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Of all the superhero franchises out there pushing and shoving for attention, the hands-down winner for this reviewer is the Marvel/Disney Iron Man. Special effects having drained most of the gee-whiz wonder from film fantasy, this particular series compensates with smart, hilarious writing and a knowing attitude about the proper place of super-types in this world. Best of all, the movie has genuine star appeal. Not what passes for star material today, but a genuine old-school film personality. Robert Downey Jr. began as a quasi- Brat Pack troublemaker and has had numerous career ups, downs, and disasters, including a failed season with Saturday Night Live. In the middle 00's he emerged with a screen image that functions not unlike that of Cary Grant. He often carries his core personality from role to role. Despite the fact that Downey specializes in slick dialogue, especially attitude-charged put-downs, we like him. We like Downey even when he plays a complete jerk, as in Zodiac. Downey'sIron Man is the anti-Christopher Reeve: he's a charmer, but also a self-acknowledged egotist and selfish jerk who must discover what being a decent guy is before he can learn to be a hero. That personality setup is much more interesting than some "dark" clod who wants revenge because Bad Guys murdered his relatives.
I was less fascinated by Iron Man 2, to the point that I have difficulty remembering what it was about. But the first Iron Man from 2008 was a happy surprise. Obnoxious but brilliant Tony Stark is a one man military industrial complex who must come to terms with his noxious role in the violence technology export racket. Endlessly resourceful, he cheats certain death at the helm of a formidable flying battle suit, which is exactly the kind of ridiculous fantasy for which comics were invented. Tony has a loyal girlfriend / personal assistant in Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who also earns Brownie Points for originality. Despite the fact that Tony is as promiscuous as a rabbit with an expense account, she understands and accepts him. It's the Sancho Panza effect -- the adoration of Pepper Potts partly redeems Stark. We like him because she likes him.
Iron Man 3 begins with Tony in a serious slump, working himself so recklessly that he's doing sloppy work and screwing up his relationships. His new suit has serious functionality issues. A new, Osama Bin Laden-style terrorist boogeyman called The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) chooses this moment to threaten the world with craven acts of murder. As he is wont to do, Tony issues a public oath to track the villain down even though he's ill prepared at the moment to deal with anything so complicated. The Mandarin's genetically-altered henchmen blow up Tony's Malibu estate and its futuristic lab and all of his Iron Man suits. Now a security chief, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) is hospitalized by these super-minions when he tries to arrest their leader, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). Tony snubbed Killian thirteen years before, which has helped motivate the man to join forces with an experimental biologist (and Tony Stark one-night) Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) to create the physically-altered supermen. Hansen doesn't realize that Killian has sold her out to The Mandarin, and when she runs for help to Pepper and Tony, her life is placed in danger as well. As for Tony, he finds himself marooned in Tennessee with one out-of-commission Iron Man suit and no way to defend himself. He holes up in the garage workshop of little Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins), and improvises a way to get his suit going, so he can continue to pursue The Mandarin.
Iron Man 3 is a pleasure to watch from one end to the other. The interpersonal byplay is more than good enough to hold our interest through the comic-book action episodes, and most of the action episodes are surprisingly fresh in conception. Tony must deal with a rocket attack on his house, a terror attack on Air Force One and personal assaults by bizarre hybrid warriors that glow from inside and can produce enormous quantities of heat. What's more interesting is that Tony's various Iron Man suits are either damaged or malfunctioning, and for much of the story he must put up with their glitches or do without them altogether. Each piece of armor in his latest fanciful construction -- gloves, shins, breastplate -- is a separate item capable of flying cross-country to reach him. Part of the fun of Tony Stark's operative MO is seeing him multi-task the action scenes, working his way through complex technical problems while chaos reigns around him. Good example: Tony can't stop a dozen Air Force One personnal from tumbling out of a hole blown in the aircraft. His computer ally "Jarvis" tells him he can only carry three or four people and still fly. They'll all be going splat! on the ground in about twenty seconds. Quick, Tony, what's the solution?
Tony's suits can also be piloted while empty, from afar, like drone aircraft. This gives us a Watchmen-like moment when Pepper thinks she's being caressed by Tony, when he's actually downstairs tinkering at a workbench. We also see Tony dragging his power-drained suit through the snow, looking a little bit like the spaghetti western hero Django. The notion of Iron Man targeted for vengeance by a guy he once cruelly dismissed reminds us a bit of The Incredibles. And I'm happy to say that Iron Man 3 makes a triumph out of the hoariest notion ever to spoil '70s and '80s martial arts action films, the motif of genetically altered super fighters engineered to create an invincible army of assassins. "Extremis" is a major storyline from the comic book involving Aldrich Killian and Maya Hansen. In the film, it becomes a bad-case story of how good people and good science get used for perverse ends.
It's no use denying that Iron Man 3 plays well to this reviewer's personal bias. The picture's big reveal about The Mandarin makes a surprisingly mature statement regarding the nature of the real world's super-villains. (But that's a spoiler). The Maya Hansen character is an interesting comment on the ethics of being an independent contractor -- when one is all alone, unrecognized and underfunded, it's easy to put one's work out there and forget about how it will be put to use. Although it's not a part of my personal bias, it was also refreshing to see a basically sympathetic female character behave like a brain-scattered stoop.
The action scenes are laid out for clarity and excitement. When he can, director Shane Black wisely shows us things instead of having people explain them ad infinitum. It's fun to hear Tony gripe about his pal James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) flying his own Iron Man suit as an official armed forces mascot-warrior. Tony is bugged by the red white & blue fighter's name change as well. The sight of a collection of Iron Man parts flying in loose formation for a thousand miles, and flinging themselves into position on Tony's body is the stuff of a Popeye cartoon, when one thinks about it. This is a case of star authority trumping total silliness: Robert Downey Jr.'s confident attitude makes it all seem appropriate.
Iron Man 3 gives Tony Stark an interesting character arc, moving him from imminent collapse to a satisfying state of self-healing at the story's end. Everyone else is in major support mode, yet has more than enough moments to make an impact. Gwyneth Paltrow still shines as Pepper and Jon Favreau's nervous Happy Hogan redeems his 'uncool' status by doing his job well even as Tony patronizes him. The villainous fighting bad guys are acceptable, while Guy Pearce is predictably terrific as the spiteful genius who finds a clever way to take over the world.
Rebecca Hall's Maya Hansen is a little less satisfying in that she's in a gray area, a victim of Killian yet also a willing conspirator. The bottom line on Maya is that she was just "weak". Ben Kingsley is an amusing red herring; at one point we decide that he's a look-alike decoy for The Mandarin, but the truth is even more interesting. And Ty Simpkins overcomes the kid clichés as Tony's "connected" pre-teen helper. He's cute but not sticky, and the scenes don't bog down in buddy-buddy sentiment. Harley asks Tony Stark what's going on with the Avengers, and Tony wisely changes the subject. Heck, I think Tony may be ready for parenthood.
Marvel / Disney's Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy of Iron Man 3 is the expected perfect rendering of one of (if not the) most popular film to date of 2013. The release was reviewed from a free-standing Blu-ray provided, which is said to be final product with full functionality. That allows me to comment on everything but the packaging and the extra DVD disc -- and the 3D disc that comes in an even more deluxe package. The film itself bears a Paramount logo, so the particpation and rights for this franchise money vacuum are spread all over town.
It goes without saying that the deluxe disc has been granted all the bells and whistles available, including 7.1 channel sound. Viewers with sophisticated home setups can probably enjoy the workout the show will give their high-end hardware. In simple stereo on a 68" screen, I found the movie a visual delight. As I tried to express above, once the movie and its characters have clicked, all the digital wizardry has a chance of being impressive again. Five or six effects companies and the hundreds of credited pixel-pumping digital artists were probably chugging away 24-7 on this one for months. Unionize those people!
The DVD has only a couple of extras, but the Blu-ray is missing nothing. The 'featured' featurettes address the scores of Iron Man 'suits' on view, an analysis of the Air Force One scene, a gag reel, and some deleted scenes. An added short subject about "Agent Carter" is a one-shot deep background story set in the 1940s; it's an exercise in style an not much else. Drew Pearce and Shane Black collaborate on the audio commentary. Iron Man 3 made news back in March when it was revealed that a different version, complete with added scenes with China's biggest star, was prepared for Chinese consumption. As the Eastern movie market opens up, alternate cuts of films to flatter the Chinese audience are becoming more frequent. 1
The disc set is high-end quality all the way, even if the extras are pitched to engross/enmesh the viewer more deeply into the Iron Man / Avengers / Marvel cosmos. Had I been paying attention to comics back in the early '60s (I passed them by while searching newstands for 'forbidden' monster magazines) I think Iron Man would have held a lot of appeal. He'd have been the next logical step after the '50s Superman comics we 9 year-olds devoured, in which we became aware of a larger, more complex DC universe. Iron Man 3 brings back the feeling of being engaged in an all-enveloping fantasy franchise, and enjoying it.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Iron Man 3 Blu-ray rates:
1. I was confused by Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim earlier this summer, and disappointed that it didn't have more personal appeal for me -- I don't want the fabulously talented del Toro to have any more mainstream flops. Then I was told that Rim was cleaning up bigtime box office in China ... and that it had been designed to appeal to the Chinese market from the get-go. Is this true?
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T'was Ever Thus.