Iron Man in his closet

Let’s get the basic stuff out of the way. This is an Iron Man movie. It delivers pretty much what you expect from an Iron Man movie. It is entertaining enough, funny enough and action packed enough to satisfy the majority of the audience. It is perhaps the best of the Marvel films (though I have a soft spot for Captain America), but it’s not an all-time classic. There was a huge outpouring of admiration for Joss Weedon’s Avengers movie which I shied away from, and I thik that this offers more entertainment throughout. Well done. Move along.

Let’s instead talk about the few major issues which are bugbears of mine and which are rampant throughout big budget Hollywood at the moment (and present in IM3).

1) Length: Very few films need or deserve to be over 2 hours long. Cloud Atlas and Zero Dark Thirty are the two films this year which I think merited the length. Iron Man 3 is not alone in breaching the 2 hour mark (clocking in at 2hrs 15). It seems every major Hollywood release now is now of arse-aching length.

The strange thing is that it makes no sense. At the moment you can fit about 4 screenings of IM3 into the normal 12 hour cinema cycle – 3 hours per screening once you include ads, trailers and time for everyone to get in and out. Cut the film to an hour 45 (we’ll get to how later) and you get a 5th screening in. That would surely increase the chances of making money.

2) Spectacle: Cinema sells on scale. The difference between watching a film on TV and watching it in the cinema is the size of the screen, and seeing the ‘amazing’ special effects on a big screen is supposed to wow me.

Now, I love the cinema, as you can tell by the frequency with which I go and the lengths I go to writing about it, but this kind of spectacle isn’t why. True, a film like Life of Pi was truly amazing visually, but that’s not why it was successful. It was successful because it told a story that people were drawn into, with characters (or a character) the audience could identify with and care about. It looked great too and that’s a bonus. I loved The Sessions, which was definitely a cinema piece but did not rely on the spectacular to win the audience over.

I’m not saying that IM3 (or comic book films/Hollywood) should ignore creating spectacular visuals, but what I am saying is that they need to be married to something which can provoke the emotions on some level. Last year, Men In Black 3 came out. It wasn’t amazing, it was a bit muddled, but it was entertaining (aside – it was also 1hr 46 mins, which helped). What struck me though, was the ending (I will keep this spoiler free, just about).

The end has the protagonist facing off with the antagonist in a personal confrontation. It wasn’t about machines hitting each other (see the original Iron Man, Transformers for notable examples), or hundreds of faceless aliens smashing up building after building (The Avengers), or thousands of space ships flying around and zapping each other (the Star Wars prequels, The Matrix sequels). All of these are impersonal – they distance the audience from what they are viewing and prevent emotional engagement. They show off a mastery of CGI tools – well done – but do nothing for story-telling.

IM3 isn’t as bad with this as it could be. It tries to have an emotional depth to the showdown, but it also suffers from that Star Wars/Matrix issue. And it goes on for far too long and becomes boring.

The most satisfying endings (in films which require a showdown between antagonist and protagonist) are always going to be some form of mano-y-mano contest which resolve the sparring that has gone on through the film. See the resolution of Die Hard. There is a film which understands that the biggest moments of spectacle are not necessarily best placed at the end of the film. Ultimately there is a situation where two into one won’t go – one man getting what he wants means the other has to die. It has a true emotional significance and resonance. This is something that is overlooked in virtually every ‘blockbuster’ nowadays.

3) Sequelitis. A major problem for many sequels is the lack of character development. Typically, the first film will take an ‘ordinary’ character and their journey will take them to the extraordinary (especially true in the case of comic book movies). The issue with sequels is that there is no longer a journey to go on. The Dark Knight trilogy managed to avoid this by giving events an emotional weight that Bruce Wayne had to carry, something which then weighed on the way he did (or did not) use his Batman alterego.

Compare this to the Spiderman films which tried and largely failed to develop the character. Ultimately this led to the series being rebooted as an acknowledgement to the lack of dramatic weight that any future ventures might take.

Initially I feared that this would be the case with IM3, and, in many ways it was. There was no real tension or jeopardy to the end of the film. But it did manage to bring a little more weight to the story than many sequels do. Certainly more so than in IM2.

And here endeth the rant.

So, cutting IM3 down to size. I said I’d explain how it can be done, and I will.

The story introduces 3 things – and this is all in the first 15-20 minutes, so can hardly be considered a spoiler. This is set-up.

i) 13 years ago a botanist was working on some kind of formula that allowed plants to heal themselves, but it wasn’t quite working and sometimes the healing process caused explosion
ii) 13 years ago Guy Pearce wanted Tony Stark to invest in his company – AIM – and then in the modern day he turns up to see Pepper Potts (heading Stark’s companies) about investment. He is now looking much better than the dishevelled version seen at the beginning.
iii) A terrorist called the Mandarin has been setting off bombs around America. When the explosions are investigated the source of the explosion cannot be found – there are no bomb fragments or anything.

If you can’t join these dots together, there is something wrong with you. The problem is that in the film it takes probably an hour, maybe more, for the characters to join it all together. So for 40-45 minutes we in the audience are way ahead of the characters. That’s fine in the case of suspense (the audience knows the monster is in the room, the hero does not, we are scared for the hero), but this is, essentially, a detective story – something mysterious is happening and our hero is trying to work out how it fits together. If the audience already knows how it fits together, there can be no joy from the hero figuring it out and revealing it to us.

Trim a chunk from this and a chunk from the ending and you have a much shorter and more fun film.

That said, Shane Black’s script is a comic delight. His wit is a perfect match for Downey Jr’s delivery (though exploited better in the brilliant Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) and, for the most part, lifts many moments that could drag.

The film is probably more in line with a comic book than any of the previous entries too, or at least a cartoon. There are plenty of moments that have a ring of Hanna Barbera about them, and the film is all the better for it. Having seen the trailer for the new Superman movie before the IM3 started, it was nice to see a comic book movie that acknowledged that it wasn’t trying to say anything about humanity and, instead, was trying to be fun.

Ultimately then, Iron Man 3 is good fun, but short of greatness.

B