It has been awhile since I have found the time to post about anything significant about Iron Man but as I made time to see the latest movie this weekend I figured that I leave some thoughts on my first viewing here. Before going any further I’ll add that it was mostly an enjoyable experience before being critical and still something to see on a big screen than on your TV.
Given that we are now seeing Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark for the fourth time in the role in a big way one might have been worrying as to how much more could they mine from the comic books. Downey’s ad libbing patter which has come to define the character, and not just on film, is more than up to the task of filling screen time with just his presence. His talent has also been a sort of crutch for the scriptwriters. Movies however also require motives, action and plots. If anything this third titled Iron Man film pulls on elements from all across the history of the comic to create a very science fiction story with iconic images that have made the past films and comics so successful.
To simply class this film and character as action hero or super hero is to dwell on the wrong genre elements and sort of settle for a picture as a character-driven solo adventure on a smaller scale, with personal stakes for Tony Stark. Viewed through that genre we have nothing more than a Christmas Carol of an arrogant genius millionaire. Science Fiction, like a lot of larger fictions, enjoins a critique of the world or at least aspects of our humanity that are less than flattering whereas a strictly heroic film wouldn’t have that extra dimension of looking beyond what we see on the screen.
It should be noted that like the rest of this blog we are full on with the spoilers here so know now that to talk further about this critique in play it is dependent on who the villain of the story is; if we can even still talk in terms of heroes and villains. If you went into a theater expecting a major player from the Iron Man comics to be the focus then you won’t be disappointed.
If your first answer was Iron Man’s most recognized arch-foe, the Mandarin, then sorry kids but thanks for playing. The real bad guy of the movie is A.I.M. And as we have seen in the first two outings of the armored avenger the true villain is a warped individual motivated by a mixture of greed and twisted personal justice. Whether it was Stane of the first picture with his ambition combined with his sense of rightful ownership or the Justin Hammer/Vanko symbiosis of greed and inferiority complex running the show is a far more fleshed out motive than simply wanting to destroy it.
Indeed if this were the “racial stereotype” that director Shane Black outlined in interviews as wanting to avoid (and curry favor with the emerging market?) then perhaps we would have had a Mandarin that wanted to pull the strings of the world. Black however has made his contempt for that clear when he noted that:
Black: Also, The Mandarin, as Kevin has pointed out — it’s not like he’s a classic villain in the sense you go, “Oh my god, remember that great Mandarin story?” You go, “Well, no, not really, do you?” “No, I guess we don’t.” But he’s been around a long time. It’s like Bob Hope. Everyone says, “Bob Hope! Classic comedian!” Yet for the last 20 years of his life, it’s like, “That’s not funny.”
The issue of the day, relevancy and the realism does lie with those who simply want to destroy the world as it exists. They are the terrorists, extremists and the champions of the disenfranchised. However the producers of the films on to the director and writers of this film have been very keen on telling us that they are a distraction or pawns for a deep villainy which echoes back to the film origin story of our character. The Military industrial complex which we believed was a savior from the perils of the world and protector of our interests is in fact the demon of our creation. Like a Noir movie there no innocents in this story and even a child carries some baggage.
The movie opens with a voiceover that fairly tells us that we create are own problems and even warns us that things can get meta. ( I never called this movie subtle) As a movie, a faceless cabal of corruption and evil genius like the comics’ version of A.I.M. does no favors to engaging an audience and so we have the introduction of a character that only an obsessive Iron Man reader would be familiar with by name from the Extremis storyline. And as Extremis is only one(if perhaps the major one) of the comics elements retooled for the movie he also takes on an expanded role in the film. Aldrich Killian as played by Guy Pearce pulls off a delightful transformation in the crucial past is prologue sequence which establishes our “demons” of the film for us.
Without recapping the film, the 90’s flashback introduction is a Switzerland-set Davos-esque prologue where Stark had a one night stand with a sumptuous scientist Maya Hansen as played by Rebecca Hall who was experimenting with the regenerative capacity of DNA. In pre-coitus banter we learn that one particular formula (called Extremis) could be made to help humans re-grow body parts. But as we see, her formula was unstable even in plants and resulted in small-scale explosions. At the same Swiss convention, Stark, Happy and Hansen meet the archly nerdy Aldrich Killian , who has established a scientific think-tank called Advanced Idea Mechanics (or A.I.M.) and wants Tony to join. Stark blows him off with particularly nasty trick on his naivety, never the less, years later Killian shows up at Stark Industries looking for Potts to propose having her company join forces with A.I.M. on continuing to find a more stable version of Extremis. She too rejects him, but not for being a nerd and if anything is impressed by him, but because doesn’t like the weaponized possibilities of the program and takes a pass.
The twist, if you can call it that as it is given away early on in the film due to Happy Hogan, is that rather than Killian being the supplier for the lurking big bad that is the Mandarin we come to understand that he is the big bad. If terrorism is as much theater then what we have is puppet theater to what a proper marxist would understand as the base to the superstructure. If we understand that the super soldiers that Killian produces with the Extremis are just another mode of production of material life it follows that supply and demand are just arrangements. Also you don’t have to be a regular listener to WBAI to see the parallel to our world’s super terrorist OBL and one time claims that he was and remained a product of the CIA or that he even really did exist as anything more than a figurehead.
In addition to this critique there is also the additional mockery of the effort to fight this phantom as we witness the return of Warmachine now played by Don Cheadle being rebranded as the Iron Patriot to hunt down America’s Most Wanted after an “attack” in L.A. Jim “Rhodey” Rhodes becomes a bit of joke due to the inbuilt ineptness of the efforts to track down the Mandarin and hence the War on Terror but like I have always felt Jim comes off as a better character out of the suit than in it. As Tony and Rhodey converge on the effort to rescue the President of the United States and Pepper Potts from Killian’s A.I.M.
What most people will remember most from the film are the set pieces of action spectaculars that they have seen some of already in the trailers. Not all them work for me like the Army of Armors in the over busy conclusion but the intial attack on Malibu is gripping. It also sets up a whole section of the film which could use a whole post in itself. Wih his suit badly damaged, Stark is flown by his operating system Jarvis (voiced by Paul Bettany) to Tennessee to investigate the history and source of the bombless explosions of the Mandarin. With the suit in dire need of repair and recharging, a huge chunk of the middle of this movie features Stark out of costume but still fighting the good fight with the help of latchkey kid Harley (Ty Simpkins), a local kid who isn’t shy about asking Tony about New York and the Avengers and falling out of a worm hole in space — all of the things that send Stark into hyperventilating as he has a severe panic attack. The whole core of this personal crisis that floats through this film over the events in the Avengers rings false once it comes out of Stark’s mouth but there it is and is gotten over with as he rises to make the world better.
It is important to note that if there is a heroism here it is a just about taking a pretty scewed up world and righting some wrongs.