Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Iron Man 3 Review: Freaking Weird

What a fitting entry for this site's 500th post, right? On Monday, in the middle of some perilously-boring work, DJ sent me a text, inviting me to attend an advance screening of Iron Man 3 at the Ziegfeld; sounds like Marvel treats its employees well, right? Honestly, after Iron Man 2, I had no plans to catch the third installment, save on Netflix.

But I love hanging with DJ, wanted to catch up with the old friends who scored him the tix, and I work so close to the location that it was a no-brainer: I was given a choice, and yet I didn't really have one. So now I can tell you what I thought about one of the most anticipated films of 2013, and please don't think it isn't one of the biggest releases of the year. Check this weirdness out:

My response was a partial mix of "nice!" and "uhhhhhh... ok?!" Iron Man 3 is ambitious and impressive, a sprawling post-Avengers super-hero mayhem-fest, but I have some reservations. Several, actually, and I'm a fan of director/co-writer Shane Black. His prior work with RDjr is pure gold.

I'm torn on the issue of telling you all of my problems with it - that would involve spoilers for most of the plot. I normally do Double Dips for that, but I don't want to make this first review too weak, y'know? As a small experiment, I'm going to put spoilers in black text and with a black background color, so you readers can highlight those sections and choose what spoilers you get. No real spoilers, just a few plot points. I worked it out.

The action is set to maximum intensity. Punching, shooting, stabbing, burning - this is a visceral film, aggressively so, and it often doesn't slow down for long stretches of time. The action was excessive, though, to the point of being a little exhausting - it certainly looked fine. I might have enjoyed it a little more (but only a little) if this hadn't been my first live-action 3D experience. The light loss was kind of a problem.

I might write about 3D in a new entry, but... the Ziegfeld has a front and back seating sections. The front has 52 rows. We were maybe 10 rows from the rear of the front part, and while my near-sightedness is so slight I don't need glasses to drive... Well, a few times, the 3D was distracting - which is fine, as I'm new to it - and there were a few times I was impressed by it, but there were 10+ times when the images were hard to make out. I chose to see the whole thing in 3D (I love to experiment on myself), but I still had to lift the glasses for a few seconds.

Hell, every time I write about the gear they handed out before the show, I almost call them "shades."

Robert Downey Jr. remains a great actor, and I love him to pieces and I'm so happy his life didn't keep going the way it was headed. Oddly enough, he has so much exposure now that I've been told 6 times this year that I look like him; I got that compliment in the past 4 or 5 times, sure, but that was over 10 years ago.

I am very up and down on Gwenyth Paltrow, but she's been great in this series; I'm very happy that she has a lot of screen time here, as women always get shafted by the movie industry. Paul Bettany continues to provide one of the best robotic companion voices in cinematic history. Jon Favreau, however, is almost completely absent from the movie - and when he's in it, his character acts over-the-top and semi-incompetent, which I didn't think was a good choice at all.

The excellent and cool-as-f--k Don Cheadle returns as Col. James Rhodes and, thank heaven, the picture almost gets to the point of giving him his own real storyline. He would've needed some more screen time (and more things to do), but for 15-20 minutes of the picture, he gets to do his own thing while also reminding audiences everywhere that not every single person in movies is white.

Let's hope producers, writers, execs and casting directors start remembering, too. And start writing more stories about women, too.

The new faces this time out are Ben Kingsley and Guy Pierce. Both of them are great actors, and both of them are doing work here that I've never seen them do before. In fact, I have no earthly comprehension why Pierce hasn't been more popular over the past 13 years, and I hope this picture changes that.

In terms of Kingsley's The Mandarin, all I can say is that this is one of his most fearless and impressive roles ever. Whoever created his part of the film deserves some sort of special one-time Oscar for "Greatest Film Idea 2013." It's grand.

There's also an actress called Rebecca Hall, but her scientist part, Maya Hansen, doesn't have enough screen time, really. Her role is... used very oddly in this movie, so it's hard to care about her. She's pretty and she seems like a fine actress and there should've been more of her.

And now that I've talked about everything except for the audio, which I'm not going to discuss now because I didn't really notice the soundtrack, I'll tell you what I thought about the plots.

For starters, I felt like it was retreading old ground very often - "Tony's past" is key to the story and the main plot, there is a lot of footage that is supposed to look like it's in the same Afghanistan-type region where Stark was wounded in Iron Man 1, there's yet another press conference moment (although this time, it's achingly stupid).

And while it would be hard for a super-hero film to pack as much heart as the first IM (man, I love that movie), this one felt especially shallow in that department. A scientist gives a speech about how inventors' lives can turn out worse than they intended, but instead of taking its time and being personal as well as specific, it's all vague an general - "but then, y'know, the egos step in and the-" which so no good when folks talk feelings. But that's a side character, so it's not a big deal, right?

No. Potts and Stark are fighting, but it feels manufactured so that their relationship can have some kind of arc. Their squabbling looks, in one scene, like it's there to delay the narrative and kill time until the next big action scene.

And Favreau's "Happy" Hogan is put into a coma, which is supposed to serve as Tony's big motivation. So why did they (a) make him seem idiotic and hyped-up on caffeine pills, and (b) not actually give us more scenes with him to show why Tony Stark would be ready to kill a man in revenge?

The "evil scheme" in this movie is similarly not as fleshed-out as it should be. I think(?) the guy is trying to generate a demand for his technology, but it needs to be more than "I'm psychotic, and jealous, and I want to destroy a bunch of stuff." There are no great planners in this film, is all I'm claiming.

At the very least, IM3 is very much a post-Avengers movie. People try to ask Stark questions about the battle in NYC, they mention Thor, and Tony himself is supposed to be suffering from emotional problems in the wake of that alien invasion.

There's also a 30 minute press conference video here.

But a large chunk of this movie is devoted to Iron Man going on a solo mission. He's far from home, friends, and his armor is disabled. So, since this is post-Avengers, why doesn't he call SHIELD? Whedon showed us Tony's home in New York - if his suits of armor are destroyed or beyond reach, can't he get one of the ones he must have stashed near Grand Central Terminal?

And while the first scene of an unarmored Iron Man in peril is scary and tense and exciting, we have these "extremis" villains that get killed like 15 times before it takes. They also display ridiculously over-the-top superpowers.

The second big scene of Tony Stark: Unarmored Man of Action feels very unneccessary, but at least it's damn fun. Even while I was thinking "this whole plan of his is dumb," I was enjoying it enough that it didn't really matter.

The last Tony Stark: Vulnerable Hero scene feels rock f--king stupid, though. It's all the worse because we have Tony Stark and Col. Rhodes are fighting side-by-side, unarmored, and for some reason the writers decided that Tony would act like he did toward Rhodes during the first 10 minutes of the first picture.

I wish I were kidding, but suddenly our protagonist talks like an idiot man-child who knows nothing about weapons. I guess it's supposed to be "funny banter," but it's not very funny, and it completely undercuts the tension as we approach the final, 15-minute long action sequence. How the f--k am I supposed to believe (especially after the mansion bit), that Tony doesn't understand the concept of bullets having different calibers, so you can't reload a .45 with 9mm ammo? And I don't even like guns.

Getting back to the action, there is a lot of hardcore violence here, and I wonder at the decision to go there. People get thrown around a lot (there's more flying than in a Superman film). A lot of people die and are hurt in IM3, and I decided not to count the number of times I saw someone get impaled. And whether getting a laser blown through your body counts as impaling.

One weird aspect is probably that they went with genetically-altered soldiers as the bad guys. It seems more... fitting that Tony Stark would fight something mechanical and/or robotic, but he's firmly in X-Men territory as he scraps with these nasty weirdos and the weirdass bulls--t nature of their powers. It's not like they're awful, it's just they're super-fast, super-strong, super-regenerate, and they can burn stuff with their hands. Uh... ok?!

And one of them actually breathes fire, but only that guy does it, and he does it only once. Maybe he can do that because he's the boss?

The more that the movie tries to explain the idea behind their powers, the more crazy it sounds. And it's not just that the name "Extremis" is stupid, it's that they make it sound like one single discovery means you can make any change to people's bodies, but (a) that sounds like hyper-bulls--t and (b) why do all the bad guys have the same powers? If this thing hasn't been perfected yet, why are all these guys using it so their whole organization would crumble if it was just a matter of time before they'd die? And why not have eye-lasers?

I was right to guess that the Extremis name is from a comic book, but I was shocked at how much of this movie's plot came from that 2005 run of a half-dozen comics. Apparently, the story is very well-regarded, but I doubt I'd have bought it even back when I did read comics. I was even more shocked, however, when it turns out that the same run of graphic novels basically inspired bits and pieces of this entire franchise to date.

The thing that strikes me so funnily about both the Extremis problem and the movie itself is how abrupt the resolution is. We get a voiceover and what something that was supposed to really affect both Tony Stark and the audience is reduced to "about that? Yeah, I took care of it; took a bit of tinkering," which I felt was both dumb and an emotional let down. "Yeah, all that drama? Handled it!"

But the weirdest thing of all regarding Iron Man 3 is that it seems like it's actually trying to be like The Dark Knight Rises.

There, I said it. The things that happen to Tony Stark mirror what Nolan put Bruce Wayne through in tDKR far too much. House? Gone. People think he's dead at one point. His "ability to fight" (aka armor) is temporarily destroyed. He's even poor for roughly 20 minutes. His butler Jarvis "goes away," even though I thought Jarvis was like an AI that was installed in every house and suit of armor that Tony has! Shouldn't he be able to get Jarvis back with like one phone call?

I was willing to let a lot of it go until we reach the end of the picture, when Tony literally gets rid of everything that makes him Iron Man, and seems to disavow all that old work. But then he states "I am Iron Man," and the first on-screen letters before the credits roll are "Tony Stark will return." (PS, stay 'til the credits end)

As you can see, I have a lot of good things to say about this picture, and yet I have so many problems with it! I walked out of the theater with this weird frustrated energy. Two of the men I was with said they liked it; the one woman in our group said it was too violent. I would've done this review on Monday night, but I still don't completely know how I feel!

I changed my mind and I'm not going to do any detailed spoilers; I was able to figure out how to discuss my issues without revealing very much. I'm going to think about this movie some more, and ask DJ for his thoughts; I owe that magnificent bastard a beer! Also, to his buddy, P. And now, if you were really wondering what the deal with this movie would be, so do you.


  1. Great review. A couple of notes:

    1) I had fewer problems with the film than you did. Specifically, I had absolutely no problem with a very limited amount of Happy Hogan--the first film, where he was basically a cameo role for Favreau, was plenty, and I thought the bickering between Stark and Rhodes early in the final action sequence was fun. (Also, when the world's greatest weapons manufacturer asks you for an ammunition clip, you give it to him, instead of arguing about the caliber of bullets!)

    2) Anyone curious about Iron Man: Extremis can see the six-issue series as a motion comic on Netflix Streaming or by using Amazon's Instant Video service (free if you have a Prime membership).

    1. I tell ya, I think that maybe I need to rewatch this in 2D and see if the action successfully pulls my brain away from the problems that I was having.

      While I think it's funny (and a Shane Black staple) to have Rhodes and Stark arguing, it's really breaks tone and tension for me. And it's damn odd because Tony goes from urban ninja to "incompetent" and useless in the span of 20 minutes while the stakes are getting higher the whole time.

      I semi-agree about Favreau - it's not that he should be in the movie more so much as he shouldn't be the emotional kickstart to the protagonist's involvement with the main plot - or if he has to be, then give him more time.

      My mind is still all confused in its feelings about this pic.

    2. I don't think of it as Stark becoming useless so much as Stark briefly straying into Rhodey's area of competence. I think it's endearing that he can kick ass with his computerized-targeting armor or improvised weapons, but no, he can't actually fire a gun as well as a trained soldier. Also, given how long that final action sequence is, the humor's a useful tension break. The real problem is that the final sequence is sometimes thrilling but it's also confusing and too long. It has the problem of lots of big action climaxes where there's so much action that you never really know where the characters are in relation to one another, except for whoever's in the shot.

      It's a shame, too, because previous set pieces, like the attack on Tony's house and the airplane scene, did a great job of establishing where everyone was.

      Of course, the culprit in that climax scene could just be the 3D's darkening effect--the thing the successful set pieces have in common is they were set in daylight. When I saw The Dark Knight in the theater, the image was so dark I had no idea what was going on in the construction site scene and I actually disliked that part of the movie. Later, watching the movie at home on FX or TNT in HD, I could actually see and understand what was happening at every moment, and it was pretty damn cool. Maybe IM3's climax will be more satisfying in 2D (or 2D IMAX).

    3. Yeah, you might (hell, probably) be right about the nature of the Stark/Rhodes bickering, but I must insist that for it to have felt appropriate and to have had the intended effect, it should've come *during* the climactic fight, not right before it.

      Agreed about the problems with the last fight, although, yes, that airplane sequence was great.

      We should talk more about the curious career of Guy Pierce after you've seen Lockout.

  2. Hey, so I am just a random person who totally followed you here from the AVclub because you mentioned writing a review in the comments over there and I am nothing if not nosy. That said, great review and thanks for writing it.

    I had a good time at the movie, but I walked away with much of that same sense of frustration and weirdness and trying to make sense of what it'd been trying to do and why it'd made the choices it did and what it was all meant to imply and it just....didn't really ever gel, and I couldn't quite put my finger on it. But I think you've really nailed a lot of the oddities that had me feeling off about the whole thing (doubly so if it's supposed to serve as an end to the series, as many people are saying). I kept looking for reviews and discussion, and it all seemed to be coming from either the "rarrgh, it's a movie about super heroes and exposions BAD BAD BAD and you should feel bad for watching it" or you know, "holy shit, BEST MOVIE EVER".

    - Dr Livingstone (at least @ the avclub)

    1. Hey, thanks - I'm flattered! I try not to link to this site over there much, as I don't wanna be cheap about it.

      I decided last night that I should watch it again, but in 2D. I still think that some of the kid/Tony dialogue and the weird passive-aggressive Stark/Rhodes stuff at the end won't play well... and the last action scene will probably feel over-long, too...

      But I will have an opportunity to enjoy the special effects more, and that might improve my overall opinion of the movie. Yeah, the problem with all these tentpole films is that the fanbase is going to be very polarized; that simplified way of thinking seems to make the opinions simplified too.

    2. I think I'm going to end up watching it again just so I can discuss it with all my friends in the states who are only now just seeing it. (Oh, how quickly my gloating over seeing it early because I was in London ended when I realized that seeing it early meant not getting to talk to anyone about it.) But I'm also hoping that maybe it will make more sense with a second viewing- there was so many things going on, so much background info delivered in half-second lines, and also, seriously, what was with the ending. The funny thing is that I'm not sure I'd be saying that if the series- well, and the whole MCU- hadn't started to feel like a television show. Or maybe the better way to say it is "if I hadn't started approaching it as as I would a serialized TV series." I think a lot of what I'm reacting to is because I'm far more invested in the characters and their long-term development than I am in the actual experience of the movie as a whole or its specific plot. I don't think I'd have been as weirded out by the odd tonal stuff or the occasional odd character contradiction or a glossed over "it's cool, every thing's fixed now" with Random Action Movie X or even Random Fixed Trilogy Y. I'm reacting/engaging to/with this thing like it's an episode Fringe or Farscape - albeit maybe something pivotal like a season or mid-season finale. I'm not sure how to make sense of that in a movie context. It's a different set of critical tools.

    3. Hahaha, nice backfire! Yeah, the difference in release dates is super-confusing for me at times. I regularly listen to Mark Kermode's film reviews, and occasionally the UK gets a movie about 3 months after it came out in the States. Oddly, some blockbusters do tend to come out a week or so before they're released over here.

      That's a great point about the episodic feel of this work. There is definitely something to that - I think it might partly be to the expanded use of support players like Paltrow and Cheadle (nee T. Howard), but the other part (might be, I could be overreaching) is that it seems so certain that there is more to come. And, yes, Fringe and Farscape would be looked at with totally different standards and whatnot; I just hope this works out well! Avengers 2 can't get here fast enough.

  3. First: happy 500! Excellent landmark. Secondly, I haven't actually seen this one yet, so I can't comment on the content. However, I will add that I'm seeing it more or less purely for Guy Pearce. I've got a major soft-spot for the guy and I'm excited to see what he does alongside Iron Man.

    1. Thank you so much! And welcome back, you badass mofo, I missed you!

      Guy Pearce is simply great - I'm embarrassed for the typo of his name in my review, damn autocorrect - and I hope his star rises asap. Seriously, if you haven't seen Lockout, you should check it out as soon as possible. You'll love it!


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