Stark treks into darkness
“Can we talk about the Avengers?” asks a painfully inquisitive child to an already irritated Tony Stark. If we didn’t know any better, we’d say that’s the average Avengers fan: eager, prying and full of questions about last summer’s smash-hit. The answer, of course, is no. Let’s talk Iron Man 3 instead. The follow-up to the already forgotten sequel, it sees Tony as fragile as he’ll ever be. Sure, so Bond and Batman covered that ground. But, for a character that exudes cool rather than warmth, the results are only more emphatic. Who knew that, beneath that oh-so-confident exterior beat the heart of, well, a heart? Tactfully and tonally, Black makes good use of Starks newfound vulnerability, welding action, psychological introspection, and genuine surprise into a unique blockbuster.
For unique, Iron Man 2 was not. Rather than follow the age-old law that superhero sequels should mark the highpoint of a trilogies lifespan (see: X2, Spiderman, even the Dark Knight) it just provided a watered-down version of the first film, sans Terrence Howard. With the direction of Lethal Weapon’s screen-scribe Shane Black, Iron Man 3 was never going to logically suffer the same fate. In truth, it benefits from the writers know-how about a good one-liner and layered characters, giving it the tone of a psychological drama, let alone a comic-book adaptation.
But importantly, Black knows that Iron Man is just that: a comic-book character. For every adult confrontation, there’s a sharp line and action sequence to keep it comic. The opening is a bit of both, drawing on the commanding, solemn narration of Robert Downey Jr. himself (very Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, isn’t it?) as we watch his museum of suits engulfed in a blaze of fire. Then, a much less sober Tony Stark staggers into view, his wild bachelor days in full swing. With an attractive woman in one hand, and a drink in the other, the subject of conversation miraculously sticks to invention, in particular a mysterious, not-yet-perfected ‘extremis’ compound. This may be the past, but Tony’s cold shoulder fosters grudges from both the woman (Rebecca Hall) and the spotty, overlooked scientist (Guy Pearce) that even clever-old Tony couldn’t anticipate.
Stark’s still got time for smug charm (“well, you know who I am”, he assumes in his voiceover) but the light parts are thinly distributed. In present time, it goes horribly wrong, horribly fast for Tony. A provocative terrorist group dominates the news channels. Someone, using the aforementioned extremis serum, has bred terminator-style, ember-glowing super-soldiers. In visceral and technically ambitious fashion, Tony’s house, and his hardware, gets demolished. And at the center of this growingly intricate conspiracy lays the films super villain, Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin. If there’s one thing that’s lacked in the last two films alike, it’s a foil quite as verbally captivating as Downey. And Kingsley is just that, promising a performance (*wink wink*) that ranges from flamboyant to frightening, from comic to masochistic, so good that it reportedly had the film crew in a rapture of applause.
Black’s writing too is deserving of some form of approving gesture. As well as being the darkest Iron Man adventure, it’s a close second for funniest. Jon Favreau is hilarious in short doses as Tony’s bumbling driver who, wonderfully, is fond of a bit of Downton Abbey. Also, Black sensibly doesn’t neglect the action beats of the series, and though the shipment-set finale goes on a bit longer than it should, an air bound rescue mission midway captures the grandeur of super heroism in a heartbeat.
A lot of the credit should go to Downey, who grounds a character so used to ascending into the skies that doing so in the Avengers recurs in his nightmares (a nice touch of continuity). Black gives him good sparring partners to work with, from fatherless Harley (Ty Simpkins) to the alluring Maya (Rebecca Hall). Disappointingly, Stark has less time for team-ups with Don Cheadle’s Rhodes, whose faced is saved for much-too-short appearances in the patriotic iron suit. Everyone loves a good double-team, and yet there’s only time for one in the closing stages (and frustratingly, this is the one time Cheadle is stripped of a suit!). But Black can easily be forgiven. This, after all, is Stark’s story. Like his suits, there are patches in Stark’s personal life he needs to address: with Pepper Potts, who increasingly feels unappreciated, and with his own fragmented psyche. In his vulnerability, Downey performs most capably, oscillating from confidence to utter helplessness in a virtuoso display of despair.
Shane Black is famous for focusing on the bond between unlikely buds (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout), but he recognizes that the relationship of the film is not that of Stark and Rhodes, but Stark and Pepper. It’s another of those partnerships riven by clashes of character, only sold by the solid work of the actors who play them. Even Paltrow’s Pepper, unbounded by a usual domesticated role, gets to have fun. While Iron Man 2 sunk deeply into what it was comfortable with, this takes massive, tortuous leaps with its characters. So, there may be nary an Avenger in sight (or is there?), but this is a sufficiently independent alternative. Summer blockbusters: the benchmark has been set.
Structurally and stylistically bold, this is one of few blockbusters that can deliver spectacle and humour without resting on its laurels. And so, Black’s real achievement is to pull off surprise as much as entertainment.