Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Iron Man 3 (2013) – Review

Review: Iron Man 3 is a different sort of Marvel film. It is about Tony Stark dealing with the world in the wake of the events of The Avengers and the toll it is taking on him personally. He cannot sleep. He is obsessed with what the next threat could be. He wants to be the old Tony Stark, but something within him has changed. He may no longer be up to the challenge of protecting the things he cares about (like Pepper Potts). Yet, he must face his latest villain, The Mandarin (a terrorist who is setting off bombs across America) because he still feels that it is his duty. Thus, more so than before, he may fail.

From the beginning moments of Iron Man 3, it is clear that the Marvel Universe has shifted.  Throughout Phase One, the Marvel films were light and fun (for the most part), but Iron Man 3 begins with Tony Stark (via voiceover narration) regretfully owning up to his mistakes. No longer is he the arrogant selfish showoff, but a man who has clearly seen his world view shaken to the extent that he has doubts about who he is going forward. Something has definitely changed in him. The bravado and wit are still there, but now they mask his self-doubt.

Writer-director Shane Black has created a superhero event film that does indeed have the required prerequisite big action scenes and villain who is evil and powerful enough to call to arms a superhero to defeat him, but all that is secondary to his main focus: Tony Stark’s own internal struggle. This is a personal character story, which means that Black has Stark out of the Iron Man armor for most of the film. There are already three films in which Iron Man defeats his adversaries in the suit. Now, it is time to see Stark truly address his own issues. And yet, the fact that the film is a superhero blockbuster does demand villains. Black uses his villains more as foils for Stark’s own deficiencies to by reflected, rather than fully fleshed out characters with origin stories and tons of character development – again, this is a personal narrative about Stark, the rest is secondary to the story Black wants to tell.

Stark not being in the suit is in a way refreshing, and it gives the audience the ability to connect with the character on a deeper level. He is much more vulnerable when he is not Iron Man and the action feels much more immediate because Stark could actually be killed at any moment (or at least that illusion is enhanced). Being stripped of his armor also allows Stark to fully lose everything. He has two passions (or loves) in his life: Pepper and his suits of armor. Black takes both away. The audience sees Stark at his lowest point, which makes his inevitable rebirth all the more satisfying.

However, some will take issue with these narrative choices as well. There is still a lot of action involving the Iron Man suit, but much more with Stark out of it, which changes the tone of the series considerably. The first two films are mostly driven by big action set pieces in which Iron Man battles stuff in his suit – there are lots of explosions and heavy metal music; it is a lot of fun. This film is character driven. The action, while still big and exciting, is narratively secondary. It could be greatly reduced and the film’s overall narrative would not be hurt, in a sense the action scenes do not matter.

Not developing strong villains in terms of them being full characters also seems to diminish the stakes of the action scenes. The Mandarin is evil and has a grand evil plan in a very generic 1980s Euro-villain sort of way. Black does give his villains some backstory and motivation, but mostly they just serve as plot points along Stark’s journey – because, again, this is a character piece focused wholly on Stark. Thus, while Stark defeating The Mandarin does not feel as satisfying as it maybe should, Stark growing as a person is much more gratifying on a character level for the audience, as Black has done great work creating a deeper connection between Stark and the audience (deeper than just: Iron Man is cool and Tony is funny). The audience cares about whether or not Stark finds himself, not just about whether or not he blows stuff up with his armor suit. Maybe that should not be the goal of a blockbuster film, but it makes for a much more engaging and interesting film overall (than the past two). Black also includes a fantastic twist in the film, which works incredibly well as a satire (to say more would encourage many spoilers). 

Black also puts his mark all over the film. To some extent, it very much feels like his first directorial film Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (but with a lot more action). Stark engages the audience and brings them into the narrative with his voiceover narration (that seems to mirror Harry Lockhart’s in tone and style). Black also does a brilliant job with Stark’s wit. This is probably the cleverest and deviously funny of the Iron Man films. The best moments in the film are those in which Stark is just engaged in banter (I particularly liked the scene in which he tries to intimidate two minions that are standing guard while he is held captive). And like many of Black’s films, this is set at Christmas.

Black’s Iron Man 3 ushers in a new era for Marvel produced films, one that is more character driven and personal. The success of this film, however, somewhat depends on the viewer’s expectations. Do they want an Iron Man or a Tony Stark film? After Iron Man and Iron Man 2, it seems like it is about time for a Tony Stark film, and Black has done a fantastic job with the character.

Technical, aesthetics & acting achievements: Shane Black’s ability to write dialogue is brilliantly on display in Iron Man 3. He is also adept at action too, but as mentioned in the review above the best moments of this film are those in which Stark is engaged in character moments and banter. The Kiss Kiss Bang Bang vibe is also undeniable (for those who have seen it), as this film has a similar style in which the narrator tells a story about how he got himself into a big mess, but how it all worked out in the end and how he grew as a person as a result of the journey. Stark also resembles Harry and to a greater extent another Black protagonist Martin Riggs (from Lethal Weapon, which Black wrote) in that he is psychologically about to crack – a man on the edge (so to speak). Plus, this has a bit of a mystery undertone to it as well. Personally, it is my favorite of the Iron Man films and the second best of the Marvel films so far (behind The Avengers), setting the stage of Phase Two to be quite a bit better than Phase One (which aside from The Avengers was filled with entertaining but mediocre films).

Brian Tyler’s score has a good theme (which is important for superhero movies), but more so than it being particularly memorable it accompanies the dramatic tone of the film well. Black also uses his found-music soundtrack effectively to set the mood (for example: the scene in which Stark is trying his new armor for the first time). John Toll’s cinematography is very strong throughout the film. Visually, Toll and Black seem to want a slightly grittier look than the very clean and glossy style of the earlier films to fit Iron Man 3’s tone (which is darker, as the narrative focuses on Stark essentially losing everything and having to rebuild himself from scratch). Toll’s photography, however, still excels at providing wonderfully grand and heroic images of Stark and Iron Man, during the action sequences. Bill Brzeski’s production design also very much fits the tone as he seems to play with the juxtaposition of the grandeur of Stark’s old persona and the current broken state that he finds himself him (which is also mirrored in the costume and set design). The Mandarin visually has the opposite narrative arc to Stark, starting at the bottom, broken and rising to power (arrogant and self-obsessed), which works well in contrast. It allows to audience to visually see that these men are opposing forces.

As Iron Man 3 is a character piece, the performances are paramount to its success, much more so than in the past two films. The whole narrative hinges on Robert Downey Jr.’s performance essentially. He is fantastic. All of his past performances of Stark have been good too, but he is more or less playing the same character the whole time. He does not change. With this film, Stark undergoes a massive and clear transformation, which Downey Jr. plays wonderfully. He is at his best when he is tearing off one-liners at rapid pace, but more vitally he is excellent in the dramatic moments too. The audience has always liked Stark, been amused by him, and cheered for him, but here Downey Jr. goes deeper and enables them to feel pity when he makes mistakes and ultimately admiration when he picks himself back up a new man. More than ever before, the audience has a stake in the outcome and cares about Stark. Black’s narrative is partially to thank for this, but Downey Jr.’s performance is what makes the film. The supporting cast is also good. James Badge Dale does not have a lot of dialog, but he has a great presence which amplifies what is really nothing more than a henchman role. Ben Kingsley is marvelous in the film. He is clearly having a ton of fun with his character, which translates well for the audience (i.e. they are having a lot of fun with him too). Rebecca Hall is maybe underutilized, but her good work in the early moments of the films pays off well later. Guy Pearce is a great character actor and here again he does a good job creating something out of thinly written character. Don Cheadle and Gwyneth Paltrow are also good in support. They bolster Stark, but are also removed so that Stark can find his way alone.

Summary & score: In many ways Iron Man 3 is more a Shane Black film than it is a Marvel film, but that works greatly to its benefit, as this is the best and most personal of the series to date. 8/10 

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