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 – The Avengers (2012)

22 April 2012
The Avengers: Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans)

Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans)

The idea of bringing together a group of widely different superhero characters from what on the surface appears to be different fictional universes with their own sets of internal logic is ambitious to say the least. When it is done in comic books the multi-layered narratives, near infinite storylines and ever-evolving characterisations facilitate such a complex and potentially confusing experiment. Even with the benefit of having established the principal characters and their diverse origins in five preceding films – Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008), The Incredible Hulk (Louis Leterrier, 2008), Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau, 2010), Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2010) and Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011) – The Avengers film could have been a disastrous combination of fan-fiction, over hype and intense silliness. In fact, it does feel a bit like fan-fiction, but when the writer and director is a fan of the calibre of Joss Whedon that works in its favour. Who better to make something that is not only coherent, but exhilarating and fun from the teaming up of a loveably arrogant billionaire, a super soldier from World War II, a god from Viking mythology, a modern day Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde and a pair of elite spies?

When Whedon spoke at the Melbourne Writers Festival in 2010 he mentioned his admiration yet frustration at films such as The Dark Knight, Watchmen and Kick-Ass for deconstructing and subverting superhero mythology. He felt that this post-modern approach to superheros was premature and in modern cinema the superhero hadn’t had a chance to be ‘constructed’ yet. So The Avengers is his attempt at making a film that more traditionally reflects superheros and their values, and throughout The Avengers the various characters express that sometimes there is a need to be a little old-fashioned. This translates into a film that may not contain the complexity of other superhero films in terms of ideas and characterisation, but is cynicism free.

Old-fashioned doesn’t mean simplistic and the six characters are distinctive individuals who need to resolve their personal turmoils in order to work together collectively as a group for the common good. For good reason they don’t fully trust the covert organisation SHIELD, which has recruited them, and yet they are united by their opposition to the villainous Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who originally appeared in Thor. Politically The Avengers is a story of social cohesion where the extraordinary individuals work together for the good of society, or in this case to save the world. There is also an idea running throughout the film perpetrated by Loki who believes that humans prefer submission and that desiring freedom is a myth. His status as a god from another world and being compared to Adolf Hitler in one scene, presents these attitudes as belonging to organised religion and political oppression at their worst. The refusal to accept the subservient demands of a god is expressed in the film as a triumph for humanity to rise above such rhetoric, which is bluntly yet effectively expressed by a brilliantly computer-animated Hulk in a spin on his trademark ‘puny human’ line.

While Whedon does an admirable job at giving every character equal screen time to demonstrate how crucial they all are, he does seem to refreshingly favour the characters who contribute with brains rather than brawn. Indeed, the more cheesy and pompous characters such as Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) are far more enjoyable in The Avengers than they were in their original films as this time they have Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) to ridicule them. Many of the film’s classic Whedon moments come in the form of witticism from Stark towards the others, although Captain America gets a great line about cultural references and a sight gag involving Thor and Hulk is the comedic highlight of the film. Whedon also favours tormented characters or characters with a shady past so Dr Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) gets the most sympathy throughout the subplot concerning his battle to reconcile that he harbours the Hulk deep inside him. The best individual action scenes are given to Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who has a shady past not to mention being the Smurfette of the film since the only other female characters are minor roles. Romanoff is also a classic Whedon strong-female character who uses the expectation that she is vulnerable to her advantage.

Visually The Avengers adopts the same glossy look as the previous films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with the exception of The Incredible Hulk, which had a grittier and far more interesting aesthetic. Whedon works well within the limited visual style and while the first half of The Avengers cruises along with the same level of good-but-not-remarkable level of competency that the previous films had, the final prolonged battle sequence at the end is extremely impressive. Spectacle and action cinema that involves mass destruction has too recently been characterised by an over-reliance on disorientating rapid editing and random scenes of carnage to create the illusion of excitement. In The Avengers Whedon delivers a large-scale battle sequence in a metropolitan environment, but makes it genuinely engaging. There is a continual effort to present the effect that the over-the-top destruction has on the characters and the innocents caught up in it all, giving the spectacle a much-needed human element. Whedon also includes moments where the characters plan their strategy so that the scope of the spectacle is defined and the action the audience sees then played out has a context. Michael Bay and those who attempt to mimic his soulless approach to spectacle cinema could learn a lot from The Avengers.

The Avengers is a good Joss Whedon film and an excellent Marvel film. It tonally fits into the previous films and plausibly integrates all the various characters and plotlines. It is another example of how much more enjoyable superhero narratives are once the origin story has been dispensed with so that the characters can properly start being explored. Whedon’s influence cannot be overstated, as without his flair for dialogue and ability to manage a diverse ensemble of characters, the film could have been a disaster. Instead The Avengers gets the combination of humour and sincerity right, pulls off a sensational sequence of spectacle as its finale and manages to keep the serious and not so serious fans more than entertained.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

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 – The Soloist (2009)

4 September 2009
Nathaniel Ayres (Jamie Foxx) and Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.)

Nathaniel Ayres (Jamie Foxx) and Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.)

The Soloist is based on an actual friendship between Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (played in the film by Robert Downey Jr.)  and a homeless man diagnosed with schizophrenia named Nathaniel Ayers (played in the film by Jamie Foxx). Lopez began writing a series of stories about Ayers after discovering that Ayers was an astonishingly talented musician. As the two men got to know each other Lopez found himself wanting to help Ayers get off the streets and get treatment. Lopez’s motivations were partly compassionate and partly opportunistic, and The Soloist explores the complicated dynamics that resulted from Lopez’s intervention into Ayers’s life.

Audiences looking for a feel-good film about a troubled musical genius finding his way home (such as in Shine) are going to be very disappointment with The Soloist as it is not a film that offers any easy solutions. It is to the film’s credit that it portrays mental illness as a complex issue where nothing is straightforward and sometimes managing the problem is a better solution than attempting to cure it. Foxx does an excellent job portraying Ayers as a troubled man who deserves our sympathy but not pity. Downey Jr. tends to slip into mannerisms that he has carried over from other films but nevertheless effectively acts as the identification point for the audience; channelling our frustration, good intentions and naivety. The Soloist is also a damning portrayal of the abject poverty and homelessness that exists in every big city and the scenes set on Skid Row, which were created with the assistance of the local homeless population and support shelters, are very confronting.

THE SOLOISTThe Soloist is the first US film by the English director Joe Wright, whose masterful Atonement demonstrated how richly aware he is about how to use cinematic style to tell a story. The Soloist doesn’t quite give Wright the same opportunities as Atonement did but there are key scenes that indicate that he is developing into one of the most important directors of his generation. Simply through visuals Wright is able to convey the power that music has to fill a space. The defining scene in The Soloist is when Lopez takes Ayers to listen to a professional orchestra and Wright captures Ayers’s sense of transcendence simply through a montage of colour and light. In this one scene Wright has come as close as anybody has to visually capturing the power of music.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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Film review – Ghost Town (2008)

13 February 2009
Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais) and Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear)

Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais) and Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear)

What do Haley Joel Osment, Whoopi Goldberg, Robert Downey Jr. and now Ricky Gervais all have in common? They have all played characters who can see dead people. As in The Sixth Sense, Ghost and Heart and Souls, Ghost Town is again using the idea that if you die without resolving certain issues then you hang around Earth as a ghost until you can find somebody who is able to see you and help you out. This time that someone is a New York dentist named Bertram Pincus (Gervais), who acquires the ability to see dead people after he himself dies for seven minutes during a routine colonoscopy. The problem is that Bertram doesn’t like the living so is less than happy about the multitude of dead people now bugging him for favours. Bertram reluctantly makes a deal with ghost Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear), agreeing to stop his widowed wife Gwen (Téa Leoni) from remarrying and in return Frank will keep the other ghosts away from him. When Bertram finds himself falling for Gwen Ghost Town very quickly establishes itself as a likable but conventional romantic comedy.

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Film review – A Scanner Darkly (2006)

5 December 2006

Most adaptations of novels or short stories by cult science fiction writer Philip K Dick (Paycheck, Minority Report, Total Recall) use his imaginative scenarios for action sequences but sideline his extraordinary philosophical musings. With A Scanner Darkly director Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise, The School of Rock) has directly adapted Dick’s novel from page to screen.

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