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Sunday, May 5, 2013

Iron Man 3



You Know Who I Am

When we last saw Tony Stark, he nearly perished saving New York City from aliens by hurling a nuclear missile through a wormhole into space and then plummeting back to terra firma. Understandably, Tony has not gotten over that ordeal. Tony copes with his demons in Shane Black's Iron Man 3, an aggressive and violent Stark trek into darkness filled with nightmarish imagery of buildings exploding, armor in blazes, and bodies hurtling through fiery detonations, all drenched in palpable feelings of dread. After all he's been through, Tony Stark is not the same fun-loving, good time master of Marvel ceremonies he was in the first two Iron Man movies and you know what, it's kind of a shame.

Everyone misses the old Tony. He never rears his head in Stark Industries anymore, leaving it entirely in the hands of his one true love Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), whose (People's World's Most Beautiful) body is now guarded by Stark's erstwhile and overzealous security chief Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). Even his old war (machine) buddy James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) chastises Stark for spending all his time in isolation when he isn't Avenger-ing with his gods and monsters other superhero pals. In truth, Tony has literally been in a hole in the ground, spending his long days and sleepless nights in his Malibu lab creating dozens of new suits of Iron Man armor of all sizes and shapes (most of which he doesn't utilize until the third act). Suffering from untreated Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Tony is regularly debilitated by anxiety attacks whenever New York is mentioned to him. Robert Downey, Jr. intriguingly plays Tony as weathered and scarred, emotionally and physically. For the first time... ever... it's tough to be Tony Stark, and no one is taking this new reality harder than Tony Stark.

Iron Man 3 loosely adapts Warren Ellis' popular "Extremis" comic book story. We learn in 1999, irreverent ladykiller Tony was partying in Switzerland with "botanist" Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall, largely wasted in her role) when he was approached by a schleppy scientist named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), who was founding a "think tank" called Advanced Idea Mechanics (the villainous A.I.M. from Marvel Comics). Scraggly-haired and desperate for Stark's approval, there are blatant echos to Jim Carrey's Edward Nygma needing Val Kilmer's Bruce Wayne's affirmation in Batman Forever, then turning on Stark when he's rebuffed. 13 years later, Killian is a suave Tony Stark-like business man presenting Pepper Potts with A.I.M.'s Extremis, which uses technology to upgrade the human brain allowing for self-healing and superhuman abilities. (In truth, all it does is turn people - mainly a bunch of war veteran amputees - into insane soldiers who generate fire from within.) Unfortunately, the intriguing concept of Tony Stark, a man who uses technology to enhance his exterior, battling villains who use technology to enhance their interior degenerates into Iron Man fighting a bunch of burning fire people over and over and over.

Meanwhile, the mysterious terrorist known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) has made the American President (William Sadler) his number one enemy, with A.I.M.'s fire soldiers literally exploding themselves for the Mandarin. The Presidential response is to repaint Rhodey's War Machine armor in the stars and stripes and call it the Iron Patriot. When Happy Hogan is hospitalized by the Mandarin's troops fire bombing Mann's Chinese Theater, Tony Stark publicly declares war on the Mandarin. This promptly results in Mandarin missiles launched at his Malibu cliff-side mansion. Stark, stripped of most of his Iron Man technology, goes on a personal detective hunt for the answers to the Mandarin and the secret behind A.I.M.'s fire soldiers. (Stark is the only one shocked to learn the Extremis tech actually came from him all along.) For those who complained about Iron Man's 2's lengthy middle act mainly serving as a distraction to set up the first Thor movie, Iron Man 3 responds with an interminable middle act of Stark seeking answers in a Tennessee small town while bantering with a kid sidekick. Agent Coulson, Nick Fury and John Slattery as Howard Stark > kid sidekick. Iron Man 2's act 2 suddenly looks pretty good in comparison. SHIELD surprisingly has no presence in Iron Man 3, and one wistfully wishes for the eye candy Black Widow provided in Iron Man 2. (Scarlett Johansson joining Rebecca Hall in 3 would have made for a welcome Vicky Christina Barcelona reunion.)

Iron Man 3 makes a series of questionable creative choices (Gwyneth both gets to wear Iron Man armor and gains superpowers - who thought either was a good idea?) but none are more egregious than the ultimate secret of the Mandarin. Stark and Rhodes chase the Mandarin to a hideout in Miami where Iron Man 3 drops the bombshell that the Mandarin is in fact just a ruse, a goofy British thespian coerced into playing the role of a global terrorist. There is no Mandarin; the villain was Aldrich Killian all along. Thus, a reveal audiences have awaited since the Mandarin was teased by the Ten Rings in the original Iron Man landed with a heartbreaking thud, and Iron Man's number one greatest villain is reduced to a joke. Crushingly disappointing. Instead, the real heavy is Pearce playing the third iteration of a jealous businessman who wants to be Tony Stark (following Jeff Bridges' Obediah Stane and Sam Rockwell's Justin Hammer). Dreams of Iron Man battling the Mandarin and his ten rings of power evaporate, replaced with Iron Man fighting a fire-breathing Guy Pearce. Iron Man vs. Burning Man.

Also going totally overboard is the idea that anyone can wear Iron Man armor. Iron Man 3 giddily introduces the concept that every component of Iron Man armor operates independently and can fly under its own propulsion. Throughout the movie, Stark and others routinely wear Iron Man armor, or mere pieces of armor, and sometimes, the Iron Man suits just operate via remote control. Iron Man 3's most breathtaking and spectacular sequence (the only reason to see the movie in IMAX 3D) is Iron Man rescuing over a dozen people plummeting from an exploding Air Force One at 30,000 feet. The thrill of this sequence is totally undercut by the instant reveal that Tony wasn't in the suit and piloted the armor via remote control. Iron Man armor was sought out by everyone in Iron Man 2 and zealously guarded by Stark, but now dozens of Iron Man suits wage war against A.I.M.'s fire soldiers and no one tries to acquire the tech. Indeed, Killian gains possession of the Iron Patriot armor and merely puts the President in it for public execution. Suddenly, Iron Man armor isn't so special at all. Stark freely destroys all of his armor to give himself a fireworks show while he makes out with Pepper.

The moral of all this armor overload, of course, is that merely wearing armor doesn't make anyone Iron Man. Tony Stark is Iron Man with or without the armor. At the end, we witness a dark knight rising in Tony Stark. In its best moments, Iron Man 3 delivers the most heavy-metal mayhem of the trilogy, and writer-director Black delightfully references his classic Lethal Weapon actioners by setting Iron Man 3 at Christmas-time and invoking the buddy cop dynamics of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover when Stark and Rhodey assault a Roxxon (classic Marvel Comics oil company) oil rig to save Pepper and stop Killian. (Are Stark and Rhodey getting too old for this shit?)  The post-end credits reveal that all of Iron Man 3 was narrated by Stark to his Avengers cohort and reluctant therapist Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo sporting a new close cropped haircut) was good for a chuckle. Banner snoozed through Stark's entire tale. Honestly, I can relate to where Banner was coming from.