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You Know Who I Am: Iron Man 3 Review

Since I did that whole Marvel Movies Project, it seems appropriate to blog about the latest effort from Marvel Studios. Iron Man 3, which is the first film in Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was released on Friday. It sees the post-Avengers return of Tony Stark, who’s back and taking on a new adversary called The Mandarin, played by Ben Kingsley. There’s much more to the story, but I won’t spoil it here.

The Iron Man movies have all been somewhat political, dealing with the arms trade the moral issues surrounding high tech warfare. Iron Man 3 looks at this from a different angle, focusing on the even more philosophical question of how societies create enemies, or “demons,” as Stark puts it in the film, in order to have someone specific to fight. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything, but I liked what they did with this. It’s fairly subversive in its way. Having said that, I am not an expert on Iron Man, and I’m not sure how comic book purists will feel about the way The Mandarin is portrayed in the film.

The movie’s other main theme is identity: “you know who I am” is repeated a couple of times, and Tony’s famous line “I am Iron Man” also comes up again. Rhodey’s name is changed by a marketing team from War Machine to the Iron Patriot, and The Mandarin’s true origin is very ambiguous for much of the film. Identity in this film is very much a construct, and Tony feels his falling apart after the final battle against the aliens in The Avengers (which the filmmakers reasonably assume everyone has seen). After the attack by the Chitauri on New York, suddenly people are aware that there are possibly hundreds of other alien worlds out there just waiting to attack the Earth. This has put Tony Stark in a questioning mood, and his uncertainty manifests itself in some anxiety issues.

The idea of cosmic events creating profound changes also came up in The Avengers, with Nick Fury revealing that it was Thor’s arrival on Earth which made SHIELD investigate the possibility of using the Tesseract to create weapons. Tony’s anxiety therefore seems symptomatic of a larger global anxiety within the Marvel Cinematic Universe: it’s all part of the continuity tying everything together as Iron Man 3 kicks off Phase Two. (The other piece of continuity comes in the form of a very amusing post-credits sequence.)

Iron Man 3 places Tony’s closest allies in jeopardy as Pepper, Rhodey, and Happy all find themselves victimized by The Mandarin’s schemes. Two of Tony’s old acquaintances, Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) and Aldrich Killian (an uber-smarmy Guy Pearce), are also involved in it all somehow, and The Mandarin even invades Tony’s personal space, completely destroying his Malibu home. (Granted, Tony kind of invited him to do that.) The battle becomes very personal for Tony, who gradually recognizes the role he’s played in creating his own demons, as he says in the film’s opening narration.

All of this is interesting and there are some very cool action sequences to remind us we’re watching a superhero movie as well. But in the end I felt a bit let down by Iron Man 3 overall. I don’t know if it was the awesomeness of The Avengers that spoiled me or what, but there just seemed to be something missing here. I don’t think this film is as funny as Iron Man or even Iron Man 2, and there might be a little too much going on for the story to be totally coherent.

For one thing, I felt Tony as a little too quick to make The Mandarin his problem: he doesn’t yet have all the background about why The Mandarin is his personal demon when he calls him out, and his overblown televised call for revenge feels rather out of place coming so early in the film.

Another problem is the number of pieces in the villain puzzle. The Mandarin is essentially running a network of terrorists, so it makes sense that several people are involved in his plans. However, the number of distinct villain characters seems a bit too large for a movie like this. On the other hand, the random people infected with the Extremis virus created by Maya Hansen are mostly anonymous, which is both a good thing and a problem: maybe I missed it, but I was never completely sure what motivated the Extremis volunteers (or were they forced?) to go along with The Mandarin at all. Plus, and this is just personal taste, I did not find the Extremis soldiers, whose main power seems to be extreme heat, particularly compelling adversaries.

I think I’ll have to watch this again before I can judge it completely. Right now I’ll say there were things I liked a lot, and things that weren’t so appealing to me. My initial reaction is that Iron Man 3 is a good movie, not a great one. It’s miles better than any other Marvel threequel — which is a rather back-handed compliment, as the other three (Blade: TrinityX-Men: The Last Stand, and Spider-Man 3) were all terrible — but it might still be the worst in its trilogy. I don’t think it’d make a list of the top 10 Marvel movies, but it’s not in the bottom 10 either.

Marvel Movies Project: Closing Thoughts

Yesterday, I posted my thoughts on the Marvel movies themselves, in the form of a list of bests and worsts. For today’s final Marvel Movies Project post, I’ve put together a few ideas on comic book adaptations in general.

For me, this rewatch prompted some thoughts on superheroes and intellectual property, and on the nature of the comic book universe developed over several decades by the many different creators who’ve passed through the Merry Marvel Bullpen. It’s a massive story world which is now being translated to a new medium, with varying degrees of success. The complex interweaving of all these characters’ stories in the comic books makes for some challenges in adaptation.

At first, with the Marvel Universe having been sold off piecemeal to various different studios, the approach was to focus in on one small part of that universe and pretend the rest doesn’t exist; for example, in Fox’s Daredevil movie, Ben Urich’s employer is the New York Post because the rights to the Daily Bugle name went with Spider-Man to Sony. This is a small detail, but it serves to illustrate how the scope of the films had to be limited.

Now, with Marvel Studios in business, we’re seeing Marvel itself attempt things on a much bigger scale, building a film universe that could conceivably grow to mirror the comic book universe. Phase One has been remarkably successful in every sense — the movies are all good, they tie together extremely well, and they’ve made huge piles of money — but it remains to be seen whether Phase Two, consisting of six movies (Iron Man 3Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Avengers 2, and Ant-Man) to be released between now and 2015, can continue to grow the universe in a sustainable way.

Right now, a casual viewer can watch The Avengers without having seen Iron Man 2 or Thor and probably not be too confused (although really, I think seeing Thor probably helps … plus, Thor is awesome and everyone should see it). Will this continue as more movies are produced, introducing more characters and presumably more and more backstory? There may be a reason the world of comic book movie adaptations has so far focused so much on origin stories, to the point that Spider-Man has already been remade only 10 years after its release.

It is interesting to note that four of the Phase Two films are sequels, which means more building on already established characters and stories. Having fewer new characters to keep track of might make the MCU simpler and easier to follow. But I’m inclined to think things will rather become more complex as Thor and Captain America and Iron Man’s backstories become more and more detailed. (Of course, it’s possible any of these characters could be killed off. That’s one way of wiping the slate clean.)

The studio then has to walk a fine line between making the continuity overly complicated and keeping it meaningful. Before The Avengers, it made sense to use Agent Coulson, Nick Fury, and SHIELD as roving elements to tie the various movies together. Now, though, The Avengers have all met and worked together, and I’m not sure things can be quite so separate anymore: if the events of The Avengers have no impact whatsoever on Iron Man 3, it cheapens the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe idea. The tie-ins have to matter. They just can’t matter too much.

With 20th Century Fox looking to create its own version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Warner Bros. possibly stepping into the fray on behalf of DC Comics, it looks as though Marvel Studios may have started a trend. It will be interesting to see what happens — whether it continues to work and we get more and more linked film series, or whether the trend burns out and the studios do what Marvel and DC have been doing for years: start over at issue #1.

Marvel Movies Project: Best & Worst

After five months and 27 films, I am finally finished this Marvel Movies Project. It was a fun experience; even if a few of the movies are not of the highest quality, it was still interesting to go back and watch them all in order, seeing the evolution (and ups and downs) of Marvel on film. To wrap up, here are some of my picks for the best and worst of Marvel Movies.

Best Movies

  1. Spider-Man 2
  2. The Avengers
  3. Spider-Man
  4. Thor
  5. Iron Man
  6. X2
  7. Captain America: The First Avenger

I tried to pick a top five, but I couldn’t get it below seven. Then I tried to do a top 10, but I also couldn’t justify a number higher than seven (although X-Men came close to making the list). Basically, I think these seven are pretty easily the cream of the Marvel crop. They all feature solid casts, directors, writing, and effects, and all tell really good stories with a good mix of humour, action, and drama. All are also fun to watch — an important quality in a comic book movie.

Worst Movies

  1. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
  2. Punisher: War Zone

Again, I tried to make a top five but although there are definitely some other bad Marvel movies, I feel these two stand out in terms of total suckitude. Something like Daredevil is bad, yes, but it at least doesn’t feel like it was intended to go straight to video. Both these films are also significantly worse and more painful to watch than their predecessors.

Worst Threequels

  1. Blade: Trinity
  2. X-Men: The Last Stand
  3. Spider-Man 3

Only three Marvel franchises have made it to three instalments, and in all three cases the third instalment has been a huge step down in quality for the franchise. The first two Spider-Man movies: amazing. The first two X-Men movies: astonishing. The first two Blade movies: well, they were pretty good horror/action films. Unfortunately, Blade: Trinity features an insulting script aimed directly at the lowest common denominator, X-Men: The Last Stand sees almost all prior character development tossed out the window along with the characters’ principles, and Spider-Man 3 turns its lead character into an unsympathetic jerk to make a point about … something. The terrible threequel: a worrying trend for Marvel.

So yeah, who’s looking forward to Iron Man 3!? Don’t worry; it’s the first Marvel Studios threequel so I’m sure none of this applies to it and I will in no way regret using a vacation day to go see it on May 3.

The Noble Failure Award

I cannot in good conscience call Hulk a good movie, but I can at least see that the filmmakers were trying to do something interesting with it. Although it is a bloated, boring mess, it gets credit for its ambition.

Most Improved by Time and Lowered Expectations

Elektra, which actually seemed pretty decent this time around. It’s not a masterpiece, but in terms of comic book movies about women — a very small and not very illustrious group — it might be the best. Which also goes to show that we need more comic book movies about women.

Most Unnecessary

I’ve been told over and over by my friends from the local comic book store that the Raimi Spider-Man films have not aged well, and The Amazing Spider-Man is a big improvement. I guess this proves that even cool people can be wrong, because nothing will convince me that The Amazing Spider-Man is anything more than a tired rehash of something that was done much, much better just a decade ago. Even if it was a good movie, which it isn’t, but hypothetically — the point is, you’ve still already seen it. Recently.

Key Actors

There are two actors whose performances I think have essentially built the Marvel movie world: Hugh Jackman and Robert Downey Jr. Wolverine is of course one of Marvel’s most well-loved characters, and Jackman’s excellence ensured that his popularity carried over to the big screen. Plus, the guy has appeared in five films, with two more on the way. It’s impressive. Downey, meanwhile, deserves a huge amount of credit for the success of Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If Iron Man had tanked, things might have gone very differently for Marvel Studios. That it didn’t is in large part thanks to his charismatic presence.

Other than those two, I think Wesley Snipes has to get some credit; after all, it was Blade‘s surprising success that ushered in the modern Marvel movie era. Chris Evans is the standout actor to have played more than one Marvel character. Steve Rogers and Johnny Storm are both major figures in the Marvel universe, and Evans is great as both.

Best Female Performances

The X-Men movies give us the most to choose from here: Famke Janssen (Jean), Anna Paquin (Rogue), and Rebecca Romijn (Mystique) stand out for me, and I also think their characters are the three most interesting female mutants in the movies. In terms of love interest type roles, I like Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane a lot. Hayley Atwell and Natalie Portman are also very strong in Captain America and Thor. Speaking of Thor, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Kat Dennings’ hilarious performance. Rosemary Harris is wonderfully warm and grandmotherly as Aunt May in the Raimi Spidey films.

But most of all, there is Scarlett Johansson, who is doing spectacularly as the Black Widow and giving Marvel its first legitimate shot at making a really good female-centred movie, if they would just freaking take her up on it.

Best Villainous Performances

  1. Tom Hiddleston as Loki in The Avengers
  2. Ian McKellen as Magneto in the X-Men trilogy
  3. Michael Fassbender as Magneto in X-Men: First Class

Magneto just has a certain … animal magnetism. Unfortunately for him, he got Loki’d.

Best Comedic Performances

  1. Chris Hemsworth and Kat Dennings in Thor
  2. Mark Ruffalo/CGI Hulk in The Avengers
  3. Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and The Avengers
  4. Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis in Fantastic Four
  5. Tobey Maguire in the Spider-Man trilogy

It’s true that, strictly speaking, these aren’t all 100% comedic performances, but they all have very funny aspects and I would say the movies listed are the funniest Marvel movies. I would also give an honourable mention to Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer in Iron Man 2, because he’s so absurd and Tony’s hatred of him is so hilarious.

Tobey Maguire has a lot of haters for some reason I do not understand, but just think back to the sequence in Spider-Man 2 where Peter, having given up being Spider-Man, dons his glasses and happily goes about his everyday nerdy life. It’s very funny stuff. How much of the “comedy” in Spider-Man 3 is intentionally funny, or funny at all, is very debatable, but I think credit goes to Maguire for trying to go along with whatever Sam Raimi was trying to do.

Best Action Sequences

  1. The Avengers: Helicarrier Attack
  2. Spider-Man 2: Train (the Bank/Saving May sequence is also superb)
  3. X2: Wolverine Is the World’s Most Badass Babysitter
  4. Iron Man: Building the Suit/First Flight (this is a bit of a cheat because it could include most of the movie, but hey)
  5. Spider-Man: Wall-Crawling & First Webs

It’s tough to pick just a few scenes from 27 such action-packed movies. In the end, though, there’s a handful that stand out.

Best Cast

The Avengers wins this automatically, but other than that: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy has a truly marvellous cast. Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Rosemary Harris, Cliff Robertson, Willem Dafoe, Alfred Molina, J.K. Simmons (who is like the old Spidey cartoon come to life), Elizabeth Banks, Bill Nunn, and Ted Raimi are all fantastic. They also have great chemistry as a group.

The cast of Thor would be my other choice. The Asgardians: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Idris Elba, Rene Russo, Jaimie Alexander, Josh Dallas, Ray Stevenson, and Tadanobu Asano, plus Colm Feore as Laufey. The Earthlings: Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard, Kat Dennings, and Clark Gregg, with a cameo from Jeremy Renner. All of these people are good actors, and incredibly, almost all of them make a memorable impact on the movie.

Best Stan Lee Cameo

As much as I hate The Amazing Spider-Man‘s existence, I do love Stan Lee’s appearance as an oblivious school librarian. However, his cameos in the Iron Man movies as “Hugh Hefner” and “Larry King” would probably top the list if not for the fact that he plays the FF’s lovable mailman, Willie Lumpkin, in Fantastic Four.

Some Favourite Dialogue

“That’s my secret, Captain. I’m always angry.” – Bruce Banner, The Avengers

“I need a horse!”
“We don’t have horses, just dogs, cats, birds …”
“Then give me one of those large enough to ride.”exchange between Thor and a pet shop employee, Thor

“This is really … heavy …” – Peter Parker, Spider-Man 2

Those are my impressions of the movies themselves. I’ll be back tomorrow with a few final thoughts on comic book movie adaptations in general, and that will be my very last Marvel Movies Project post (as far as I know). My goal was to finish before Iron Man 3 — I made it!