Sunday, October 20, 2013

Big man in a suit of armor

Iron Man 3 is out on DVD. Here’s my review from when it was in the theaters this past spring.


Iron Man beside himself:  Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark feeling less than invincible as he contemplates what else he is without his suit of armor besides a genius, billionaire, playboy, and philanthropist, and wonders if he’s up to that job in Iron Man 3.

Maybe it’s the painkillers talking, but I’m about to write a review of Iron Man 3 arguing it’s a two hour commentary on Pixar’s The Incredibles.

This isn’t a joke. After all, The Incredibles is one of the best superhero movies ever made, right up there with Spider-Man 2, Batman Begins, and the original Iron Man. Every superhero movie ought to be able to stand up to comparisons of one type or another with it.

No matter where I go with this, I will not be arguing that Pepper Potts is sexier than Mrs Incredible.

But think about it. Syndrome is a version of Iron Man. Both owe their powers to available technology which means both are walking, flying, fighting advertisements for the notion that anybody can be a superhero. Syndrome not only embraces the idea, he intends to peddle it. Tony Stark rejects it, but what is it Cap says to him in The Avengers?

“Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?”

And that’s the big question. What makes Iron Man a “super” and not merely a spoiled man-child playing with a lot of cool toys he’s invented?

What makes a “super” a superhero is one of the themes of The Incredibles. It’s the theme of the Tony Stark/Iron Man arc in the Avengers series.

Iron Man 3 is the story of Tony Stark trying to answer for himself the challenge Captain America put to him in The Avengers:

“Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?”

Stark’s comeback, “Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist,” is funny but empty, because it’s missing a word.


Or even just hero.

Stark tries to get back at Cap by calling him a lab rat and belittling his powers. “Everything special about you came out of a bottle.” Which shows that he must never have read his father’s notes on the Super-Soldier project.

We know, from Captain America: The First Avenger, that everything special about Steve Rogers was already in him. That’s why Dr Erskine picked him. The serum just brought it to the surface. At heart and in his soul and to the physical degree he was capable of, Steve Rogers was already Captain America.

Iron Man 3 is one of the better-made of all the movies in the Avengers series. But I left the theater feeling strangely let down and anxious and…lonely.

Alienated might be the better word.

This ennui surprised me because I thought I had been enjoying the movie while I was watching it. Mulling it over afterwards, I got half way to concluding I’d just been put off by the obligatory ad for the video game that’s become the standard climactic battle of every Marvel superhero movie. At least this one varies from the endings of Spider-Man 3, both Fantastic Four movies, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and The Avengers. It doesn’t take place in the city streets full of crowds of screaming civilians running pointlessly to and fro while cars and trucks blow up around them and pieces of buildings rain down on their heads. But it’s confused, directionless, repetitive, purposeless in that it doesn’t build toward a satisfying confrontation between our hero and the villain, it just keeps throwing up more obstacles between them until the director and his stunt coordinator run out of gags and the whole thing just sort of times out, nihilistic, perfunctorily violent for violence’s sake, visually ugly, boring, and ultimately just another big noisy mess, and it’d have been no wonder if it was what had soured me on the film.

But then I realized that all the battle had done was dampen the sense of fun to the point that I was left feeling more strongly something I’d been feeling all along.


And it dawned on me that Iron Man 3 is in fact a sad story about the losses that come when you reach a certain age and you turn around and realize you are now the grown-up in the room and everybody around you is relying on you and you have no one to rely on yourself in the same way, because all the grown-ups you used to count on are gone from your life.

In Iron Man and Iron Man 2, Tony Stark behaved as if he didn’t need anybody and nobody really needed him. Being a superhero was just something he did to amuse himself. In The Avengers he got a lesson in teamwork. He found out he couldn’t go it alone. The question was going to be whether the lesson would take.

Maybe we’ll get the answer to that in The Avengers 2. In Iron Man 3, Tony learns something else, that he was never as alone as he’d always thought and prided himself on being. But he learns it by finding himself suddenly very much alone. And he learns it while also learning that being a superhero isn’t something he can do for kicks. It’s something he’s obligated to do because other people need him to be one. And he learns that when as it happens he doesn’t have his superpowers.

Big man in a suit of armor. Take that away and what is he?

Jeez. No wonder Tony’s so sad. And since he’s still played by Robert Downey, his sadness is profound and convincing and, at least for me, infectious.

This is the first Iron Man---the first Avengers---movie without a certifiable grown-up, good or evil, to guide, advise, support, or challenge the hero, or, as Stark has always taken advantage of, mother, father, big brother or sister him. Agent Coulson is dead. Nick Fury is off doing whatever it is he’s doing with Cap in The Winter Soldier, along with Black Widow. Jim Rhodes is busy trying to chase down the super-terrorist known as the Mandarin. Happy Hogan’s in the hospital. Jarvis, Stark’s cyber-assistant and alter-ego, has been knocked out of commission. And, while Pepper Potts lives to take care of Tony, the trouble coming his way is way beyond her skill set and it isn’t long before she’s in no position to take care of him in any way.

Even Iron Man is out of the picture for much of the picture.

That is, if you accept that it’s the armor that makes Tony Stark Iron Man and not Stark who makes the armor something more than a machine.

Stark’s tried and true suits of armor have disappeared in the rubble of his house after the Mandarin’s minions leveled it in a helicopter attack and the one suit he has left is a prototype designed to assemble itself telekinetically but it has a few bugs in its program so that at the moment it’s much better at disassembling itself. It has a habit of short-circuiting and falling apart on him and eventually, instead of carrying Tony through the air, Stark is hauling it through the snow on a makeshift litter.

Tony is left to save himself, save his friends, save the President, save the country, and save the day all on his own, and it’s not a job he feels at all up to.

Iron Man 3 isn’t about learning that with great power comes responsibility. It’s about learning that with responsibility you don’t have enough power to take care of everybody you’re responsible for and yet you still have to try to take care of them.

In Iron Man 3, we get to see Tony doing things he hasn’t had to do before---think seriously about what he’s up to, doubt himself, ask for help---and not doing things and being things he’s used to doing and being. He has to not be so full of himself, not deflect criticisms, not shrug off or joke away feelings. In short, he has to act like an adult. Since he regards all this adult behavior as a drag (and an assault on who he thinks he is), he is add odds with himself in a way he hasn’t been before, consciously.

And he’s not sure whose side he’s on.

He jumps back and forth, but either way he jumps he treats himself as he’s been in the habit of treating everybody, dismissively, with impatience, with a general lack of sympathy, with offhand contempt, and as the deserving object of his meanest jokes.

And this means we get to see Robert Downey doing something he hasn’t had do to often in the series, play it straight. He gives us a Tony Stark who’s sober, somber, sorrowful, afraid, and…lonely.

It’s disconcerting. And of course Downey does it all very well. Maybe too well. Which it’s why it’s like I said earlier. Infectious.

Nothing that happens in Iron Man 3 undid that for me.

Since Tony is on his own throughout much of the movie, Downey is on his own too. He has some fun moments in the early going with Jon Favreau as an unhappy Happy Hogan and a funny scene with a couple of the villains’ henchmen who let themselves get a little cocky after making the mistake of thinking that Tony Stark without his armor is just a billionaire, playboy, and philanthropist. But his scenes with Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts and Don Cheadle as Jim Rhodes are mostly a matter of their focusing together on the same spots on the green screens. All his best work with the Rebecca Hall as a sexy scientist with a secret and Guy Pearce as an unsexy scientist with a bigger secret is over and done with in the first fifteen minutes of the film.

And when Stark at last confronts the Mandarin, Downey’s main job is to hang back and feed Ben Kingsley pieces of scenery to devour.

The closest then Downey has to a co-star to really share a scene with is eleven year old Ty Simpkins, who plays Harley Keener, a fatherless middle-schooler with access to a workshop Tony commandeers to try to repair his recalcitrant suit of armor after it crashlands in the woods outside Harley’s small town in Tennessee.

Harley is a budding engineering genius in his own right and desperately in need of a father-figure, so naturally he takes to hero-worshipping Tony right away, something the old Tony would have enjoyed as his due but at the moment, beaten up from within by self-doubt and self-recrimination and not in the mood to hear what a swell guy he is, something he doesn’t feel he deserves. This has Tony brushing off Harley’s attempts at friendship which allows Downey to deliver some of the most acerbic anti-child acting since W.C. Fields last said, “Go away, son, you bother me.”

If you’re thinking that Tony and Harley sound a little like they're paralleling Mr Incredible and Buddy Pine at the beginning of The Incredibles, then you’re thinking along the same lines I’m thinking, but you’re ahead of me. I’ll catch up.

Downey and Keener make a good team, but given that Tony is divided against himself, Downey is really his own main co-star and mostly left alone to play against himself. Which means we finally get to see Tony Stark/Iron Man in the full Hamlet mode that’s the signature emotional state of Marvel’s superheroes.

This doesn’t mean he’s all gloom and doom. Like Hamlet, Downey’s Stark is still quick with a joke and, since the suit of armor’s been taken away, we get to see him (Downey and Stark) do something else we haven’t really seen him do yet, play the action hero. And Downey has a ball with it. As is the case with any great movie star, the man can move.

Stark is in good shape and he’s had training that’s made him a martial arts expert, but he’s no Captain America without his armor. What he is, though, is a genius. That’s his superpower: his ability to think and invent and build on the fly or, since the suit’s out of commission and he’s grounded, on the run.

He has to MacGyver his way through various challenges and around obstacles and past dangers and out of all kinds of trouble, and, as he showed in his last three outings as Tony, Downey is a genius at playing a genius. He doesn’t just look and sound smart, he moves smart. As a scientist, he’s poetry in motion. As an engineer, he’s a dancer and a painter, a musician and a performance artist. He makes the act of creating look creative.

Of course, what we’re really seeing is if without the suit of armor, Tony Stark is still Iron Man.

There’s always been a distant allusion to the Tin Man of Oz in the Iron Man myth, the working and survival and metaphorical existence of Tony’s heart being always and often literally an open question. Tony’s brain is what powers and empowers the armor, but what the suit needs is a heart. The Stark chapters of the Avengers series have been about the search for Iron Man’s heart.

But in Iron Man 3, there’s one more missing element Tony has to find.


Tony has never been a fraidy cat. But that’s not the same as saying he’s been courageous. What’s to be afraid of when you’re the Invincible Iron Man?

But it’s not physical courage he needs. He has plenty of that, although with him it’s a fine line between bravery and a recklessness born of pure vanity. Tony needs to find the moral courage to accept grown-up responsibility for other people even though he doubts he has the strength or the wisdom necessary for the job.

Ok. This has gone too far down the Yellow Brick Road. Let’s back up so I can get back to The Incredibles.

In most superhero movies and most action-adventure movies in which the supposedly normal hero is in effect a superhero, the villain drives the plot in one of two ways.

Either he’s just going about his business as a supervillain and his scheme to control or destroy whatever he feels he needs to control or destroy is really just an excuse to show our hero acting heroically.

Or it’s personal. For one reason or another he has it in for our hero. His schemes to control or destroy are just ruses to draw our hero into a trap and, of course, force him to act heroically.

Sometimes the two get combined. Things get personal because our hero gets in the villain’s way and the villain’s feelings are hurt by that.

In The Incredibles it’s the second situation. It’s very personal for Syndrome. But with this variation. It’s the hero’s fault.

This is where things can start to border on the tragic or, at least, on the grown-up. Sometimes it’s personal because the hero has, to one degree or another, helped bring about the evil he has to confront and defeat.

And in effect, this puts our hero in conflict with himself.

Kind of goes without saying that The Incredibles isn’t a tragedy. Neither is Iron Man 3. And neither one is really intended for grown-ups. But it’s definitely an important theme of both movies. And The Incredibles does a better job of developing it and resolving it.

Both movies begin with our heroes making the same potentially tragic mistake. They reject offers of help from characters they make clear they regard as not worth their time or attention.

Stark does it with less reason and more cruelty and with a gratuitous demonstration of open contempt. But the effect is the same. The characters whose help they reject return to threaten everyone they love and they return having reinvented themselves as evil shadows of our heroes.

And their intention isn’t simply to destroy our heroes.

It’s to replace them.

Syndrome wants to be the superhero. Iron Man 3’s villain wants to be…Tony Stark.

They’re also in it for the money, of course. But that’s gravy. Mainly what they’re after is the sense of self-aggrandizement and self-satisfaction Mr Incredible expressed in rejecting Buddy’s application to be his sidekick. “I work alone” means I don’t need anybody else. But it also means “I get to take all the credit and reap all the rewards.”

Mr Incredible can only triumph by recognizing the mistake he made that brought Syndrome into existence and rectifying it. He has to face up to the fact that he can’t work alone and, not only is this well played-out in the dialog, it’s resolved in the climactic battle.

That’s what makes The Incredibles far more satisfying in the end.

That and that Syndrome is just a much better written villain with a far more interesting and sexy sexy henchwoman.

Also, Iron Man 3 has no Edna Mode.

The Incredibles gives Mr Incredible time---and better dialog---in which to realize what’s he done and face up to the consequences.

Tony does realize his mistake but he and we have very little time to process it before the video game boots.

And the big noisy mess that’s the climactic battle sequence in Iron Man 3 doesn’t play out as a confrontation between Tony Stark and his own evil shadow.

That might have contributed to let down at the end. I think there was something else, though.

So, Iron Man 3 isn’t as good as The Incredibles. But how does it stack up against the other Avengers movies?

Pretty well. I’d rank them this way. Iron Man, The Avengers, Captain America: The First Avenger, Iron Man 3, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, and Iron Man 2.

But it’s getting to where asking which movie you think is best is like asking which chapter of a novel you liked best. All the chapters share in a fan’s affection for being part of the same book, and that’s the point. Iron Man is now thoroughly part of the Avengers series and I missed the other Avengers, Cap most of all. Not just because I’ve always liked him the best, but because his story is still ongoing.

Tony’s almost certainly going to be back for The Avengers 2 and probably for an Iron Man 4, and there’s already talk of recasting when Robert Downey decides to take off the armor for good. But really Stark’s and Iron Man’s story was completed in The Avengers and in a very real way Iron Man 3 is about driving that home---the story is done and it’s time to say farewell.

So maybe that’s what I was feeling at the end. A sense of loss.

It’s over and I’m going to miss this Iron Man.


Yes, Stan Lee’s back for another cameo, and, yes, you should sit all the way through the end credits.


The Incredibles, The Wizard of Oz, Hamlet?  Really, Lance?  Of course. What else would you expect from the English professor who reviewed The Avengers as a commentary on the Knights of the Round Table?


Like I said up top, as much as I like Gwyneth, Mrs Incredible is far sexier than Pepper Potts. But know what else? Much as I like Don Cheadle? No way the Iron Patriot is as cool as Frozone.


Saturday Matinee update: I'm not the only one who saw references to The Incredibles.  Via Oliver Mannion: How Iron Man 3 Should Have Ended. Probably you shouldn't watch if you haven't seen the movie. Spoilers, of course, but also the jokes won't work if you don't know the film.

Iron Man 3, directed by Shane Black, screenplay by Drew Pearce and Shane Black. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyenth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Rebecca Hall, Guy Pearce, Paul Bettany, Ty Simpkins, Jon Favreau, and Ben Kingsley. Now in available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon.