Pipeline: Reviewing "Iron Man 3"

Tue, May 7th, 2013 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist
8

IRON MAN 3: THE NON-SPOILER PARTS

If there's one thing we should all agree on, it's that this "Iron Man 3" movie poster is badly Photoshopped. Nothing looks real on that thing, including the photo of Robert Downey Jr.'s head that's pasted on top of an ILM robot costume. His bare right hand looks like a lumpy drawing, too. It almost works if you don't look at it longer than a second, but don't give yourself the luxury of three seconds. At that point, it falls apart.

Pro-Tip: When attending a 3D movie, be sure to get the 3D glasses before you walk into the theater. It's a long walk back to the ticket counter to ask for glasses when both you and the guy who sold you the ticket forgot them. He was very nice about it and apologized, but I was more embarrassed that I had forgotten. I don't get out to the movies that often anymore, but it's usually for a 3D one. It's part of the routine now, or at least should be. Someday, I'll get a 3D TV at home and won't have too many excuses left to leave the house.

The trailers were interesting this time around, just because there were two Marvel films lined up with sneak previews before the main feature. Think about that for a second. We waited decades to get that Spider-Man movie made, and now we're at the point where a Marvel movie is preceded by two other Marvel movies' trailers. Crazy.

I had already seen the trailer for "Thor: The Dark World" on the internet, but it takes on a different look and feel on the big screen in 3D. Unfortunately, it's not a good one. 3D trailers inherently have a problem that their ultra-quick cuts never let your eyes adjust to the z-axis before cutting to another shot with a different depth all together. (Can you imagine the headaches a 3D conversion of "Armageddon" would provide? Tylenol should fund that.)

That said, "Thor: The Dark World" had some problems with gimmicky 3D that looked like paper cut-outs standing in front of flat backgrounds. It was most pronounced when the bokeh got extra blurry. You do that to give the character in focus greater presence standing out from the softly out-of-focus background. The second you do both that AND 3D, it looks gimmicky. It looks like it's just too much.

The trailer for "The Wolverine" lost me. I'm not entirely sure what the movie is about. Maybe I need to go back and reread the Claremont/Miller mini-series again? I've only seen a couple scenes from the first Wolverine movie, but it looked a bit too staged and fake. The special effects were too obvious, like you were watching actors make pretend, rather than presenting a convincing scene. Hugh Jackman looks the part, but the movie didn't feel right to me. This trailer felt disjointed, like there were three movies in one highlight reel.

Off-topic, but I have to add this one: They've just given up making anything believable with "Fast and Furious 6", right? This is an attempt to create a second wave of John Woo-like Hong Kong thrillers in CGI-ed up America 2013, right? Replace guns with cars and go. It's so far gone and so far over the top and so unbelievable that, well, I want to go see it. There's something nice about a movie that's not pretending to be real. Let's go for stylized and crazy over the top. I can get into that. I want bigger and better. Why not?

Remember when you could go to the movies ad be amazed at the level of destruction the filmmakers took on to make a given stunt or set piece? Nowadays, you wait to see how many dozens of names of computer artists were used to make every special effect, instead. Some of that wonder is gone, sadly.

I saw "Iron Man 3" on Sunday night. By then, the weekend rush was over and the sold out crowds that led the movie to a $175 million opening had done their jobs. I was in a three-quarters empty theater just as I like it. Nobody sat directly in front of me or behind me or next to me. No screaming kids. No cell phones ringing. Nobody talking back to the screen. No laser pointers. Movie bliss. It gave me hope for the shared experience of the cinema. The majority of the crowd knew to stay through the credits for the last bit. I was impressed. That was a much better average than just about any other Marvel movie I've seen in theaters, with perhaps the exception of "The Avengers." (There, the majority walked out after shaking their heads over the purple alien and never got to see the shawarma scene.)

Behind me and over a few chairs sat a married couple, where the visibly pregnant woman was treating her future offspring to his or her first Marvel movie. Good job, Mom! I did hear her twice whisper to her husband about how good Robert Downey Jr. is. Not Tony Stark. Robert Downey Jr. And she's right: Not only is he great for the part, but he single handedly made Marvel Studios. Without him and the breakout success of the first Iron Man film -- which can be mostly attributed to his performance on a strong script -- none of this would have come to fruition. I don't think we can ever overestimate that. He deserves every penny he makes on these movies. Judging from reports out of Hollywood, he's getting a big wad of cash, too.

Here's my quick spoiler-free overview of the movie: It's better than the second one. It's a strong superhero movie, though it does have a lot of bits and pieces that are typical pieces of too many superhero or action movies. Sometimes, it feels like a new order of familiar parts to try to create a different story, rather than something new and unique. But that's OK. It's so fun and entertaining that I don't feel like I wasted two and a half hours of my life on it. Yes, "Avengers" was better, but "Iron Man 3" also had its share of head-scratching moments, where the large moments don't feel like they'd hold up to more than ten seconds of harder thought on the internal logic. There's a lot of things happening at the last minute that we just swallow for the sake of having an energetic nick-of-time action sequence. And since this movie is the start of the summer movie blockbuster season, that's OK. It did its job. It did it well. It deserves lots of success. I don't feel the need to go back and see it a second time the way I wanted to with "The Avengers," but I did enjoy it.

I might be mistaken, but I think the movie even passes the Bechdel Test by a hair. There are two women in the movie, who have two scenes in which they talk to each other, and only one of them is about a man. Is that a superhero movie first?

The long and short of it is that I liked the movie. It looked good in 3D. I lost myself for over two hours. I laughed, I cheered, I didn't cringe too much. That's a winning formula.

For more of the nitty gritty behind this reasoning, we need to turn to the spoilers now. Wait until you've seen the movie before reading any further. You have been warned.

THE SPOILERY BITS

I'm not an Iron Man aficionado. I've not read too many of the comics, not even the recommended bits like "Demon in a Bottle" or "Extremis." The longest stretch I've ever read was the Matt Fraction/Salvador Larroca run (first two hardcovers) and the Kurt Busiek/Sean Chen run (first year and a half or two, maybe). I have no preconception of who The Mandarin is supposed to be, aside from a scary Asian dude with a fist full of rings. If he were purple and wearing a glove, he'd be Thanos, I guess.

I also accept that the movies are not strict adaptations of the comics work, but rather interpretations of characters and stories originally done in the world of comics. Those who can't get past that previous sentence probably hated the movie. I've seen a couple posts like that already. They're outraged that The Mandarin was a joke character. They overlook entirely the point of the movie about media manipulation and boogey man syndrome and the problems with going to war against a more nebulous enemy. Instead, they focus their outrage on their villain of choice being a joke, thus missing the point. This isn't a movie in which one big robot fights other big robots. It's as much a battle of wills and of political intrigue, in a way.

I'll give them one potential line to hang criticism on: You get Ben Kingsley to play a Big Bad Villain, and he winds up being comic relief? Kingsley is a guy who could chew scenery and delivery memorable one-liners, but instead swigs beer and practices a scary voice? That could be a waste of an actor, or it could be the best use of one to go against type and show us something we weren't expecting. As so much of the "Iron Man" movies have relied on a sense of humor, they likely made the right decision.

The sad thing is, we're more than a decade into the mainstream superhero tent pole movie spectacular (going with "Spider-Man" as the launch), and we still have to have this discussion with every movie. This point still needs to be made over and over again. That's too bad.

If you want serious superhero comic book adaptation, you should start petitioning for a straight-up Teen Tony Stark adaptation. Hire a kid from a CW show and get that thing into production, stat, Feige!

"Iron Man 3" is filled with a lot of bits that are standard paint-by-numbers action flic things. Tony Stark's home is predictably destroyed ("Enterprise Disease" in "Star Trek" movies), through a bit of extended hubris that still strikes me as being a bit too much. Tony, a lost man on the run trying to stay hidden, happens across a genius kid who can both hide him and secretly weld Iron Man's armor back together in a couple of days with some long distance Facetime learning lessons. Tony is found in the middle of nowhere by the bad guys -- how? We don't know, but it makes for an exciting set piece. Tony has armor appear at the most convenient times for him and then disappear at the most convenient times for the writer. And the big finale has a larger concentration of both the good and bad guys that were set up over the course of the film. There will be explosions, flames, people dropping from big heights, and bullets galore.

I liked the big finale piece in particular, complete with Tony slipping into and out of armors at will. It was a great sequence. Every time you thought an armor would show up to save the day, it didn't. Every time you thought Tony was in serious trouble, something new would happen to help him dodge it. It worked great in 3D, particularly at the start when the armors circled the platform and the camera did a slow pan. I'm not sure how necessary 3D was for this movie, but it certainly worked in those 10 minutes.

There is more to it all, though. Like I said above, there is commentary on the media and boogey man syndrome. Tony's Post Traumatic Stress is perhaps the biggest change to the character, used in a way his alcoholism may have been had they chosen to go the "Demon in a Bottle" route with the movie. While it feels a bit tacked on in places, it does feel like a natural reaction and an acceptance of the craziness from the "Avengers" movie that this movie, thankfully, doesn't ignore. There's an arc to it and to Stark's larger character progress. By the end of the movie, it pays off.

Yes, there is an ending with this movie and not just a pause until the next one. There's not a hint of what might come next, or a giant reset button hit, or a presumed-dead man's hand reaching up out of the ground at the last minute. There is, instead, a montage to wrap things up with a nice bow, followed by a snazzy credits sequence that celebrates the three movies. It provides a perfect exit point for Robert Downey Jr., should he wish to stop acting in front of green screens and hang up the mechanized spare parts that he mugs with as they snap onto sensitive portions of his body.

Could someone else replace Downey? No, not effectively. Someone else might try, but the charm of these movies hangs entirely on Downey's shoulders. You could give Don Cheadle the franchise, instead, and go a completely different route, partially as a military/political thriller. Or, better yet, concentrate on another Marvel character with a dynamic actor attached. Given the box office receipts from these movies, it shouldn't be too hard to find a charismatic actor to fill some other character's tights. Or chain mail. Or sculpted body armor. Or robot costume.

Instead of paying Downey $100 million, give a really great writer a couple extra million to write a solid script. I liked this movie a lot, but let's be honest: It's Swiss Cheese. The movie relies on the roller coaster ride to keep audiences surprised and entertained. There's a bit of a mystery at work here with the temperature spikes across the country and where they're all coming from, but this isn't exactly a mystery movie. You can't play along, because you don't have enough information. It's an action movie, so sit back and let the filmmakers take you for a ride. Don't ask how it is that Iron Man can survive huge falls and super-powered pummelings but then breaks into a million pieces when a mere bus hits it. It's funny, move on.

There's still room for an honest-to-goodness spy movie, mystery movie, or police procedural movie within the superhero genre. I hope we get one someday, but a couple of superhero spectacles a year in the mindless action department is fine by me.

"Iron Man 3" is a fun night out with some memorable laughs and exciting action sequences. I was happy to spend my money for it.

Three last random character bits:

  • How cool is it for '24' fans to see that Chase got into the Extremis project and was able to grow his arm back?

  • How great is it that Pepper Potts became Red She-Hulk?

  • How great would it have been if Doc Samson had been in the post-credits scene, instead of Bruce Banner? I'd say that's too obscure for regular movie goers, but "Avengers" put Thanos in that spot and people are still talking about it.

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