Friday, April 3, 2015

Countdown to Avengers: Age of Ultron—Iron Man

The latest "Avengers" movie comes out on May first.  For the next month of Fridays before the premiere, we'll be looking back at the movies that formed the stepping stones for this latest one, starting with the character that started the whole story-line that led up to the forming of the group, and served as a sort of template for the "official" Marvel movie franchise: Iron Man.

Iron Man, Iron Man
Does whatever an iron can.
Presses pants very fine
Keeps that crease right in line
Hey there, there goes the Iron Man!

Marvel comics writer-artist John Byrne's parody of the "Spider-man" song

Iron Man - the first superhero film to be produced by an off-shoot of the company creating the material (Rival DC Comics' out-put is produced by Warner Brothers, whose parent company also owns DC) manages to not fall into the Inescapable Doom-Trap that plagues so many comic-book adaptations—turgid respect for the material. It seems like so many of these films (Spider-man, Superman Returns, Batman Begins, Hulk, Sin City) think they're creating The Song of Bernadette, instead of adapting a comic-book whose target audience is somewhere between five years old and arrested development. Kids (and adults) enjoyed these highly-derivative adventures* because of their swash-buckling derring-do and "can-do" attitude, but so many of their filmed adaptations feel that they have to be encased in welschmertz two inches thick (an unhappy consequence of the Marvel "soap-opera/romance comics" style of writing in the 60's), as if the makers were incapable of transferring the joy of the source, or were ashamed of the movies' origins. Iron Man, though it has some elements of that, neatly skirts around the heavy moments with a happy combination of Robert Downey, jr.'s manic performance and Jon Favreau's taking advantage of Downey's quirky rhythms to make the thing breezy, fast-paced and fun, despite the amount of collateral damage inflicted on the surroundings and the people in front of them. There is just enough action here to give you a taste of the "When Titans Clash!" atmosphere of the Marvel paradigm, and for once, one of those fights convinced me that comic book action could be pulled off and made just as dynamic on the big-screen (Superman's saving of a damaged 747 in Superman Returns is another). Fortunately, the slug-fests never last too long so that it turns into a "Transformers"-style overkill sequence. The film-makers know when enough is enough, and make the most of it.
How's the story? Well, it updates it to the present-day where munitions billionaire Anthony Stark (Downey) finds himself blown up by his own weaponry and is taken captive by a "terrorist cell" (The "Ten Rings"--which means they're twice as corrupt as the International Olympic Committee) living in the hills of Afghanistan, with only an electromagnet, engineered by his fellow captive Yensin, keeping the Stark shrapnel in his body from going to his heart (what there is of it). He is instructed to create a prototype of the "shoot-and-forget" Jericho missile that he was demonstrating to the military at the time of his capture. As the Ten Rings have a hefty supply of Stark munitions, he starts to cannibalize them for work on the missile. But, because the Kunar Province isn't really that far from Damascus, he has a change of heart (oh...heh) and creates, Macgyver-like, a suit of armor to use against his captors in a desperate escape attempt. If you haven't already suspended disbelief, the rest of the movie won't improve things. But let's just say, things get worse after they get better.
There's a lot of heavy stuff being thrown at the audience throughout the movie, the plight of refugees, the complicity of arms manufacturers who don't take sides but will take a check, and the "with great responsibility, comes not-too-great pontificating," but Favreau, taking his cue from Downey, keeps all this heavy stuff light and frothy and brushes it away to get to the fun stuff. Downey's Tony Stark is a heavy-metal Bruce Wayne, a PHD/MA with OCD and ADD, and his higher-brain power makes him the smartest smart-ass in the room and the actor's physical comedy work during the R&D, stateside, of Stark's "IronMan" armor is consistently funny, and for all the CGI supporting it, it's Downey's performance that holds your interest, reminiscent of his incredible work impersonating Chaplin. He is so good, and so in command, that it takes Terrence Howard and Jeff Bridges everything they have to try and match him and not get blown off the screen by him (Bridges, yes, Howard, no), while Gwyneth Paltrow (with the worst name ever given a character in comics-"Pepper" Potts!) can only collapse in giggles, which given the love-sick "girl Friday" character foisted on her, seems appropriate (although more than once she gives off a "Kirsten Dunst vibe" that seems derivative).
Favreau's work is consistently good, although he betrays fan-boy roots by basing sequences on 2001, Star Wars, and Alien,** and not diverging Iron Man's flying scenes too far from The Rocketeer. In fact, much of the slapstick humor of getting used to your rocket-pack derives from that film. The persistent calling to mind of the "Black Sabbath" song tends to outwear its welcome as well. The folks I saw it with brought up the fact that that armor wouldn't have quite so easy a time dealing with the modern weaponry of the Iraq War on display, considering that armored Humvees (the kind seen in the first sequence of the film) don't stand up well at all. But that didn't faze the fan-boys in the audience (one of whom sitting down the aisle from me who could have been the model for "The Simpsons' "comic book guy" guffawed, stamped his foot and yelled his encouragement at the screen—he, sadly, left before the the End-Credits that finished with an Ultimate sequence that would have blown his tiny little mind). Nor did it faze them that Tony Stark was continuing to party and live the high-life while the conflict in Afghanistan continued on. Nobody found that ironic.

Some hero.

* (Although Stan Lee--who has another cameo in this one, though it's mercifully short--will tell you otherwise, Iron-Man's steely roots can be traced back to Dumas, and some cribbed elements from the Distinguished Competition)

** "Prove it" you says, defensively. Fine. The POV shots inside Stark's and Stane's robot helmets recall the shots of the Discovery astronauts in their pods, the read-outs reflecting off their faces, and "Jarvis" is no longer the Stark butler--how very "Alfred" that would be--but now is a voice-provided computer, ala HAL. For Star Wars, Yinsen pulls a "Han Solo" early on , running , screaming down a cave-corridor after a couple of guards, only to have PRECISELY the same outcome, and Favreau includes a POV of the "IronMan" mask approaching Stark's face ala Revenge of the Sith. And for no other reason to acknowledge and crib the same creepy feeling it evokes, he has the same "singing chains" sequence from the first Alien movie. These are NOT coincidences.
"Stark-Raving Mad"

It seems like everybody wants a piece of Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Beyond the usual mindless herd of groupies and hangers-on, a Senate sub-committee led by Sen. Stern (Gary Shandling) wants Stark Industries to turn over Tony's metal suit to the government, rival defense contractor Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) wants the intellectual property for his own devices, Stark friend Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) has been ordered to procure a suit for the Military, S.H.I.E.L.D head Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) wants Stark’s expertise, and discredited physicist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) wants Stark’s head, sans ideas or chrome helmet.

And poor
“Pepper” Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow)? She just wants a little of Tony’s time and attention…strictly business, of course.

That’s easier said than done. Time is in short supply for Tonythe Palladium-powered pacemaker keeping his heart going is killing him, throwing him into a jet-powered tail-spin of narcissistic self-pity and hedonism. And it’s hard to get any elbow-room for all the people trying to set-up an intervention, tough-love or no. The one person who seems to seek nothing from the head of Stark Industries is voluptuous Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson) from legal, who’s a whiz at business transition components, but can also take down Stark’s driver/bodyman “Happy” Hogan (director Jon Favreau) in the tightest skirt possible. Tony’s watching her, but not the way he should.
At this point, one should be aware that Iron Man 2 is suffering from some serious character bloat, a traditional problem with super-hero sequels that decide to take their eyes off the hero and onto the guest-villains. Fortunately, scenarist Justin Theroux takes a story breakdown from The Dark Knight and integrates all the conflicts into a single story…of Tony Stark, used up and spent, finding his worth despite a life of increasingly attention-deficited indulgence, and, instead of using and being used, getting something from an unexpected source in an unlikely way that re-charges his batteries.
It's all about Tony, you see. He's always been selfish and self-absorbed, but with a ticker that's counting down his limited moments, he becomes even more internal and narcissistic, deciding to use that time in pursuit of new thrills and new highs, though they may be increasingly self-destructive. Those jets in his feet and pulse generators in his hands only show that he's burning his candle at both ends. A celebration of all things Stark at the StarkExpo in Flushing, New York provides a backdrop for his inner struggle. A "city of the future," it was the brain-child of Tony's father, Howard ("Mad Men's" John Slattery, seen in archive footage), a combination of Hughes and DisneyStarkExpo, amusingly, has a theme written by Disney-musical scribe Richard Sherman—father and son are seen in Stark contrast: Howard was a giver and Tony, a taker. And Tony's understanding of their differences is the major character arc of the movie. It takes Tony out of the self-imposed metal bubble (represented by the Iron Man suit) that he has placed himself in. It also gives him a second chance at life.
That arc, and the movie, also provide plenty of opportunities to see some of the quirkiest and quickest actors in the business sparking off each other. One of the problems with the first “Iron Man” was that no one could match Robert Downey’s energy and ability to riff in a scene. In Iron Man 2, almost everybody can, and it’s a particular joy to see Downey playing “Can You Top This?” with the likes of Rourke and Rockwell (at his smarmy salesman best), but also Clark Gregg (returning as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Coulson) and Don Cheadle. Even Gwyneth Paltrow brings her best game, never once succumbing to Downey-inspired giggle-fits (as she did often in the first film), and matching his speed. Johansson and Jackson, in a completely different tactic, merely have to dead-pan their way through their scenes with him to register. They’re supposed to be mysterious, anyway.

Are there problems? Sure. The action scenes are best when Rourke and Downey’s antagonists are spitting sparks at each other—Ivan Vanko’s energy-whips have the same animated fierceness of the
Id-Monster from Forbidden Planet—but most of the fights are swooping flame-trails and orange explosions in their wake (not very involving). And despite starting the film fast out of the gate under the Paramount logo, Favreau indulges in some long set-ups to punch-lines with little pay-off—one of them involving his character in an extended fist-fight that drags along, increasing his screen-time. There are too many times when the film is one big TV monitor for full-frame large graphics of news reports, and there may be a couple of cameos too many.

But, quibbles aside, Iron Man 2 might be a bit better than its predecessor, which managed to make a nice breezy transition to the screen, and sparked the imagination of its audience. A lot of the credit must go to Downey, who brought more energy than any number of “Transformers”-like Rock’em Sock’em Robot fights could muster. The stakes are raised performance-wise (and robot-wise) here, but this sequel continues to soar, fueled primarily by its lead actor.

Rust Never Sleeps
The Hot Mess Protocol (Chaotica in Extremis)

One still finds it incredible, if not amazing, that the most popular film-series in the Marvel Universe* continues to be "Iron Man."  Don't get me wrong. Tony Stark's character is an important one in the pulps (are they still using pulp paper?), but relatively minor next to Captain America, Spider-man, The Fantastic Four or The Hulk. Now, Cap and Spidey're doing fine in the flickers, but the others, not so much. And the "Iron Man" series is the lynch-pin for the "Avengers" movies Marvel is creating as major events in the film-calendar.

The secret to its success seems to be, single-handedly, the casting of Robert Downey Jr. as billionaire-tech Tony Stark, a move that was initially resisted by Marvel. But Downey's refusal to stick to text, traditional acting rhythms, and mercurial energy makes even the most generic of roles a circus act, balancing on a tight-wire, never being predictable and finding interesting ways, by body and soul, to entertain, even when cocooned in a tin can. He's the best special effect in the "Iron Man" series, and dominated and energized the other characters in Joss Whedon's first "Avengers" movie.

Now, out of the factory comes Iron Man Three (as it is presented in the titles), the third film where most film series (post-Star Wars, and excepting the films that choose to bifurcate their last chapters) seem to stop, usually because either star-salaries and their negotiations are unsustainable, a logical character arc is achieved, or the film-makers have run out of ideas, or audiences, of interest. Three seems to be a good stopping point for super-hero movies, too. Face it, by the third movie, it's all about the toys and the merchandising. In this one, there's a veritable garage of Iron Man suits in enough variations that they'll be clogging toy store-shelves in a week (and bargain bins in six months). That's not the reason to see the movie, though, as each suit has little to no screen-time, with no explanation of what they are or what makes them special in any way.
This one is a movie version of the comics' "Extremis" storyline, originally written by Warren Ellis, but changed significantly and inserting one of Gear-head's major villains, the Mandarin—(as portrayed by Ben Kingsley) but not in a way that will impress comics fans, although general audiences might find the use amusing and apt for the times. Tony Stark is having issues with PTSD from his encounter with "Gods, aliens, and wormholes" in the Avengers movie**  Stark Industries (and it's CEO, Pepper Potts—Gwyneth Paltrow, once again) is being schmoozed by the creepy head of AIM, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), while Tony, sleep-deprived by nightmares, vows to deal with Mandarin-orchestrated terror attacks that have become personal—Jon Favreau's Happy Hogan is left in a coma after an attack on one of America's great industrial centers, Graumman's Chinese Theater, by creepily glowing human bombs. Tony calls out the Mandarin, inciting an attack on his Malibu cliff-house, leaving him presumed dead and without resources, hiding out in Tennessee. If all this isn't complicated enough, Col. James Rhodes, the "Iron Patriot," (Don Cheadle) goes after the Mandarin himself at the behest of the government, and is captured, making his combat suit a threat, as well.
That's the plot—colluding and combusting—and Tony must rely less on his established mechanical persona than his own wits and ingenuity. Would that the filmmakers were, as well.

Favreau, who oversaw the first two movies, executive-produced this one. The writer-director of this mess is Shane Black, who collaborated with Downey in the not-bad movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and he makes the first two efforts seem brilliant by comparison. Oh, the charm of Downey is still there—there's one particular scene between him, Paltrow and Rebecca Hall in a three-way snark-argument that's particularly nice—and concerted efforts have been made to keep him out of the suit and his own man throughout most of film. But the movie's gears seize up every time a big action kerfluffle begins, and the only rhyme or reason for shot placements seems to be to keep the multiple cameras recording the events out of line of sight with each other. The editing suffers from some odd inserts in the middle of the action that merely confuses, rather than informs what is going on.***  
And, it seems a little obvious to accuse an "Iron Man" movie of a deus ex machina overdose, but this one suffers greatly from it and finally breaks down in a denouement that polishes and shines everything in a nice little package and makes you wonder "that easy, huh?" This film could have used a little Geritol, frankly, and feels a little like spinning its wheels, all the while you hear a lot of grinding in the works. The film proudly states that "Tony Stark will return." 
Oh.  Wow.  Can't wait.
Tony Stark kinda, you, know, uh, explains it all for you.

* © Disney Corp.

** In that movie, which is only referenced as "New York," Iron Man must fly a Big Exploding Thing into a wormhole connecting Asgard's multi-verse realm to deal with an Earth-threatening happenstance.  In that other dimension, his suit gives out and he falls unconscious to Earth where he is caught by Dr. Bruce Banner's Hulk, without any of the neck-snapping consequences incurred by girl-friends of Spider-man.

*** Chris Nolan's "Batman" films have gotten flack for that, but Nolan's story-telling sense usually gets him through rough patches and "wait-a-minute" moments that this "Iron Man" entry immediately brings to mind.

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