Saturday 27 April 2013

Suits: "Iron Man 3"

As one might expect from a franchise initiated by Paramount before being taken over by Disney, and centred on a billionaire ex-arms dealer with an electromagnetic core where his heart ought to be, the Iron Man series has come to seem like an ongoing battle between the human and the corporate-military-industrial-technological. In 2010's Iron Man 2, essentially a coronation for Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark after the first movie took as much money as it did, the latter forces won out: it was crammed full of expensive bits of kit that muffled or outright suppressed the assembled players' capacity for self-expression, as only a full ferrous body suit could.

As co-written and directed by 1990s shoot-'em-up maven Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout), the far livelier Iron Man 3 allows the human elements to fight back a little: for starters, it's found a way of resolving the glitch that previously obliged us to watch (and try and get involved with) largely interchangeable action figures duking it out in armour, and even its reasonably applied 3D seems as much aimed at bringing us a shade closer to the characters as it is an obvious ploy to inflate the box-office. (Though, obviously, it won't hurt any.)

The introduction among the dramatis personae of a pair of bioscientists only adds to the sense of a franchise reengaging with the organic. There's Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), introduced as an old flame of Stark's in a pre-credits New Year's Eve '99 flashback that encourages us to get nostalgic for old Lou Bega and Eiffel 65 records. That Maya is intended as a rival to Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts can be gleaned from the observation Hall has brown hair, where Paltrow's remains blonde. (On such simple oppositions are entire franchises constructed.) Potts, meanwhile, has been tempted away from her day job as Stark's gal Friday/PA/FWB with the reemergence of one Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a snivelling nerd in that flashback, who's subsequently transformed into a suave and successful sort with flowing blonde locks, where Stark's are cropped short and dark. Keeping up at the back, yes?

This foursome's circling will be interrupted first by the terror videos, then the bombs, of an individual known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), who appears to be using genetically engineered supersoldiers - bio-bombs, if you will - as shrapnel-free, undetectable weapons of mass destruction. One of The Mandarin's first targets is Grauman's Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard - pointedly avoiding the Disney-owned El Capitan across the road - which gets blown to high heaven for being, in its targeter's words, "a cheap American knock-off" of Orientalist architecture: he's like Osama, Jonathan Meades and Prince Charles rolled into one.

As with Scarlett Johansson and Mickey Rourke in IM2, these newcomers to the franchise are no more, in the grand scheme of things, than minor tweaks to the formula - like whatever they put into Coke Zero or Tab Clear to differentiate the new product from what's gone before and thereby extend the brand. Yet they do add noticeable zip and tang, however short-lived, and after months of anonymous multiplex fodder - Jack the Giant Slayer, Oz the Great and Powerful, Oblivion, whose success might only be attributed to audiences' desperation for anything, however rote, that might fill the screen - it's a relief to be back in the same room as something with some degree of personality: you sense as much from the largely adoring critical notices the film has received this past week.

Again, we're reminded how this franchise lucked out the moment Downey Jr. signed on for it, in doing so guaranteeing a level of enthusiasm among cinemagoers that isn't likely to be matched by, say, the return of Chris "Not That One" Evans as Captain America. In Iron Man 3, as before, Downey Jr. stakes a claim towards being the busiest man in the movies, faced with the tricky assignment of mastering this role's myriad contradictions, in a way a monodimensional sixpack like Evans never could: letting out a tellingly sincere groan of dismay as Maya suggests she has Stark's 13-year-old lovechild sitting in her car (she hasn't), both bickering with and shrugging off the small-town urchin (Ty Simpkins) that Black has paired Stark with in an attempt to humanise him, in a manner more funny than schmaltzy.

Still, might we not take a moment, amid all the adulation, to question that personality? Stark remains a literally heartless bastard, with trace elements of those bores who'd rather spend time alone tinkering in a shed than in the arms of those girls they're lucky (very lucky) to be adored by. For much of this latest instalment, our hero is unwilling to do anything other than toss the odd glib quip in Maya and Pepper's direction, and only seems ready to commit to the latter once all other options have been exhausted. Even then, one senses it's because this smart, successful businesswoman has been brought crashing down to his trashy, junky, superficial level: admiring the accidental crop-top that shows off Paltrow's new-found abs, he wonders, as any other fanboy would: "Why don't you ever dress like this at home?"

Similarly, worldlier viewers might wince when Stark offers the kid his solution to the latter's bullying woes: a miniature explosive device. It's a set-up for a later set-piece, but not untypical of the Avengers-era phenomenon that insists the only way to defeat a bully is to become an even bigger, better-equipped bully yourself: corporate Darwinism writ large, in terms any seething nerd would be only too willing to sign up for. In Black's reliably glib fashion, the film suggests a good father or role model is one who pays for his charges to learn how to fight, then flies off in his own private jet. Suffice to say, however thrilling or entertaining it plays as, this decidedly rarefied and insulated idea of heroism doesn't entirely chime with mine own: I found it hard to cheer too rapturously for a guy who can afford to flick grand pianos at the helicopters attacking his Malibu pad, or invest too much in the tears of Stark sheds when his loved ones are threatened, because you just know nothing is going to be allowed to rust this suit, and he'll be back in it - for himself, as ever - come 2015's Iron Man 4.

What Black has given us, then, is a skilfully assembled campaign for supporting the status quo: one grasps as much from the scene in which Stark co-opts a local TV wonk - a clear analogue for the Comic-Con faithful, complete with Tony Stark tattoo on his forearm - to do his bidding for him, just as he charmed Pepper Potts into becoming his own personal Wendi Deng. The film's one stirring image of collectivity - Stark, in full bodysuit, deploying a barrel-of-monkeys formation to pluck the plummeting survivors of a plane explosion from the air - is undermined somewhat when one remembers the plane in question is Air Force One, and the stunt thus a (nifty) representation of Government powerlessness in the presence of sexy, hulking corporate will. (As the President, erstwhile screen Grim Reaper William Sadler has never seemed so greyingly ineffectual: at least Olympus Has Fallen's Aaron Eckhart got to box a little before going down.)

So you can cheer if you want at Stark and Killian's last-reel destruction of a shipyard - like we really need to see more of that right now - or you can spot how this franchise continues to rest, more persuasively and less uneasily here than it did in previous instalments, on a very specific control fantasy that male executives and sexless fanboys alike can share: that of surrounding yourself with gadgets and girls and guys (and audiences, and even critics) that'll get you what you want, and do just about anything else to keep you happy. In ways both better and worse, Iron Man 3 - a vision of the 1% that looks likely to scoop 99% of this weekend's box-office - is where the Western world and its movies are at right now.

Iron Man 3 is in cinemas nationwide.

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