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A Hero’s Demons

Iron Man 3 (2013) by Shane Black

Iron Man is back with a new director. The hero’s third solo movie is a mess – you may think it’s a solid movie but it’s really not. It’s the one I’ll be hating on unasked until the end of my days. Why? I’m not quite sure, there are enough reasons. Let’s have a look at them.

But first, as always, here’s what happens:

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has PTSD. The things that happened in New York left him paralyzed with fear, he can’t sleep, and he’s got panic attacks. On top of that, there’s a new threat that America faces: the Mandarin. He’s attacking the free world with bombings that don’t seem to use bombs.

Meanwhile, Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) isn’t very happy with Tony as he takes little time for her but rather tinkers in his workshop. Tony tries to tell her about his fears but then his Iron Man suit attacks Pepper when she tries to help him and things get positively rocky when an ex-girlfriend appears at his door.

What a mess! Really, I hate this movie. On some level, I know that it’s watchable but there are a lot of things I don’t like and they just culminate into what is probably the worst MCU entry to date. You don’t believe me? You actually like it better than Iron Man 2? That’s your prerogative but let’s have a closer look at Iron Man 3:

I think the first problem is the narration, having Tony Stark tell this story in voiceover takes away some imminent threat. Think about the scene where he almost drowns. Of course, we kinda sorta know that he’ll be all right but the voiceover makes sure that we do know. There’s no real threat, we know Tony will be all right and that also extends to Pepper because if she weren’t Tony wouldn’t be telling this story. He would probably have disappeared in a hole somewhere.

In the beginning, Tony tells us about demons he’s raised and it all started at a conference in Bern in 1999 where Tony meets three people that will make their mark on him. First, there is Jinsen (Shaun Toub), the man who in a cave somewhere in the middle east will save his life. Tony brushes him off. Then there’s Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), a beautiful woman who also happens to be a genius working on DNA that can spontaneously repair itself. While Tony tries to help her with the kinks she still has to work out, he seems more interested in sleeping with her – which he does before he leaves her the next morning. The third one is Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), the founder of A.I.M., a think tank. He’s what you may call the worst stereotype of a nerd, but also rather obnoxious. Tony tells him they’ll talk on the roof and never shows.

So his demons consist of a woman he slept with and never called and a guy he left waiting on the roof on New Year’s Eve? Considering the kind of asshole we’re to believe he was that’s a short and rather tame list. It seems that Tony’s ego once again gets the best of him and wants him to believe that he”s responsible for what happened. Neither Hansen or Killian seem that traumatized, to be honest, and Killian’s focus seems to lie more on Pepper than Tony. He calls her his trophy after capturing her and injecting her with that still unstable serum Hansen has concocted. The one thing we really don’t need in the MCU is a villain who uses the love interest to hurt the hero. As if they weren’t treating their female characters worse enough already!

They are and case in point is this movie because, in the first drafts of the screenplay, Maya Hansen was the villain, not Aldrich Killian. But Marvel was concerned about (get this!) toy sales. They didn’t think anyone would buy a female villain toy and that’s why Hall’s role was cut down and changed to what it became, a one-night-stand with a grudge.

I don’t really have words about how fucked up this is. Ultimately, Aldrich Killian is the worst villain the MCU probably has. One that makes no sense at all. I mean, Hansen really had to resort to working with THAT guy? She invented something genius, she probably could’ve been funded by universities or the government with what she was doing but instead, she chose THAT guy. That’s mind-boggling.

And it’s the worst part about this movie – the villain(s). Compared to the reveal which wasn’t really surprising by the way the movie has been set up (with Tony’s narration), the fake Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) is rather amusing. It’s a commentary on how we perceive terrorists, our prejudices. This commentary is, however, overshadowed by the white-washing of another Asian character because it turns out that Killian is the Mandarin.

Basically, the whole villain storyline is stupid and sexist and racist. The worst. And that’s frustrating because there are parts of this movie that are way better than most of Iron Man 2. Like when Tony bonds with that kid, Harley (Ty Simpkins), in Tennessee. How he deals with his PTSD (except for the end-credit scene, that was just Marvel making a joke of everything), how he tries to let Pepper in and not repeat his mistakes from the second movie. He’s become a better man and there’s growth in the character. But all the rest of the movie is so messed up you hardly notice it.

And that’s why I hate this movie.

Next: Thor: The Dark World (I just noticed that the German title is Thor: The Dark Kingdom, what’s that all about?)

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A Hero Faulters

Iron Man 2 (2010) by Jon Favreau

I think I could watch this movie every day and still not see why people hate it so much. I’ve actually already written a review of it after I first watched it and while I wasn’t super-enthusiastic, I still deemed it a good movie. That hasn’t changed. (What has, is my harsh opinion on plastic surgery, feel free to ignore that paragraph.)

The plot goes as follows:

Tony Stark is dying. The palladium core in the arc reactor in his chest is poisoning him and he can’t find an element to exchange it. So while he’s opening the Stark Convention (a year-long exhibition showcasing innovative technological ideas, a throwback to what his father [John Slattery] used to do), he’s rather on edge, taking unnecessary risks.

Meanwhile, in Russia, a man named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) is building his own version of Tony’s arc reactor from an old schematic bearing his father’s and Howard Stark’s names. When they finally meet (on a racetrack in Monaco), the world gets a glimpse of an Iron Man that could be beaten by his own invention. While Tony is determined not to let that happen again, even his allies start to turn against him.

The Tony Stark we meet in the beginning is not the larger-than-life, devil-may-care egomaniac we cared for in the first movie. The new Tony has an edge to him because he already knows he’s dying. And his Iron Man suit, the thing he feels makes him a better version of himself, is advancing his demise. Against JARVIS’ (the voice of Paul Bettany) advice, he doesn’t even tell Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) about his condition, instead, he aims to push her away.

Is this what people dislike about the movie? A more vulnerable Tony Stark who, on top of that, also has a boatload of daddy issues in this movie? If that’s so: well, every female character ever written by a man has to deal with these things as well, so get over yourself. I’m not saying I like this version of Tony better but it’s a believable one if you care to look beyond his passive-aggressive dick-behavior. And Downey Jr. plays it like the brilliant actor he is.

One thing, I just remembered, that I didn’t like about Iron Man 2 (something less apparent in Iron Man unless you remember that one scene on Tony’s jet): women as eye-candy. Women as mere distractions. While Iron Man 2 (magically) passes the Bechdel test, Iron Man doesn’t even try (it’s all about Tony, all the time, with the ladies). The poor choice of treating everyone but Pepper Potts as eye-candy sadly includes Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). Yes, she’s formidable, she can stand her own against multiple opponents but for most of the movie, she’s just someone Tony pants after. Building a hero in this way takes away a lot of her industry and I think it’s one of the reasons so many fanboys don’t value her as a hero on her own. From her standpoint, she did her job, she did it well but for her character development, this whole situation can be deemed demeaning. (And what’s with Kate Mara being used in that 10-second stint? Burning great actresses much?)

There’s always talk about Iron Man’s enemies, how they’re not the best villains they could’ve saddled Tony with. Agreed, but since the series started something much bigger, shouldn’t we admit that they couldn’t have started with the likes of Thanos? I mean, they were building a world for the long-haul. Having Jeff Bridges as Iron Monger and Mickey Rourke as Whiplash doesn’t feel like a letdown to me, just two guys who, for different reasons, wanted Tony to suffer and die. And they’re not overwhelming Tony’s own story which is still developing. Where the third movie is concerned, yeah, I agree, BAD villain, but I’ll come to that after I rewatched that disaster.

Pardon me if I seem to lecture, I just like this movie. I think it’s at least as entertaining as the first one, while I got a little more love for a good origin story. The characters act believably. Maybe Justin Hammer is a little bit too much of a caricature but he seems to be what happens if a man with a small… penis happens upon Tony Stark. He can’t compete and he knows it and Sam Rockwell is just the man to play this to the max (have you noticed his hands? Hilarious!).

So maybe give this a rewatch, tell me what you think. I think as far as a developing superhero story goes, Iron Man 2 is a worthy successor of Iron Man. Why everybody felt like trashing it in hindsight, I cannot say. On my list of favorites (which I will probably have to revise at the end), this movie is #15 (with Iron Man at #7).

Next: Thor (by Kenneth Branagh?)

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A Hero Emerges

Iron Man (2008) by Jon Favreau

It’s been almost twelve years since Iron Man graced the big screens with his inflated ego, his quips, and a new cool-nerd presence. You may wonder why I chose to write about him now that his story seems officially over within the Marvel Cinematic Universe that he launched.

Well, I’m in the process of going back, you see. To the beginning. When I didn’t feel compelled to watch all MCU movies at the theater, to when I didn’t even know about most of Marvel’s heroes and wasn’t really interested either way.

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You see, Iron Man and Marvel have changed my perception and understanding of superheroes in much the same way that Kenneth Branagh and Much Ado About Nothing changed my understanding of Shakespeare – in that they made it possible. Up until Iron Man, the most I’d seen of superheroes were Batman (who I don’t like as a character) and Superman (whose 80s movies are awfully dated and whose 90s show I can’t watch anymore because Dean Cain voted for Trump), so I’m not what you call target audience for any kind of superhero franchise. There’s the added difficulty that while I loved 90s superhero shows, they all had female protagonists (what a time to be alive to watch Xena: Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Star Trek: Voyager within the same week, that’s the most representation of female heroship I remember from when I was growing up!) and let’s face it: Marvel, as well as DC, still have to up their game on that front.

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And yet! And that’s why I’m here because Iron Man and his cohorts lured me in despite myself. I watched all the movies, plus Agent Carter, plus a lot of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., bloopers, WHIH Newsfront, what have you. I wouldn’t call myself a die-hard fan, just someone who enjoys – a lot. And before any questions come in as to my background: I’ve never read a single Marvel comic (I only own two DC comic books, both Wonder Woman), I only recently watched a Marvel animated series (The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes) on Netflix (and didn’t have time to finish it before they pulled it), and I enjoyed the Marvel superhero game on Facebook which is also long gone but gave me a view of the vast line-up of heroes and their superpowers. So, if you now think my opinion is not worth your time, so long, but if you’ll like to know what I’ve got to add to the subject, great to have you.

Back to Iron Man:

I had the perfect intro here that I had to revise because upon checking my collection of movie tickets (dating back to the earliest from 1993, I was serious about the nut part in movie nut), I found out that I did watch Iron Man at the theater. So the year is 2008, I’m studying North American Studies in Berlin (the one in Germany, yes) and I must have been shocked seeing Robert Downey Jr. in a trailer. So much so, that I went and watched Iron Man.

For those who don’t know what it’s about:

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is making good money selling weapons to the U.S. Military. However, as he finds out while being kidnapped in the Middle East, the military is not his only buyer. A group calling themselves the Ten Rings wants him to build his newest weapon, the Jericho, in a cave from parts of his other weapons. Instead, Tony Stark builds his first Iron Man suit and leaves captivity.

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Back home, he finds himself conflicted by what he’s seen and wants to shut down the weapons manufacturing part of his business. But that doesn’t go over well with his closest friend/adviser Obidiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) who’s been the one behind Tony’s kidnapping and wants to take over Stark Industries. Iron Man emerges, having to fight (not for the last time) his own creation.

Iron Man is a great origin story. It may not be entirely new (the rewatch invoked thoughts of Hamlet in me) but it’s still a fantastic watch and a great start into a new universe – multiverse even. Robert Downey Jr. carries this iconic character almost effortlessly, transforming into the character but also making him his own – it’s a perfect symbiosis that way. And he isn’t the only recognizable actor by a long shot: Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, and even director Jon Favreau round out an ensemble that would make any movie proud – Paltrow and Favreau in recurring roles. The movie is perfectly paced, mixes storytelling with action with fun.

And this is really what drew me in – imagine knowing only Batman (and only loving him in that wacky 60s show) and then coming across Iron Man. Yes, they do have similar backstories, yes, they’re both super-rich and don’t have superhuman abilities. But similarities end there. Tony is nothing like Bruce and that is his strength because you don’t have to sit through another bleak version of Gotham City and see its strongest hero flagellate himself (metaphorically) over the deaths of his parents over and over again. Tony has a sense of humor where Bruce has only depression. I know that there are voices out there who think Marvel is overdoing its trademark quips at the disadvantage of earnest storytelling. But if DC movies are the alternative then, please Marvel, keep making inappropriate jokes.

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It’s astounding to read that Iron Man was never the biggest draw among Marvel’s comics because he’s become the biggest draw in the MCU and we’ll have to see how Marvel manages without him (if they will, who knows what’s gonna happen?).

There has been talk about how superhero movies are not great cinema or whatever another old white director-dude has shouted at a cloud lately (no, not a Scorsese fan here) – this is, of course, bull. For one, if you look at Iron Man alone, it’s positively Shakespearean (with the uncle-figure trying to kill the heir-apparent of the throne and such), for another: how dare you? Superheroes have been around almost as long as mobsters and have actually done the world some good, so there!

Iron Man is a very entertaining movie, you won’t even notice that two hours have gone by since sitting down (and don’t forget to watch the post-credits scene like I did last night). The MCU couldn’t have chosen a better character or actor to introduce us to their (lesser-known) stories. It didn’t necessarily get better from here (not right away) but it has done what few movies have done before – it launched a movie series where even the worst are still watchable.

Next: The Incredible Hulk (speaking of the worst…)