Thursday, May 30, 2013

Downey Softener: Iron Man 3

Robert Downey Jr. (right) as Tony Stark, in Iron Man 3

Iron Man 3 is a pre-programmed summer blockbuster (of the sort that now opens in the middle of spring) and the second sequel in a comic-book movie franchise (that also ties into the Avengers mega-franchise), but it’s also a Robert Downey, Jr., so attention must be paid. For most of the past quarter of a century, Downey has been the most gifted and unpredictable American movie actor under fifty, which is an official-statistics-sounding way of saying that he’s the best actor in English-language movies who isn’t Morgan Freeman or Daniel Day-Lewis. Iron Man 3 represents a reunion for Downey and Shane Black, who directed the movie and is credited, along with Drew Pearce, with writing the screenplay.

In 1995, when Downey was ready to return from the wreckage of his personal life that had made him uninsurable and therefore all but unemployable in Hollywood, it was Black who gave him his first high-profile leading role in years. That was in Black’s directorial feature, the insanely overpraised, inanely self-satisfied Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a jabbering, sweat-soaked exercise in post-Tarantino cool that thrilled film festival patrons and movie geeks who enjoy feeling knowing about the entertainment industry and have outgrown Entertainment Weekly. (In an earlier life, which is a lot closer to the one he’s living now than he may realize, Black was rich and infamous as the screenwriter of Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero, and The Long Kiss Goodnight. Watching him play wisecracking, indie genre deconstructionist was like seeing the meathead captain of the high school football team sing about the evils of curfew and girls who don’t put out while rocking out with his grunge band.)

Downey showed so much invention and such a limitless range during his first couple of decades in movies that, artistically, he really has nothing left to prove. It would be perverse to blame him for knowing that, but it would be nice if he didn’t rub it in our faces. Iron Man 3 is the seventh movie Downey has starred in since his first go-round as Tony Stark finally gave him the box-office clout commensurate with his talent. Of those seven movies, he’s played Tony Stark in three of them, and a two-fisted, street-fighting Sherlock Holmes in two of the others. (In lighter mode, he has also co-starred with Zach Galifanikas in a Todd Phillips comedy that I did not see, but that I have heard people compare unfavorably, and with a straight face, to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.) The funny thing is that Downey probably doesn’t think he’s slumming, any more than Shane Black does.

Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin in Iron Man 3
Black is doing what he can do: he includes some cutesy voice-over narration at the beginning, so the audience can know that it’s in the hands of someone smart. (He just doesn’t have it running through the entire movie, the way he did in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, because that was an “art” movie, and this is a big franchise blockbuster; too much smartness would presumably cause the multiplex patrons’ heads to melt.) Someone who’d had a different path than Downey might see himself as a man who’s finally in a position to pick his own projects and get financing for a few things off the beaten track. But Downey did a lot of work off the beaten track in the days when his personal life made him persona non grata at the big studios. Directors who were grateful to have him for their small, personal films couldn’t have cared less what he did on the weekends. Downey had to get clean, get in shape, and prove that he had grown up and developed a measure of responsibility to be entrusted with the role of Iron Man. Other people who get into a cycle of commercially secure franchise movies may tell themselves that to do anything else would be to endanger a lifestyle they worked hard for. Downey has legitimate reasons to believe that franchise-blockbuster moviemaking literally saved his life.

If it did, it’s not as if it wasn’t a two-way street. It was never a no-brainer that, after the Sam Raimi-Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies had run their course, it would be Iron Man who would pick up the slack in the Marvel Comics movie universe. As Marvel Comics superheroes go, Iron Man is… venerable. Like the fellow in the Barry Manilow tune who wrote the very first song, he’s been around forever. But if he’s not exactly the black sheep of the family, he wasn’t such a big deal that you’d notice if he forgot to send out Christmas cards. In the 1960s, when Esquire listed Spider-man, alongside such culture heroes as Bob Dylan, as one of “the 28 people who count on campus,” while Marvel actively courted counterculture readers with a little “Pop Art Productions” logo on the covers of the comics, Tony Stark was a billionaire munitions manufacturer who liked to unwind by flying over to the Vietnam to punch out some Commies. (Years after the Vietnam War ended, Stan Lee was still sheepishly apologizing for Iron Man’s role in it.)

Iron Man had been in the business for more than thirty years before he entered movies, and he had never had much of a personality, besides a bad one: a surly rich boy who peddled instruments of death and couldn’t hold his liquor. (Other Marvel heroes had touching emotional problems and other dissatisfactions that young readers could relate to. Putting the final nail in Iron Man’s coffin, Lee had decided that Tony Stark’s Achilles heel would be that he’s a mean drunk.) Now everyone, including the creative teams on the current version of the comic books, know who Tony Stark is, because they heard it from Robert Downey, Jr. The first Iron Man movie worked because of the smart way that Downey merged his own dissolute image with the character, playing Tony Stark as an amoral party hound who gets a whiff of his own mortality and reforms… to a point. He became a crusader for justice, but he was still a funny egomaniac, not a saint. At the end of Iron Man, he even rejected the role of the noble, stoic hero hiding behind a false identity; he proclaimed “I am Iron Man!” to a group of reporters because he didn’t see why he should being a hero should be a reward in and of itself. He was a hero, but he also wanted the glory; he just couldn’t help himself. It was a perfect ending. As a set-up for future adventures, it wasn’t so great, but bringing things to a full stop is part of what a perfect ending does.

Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts in Iron Man 3
Iron Man has been kind of adrift since that first movie. Despite Black’s strained cleverness, Iron Man 3 isn’t much worse than Iron Man 2. It is much worse than last year’s The Avengers, and while that has something to do with the fact that Joss Whedon, who wrote and directed that movie, and Shane Black practically belong to different species, a lot of it has to do with the nature of the team-up comic. Downey didn’t have to carry The Avengers by himself, and he clearly enjoyed getting to play with some of his co-stars, especially Mark Ruffalo, proving that third time’s a charm as Bruce Banner, the Hulk’s softer side. He’s not the only person in Iron Man 3, but he is the only one who seems meant to matter. Ben Kingsley runs off with his scenes as the terrorist mastermind the Mandarin—an actor of British-Indian extraction playing an old yellow peril villain reconceived as a sort of Arab boogeyman whose oracular pronouncements sound like George W. Bush—but he’s really in his own separate movie. Gwyneth Paltrow returns as the hero’s main squeeze, Pepper Potts, playing damsel in distress in sweatpants and sports bra. Jon Favreau, who directed the first two movies, also returns as a former employee of Tony’s, and gets a laugh when he explains that he had to move on because he got tired of people laughing at him when he told them that he was Iron Man’s bodyguard. But then he’s injured, and then there’s a cut to him regaining consciousness in his hospital bed, and you just feel embarrassed as you realize that the movie expects you to give a rat’s ass. Rebecca Hall also turns up in a supporting role. She’s with Tony and Pepper when the villain launches a rocket assault on Tony Stark’s house, and amid all the dramatic slo-mo footage of Downey and Paltrow being flung through the air, the movie waits an unconscionably long time before bothering to show whether Hall is okay. Hall is a terrific actress who makes direct contact with the audience even in a slipshod construct of a role, and she also happens to be the sexiest woman alive. But her face isn’t on the poster, so it’s assumed that nobody will see her as anything more than a plot point.

Downey is burning off prime years of his career in these movies that take a long time to make and that demand back-breaking hard work, whose greatest lasting legacy will be landfills’ worth of fast-food tie-in toys. He may believe in the value of mainstream entertainment, but just because his heart is pure doesn’t mean that some part of his brain isn’t on life support while he’s going through the motions yet again. He goes through the motions like a champ, without a trace of condescension or contempt for what he’s doing, and no particular interest in, either. He doesn’t even bard or make obscene gestures at the camera when the movie saddles him with a lovable, wisecracking little kid to befriend—and, at the end, to reward for his help by showering him with expensive consumer goods. (Although people are killed in this movie, the only moments that seem touched by any sense of grief are the many lingering, mournful shots of the rubble-strewn ruins of Tony Stark’s big house at Malibu.) To watch him in this movie is to see someone totally commit to something that he can’t bring anything more to; he brought Tony Stark to life, turned him into a man. The biggest development in the Iron Man mythology here is how much time Tony now spends operating his suit without bothering to get inside it; there’s a big comedy routine involving his sending the suit to cover for him on date night with Pepper, and at the climax, he remote-controls legions of hollow Iron Men against the bad guys. It once seemed unthinkable that anyone could ever say this about a Robert Downey, Jr. movie, but an empty suit has become the perfect metaphor for this series.

Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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