in the future. And when the future shows at least two more Avengers pictures, that's an odd oversight.

Poker night's going to get a bit rowdy.
In the end, Iron Man 3 is easily the best movie we've seen in 2013, though that was admittedly an easy task. In some ways it's the best of the current Marvel crop, and in others it doesn't quite match up with the fun and intensity of the first Iron Man. Still, while it's still no match for The Avengers, it a great movie and a major step up after the Iron Man 2 debacle. Yes, you'll probably have to go back and rewatch all of those movies to understand what exactly is going on, but is that really such a bad thing? Iron Man is fun, funny, action-packed and simply amazing. Hopefully this won't be the last time we get to see Downey don the red and gold, but if it is at least he goes out on a spectacularly high note. This is as close to "must-see" as summer blockbusters get, despite even its most glaring flaws. If you're even remotely interested in comic books, explosive action and expressive humor, this is your jam.

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