Film review – Iron Man 3 (2013)

24 April 2013
Iron Man 3: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr)

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr)

One of the most fascinating examples of modern day mythology is the superhero narrative where god-like beings, or humans with the ability to be god-like, engage in larger-than-life conflicts that test their moral and spiritual strength as well as any physical powers. Their adventures and trials can be seen as reflections of the collective anxieties and values of the culture that produced them. The films contained within the popular Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise are no exception, sometimes overtly and sometimes unconsciously delivering commentary on contemporary US identity in between the banter and action sequences. The original Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008) examined the culpability of weapon manufacturing, Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2010) condemned the actions of warmongers and Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011) challenged the use of jingoist symbols. All are distinctively post-Iraq invasion and post-Bush Administration films, even though the sophistication of their analysis is limited. Iron Man 3 (Shane Black, 2013) is the most topical film to-date, exploring the nature of terrorism and the destruction of the self.

In many ways Iron Man 3 is a companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012), albeit a far simpler take on the  themes. Both films contain a wealthy, human, self-made superhero protagonist who begins the film scarred from previous encounters. Both protagonists face villains that are products of the system they come from, and both protagonists question if they are losing their identity to their alter egos.  After a flashback prologue, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) is introduced as obsessive and paranoid, burying himself in work and starting to suffer from anxiety attacks due to the traumatic events he experienced during The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012).

Stark compulsively works on new Iron Man suits, alienating his loved ones and neglecting work. He has become addicted to his suits, refers to them as separate entities yet seems determined to bond even further with his suit, fitting his body with mechanical parts like the deranged salary man in Shinya Tsukamoto’s appropriately titled Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989). In one of the truly dark moments in Iron Man 3, Stark’s girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) attempts to comfort him during a nightmare, but is momentarily attacked by one of the Iron Man suits. The sinister moment briefly suggests the potential for Stark’s fractured identity to manifest as a violent and abusive id.

Previously the symbol of innovation and power in the previous films, the Iron Man suits take on a more ambivalent meaning in Iron Man 3. In fact, the miss-use of technology and science in general is challenged, especially in the way research designed for medical purposes can be misappropriated, as seen in a subplot that evokes the moral quandaries raised in Michael Apted’s Extreme Measures (1996). In Iron Man 3 technology is predominantly represented by the Iron Man suits, which in this film are rarely shown as complete objects, often appearing fragmented, fallible and disposable. They are even used to deceive and restrict, sometimes functioning as a sort of giant metal coffin-like prison. Therefore, most of the film features Tony Stark the ‘real’ person, rather than Iron Man the alter ego that threatens to symbolically consume Stark. On a basic level this allows actor Downey Jr and director/co-writer Black – working together again after 2005’s outstanding Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – far more room to deliver punchy one-liners and verbal interplay, which is very much welcome.

While Stark is grappling with his sense of self, so is the country that he and most of the other Avengers hail from. Just like the threat to Gotham city in The Dark Knight Returns, the threat in Iron Man 3 is a terrorist manifestation of the sins of the past coming back to deliver judgement. In his broadcasts to the terrified people of America, the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) compares his acts of violence to violence done against other countries by American militarism and intervention. As Iron Man 3 further explores the nature of the Mandarin’s agenda, the film delivers an overt examination of the nature of terrorism and how a culture of fear is so easily constructed and exploited for political gain. In terms of the way foreign otherness is frequently portrayed so regressively in mainstream pop culture, Iron Man 3 is surprisingly subversive for how well it plays on audience assumptions. The film also ridicules the use of symbolism with jokes about James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) wearing the War Machine body armor, but giving it the more palatable name of the Iron Patriot, which does not fool anybody.

Iron Man 3 also surprises in the degree to which it critiques a large segment of its target audience – fans. One scene where Stark gets help from a fan is played completely for laughs towards the over enthusiastic man who unreservedly adores Stark despite the indifference he receives in return. Is this perhaps a sly dig at the types of fans who uncritically love the products of their favourite franchise regardless of the end product? A far more interesting moment, and the film’s other genuinely sinister scene, is when a previously fanboy character declares he will make a trophy out of a kidnap victim who spurned his romantic advances. It is a brief moment, but an expression of the type of misogyny that can be found within ‘nice guy’ males with a sense of entitlement and bitterness from sexual disappointment.

Unfortunately, the gender politics in Iron Man 3 is overall a little confused. There seems to be a deliberate effort to make Pepper a more substantial character rather than a damsel in distress and object of desire. However, every time Pepper does get some agency, it is then taken away from her and she is reduced to being passive again. Perhaps this can simply be read as another way the film is articulating contemporary attitudes in its well-meaning attempt to elevate female characters to the same status as the male characters, but always ending up being tokenistic and stopping short from achieving anything truly meaningful.

In the long term Iron Man 3 will most likely hold up reasonably well as a lighter variation on the deconstructed superhero mythology found in The Dark Knight Rises. In the short-term, the nature of domestic terrorism and identity will likely not be at the forefront of most audiences’ minds as they flock to see Downey Jr’s charismatic performance and the film’s action set pieces. The conclusion is disappointing in terms of the overused setting it chooses for the action to take place, and due to a key manoeuvre by Stark that he really could have used closer to the start of the film and saved everybody a whole lot of trouble. Nevertheless, the scenes of spectacle are mostly fun with a sequence involving people free-falling being particularly engaging. The Marvel films are now established as reliable sources of entertainment, and after Whedon’s work on The Avengers and now Black’s work on Iron Man 3, the series continues to build momentum.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – Iron Man 2 (2010)

5 May 2010
Iron Man 2: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow)

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow)

The sequel to 2008’s surprise superhero hit film Iron Man, based on the Marvel comics, pretty much serves up more of the same. Once again, Iron Man 2 presents a fairly silly story in a more-or-less convincing way, excellent special effects and a handful of action sequences that range from lackluster to pretty good. However, any drawbacks that the film suffers from are substantially compensated for by the very strong performance by its charismatic and likeable cast. The degree to which you enjoy Iron Man 2 will most likely depend on what expectations you are bringing to it but for those who were underwhelmed by the good-but-not-great first film, Iron Man 2 is surprisingly enjoyable.

Robert Downey Jr. dominates the screen as Tony Stark who is now openly reveling in the public adulation for Iron Man. However, not only is Stark suffering from a severe case of hubris and a growing blood toxicity problem, but Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), the Russian son of his father’s ex-business partner, is out for vengeance. Downey Jr. has a distinctive acting style that is often the saving grace of many otherwise forgettable films and his work in both the Iron Man films plays a huge part in what makes them so enjoyable. Stark is a narcissistic hedonist who despite his many failings seems to be unfairly blessed with a fierce intelligence, sex appeal and resourcefulness. We should hate him but Downey Jr., director Jon Favreau and writer Justin Theroux (both actors themselves) make Stark completely loveable and we are never not on his side.

Iron Man 2: Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke)

Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke)

Sam Rockwell as Stark’s business rival  Justin Hammer is also a lot of fun and Rockwell clearly enjoys reprising the villainous nerd persona that he displayed in the original Charlie’s Angels  film (complete with another geeky bad-guy dance routine). Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, who becomes the CEO of Stark Industries, is also a highlight and she displays considerable comedic restraint playing the straight part in the love/hate relationship against Downey Jr’s far more flamboyant Stark. Unfortunately Mickey Rourke gets little to do of interest other than play a generic Russian bad guy, which is a somewhat embarrassing throwback to Cold War era stereotypes. Scarlett Johansson as the mysterious Natalie Rushman also feels underused.

At first the representation of private industry as the sexy bringers of world peace, while the government is portrayed as clueless meddlers, looks like the film will head in the same ultra conservative direction of the Transformers sequel but Iron Man 2 largely avoids traditional political readings by portraying nearly all characters, institutions and organisations as either highly flawed, misguided or up to no good. The action sequences, which are few and far between, do lack the exhilaration that was to be found in the first two Spider-Man films (which contain the similar light tone to the Iron Man films) but the star power and snappy dialogue keeps the film briskly moving along. Iron Man 2 continues the superhero film trend of being a sequel that is better than its predecessor and although it contains none of the self-reflexivity of Watchmen or Kick-Ass, the darkness of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films or the inventiveness of the Hellboy films, Iron Man 2 is fun, unchallenging and inoffensive entertainment.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – Two Lovers (2008)

6 June 2009
Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix)

Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix)

Two Lovers opens with a bleak introduction to the stark and isolated world that Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) is emotionally occupying. He is a lone figure shambling along a pier against the background of bleak grey sky. We soon learn that he is a depressed and near suicidal man in his 30s who is currently living with his parents in Brooklyn after having had his heart badly broken. However, things are about to turn for Leonard as almost at once he meets two women, both of whom seem interested in him. However, while it is clear to the audience which of the two women Leonard should focus his attentions on, he instead pursues the other one.

This is the third time that director/writer James Gray has worked with Phoenix as the pair previously collaborated on the crime drama/thrillers The Yards and We Own the Night. However, Two Lovers is a career best for both men. Phoenix has stated that in order to pursue his music career this will be his last role as actor and if that were the case then this is an extraordinarily strong role to finish his career on. He gives a completely natural performance as this slightly troubled and slightly withdrawn man who is massively flawed and foolish in love, yet absolutely likeable and identifiable.

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Film review – The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

2 April 2002

The Royal Tenenbaums is independent director Wes Anderson’s (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore) finest work yet, with its finely tuned humour and complex characterisations that the audience can feel real empathy for. The all-star cast are uniformly excellent, in particular Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, and surprisingly Gwyneth Paltrow, who play the Tenenbaum siblings. Once all over-achievers they are now all in their 30s with many demons to face. Gene Hackman is a standout as the absent father whose attempts of reconciliation with his family are constantly ruined by his intrinsic selfishness.

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