About twenty three minutes into the end credits of Iron Man 3, with another twenty five minutes of name-scrolling still to come, I thought to myself “this is – quite frankly – utterly ridiculous”. Having subjected myself to the long, noisy 3D Marvel belch that had been projected beforehand, I had been asked to stick around by a friend, who wanted to see what the extra post-credits scene that has been a feature of Marvel’s recent Avengers-centric films consisted of (I won’t spoil it for you, but you won’t miss much if you skip off for the last bus home; in fact it would have been more thrilling had we got to see Captain America clipping his toenails while whistling a Vera Lynn classic). As the credits continued to scroll past, it suddenly occurred to me that at least 65% of the population of the entire world had, at some stage, worked on Iron Man 3. My own name appeared around the fifteen minute mark, even though I have absolutely no recollection of being hired as Third Assistant to the Digital Compositer and Visual Effects Supervisor’s Tea Lady. I saw your name too at one point. And yours.
So do I have a problem with the sheer number of jobs that have been created by these megablockbusters? (The term ‘blockbuster’ doesn’t seem enough to me any more. It seems more redolent of a time when a film’s budget was blown on a large papier-mâché shark’s head, and that was it. It’s starting to feel as anachronistic as calling a modern big-budget film a ‘talkie’.) Well, no, of course not. Imagine the dire financial straits we’d be in if the bottom fell out of the visual effects industry and 65% of the global population lost their jobs as a result. No, the problem I have is more to do with the sheer scale of these productions in 2013: I firmly believe that they are getting out of hand. They’re too big. There’s too much emphasis on the visuals and not enough on the stories (certainly in terms of The Big Releases). The more you see the less it impresses. And other Grandad-style objections. But if you don’t think anything’s wrong then let me ask you this: Do you even blink anymore when an entire city is being blown to smithereens on screen? The trailers before Iron Man 3 included the return of Superman (again? someone contact passport control and tell them to look out for the guy in the fucking underpants), a fight between giant monsters and robots (yeah whatever), a man from another dimension throwing his magic hammer around and finally Star Trek: Into Darkness, a film I am looking forward to watching but also one that actually terrifies me due to the sheer amount of visual information contained in the trailer alone. Even Keanu Reeves in The Matrix wouldn’t be able to take it all in. All of these trailers were probably showing the most exciting parts of each film, but aside from a brief excerpt of Hans Zimmer’s score for Man of Steel nothing truly excited me. I’m no robot, either: under the right set of cinematic circumstances I do still regularly get excited. Please…no laughing at the back.
You can throw a billion man hours at a project and it will more than likely make everyone a hell of a lot of money if you can hang it on a superhero suit or a reboot of a cherished franchise. But perhaps the quaint idea of a ‘team’ of people working on a movie has now largely disappeared. Is Iron Man 3 really director Shane Black’s film? Or is Shane Black merely one more name on that endless list of people the studio has to thank for their input? What percentage of the people working on Iron Man 3 has Shane Black actually been in contact with? At least six different companies worked on the visual effects alone. I genuinely wonder whether the most financially-successful directors today are little more than excellent delegators.
The thing is, I say all this as a man who loves nothing more than donning a pair of 3D glasses and subjecting his feeble brain to two hours of explosions, fights and other nonsense, all soundtracked by an insanely loud mix of r’n’b and screeching electric guitars. I care about the quality of blockbusters because quality blockbusters are the reason I first fell in love with the cinema 30 years ago.
I actually enjoyed Iron Man 3, and think that it is one of the better superhero films that I can recall, but then there’s also a real paucity of truly outstanding superhero films to compare it with. If you look at this list of recent efforts you realise that a hell of a lot of dross has been made since Burton’s Batman: for every Christopher Nolan film there are four or five dismal sequels, average spin-offs, botched reboots and films about characters that may well have their fanbases among comic fans but will never have the same appeal as a Superman, a Batman or a Spider-Man. How many more times will variations of The Fantastic Four be up on screen before Hollywood realises the wider world just isn’t interested? And is there any need for a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot? How many man hours have been wasted or will be wasted on those films?
I’m certainly not all that knowledgeable about comic books, but it seems to me that the most successful adaptations are those that get the tone just right. The best Superman films have just the right amount of joy, optimism, hopelessness and ridiculousness that made the comics such a hit in the first place. The recent Batman films (as well as the first couple of Tim Burton movies) have all captured the darkness of the character and his world well, wisely using the pitch black mid-to-late 1980s graphic novels as a springboard. Sam Raimi’s enjoyable Spider-Man trilogy definitely had the same flavour as the Spider-Man comics I remember from my childhood, too. And the thing I like about the Iron Man franchise – and Marvel’s recent films in general – is that it feels like the translation from comics to the big screen has finally been perfected. After many years of tinkering the balance between fantasy, humour and human relationships is just about right. (I always found the Captain America comics to be incredibly boring, partly due to the fact the character never drops his earnest po-face for one minute and never, ever, ever cracks wise. They certainly got the tone of that one right, too; Captain America: The First Avenger is the most boring of the recent bunch, by far, and I defy anyone to actually recall anything Captain America did in the Avengers: Assemble movie apart from stand around in the background, earnestly perfecting his po-face.)
So, we’re back with Tony Stark here, the man who kicked off Marvel’s recent golden run. Robert Downey Jr is behind the mask once again, although in actual fact he spends a great deal of the film without it, the story emphasizing his human frailties and foibles when the suit isn’t being worn in time-honoured Marvel style. Despite Stark’s amusingly arrogant exterior he is suffering from anxiety attacks, insomnia and exhaustion, and making some questionable judgment calls as a result. Bizarrely, though, these problems disappear halfway through as the action hots up.
Taking advantage of this and generally bidding for megalomaniac status is Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a scientist once snubbed by Stark who has developed some kind of virus or other that regenerates human cells, gives its imbiber superhuman strength and also lets them generate extreme heat. Killian is a better-than-average smooth villainous mastermind, but is perhaps overshadowed for a portion of the film by his don’t-give-a-fuck second-in-command Eric Savin (James Badge Dale), who chews his gum with particular menace. If that wasn’t enough, Iron Man is also up against long-time comic supervillain and nemesis The Mandarin (Sir Sir Ben Kingsley, hamming it up as much as you would hope), who for the purposes of the film has been turned into a Bin Laden-esque terrorist that threatens the USA by video at least fifteen times a day.
As he battles away with these two enemies a couple of set-pieces work very well. Stark’s Malibu home and lab come under fire early on, and a scene ending with an Air Force One rescue sequence is probably the film’s thrilling high point. By the end of the movie, though, it seems as if the bottom of the ideas barrel is being scraped, and the final battle is disappointingly set at the same docks that have been used in several thousand other films, only this time replete with imagery that has been copped very suspiciously from Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Plot-wise it’s same-old, same-old. Iron Man 3 makes no effort to propel the superhero genre into a brave new era, and that’s when the number of people that are working on the film becomes an issue. Why does it run out of ideas, and – forgive the pun – run out of steam? Ordinarily the buck would stop with the director, but is it really fair to do that when such a vast amount of workers are beavering away independently?
Black, who previously directed Downey Jr in the superb 2005 murder mystery Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, handles things adequately enough. The director co-wrote the screenplay, and in that sense hiring him to take over from Jon Favreau was a smart move. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was packed full of witty dialogue, put-downs and wise cracks, and transplanting it to the motormouth of Tony Stark was a no-brainer. Iron Man 3 certainly has as much wit as the series predecessors, particularly at the point when you begin to worry that it’s going down the irritating kid sidekick route a little too easily. There are some very funny lines in the film.
Sir Sir Ben Kingsley and Guy Pearce both appear to be having fun with their bad guy roles. Gwyneth Paltrow and Jon Favreau return as Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan – Stark’s love interest and former bodyguard, respectively – and they still appear to be enjoying the series as much as Downey Jr is; either that or the paychecks are high enough to mask the fact they are not being stretched as actors whatsoever and are playing second fiddle when their talents would be better suited to other projects. Don Cheadle, in his second outing as Col James Rhodes, is still a little less comfortable with the whole shebang. The actor’s deer-in-headlights eyes occasionally betray him; it’s a look that suggests he is wondering what on earth he has signed up for and whether he will be able to get out of it before he hits 60. Cheadle’s role as a soldier sidekick seems to involve little other than being bested by Stark’s wit and repeatedly kicking in doors to rooms containing confused and surprised Arabs. Y’know what? Don Cheadle was fucking great in Hotel Rwanda. And another thing: if I were an Arab I imagine I would be looking forward to the day when this film series, in which a US supersoldier in a red, white and blue iron suit kicks the crap out of various doors in various Middle Eastern locations without ever knocking first, finally ends. Or maybe I just wouldn’t care about it at all. In Iron Man’s world anyone who isn’t American is likely to be found angrily firing an AK-47 off into the sky, as if that’s what all people outside of the US do with their time. Presumably they are angry with Stanlee, the Ancient God of Stereotypes.
Above all, though, Downey Jr reigns supreme. Most superheroes are more interesting than their alter egos – who would seriously want to watch a film solely about Peter Parker, Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne? – but in the Iron Man series the minutes where the suit is cast off (arf) are far from being wasted. Sure it’s a necessary part of proceedings, enabling Stark to fly and giving him the strength to fight the villains on equal terms, but really this is one of the few men from Marvel or DC that doesn’t need the suit to make things interesting. Due in part to the writing and in part to Downey Jr’s charismatic performances, it is little wonder that the Iron Man series has been so profitable. Put simply it is a fantastic creation and in terms of the lead character Iron Man 3 continues the good work that has gone beforehand.
The technology appearing in Iron Man 3 is ridiculous to say the least – certainly as bad as in Iron Man 2. Stark continues to summon up masses of floating computer screens and holographic images with swift movements of his hands, as though he is attempting to conduct a 100-piece orchestra after ingesting industrial strength quantities of cocaine and speed. His iron suits don’t even need him to be wearing them any more. But y’know … look … it’s a superhero film. Suspend your disbelief as required and it’s entertainingly daft. It has good ideas and it has bad ones, and it has something approaching an iconic performance at its centre (and that’s actually quite rare – I don’t think I could say the same for Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne / Batman). Fans will love it and everyone else will probably find enough to make the journey to the cinema and cost of a ticket seem worthwhile. It’ll probably give you a headache if you are over 30 and it’ll make you wonder whether you are still a member of its target audience (the sad fact is I probably am, and so are you). I was entertained by it but, conversely, I think it can only be seen as a failure. When this amount of money is spent, when this number of people work on a project, am I mad for feeling that I should be entertained to levels I had never dare dream of before? Technically it is impressive, and Iron Man 3 ticks most of the boxes, but they’re boxes that have been ticked many, many times before.
Still, it has just banked over $175 million in its first weekend, so we’d better get used to it.
Directed by: Shane Black
Written by: Drew Pearce, Shane Black
Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Guy Pearce, Don Cheadle, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sir Sir Ben Kingsley
Running Time: 130 Minutes