Thursday, May 23, 2013

Iron Man 3 Review

Movies are a passion of mine, but it’s not often I get the chance to review one. I got to go to Iron Man 3 recently, and I figured I’ll be talking about it anyway, so I might as well put it up here.

I’ll run it down element by element.

Let’s start with the performances, which were universally excellent. Robert Downey Jr. gives a depth to Stark beyond what has been reached before. Paltrow is great as Potts, the go-between for Stark and the sane world; patient, affectionate, and no-nonsense as always. Cheatle is amazing as always with what he has to work with (read below), and has some of the best one-liners in the movie.

Guy Pearce is all snark and arrogance as Aldrich Killian. Rebecca Hall does well as Maya Hansen, though her part is a mixed bag. Ty Simpkins plays Harley Keener, and keeps up with the other person who’s on screen for most of his scenes (Robert Downey Jr.). Ben Kingsley outshines everyone, though. In any scene he’s in, the Mandarin steals the show.

Stark’s character development is just as good as Downey's acting. Both humbled and haunted by the events in The Avengers, Stark lives with panic attacks and PTSD. He’s driven to the edge by the events that in Iron Man 3, closer to his breaking point than he’s been since the first Iron Man. But he remains a compelling character, possibly deeper than he has been before. When he succeeds in the end, you cheer. He regains a portion of his original confidence, everything he’s earned and an inch more, in true Tony Stark fashion.

Possibly the best part of his growth is the friendship he develops with a kid named Harley Keener. This relationship parallels Stark’s relationship with his father, antagonistic at times and never sugar-coated. It serves to remind the audience that Iron Man 2 presented Stark’s first honest look at his relationship with his father. Iron Man 3 allows him to finally come to terms with his father’s absence, and maybe take his first steps toward preparing for fatherhood himself.

Pepper gets a true storyline independent from Stark, as was promised, but this falls somewhat flat. If they had given her another ten minutes and explored her as a character, it would smooth out some of the other problems in the story. But that would have made her well and truly Stark’s equal, which must have made them nervous. Instead of the revolution we might have had, we got reform. It’s hard to complain. But I do, anyway.

Rhodes doesn’t get a storyline, an arc, or development. That makes sense, seeing as he got all three in Iron Man 2. Good development, if cut short in the name of safety like Pepper’s story is in Iron Man 3. I find it strange that he returns to two dimensions as if he’d never been given a third at all. It makes me concerned for Potts’s character in the future.

Next is the story. You can pretty much consider this spoiler country, though I’ll try to keep them down.

The story is good, but not great.

One of the best things about it is the cohesion with the events in The Avengers. Not only are there constant Easter-egg references, but the events in Iron Man 3 would well and truly not have happened were it not for The Avengers. In addition, there are little continuity nods to the comics, the previous movies, and even real life. From the comics, we get a cameo of the Hulkbuster suit. From previous movies is Stark collecting Butterfingers (his robot assistant) personally from the wreckage. And from real life, we get Happy’s job change; Jon Favreau stepping down from directing is hardly a secret, and this reference is amusing.

Between my comments about the writing, Starks’ character development, and Pepper’s increased screen time, I’ve given a good idea about what I like from the story. Here’s what I don’t.

Let me start with the biggest problem: the villains.

No, not the Mandarin. He’s terrific. While some dogmatic comic fans might have some problems with Sir Ben and his performance, I am not one of them. One of the first things I thought upon the announcement of the Mandarin was, “That’s awesome! We’ll finally get to see Iron Man’s biggest foe on screen!” That was inevitably followed by, “So, how the heck are they going to fit a racist depiction of a sorcery-wielding Napoleonic Chinese villain into the technology-based Marvel cinematic universe?”

Better than you’d expect. That’s how.

No, I refer to the other pair in the villain trifecta when I mention disappointment. Maya Hansen and Aldrich Killian are inexpertly handled after the halfway point.

Maya develops out of a comedic antagonist for Pepper into what you could almost call a friend. Her monologue about the death of innocence is legitimately touching. Unfortunately, it’s followed almost immediately by betrayal. That betrayal is then hacked off at the knees by Maya’s continued waffling. There’s a difference between writing a sympathetic and even reluctant villain, and one that is just weak. Rebecca Hall is consistently giving everything she’s got, but no one can save a role so muddled.

Is Maya really a villain? Because some of her dialogue suggests she is. Then again, other bits of dialogue portray her as a victim, manipulated by the heartless Killian. Has she made a deal with the Devil? If so, what were the terms? Does she still think it was worth it? How much influence does she still have over Killian, if any? To what extent is she involved in the crimes? Is she merely taking blood money, or does she help to bloody it? Is she a sociopath, or just desperate? Why didn’t she come to Stark before this? Was she so insulted at being snubbed years ago that she wouldn’t take help she obviously needs? And finally, why is she so determined to have him now?

None of this is made as clear as it should be.

Killian is clearer, but completely unrealistic. He wants, in this order (I believe): Money, Influence, Freedom, and Pepper. What doesn’t he want? And if he has all the power the story gives him in the later scenes, why doesn’t he openly take what he wants?

Maybe with another ten minutes, we could have clarified these things. But each minute has a cost, both in practicality and in pacing, and they couldn’t afford it. No matter what it might have bought.

My second problem with the story is Stark’s narration throughout. None of it is bad, per se (not after you’ve watched 10,000 B.C., anyway), but it always seems out of place. It is explained at one point, and somewhat justified. But considering that it is totally unnecessary, and considering that Robert Downey Jr. and Shane Black last worked together in “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang,” in which the narration is key to the story, it’s clear they were just having fun. It hurts the story.

Maybe they’ll pull a “Blade Runner: Director’s Cut” and cut the unnecessary, distracting hand-holding.

This next problem would be the largest, if it were simply born of laziness or ineptitude. As it is, it comes in third. The plot undermines itself.

Mark 42 is the key to the movie. Built after the Extremis comic design, it is lighter, more agile, and more responsive than any model before. It also has a “call” button (kind of). It is the focus, the thread that holds the film together and can ultimately sew it up neatly. It successfully ties together the three acts and stitches most of the ending into place. It is beautiful, a work of art like few single elements are in a movie. And then the string is cut, and the plot tears wide open.

I agree with their decision to cut that string.

That string made Pepper a damsel and nothing more. It made her entire story null and void by placing her in the same position that women have been relegated to for the history of filmmaking--and, some would say, for the history of the world. This would have would have undermined everything the writers, director, and actors had been going for. It would have been terrible. But it would have made for a more cohesive story than the tacked-on, anticlimactic subversion that stands in its place.

What they did was good. What they could have done, given an extra draft of the script, overhauling the foreshadowing, would have been great.

Another, smaller problem is simply that the comic book physics pushed the comic a little too far. In fact, when my brother and I got up from our seats, we weren’t discussing the plot or characters. We were discussing the physics. This is harped on elsewhere, so I’ll be brief. Airplane airborne rescue. “Really? That’s how you’re going to do it? Why didn’t you just remove the stunt altogether?”

From story and stunts to cinematography and direction. It was sufficient. I never saw a shot that made my eyes hurt (and I was watching it in 3-D, so I might be understating that achievement), but I never saw a shot that wowed me. The fight sequences were clear (minus the very end of the last one, which plain happens too quickly for easy 3-D comprehension). Let me repeat this: even at the end, when things are crazy and stuff’s blowing up everywhere, you can see what’s happening and tell why it matters. Shane Black obviously pulled great performances from actors that are consistently great. I think you can see where I’m going with this. Good, but not so good that I’d use it as a selling point.

Finally, I’ll touch on the music. To be honest, I found it mediocre at best. There was a place or two where the score really struck me as being good, and an equal amount where it was overtly bad. Generally, though, it was simply unmemorable. Except for that weird credits sequence, like it was from the ‘70s. Really, guys?

My final verdict is this. Iron Man 3 gets 7/10. It’s a good movie that tries to do great things. In some places, it succeeds. In others, it fails. But it takes risks. Can we really ask any more of our comic book movies?

Yes. Take the larger risk. Run long. Provide deep characters and satisfying arcs all around. I will sit for the extra twenty minutes while you develop them. I will cheer at the credits for your courage and make others come to see it if I have to drag them. Take the risk. Make the story matter.

And for goodness sake, if we’re going to sit through the credits for the special clip at the end, make it worth our while, huh?

Monday, May 20, 2013

A Problem I Noticed...

I'm about to hop back into the jobfaring world like a boy flying a kite hops into the pilot's seat of a 747. That is, I'm relatively sure someone's going to get hurt. :)
So I've been contemplating the state of the job market. As could be expected, what I've seen is troubling.
Here's some cliff notes:
In the last twenty years, more and more jobs have gone overseas. India, China, and a dozen other places that don't get nearly as much recognition, manufacture and ship because WE WON'T. The US doesn't make anything for itself, anymore, and imports both its necessities and luxury goods.
But that's not all.
In the last ten years, technology has taken what few jobs are left. Why have a man build a chair by hand, when a factory can build a dozen at the same cost in the same timeframe? You don't. For every job created by the need to repair or maintain these machines, a hundred entry-level jobs are lost.
On top of that, the population is growing so rapidly that it's begun to flood over its banks. In my lifetime, the US population will likely swell to almost a billion. For perspective, that's:
The consequences of all this worries me. We are officially Corporate America, now. Our mentality is one of cubicles and minimum wage. No employee is important, and no job is ever secure.
Does that terrify anyone else like it terrifies me? NO job is secure.
No, not even yours.
Somewhere, there is someone with the same education and experience that you have. Unemployed, two steps away from starvation, one away from homelessness, this person will do your job at half the cost, and will work twice as hard. Because this person is desperate.
This is the person you will become, after you're replaced.
There are no skill sets and no special, secret knowledge that can save you. The only way to keep your job is to shut up and take what they give you. Your employers can treat you however they want because you both know the truth.
In this economy, you're lucky to be working at all.
It is essential to the human spirit that a person finds purpose in what he or she does for a living. One needs to feel important, unique, or at least appreciated. Without these things, the human spirit withers.
People with doctorates are working in fast food.
People with masters are in the unemployment line.
Human Resources is our new god, our dark idol to whom we sacrifice our dignity. Our every manager, benign or not, becomes a slave master bloated with the power to crush lives. Intention doesn't matter. Power breeds a desire for power, turning the very best of us to tyranny.
This is the state of the market as I find it. "Panem et circenses," indeed. But the bread is running out. 
Next time: More "Bread and Circuses" and our troubling ties to Rome.