The Stark Night Rises

The Stark Night Rises

Iron Man 3 must’ve felt like an inevitable bump back down to earth for Kevin Feige and the rest of Marvel Studios.

Phase 1 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was the grandest experiment in cinema. A whole studio based upon one shared cinematic universe, reliant on every film it releases being successful and that audiences would keep returning for every film to keep up with the overarching story. A support beam of this increasingly fragile construct was the fact that this was a unique and new venture in cinema, and that many comic fans had never thought they’d see their beloved shared universe of superheroes replicated on the silver screen. 2012’s The Avengers/Avengers Assemble was the the culmination of all this, a film starring all of the Marvel Studios heroes fighting a truly cataclysmic threat. And it carried it off with a bravado rarely seen.

So the prospect of following The Avengers with the now comparatively low-key single hero film would clearly be a daunting prospect. The challenge was to make something that didn’t feel like a step down from The Avengers but couldn’t deliver action on as grand a scale.

Director Jon Favreau’s (Iron Man, Iron Man 2) replacement, Shane Black has wisely decided to make the drama come from a personal journey Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) takes in Iron Man Three (yes, Three) instead of trying to vainly compete with the action of the previous film.

Its a wise move on paper, but ultimately is a mixed bag because of it.

Following in the footsteps of last year’s The Dark Knight Rises, Iron Man Three takes similar steps in destructively stripping our hero of every material thing he relies on and reducing him to his core elements.

Throughout Iron Man Three we see Stark’s now 47 armours, his vast wealth and contacts removed from him. All the while in his absence a former rival from his past, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) has reinvented himself with his experimental virus-like creation, Extremis, and is moving in on his girl Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).

A lot of the movie concerns Stark being stranded in Tenessee with only the aid of precoscious, underloved kid Harley (Ty Simpkins) to aid him. To the film’s credit, the scenes of Stark hanging out with Harley are very fun and some of the funniest dialogue in the film arises from Stark’s unique brand of advice to the boy. Its rare that ‘the hero befriends a small boy’ scenarios aren’t wincingly wet.

Indeed the whole film manages to have a great sense of fun to it and doesn’t take itself seriously at all. And here’s where it falls down somewhat. Iron Man 3 is a bit too fun and fanciful. This allows for some absolutely inspired and unexpected moments of comedy in a superhero film, but they occur so often the film eventually has one foot firmly planted in the comedy genre. And I didn’t sign up for a superhero comedy. I signed up for a superhero film that had some quite funny moments. I don’t remember Iron Man or Iron Man 2 being quite so frivolous, and those films contained moments of genuine threat.

LOL COMEDY

LOL COMEDY

Here everything is so lighthearted that there’s never a sense of danger, nothing like the cave escape or rooftop fight in Iron Man or the Iron Man/War Machine/Droid dogfight in the underrated Iron Man 2.

Here the action is played a bit too much for laughs and is a bit too well choreographed. The multi-suit dock battle finale especially falls foul of this; while genuinely impressive, its all a little bit too fluid and obviously staged. Inventive? Definitely. Dangerous? Not really.

Spoilers from here on.

Iron-Man-3

The same is true of when Stark storms The Mandarin’s (Sir Ben Kingsley) mansion. Seeing his rudimentary weapons being built from DIY shop purchases and then deployed is great fun, but it doesn’t feel particularly violent, even for an MCU film.

Another problem with all this lighthearted hanging out with kids and cracking wise in the south as that Stark spends an awful lot of time not being Iron Man. Leaving the midnight showing I heard an audience member remark “that was a Tony Stark film, not an Iron Man film”. He had a point. I had come to see a film that involved quite a lot of genius billionaire playboy philanthropist in a mechanical suit flattening bad guys. Iron Man Three does seem to skimp on mechanical suit part.

However it would be unfair not to mention that Iron Man Three does contain some brilliant set-pieces, most notably his rescue of people who’ve been sucked out of a plane in midair all at once. Again, its demonstrative of just how inventive and clever Shane Black is with coming up with fresh and exciting action scenes.

sc-mov-0430-iron-man-3-20130501-001

Adding that something extra to those action scenes is Don Cheadle as former War Machine, now Iron Patriot, James Rhodes. Cheadle really comes into his own here and Black’s seminal heritage as the master of the buddy cop film makes Stark and Rhodes appear as the best friends they were always meant to be, but didn’t quite convince in the previous installments.

Its hard to decide whether the comedic nature of the film is a good thing or a bad thing; ultimately, its both. The element that demonstrates this the most is The Mandarin. The Mandarin has, in the comics, always been Tony Stark’s arch nemesis. He is the Joker to his Batman, the Lex Luthor to his Superman, the Kingpin to his Daredevil.

I refuse to make any citrus fruit jokes

I refuse to make any citrus fruit jokes

And Ben Kingsley’s version of The Mandarin is a powerful and brilliant interpretation of him. He’s a combination of oriental mysticism and robes combined with American combat fatigues and aviators. Kingsley, clearly a student of the now mandatory disciple of the villain having a bizarre voice, adopts the stilted, harsh, reprimanding tones of a Southern Baptist preacher. A wonderful choice, to choose the tongue of the American religious fanatic.  Its a fantastic spin on the character, both homegrown and foreign, and he is portrayed very much as a terrorist with a deliberately confusing make-up. He was, early on in the film, lining up to be the finest villain in the MCU since Loki, yet someone who was very different from him. He was lining up to be someone I could really capable of some serious havoc in the next Avengers film.

That was until this brilliant character was sacrificed unto the gods of comedy.

The reveal of the Mandarin being a drug-addicted actor hired by Killian is absolutely hilarious. Very rarely have I or the audience laughed so hard in the cinema. I was literally crying. Kinglsey’s performance is spot on, and he shows why he’s a world class actor to be able to deliver two such brilliant, radically different performances in the same film. The credit doesn’t all go to Kingsley though; Downey Jr.s reaction is priceless, and the writing of The Mandarin as such a fantastically threatening and mysterious villain is so strong that the revelation really throws the audience.

However I just can’t help mourn the loss of that Mandarin and of the genuine threat he could have brought to the film, and to the wider MCU.

Unfortunately Pearce’s Killian pales in comparison to Kingsley’s Mandarin. He has very little going for him in terms of charisma or look and his Extremis powers are atrociously bland in both nature and visuals. While the joke is fantastic, one is, as a result, very aware that the genuinely fascinating and unique villain of the film no longer exists, and no we’re stuck with Iron Man having to battle the glowing man in a suit.

That is not a supervillain costume.

That is not a supervillain costume.

Again, the very inventive, very fun, very slick finale is hampered by the fact that Killian just isn’t an interesting villain in terms of what he can physically do or his character. He makes Iron Man 2’s Whiplash look practically Ledger’s Joker-like in comparison. All the way through we’re aware that this will end up being, like Iron Man  and Iron Man 2, two heavily protected people punching each other to see which breaks first. Whereas with The Mandarin we could have had a finale in which Iron Man is engaged on a different level to the last two films, but one one the character is equally known for – the intellectual one.

The same is true of the 47 Iron Man suits we’re constantly told about and given glimpses of. They look so cool and have so much potential, but they’re taken away from us very pointedly and we’re left wishing we could’ve played with those toys for a bit longer or in a bit more of a satisfying way. The reasons behind these decisions are entirely legitimate, but they seem sacrificed for payoffs which seem more like instant gratification than the long game.

Ooh, you tease.

Ooh, you tease.

Iron Man Three is a good movie. Its, slick, and polished and the characterisation shines. The acting is the best that it has ever been in the Iron Man franchise and is up there with The Avengers/Avengers Assemble. Its great fun and worth your time, but it strays into comedy a little too much and is devoid of the sense of threat and danger delivered in previous Marvel movies.

By RJ Bayley

Think I’m badly out of step with the overwhelmingly positive reviews? Let us know in the comments below!

You can follow RJ Bayley on twitter: @Chunder_thunder
and follow Goats In The Machine on twitter for updates on articles: @GoatsInMachine
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