Iron Man 3 (2013)
As the dying embers of Sundance recede into the distance we turn our attention back to more pressing concerns, as we did manage to insert a bulky Hollywood tentpole into the festival schedule amongst all the independent activity. This comes at an interesting time given the traction that this little speech is getting in certain corners of the Internet, Soderbergh might be burning his bridges a little here and I don’t completely agree with all his assertions, but as a snapshot of the American (and by association) global cinema market this is faintly depressing fare. Whist we know it was ever thus, that Executives and Producers would flog genres and tropes to death, that characters would be exhausted in sequel after sequel, that formulas are championed and market testing & focus group screenings occurred as early as the Thirties this usual hand-wringing and moaning is validated by the aligned by the spiralling costs of global production and marketing. I have to say I’ve noticed the almost total triumph of sequels and franchises which now have almost obliterated (pun intended) original fare, given the astronomical production figures which are now the norm and the need for a safer bet with a pre-generated audience, this has resulted in the virtual extinction of the mid range $20 – $60 million feature, and this is not healthy for the industry from an aesthetic or productive level. I’ll give you one disturbing example that occurred to me last year, the $75 million budget quoted in the press pack for Frankenweenie, just how the hell did that cost so much? There was no up-front bidding war for the rights to some expensive novel or character, it has no major ‘stars’ to speak of (at least no-one commanding a seven-figure salary) and whilst we all know that stop motion animation is labour intensive with a lot of boffins I fail to see how the hiring of a couple of hundred professionals, ensconced in their studio facility (thus no location costs, no logistics or travel or accommodation fees) for maybe a year could cost so much? Well, that is until you realise that half the budget is marketing, of blitzing the planet with images and trailers and billboards and posters, but here’s the issue which I cannot parse, and that is of course that the technique works and it works beautifully. Even if the final film is actively terrible as in any of the Transformers or Prometheus or high-class mainstream fare with technique and talent to spare (Dark Knight, Lord Of The Rings) the audiences churn out regardless, so the financial death knell for Hollywood seems absurdly premature, especially when you consider that three of the highest grossing films of all time were released just last year, or five of the top films released in the past two years., or indeed that of the top thirty only three were released prior to the millennium – so someone knows what they’re doing., right? The patients status when it comes to innovation, and originality and aesthetics? Well, there the prognosis isn’t as good.
All of this brings me to Iron Man 3 of course, the latest in the extraordinarily profitable Marvel Superheroes movie sequence. I’m a little ambivalent to this run of the wider superhero sequence, I never particularly cared for the character back when I was reading comics and whilst the first film was more fun and lightly entertaining than expected the second was a fairly dire effort, all adhering to the standard issue character protagonist / antagonist / inciting incident / three act structure which can be affective but is usually narcoleptic. As with The Avengers I am flabbergasted at the films initial box-office haul, accruing a staggering $200 million in its first weekend but here’s the killer, it hasn’t even opening in North America yet. Now we all know that box office does not equate to quality, but this release in tandem with Soderbergh’s speech is certainly food for thought, the same identikit style is mixed with recent success in other franchises for the Shane Black directed Issue 3. A brooding Tony Stark is musing on the mortal threats he faced in New York last summer, ploughing his intellectual and physical resources into refining his battle suits at the expense of his waning relationship with the alliterative Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). A new villain is on the horizon who doesn’t bear a single resemblance to OBL, known as The Mandarin (a drawling Ben Kingsley) this pseudo-foreign Asian warlord threatens to unleash his incendiaries on the infidels of America, whilst the likes of Tony’s old flame Dr. Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) a regenerative and charismatic physicist protegé Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) are wrapped up in some conspiracy to harness their scientific breakthroughs for superheroic splendour.
Like Iron Man’s distributed and fragmented armour the film is a hodgepodge of a movie, at some points a meta-superhero deconstruction then a brooding Dark Knight drama, then it’s a broad comedy then an Eighties inflected thriller, not to mention a thundering action piece, – its got more personalities than a schizophrenic goldfish. Whilst that could be interpreted as praise Iron Man 3 is never more than the sum of its parts, a malfunctioning genre piece which judges that a kid sidekick isn’t an exhausted and irritating element (and no, dressing this cliché up by having RDJ deploy his irreverent schtick doesn’t succeed) and a plot twist which many would have gleaned from the trailer. The villains as a holistic threat never provide the required sense of threat or peril, and with many of its characters split across the films narrative by the beginning of Act 2 it takes a long lonely trek to assemble them in all the right places for the inevitable and serviceable final confrontation Now to be fair there are some moments, as you’d expect from jock-director Shane Black some of the meta-commentary is exceptional, with a few good henchmen gags to alleviate the boredom. The final set-piece when it arrives is reasonably innovative, even if the final showdown of the final showdown doesn’t particularly get the heart pumping. For many Kingsely’s turn will entertain and amuse and to say anymore would be spolierific, and as someone who quite likes Robert Downey Jr. in most of his films his cheeky arrogance has worn completely thin, and you might secretly wish that the rich fucker gets vaporised before the next inevitable instalment. It does depart from trope with the women get a fair shake in this movie in numerous ways which I also won’t spoil either, heck it might even pass the standard Bechdel test as they’re certainly not just eye-candy and/or damsels in distress.
The most interesting element of Iron Man 3 is the news that specific scenes and characters have been procured for the Chinese cut of the movie, a trend which seems to be gathering increased traction, and the impact of this on a films political and cultural dimensions in both its numerous domestic and international editions should be amusing to dissect, one wonders what changes they may have made to the Mandarin character and omitted any reference to Tibet. Does this sprawling post have a purpose, a central proposition? I think what I’m trying to say is that the business is full of contradictions, I may come off as a snob who is slightly sneering at people flocking to formulaic, predictable, cookie cutter stuff and maybe I am, but you only need to peruse the archives to see that I loved Avatar, the Batman films and other blockbuster fare usually barges its way into my top ten lists, and I’m anxiously awaiting Pacific Rim, Elysium and the second Hobbit film comes December. They are all just as valid and entertaining in different ways than the usual suspects at Cannes or Sundance, it’s just the emphasis on advertising and seduction rather than the quality of the intrinsic piece of cinema as an artefact is a dangerous road to continue, from both an entertainment and production perspective, with incrwasingly risk averse studios and executives pushing the industry and art form into two remaining tiers of production – garguantian nine figure budget behemoths that are market diluted to redundancy and miniscule seven-figure scraping projects which struggle to even get distribution or exhibition – although I guess it’s a sign of the times with the same divisions along the mega wealthy 0.1% and the disintegrating Western middle class. I guess I should close with some general Iron Man 3 comments, yes there is another post credits sting, but it wasn’t as fun as I’d anticipated, and I think I’m safe in asserting that this is the first $250 superproduction that has ever referenced the city of Croydon…..