Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, July 26, 2018

Director Report Card: Shane Black (2013)

2. Iron Man 3

If nothing else has become apparent during Marvel's decade long reign atop the box office, it's that the studio is very good at delivering a product to the audience when it's expected. That speedy work schedule is not always accommodating to talent. Director Jon Favreau had great financial success with the first two “Iron Man” films. However, he blamed the second film's disappointing writing on its rushed production schedule. Favreau was out for the third film, at least when it came to directorial duties. Robert Downey Jr. credited “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” with him getting the “Iron Man” gig. So he returned the favor by recommending Shane Black to direct the third film in the blockbuster franchises. The screenwriter-turned-director would deliver a film that received positive critical reviews and would become one of the highest grossing films in the MCU. Fan reaction, however, was less unanimous.

After he nearly died during the events of “The Avengers,” Tony Stark is suffering from PTSD. He isn't sleeping and is spending more time in his basement, building countless variations on the Iron Man armor. Meanwhile, a terrorist known only as the Mandarin is threatening the world. After Happy Hogan is nearly fatally injured in an attack, Tony challenges the Mandarin directly. His Malibu home is destroyed, his armor is damaged, and he ends up in a small town in Tennessee. There, he begins to unwrap a mystery that resolves around Aldrich Killian, an old colleague of Tony's, and connects back to the Mandarin.

Over the years, people have accused Marvel's movies of lacking personality, at least in terms of directorial vision. This is not always an unfair accusation, especially when it comes to flicks like “The Incredible Hulk” or “Thor: The Dark World.” (Both of which I like, by the way.) Marvel has worked to overcome this verdict by hiring directors with clear visions, like James Gunn or Taika Watiti. Or Shane Black. Black, it must be said, totally makes “Iron Man” his own. Like “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” he opens with a sarcastic voice over from Robert Downey Jr. The last act features Tony and Rhodey, a white guy and a black guy, running and gunning and quipping like in “Lethal Weapon.” The plot is a convoluted mystery, slowly revealing the villains responsible. Most notably, the movie is set at Christmas. Black does not restrain his normal tendencies even when working on a 200 million dollar tent pole superhero release.

By making “Iron Man 3” so totally his own, Shane Black also reveals an obvious truth: He doesn't have much interest in what “Iron Man” actually is. Early in the film, Tony injects himself with nanobots, allowing him to summon the armor whenever he wants or even pilot it remotely. This, you'll notice, removes the central gimmick of the character. That tendency continues during a sequence where Tony, without his armor, enters the bad guy's base with homemade weapons and devices. Before the film begins, Stark has built over a dozen, awesome new suits. Some of these are briefly showcased near the end but most are haphazardly destroyed. Advanced Idea Mechanics, a major Marvel supervillain organization, is reduced to a minor background player here. Black's complete lack of interest in the nerdy source material could not be more obvious.

Black isn't just uninterested in the comic book background of the Iron Man universe. I'm not entirely sure he's seen any of the other Marvel movies. Tony Stark's character arc makes no sense. He begins the film with a serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder. This is never well explained, with his near death or the sudden existence of aliens being the two offered theories. Both strike me as slightly out of character for a danger seeker and innately curious genius. The film ends with Stark getting the shrapnel lodged in heart removed during a simple surgery. Gee, if it was that easy, why didn't he get it done before now? The film tries to paint this as some sort of transformative experience. He's seemingly cured of his PTSD and of his interest in superhero-ing. Unsurprisingly, future Marvel movies would totally ignore this dismissive ending, with Stark once again being seen with something that looks like an arc reactor at his chest.

While “Iron Man 3” has some clear problems with the series mythology, it does feature enjoyable scenes. After the explosive first third, Tony lands in Rose Hill, Tennessee. Thus begins the small town interlude. Stark befriends Harley, a small boy. Stark becomes an unlikely mentor to the boy, often delivering Black style sarcastic barbs at the boy. Ty Simpkins is strong in the part and has fantastic chemistry with Downey. The other interactions Tony has with the small town folk, including an overly enthusiastic fan, are also amusing. The Tennessee interlude concludes with a fantastic action scene, where Stark slyly explodes a henchwoman of Killian's. Moreover, shifting gears and re-grounding the high-tech franchise in a small town was a smart idea.

In fact, the action is really very strong throughout “Iron Man 3.” Several scenes stand out. The Mandarin's attack on Tony's home is an exciting sequence, the hero dodging the rubble as it falls around him. The way he rescues Pepper Potts by wrapping her in his armor and rocketing her to safety. He ends up having to improvise some ways to take out the Mandarin's helicopters, one involving a piano. By far my favorite action scene has Tony rescuing a group of people falling from an airplane. The Barrel of Monkeys scene, as its called, is an impressive physical stunt that builds in more and more wild directions as it goes on. The fluidity of movement is something “Iron Man 3” heavily features, as the big climax revolves around Tony trading suits that spin through the air.

None of this is the reason why Marvel fans are so divided on “Iron Man 3.” Black's disinterest, bordering on disdain, of comic book lore is most apparent in the mid-film twist surrounding the Mandarin. After the villain being built up as a serious foe, it's revealed that there is no Mandarin. He's a character, played by a washed-up actor bribed with drugs and girls. Aldrich Killian has engineered the entire plot. There is certainly something clever about this. In the comics, the Mandarin is, rather notoriously, a yellow scare relic from an earlier age. Fu Manchu garb is traded out for a depiction highly evocative of Osama bin Laden and Middle Eastern terrorism. Black makes the Mandarin a xenophobic fiction created by an American weapons manufacture to prolong war and violence. And, yes, that's pretty clever.

But I fucking hate it, you guys. For a couple of reasons, most of which are nerdy nitpicking. In the comics, the Mandarin is Iron Man's archenemy, the Joker to his Batman. Yes, the character is an out-of-date stereotype. (One that would be especially offensive in China, a huge market for Marvel's films, which is probably the real reason the character was altered.) Yet there's a hundred ways the character could have been retooled that wouldn't be a cheat, that wouldn't come down to a fire-breathing Guy Pierce with a dragon tattoo. Making the Mandarin a hoax also ruins all the foreshadowing from the first film about the Ten Rings, an inconsistency “Iron Man 3” never attempts to justify. Is it too fan-boy-y to be annoyed that, instead of a bad-ass wizard with magic rings, we got an alcoholic Ben Kingsley telling fart jokes? I know I'm suppose to admire how subversive and cutting edge Black's decision was but, come on, I wanted to see Iron Man fight his archenemy.

Black has shown an interested in convoluted film noir plots before. In “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” he was actually making fun of this tendency. In “Iron Man 3,” he brings that same tendency to a superhero franchise without the same self-awareness. Watching “Iron Man 3” in the theaters, I was frequently confused by the twists and turns the story makes. Re-watching it at home, I'm still left with a few questions. Things are flowing pretty smoothly up until the second half, where the story completely collapses into a series of big plot reveals. This character is revealed to be a traitor. The story, involving disabled soldiers being turned into nano-tech infested henchmen, raises connotations that are never resolved. Worst yet is the reveal of the actual mastermind behind the plot, which comes out of nowhere and badly redirects the entire story. I'm sure Shane Black wouldn't care about any of this but it annoys me.

The pile-up of unclear storylines flat lines in an extremely unsatisfying final act. Kilian and his henchmen tears through Iron Man armors like a hot knife through butter. Armor, I'll point out, that previously took tank shellings and walked away fine. So that seems unlikely. Pepper Potts is reduced to a damsel in distress. The film then flirts with killing her off. If that wasn't contrived enough, what happens next is even more asinine. Pepper survives and starts kicking ass in a way that seems totally unlikely for someone with no combat experience. And did I mention Guy Pierce spraying lava from his mouth? Christ, that was fucking stupid. Everything about it is frustrating and displeasing. It ends the film on the most sour of notes.

But, you know, the cast is pretty good. Robert Downey Jr., at this point, could play Tony Stark in his sleep. He has self-internalized the quips, the ego, and the action hero theatrics. Gwyneth Paltrow is given less to do but her few scenes, like when she trade romantic banter with Downey, are cute. Don Cheadle also gets a few laughs, even if it seems like he also has less overall screen time than last time. I may be no fan of the Mandarin twist but Ben Kingsley is solid in the part. When playing the Mandarin, he's effectively intimidating, another reason the twist is disappointing. Kingsley is very funny once he's playing Trevor Slattery. His entire storyline irritates me so much that it's hard for me to grade Guy Pierce's performance in any sort of objective manner. I think he's kind of annoying.

The problems I have with “Iron Man 3” are indicative of the growing pains the Marvel Cinematic Universe faced in Phase 2. The attempts to shake things up resulted in shit like this Mandarin twist, S.H.E.I.L.D. being Nazis, and the growing dumpster fire of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” Unsurprisingly, many of these twists would be retconned or ignored: A real Mandarin was hinted to exist in a Marvel One-Shot. The real S.H.I.E.L.D. continued to operate as an underground organization. And nobody, in or out of universe, paid any attention to the TV show. Ultimately, “Iron Man 3” feels like an “Iron Man” movie made by someone who doesn't care or know about “Iron Man.” It might be an interesting film but it fails as an adaptation. [Grade: C]

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