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May 14, 2013

Why Iron Man 3 Didn't Work for Me, and Why I Care

This post of necessity includes massive spoilers about Iron Man 3, so if you've not seen it yet and would prefer not to be spoiled, move along.

Yesterday I tweeted about how over time I've gotten more and more annoyed as I've thought on Iron Man 3¹:

A Few of Iron Man 3's Sins

What bothers me most of all about this movie is how unformed its ideas are. Every thought in this picture is undeveloped, serving only as the barest justification for more explosions and explosions and toy marketing.

Let's start with Stark's PTSD. Here's an interesting element, worthy of exploration: the ability or inability of a man's mind to cope with a universe enlarged by his own powers. In Iron Man's case, this is a wide, fantastical universe which contains gods and aliens, as he points out. This should neatly parallel the potential story of the PTSD of these soldiers returning home; after all, even ordinary soldiers can have difficulty managing the stress of having been granted new powers, through rigorous physical and military training, which opens up the universe of combat operations. There are interesting questions to at least speculate about here -- if Stark and some others can overcome these issues but others can't, why? Instead, the PTSD of Stark is used merely as a bit of early exposition to introduce his insomnia, for the big payoff of him having had time to build countless extra suits for the later brawl-for-it-all².

And let's talk for a moment about the super-soldiers who have come home with a dangerous case of overheating; here is a clear analogy to PTSD, but screenwriter/director Shane Black can't decide where he comes down on this question. A scene at Mann's Chinese Theater makes a clear suggestion that lack of willpower leads to these dangerous, exploding men³, showing a veteran with the shakes, sweaty and grasping like an addict. Yet later, Stark tells the grieving mother of an off-the-radar exploding Tennessee man that her son wasn't responsible and suggests that he's after the ones who were4. I'm not sure an intelligent filmgoer can let him have it both ways.

Oh, and hey, how about our main villain? He talks of being motivated by desperation, and after throwing Pepper Potts to her apparent death tells Stark he's trying to do the same thing for him. I'm not sure about Tony, but if my girlfriend were thrown to her death, "desperation" wouldn't be the first emotional response I'd have -- unless I were desperate for revenge, I'd think my first tentative emotional steps would be towards the stages of grief. I guess it's perhaps that Stark is in denial about her death that he just turns back with more one-liners about how she was already perfect; or perhaps, like the audience, he's already seen forward to the part where she regenerates these injuries because she's the latest lab rat for Pearce. Our villain also seems to think that the only possible market for his regenerating technology would be the super-soldiers he can make that spit fire... has he seriously not been paying attention to the $84 billion that pharmaceutical companies took home last year in the pursuit of health and well-being and the bottom line? Surely a transformative technology such as this has more than military application5.

I could go on, but I won't. It's really just too easy.

The film has its bright spots -- there's a bit of banter here and there between Paltrow and Downey Jr that's pretty decent, though nowhere near the level of the screwball comedies I've heard it compared to6. Her late destruction of an Iron Man suit by driving a fist through its chest is a welcome moment, too; it puts the exclamation point on her frustrations with seeing him so totally absorbed by his heroic role to the detriment of their relationship. The interaction between Stark and a young boy who gives him a bit of help isn't dreadful, though it mostly relies on Iron Man turning into Tony Snark7. Rebecca Hall, as an underling of the villain who slept with Tony in his earlier days turns in a good performance and has a nice deception going when she kidnaps Pepper Potts as the assault that destroys his house goes on; even that doesn't make a ton of sense to me, because she's clearly in mortal danger during this attack as much as the other two, but I'm reaching here for the good stuff.

Finally, there's a bit of tweaking the audience about how gullible we might be to mass media if properly produced, using Ben Kingsley as a stand-in for the Mandarin in one of the film's truly bright spots altogether, both in his acting and in the ideas it develops. There are clear analogies here to bin Laden in the faux-Mandarin's appearance and demands, while William Sadler looks and talks much like our own 43rd President. It almost entirely lampoons the excess of patriotic symbols in our response to terrible injuries to our country, but even here I wonder whether there's gravity or merely self-serving parody, given the rest of the film's sins.

You might ask me why I care

Part of why I care whether these films are any good is just plain selfish. I have two sons, a tween and a teen, so I'll be seeing movies like this for the foreseeable future -- I want to share with them my own love of film, and the summer blockbuster is a place where we can hopefully meet. But it's harder and harder every year, and so I turn to old greats of every genre via streaming and DVD; they've seen stuff going all the way back to Buster Keaton. But I still want to enjoy the communal, shared experience of going somewhere other than the living room to see a movie, as I did with my own father and family, and so we go. I also want these films to be better because I want them to be able to interested in carrying on this love to their own kids some day, should they have them.

But setting that aside, a co-worker of mine asked my today why I can't just turn off my brain when I sit down to watch these things. And I have two answers to that.

The first is that I expect more from mass media as a creator of mass media -- I work at a studio that tries to deliver a bigger-than-life experience that nonetheless attempts to connect with people on a personal level. And so I try and find a way in that works at a level beyond that of stringing together enough false gravitas to get the audience to the next big explosion or set piece. As the products get more expensive to build, we'll need to find a way to reach even bigger audiences, and I think that's going to have to mean that our art carries real heart.

But the second is that I've seen it done so well so often in the blockbusters I've loved. A great and memorable blockbuster not only offers us spectacle; it delivers material that can make us reflect on another level above the immediacy of spectacle on our own fragile human condition. Forty years after Jaws, we should have learned that the film continues to reach viewers not because of its great effects, and not because it's about a scary shark -- the film works because it's about a man who fears for his family and community, and his own apparent powerlessness to protect them. It also suggests a potential response, as that man bands with others who have specialized skills to help him do so.

We can look to others, too, and I'll offer two more, even though I could list dozens of blockbusters that have spoken to me. Whenever I ask whether a superhero film can ask deep questions, I think of The Incredibles, which remains my favorite superhero film; it points out that spending time in resentment for a lost past one can miss out on the real joys of the present8, and I wonder about my own ability to let go of the disappointments in my own past. When I think about even this writer/director, I think of Lethal Weapon, which offered not just a buddy movie, but a story of a man so overcome by grief that he abuses his position as a police officer to seek a means of legal suicide in the line of duty.

Although my immediate reaction to Iron Man 3 was negative, it wasn't helped by watching another film over the weekend. I won't dwell on it to much detail, but I watched a small Korean film about a hitman who has to arrange his deaths to look like accidents called Accident. In this film, which likely had less than a twentieth of IM3's budget, the filmmakers nonetheless use the set pieces as a way to advance the story of the planner of these killings, which astound in their elaborateness. Although far from a great or perfect film, it'll probably stay with me longer, because it poses questions about what sort of psychology a person would have to have to maintain the attention to detail these killings required, and how that same psychology might lead that person astray when a detail couldn't be accounted for. It's almost an update to Coppola's great The Conversation, and I know how the Hollywood version turns out, where it's Final Destination and it focuses almost exclusively on the set pieces and not at all on the human beings who bring them about.

In the end, the only metaphors Iron Man 3 could offer me were these: a suit of armor, flying about and rescuing people, with none the wiser that it was entirely empty; and of a hero with the energy at last completely removed from the center of his chest... where his heart should be.





I've been too busy to blog lately, but come back soon for posts about BioShock: Infinite, Tomb Raider, Papo y Yo, as well as more from my back catalog. Cheers.



¹My favorite response was from Mike Jungbluth, who noted:


²The Filmspotting podcast neatly observed that the introduction of the variety of suits there seemed entirely there to justify the various toys which could thereby be sold, and remarked that they felt like they should be seeing them for sale in the lobby. It's hard to argue that. It recalled a conversation I overheard between two LucasArts colleagues years ago, when one complained that when he came out of Tarzan, there were plush toys and action figures being sold in the lobby. The other replied that this was to be expected from Disney, which was a marketing company, and that you couldn't be mad about it. The first retorted that he wanted to see a movie, not to participate in some sort of pitch for consumer goods. I found the latter the more sympathetic position.
³An idea followed up later in a video of the experiment which says that "failure to regulate" will bring dangerous consequences.
4 No doubt it's putting too much thought into this thing that Stark is able to get to this woman before the evil organization can, in another weak plot move that made little sense to me except to justify a mid-movie battle between super-soldiers and a suit-less Iron Man. I respect the idea that Tony Stark doesn't need the suit to come out on top... but it doesn't make sense to me that a villain who can dispatch helicopters to destroy a house somewhere on the coast of California without alerting any sort of Homeland Security response and put a phone number on the President's cell phone can't identify and quiet an experiment they'd rather people not know about.
5 For purposes of comparison, I've seen Halliburton having been reported to have earned $40 billion for the entirety of the war with Iraq. Pharma seems like a bigger bet, there, Mister Ineeda Market.
6 My favorite ever in this regard is probably His Girl Friday, but there are too many to count that rise well above the chemistry and wit demonstrated by these two.
7 Okay, I couldn't help myself.
8 Amongst other themes... but this is the one that spoke to me most at the time, as I dealt with my own issues with the past.

Posted by Brett Douville at May 14, 2013 08:27 PM

Comments

Hear, hear.

Posted by: Mat at May 14, 2013 10:30 PM

At least it was able to get one important message across. One which is very necessary for kids to know. That being, "the fear of the other", how stereo-typically the other is defined now a days and the important of looking at yourself before proceeding to judge the other. They were quite explicit about getting that message across.

I guess when a blockbuster has so much going on, there is only so few things it can develop upon in the constrained time limits. Not to be completely apologetic towards the movie, the flaws were real and present, wouldn't say it was good on all levels :P Just not disappointing :D

Posted by: Reetesh at May 14, 2013 11:40 PM