The first words that came to mind in the deliberately disjointed first few minutes of Iron Man 3* were “fast and loose”. We see the image of a row of Iron Man suits exploding in slow motion as an almost clichéd weary narration by Robert Downey Jr. begins to tell the story before stopping and deciding to start over at a much earlier point. But “fast and loose” doesn’t really begin to describe the freedom Shane Black seems to have been given on this, quite easily the best and most fun instalment in the trilogy.
Of course I came to this movie well prepared in terms of the Avengers franchise – this week in anticipation I watched both of the first Iron Man movies and last year’s team effort again; but in terms of the tone Shane Black brings to the table, perhaps I would’ve been less surprised if I’d also seen his debut feature Kiss Kiss Bang Bang first. I finally watched it the minute I got home from Iron Man 3 and the “fast and loose” made a lot more sense – Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is just as much of a delirious overturning of genre – but it’s still a pretty big shock that Black was allowed to play so much with such a huge property here.
“When are we gonna talk about New York?”
The movie is so much fun in the end that it’s easy to forget how brutal it is initially in setting up the stakes. There’s some real nastiness here from Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin and all he represents that is every bit as bold from a mainstream American blockbuster as all its ultimate slapdashery. Given Kingsley’s very bearded similarity to one of America’s most recent enemies and images of Tony Stark having fever dreams and anxiety attacks over his recent encounter with unprecedented attacks in New York, it’s hard not to see the clear parallel being made here. We’ve seen a lot of depictions of terrorism in movies since 9/11 but perhaps none quite so close to the bone as this. The anti-American diatribes uttered by the Mandarin are the kind that almost have you convinced he might have a point. A musing on the phoniness of the fortune cookie – an invention not Chinese but American, and therefore “hollow and full of lies” – leads into a larger more tangible statement, the bombing of something equally artificial, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre… a moment that strikes one as being as much anti-Hollywood as it is anti-American (not to mention being a particularly unsettling watch in light of even more recent events…). There are early references to America’s genocide of the Native Americans, and even a callback in the middle section of the movie where Stark, lost and suit-less in the middle of snowy Tennessee, calls home and tells Pepper Potts, “I just stole a poncho from a wooden Indian,” having done just that outside a gas station.
“The second you give evil a face, you give the people a target.”
It’s hard to talk more about Ben Kingsley’s performance other than to say it is at turns chilling and completely in keeping with the more riotous tone of the movie – to say more than that would be to ruin one of the movie’s biggest surprises. I’ve probably already said too much – but I honestly lost count of how many times I couldn’t believe what I was seeing during this movie, so it’s pretty hard to spoil completely. I expressed astonishment that a movie like The Hunger Games got made by Hollywood last year. Let’s just say, what that movie had to say about the duplicity of power was nothing compared to the even harsher indictments of the modern Western world up the Mandarin’s sleeves…
The Mandarin’s minions are pretty scary individuals too – bio-engineered into either weapons or bombs (it depends how the treatment “takes”) – the “burning embers” flesh effect here is perhaps the most disturbing thing I’ve seen in a comic book movie since Robot Vera in Superman 3. The visual effects of the various havoc they wreak are quite something to behold, and particularly visceral when contrasted with the snowy setting of the middle section of the movie.
Then there’s the “barrel of monkeys” scene. I probably would’ve seen the movie in 3D even if I didn’t want to since that was all that was on offer in the way of a midnight screening and usually I’d say I can take or leave 3D (especially when it’s post-converted as here, something I only learned shortly before seeing it), but this free-fall sequence isn’t just one of the best uses of 3D I’ve seen but also one of the most basically uplifting action scenes too.
The movie isn’t without its little wobbles. In the Tennessee midsection it strays dangerously close to MacGyver territory as Stark resorts to building an arsenal of weapons out of bits and pieces purchased at a hardware store, and the young boy who becomes a kind of sidekick is something of a worry when he first appears, but what can I say? Like everything else, Black pulls it off – some of the funniest and most cheeky lines come between Stark and the little boy, in fact.
Likewise there are more than a couple of “deaths which turn out not to be deaths” that would normally annoy the hell out of me but for some reason – perhaps because this movie just isn’t like other movies – they didn’t. Perhaps it’s that the first of those “deaths” is oddly the more moving of the two (I don’t want to spoil, but hopefully this will make sense when you see it). Incidentally this is another thing I might not have found so strange had I seen Kiss Kiss Bang Bang first – in which Black actually brings all his dead characters, plus Elvis and Lincoln (and why not?), into a final scene to make a funny point about one character surviving and happy movie endings in general.
Which brings me to Christmas. Of all the surprises Iron Man 3 has to offer, this was the one which makes it likely to be the Avengers movie I will wind up watching the most in years to come. Because Iron Man 3, it turns out, among other things, is an instant Christmas classic. An early scene has two kids approach Stark in a restaurant and ask for his autograph – one is a little blonde-haired boy in glasses to whom Stark quips, “I loved you in A Christmas Story by the way…” The movie begins with Stark buying Pepper, much to her consternation, a ridiculous oversized bunny for Christmas but ends with him offering her a much larger (literally and emotionally) gesture. There’s Christmas songs on the soundtrack. There’s snow. There’s redemption. It’s not just a movie that happens to be set at Christmas – it’s an honest to god Christmas movie. It’s bizarre they didn’t schedule it for a November/December release (though I’d neither want an unfinished movie nor to have had to wait 8 more months…) – but that’s when I’ll be watching it in the future.
Iron Man 3 winds down very much as if it means to be the closing out of a trilogy that has done as much for the comic book movie (remember just 5 years ago when an Avengers movie was like a distant dream? I was barely even interested!) as it seems to have done for its star. When Downey Jr.’s narration speaks of the Iron Man suit like a cocoon it’s hard not to feel like he’s talking about himself and his much storied past problems. Like Stark, he immersed himself in this role that seemed at first so at odds with his image, and he seems to have emerged a far better man. I was reminded of the even more troubled Mel Gibson’s narration at the end of The Beaver – “This is a picture of Walter Black, a once hopelessly depressed individual, who had to become a beaver, who had to become a phenomenon, so that ultimately this could just be a picture of Walter Black…” For all its eye candy this is a franchise that has real characters with demons working through real recognisable issues at its core, and it’d be a jaded soul indeed that didn’t recognise how wonderful this is to find in what will certainly be one of the biggest movies of the year.
* (I’m usually as picky as the BBFC at typing film titles exactly as they appear in the opening credit but “Iron Man Three” just looks strange so I’m sticking with the 3)