Robert Downey Jr
The Pitch: Man Of Steel Plating.
The Review: Ever had that feeling, after a big event in your life, that it was so great that what follows can’t help but be an anticlimax? It was my eighth wedding anniversary this week, but I still remember my wedding day as if it was yesterday; however I can count on the fingers of one hand the days since which have come close to capturing that level of excitement and spectacle. When you build up to something for so long, what follows cannot help but suffer by comparison. Imagine, then, if your big day involved the culmination of over half a decade of planning and preparation, cost $220 million and went some way to redefining the art of the possible as far as blockbuster cinema goes. Where do you go next? When the current run of Marvel movies started, Iron Man was almost a standalone exercise, with a bolted-on tease after the credits suggesting there might be bigger plans afoot. Unfortunately, Iron Man 2 got lost in the rush to set up sufficient backstory for The Avengers, coming over as little more than a succession of directionless exposition with a fight or two thrown in. Now, with The Avengers having become a global box office behemoth and The Avengers 2 already announced, it’s a huge relief that Iron Man Three has managed avoid the pitfalls of the previous sequel, finding its own rocket-powered feet and deliver a cracking piece of summer entertainment.
That’s not to say that The Avengers doesn’t cast a long shadow over Iron Man, it’s just one that director Shane Black and co-writer Drew Pierce don’t feel the need to sit in for very long. Tony Stark is a hero, but one that’s graduated to the realms of superhero, so when a plain old hero’s needed the American government calls on Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) and his cynically rebranded Iron Patriot suit to help combat the threat of The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). It’s probably just as well, as Tony is still haunted by his demons: those living with him after the almost apocalypse in New York that he and his “superfriends” put an end to, but also those he’s less immediately aware of. An encounter at the turn of the millennium with scientists Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) and Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) barely registers with the Tony of that time, but when both come knocking at the door of Tony’s girlfriend and Stark Industries boss Pepper Potts (Gwynneth Paltrow) thirteen years later, they’re both bringing trouble with them, and soon Tony is having to rely on all of his skills, not just his impressive collection of suits.
Iron Man Three manages to strike an excellent balance between the requirement to tell a self-contained story and the needs of the continuing MCU (that’s Marvel Cinematic Universe, and if you’re surprised it has a name, then clearly you’re not a geek). Even The Avengers fell guilty to the origin story curse that blights so many superhero movies, with almost the first hour pure exposition in an effort to bring the characters together. IM3 gets straight into the story, and after a brief prologue it’s up and running almost immediately, delivering the two key ingredients you want from a summer action-adventure – action and adventure – in spades. Knowing that the appeal of Iron Man is as much about Robert Downey Jr.’s charisma as it is about rocket-powered shiny helmets, Black and Pierce sensibly strike a balance between the amount of time in and out of the suits. It’s to everyone’s credit that both sections work equally well, the pace never being allowed to flag and Black’s trademark whip-smart dialogue keeping the entertainment levels high at all times. The marketing material may have given the impression that this is a darker take on the Iron Man story, but the reality is much lighter – not quite the intensity of the first Lethal Weapon, but avoiding any of the worst excesses of the later Weapon films.
The attraction of the big budget has also assembled a strong cast, and as well as the strength of the returning members (Paltrow especially managing to dial down the unnecessary smiling so often blighting her performances) the new cast are all reasonably well served, with the possible exception of a slightly underused Rebecca Hall. It’s Ben Kingsley’s performance that’s likely to generate most of the discussion after you’ve seen the film, and it’s one that appears to have angered some of the hard core of geekery. Being a soft core geek, and a film fan first and foremost, for me his portrayal of The Mandarin makes perfect sense in the context of the MCU and is one of the highlights of the film. The other is the banter between Downey Jr. and Cheadle, who come across as an effective, believable and still charming pairing, just as most other central pairings have in Shane Black films over the years. It’s the best of the Iron Man movies, avoiding the total inertia that set in once the final suit was built in the original and gaining more momentum in each scene than its sequel ever did, and I’d go as far as to claim that this beats any of the Marvel Phase 1 movies produced (take that, Thor, Hulk and Captain America). It also proves to be another game changer: The Avengers proved it was possible to take the stars of half a dozen big films and successfully blend them together, and IM3 proves you can put them back in their own environments and keep them just as successful. Roll on Thor 2.
Why see it at the cinema: Continuing a fine Marvel tradition, a decent blend of action and humour gives you plenty of reasons to see this on as big a screen as possible.
Why see it in IMAX 3D: It has the advantage of being the biggest screen you can normally find, so if you can do this in any form of IMAX it will help to make sense of some of the busier moments, the final battle looking especially fine on the large format screen. However, none of the film is shot using IMAX cameras, so it doesn’t fill the screen. The 3D is significantly less essential, suffering some of the usual brightness issues and having little or no thought for shot composition.
Should I stay through the credits? If you stay right to the end there’s a cute scene, but it’s more a nice Marvel moment you can take or leave rather than a big set-up for Phase 2.
What about the rating: Rated 12A for moderate violence, threat and language. A fairly MOR movie in terms of 12A output, there’s no F-bomb and it’s certainly not Dark Knight brutal. Anyone who’s had no issue with Marvel films at the same rating before will have no issues here.
My cinema experience: Managed to see this twice, once on a Friday night late showing in 2D at Cineworld Cambridge and then a second time in the company of Mrs Evangelist at an afternoon matinee at the BFI IMAX in London in 3D. Both showings had decent crowds, most of whom stayed to the end of the credits (although feel sorry for the guy sat next to me at the Cineworld, who turned to his girlfriend and exclaimed, “I waited twenty minutes just for that?!”).
The Corridor Of Uncertainty: Just over 25 minutes of ads and trailers at the Cineworld showing, about par for the course. The BFI IMAX start their ads before the advertised start time, so despite having a small lady come out to announce the film at the start, it was still barely fifteen minutes before the film got under way.
The Score: 9/10
I am NOT calling it Marvel Avengers Assemble, which is just insulting to our collective intelligence. Humph.
The Pitch: The long-haired god and his immovable object meet the irresistible force, the irascible scientist, the irresponsible robot, the irritable Russian, the invincible soldier, some guy with a bow and arrow and Samuel L. M***********’ Jackson.
The Review: For so many years, Marvel comic adaptations were the poorer cousins of their DC counterparts. While Batman and Superman films have dominated the blockbuster scene for thirty years and more, Marvel had to contend themselves with The Punisher, Howard The Duck and repeated failed attempts at a Captain America film. Then the last decade has seen a revolution, with the X-Men and Spider-Man being given successful treatment by filmmakers who actually knew what they were doing. But these were outsourced properties, and if Marvel was going to put its own stamp on the movies, what better way to do it with the biggest of all their properties, the Avengers? Over the last five years they’ve been testing the water with individual adaptations of Iron Man, Thor, Hulk and Captain America, but it became clear that this was not only a strong array of characters but a massive collection of egos. Would it even be possible to get all of these massive Marvels onto the same screen? And who could do justice to them if they did?
Step forward one Joss Whedon, master of small screen and comic book culture, but a man who’s had a somewhat less than impressive record himself when it comes to big screen adaptations. Put simply, from Alien: Resurrection to Serenity Whedon has at best a cult following, but there may have been no-one better suited to bringing this clash of the titans together. No matter what the medium, Joss has a track record of marshaling large rosters of characters, and there’s a huge list lined up here from the best of Marvel’s own brand adaptations. This does create two problems up front: to actually assemble the Avengers takes an inordinate amount of time, as they’re rounded up one by one, and there’s then a significant imbalance in the back story afforded, with Thor and Captain America getting further exploration of their methods and motivations while poor old Hawkeye still gets little more than a name and an prior affiliation with a SHIELD colleague. If Basil Exposition had been a comic book character, he would’ve fit right into the Avengers.
That’s not to say there’s not a lot of nice moments or sharp dialogue, but that’s all they are, never quite gelling together or giving the plot the forward momentum it needs. Sure, it’s great to have an excuse to get them all together, but motivations in some cases are a little weak and throwaway in a way that comic books can often get away with but which seem more exposed on screen. Many of the best throwaway moments are given to Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man, the potential star of the ensemble right from his first appearance in the shiny red suit four years ago, but the other major success story is Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, with a much better balance between Banner and beast than either of the previous attempts, playing well on Ruffalo’s natural charm but also managing a brooding menace. The rest of the Avengers themselves all get moments to shine but rarely steal the screen. Of the Avengers themselves, Hawkeye is the most underused, and while both Nick Fury and Agent “Phil” Coulson have some zingers to hand out, but Cobie Smulders’ Maria Hill feels like she’s just being set up for future installments. As for the bad guys, Loki is even better here, Tom Hiddleston commanding the screen – no mean feat against such a roster of hero talent – but he’s poorly served by a supporting army who prove nothing more than Avenger fodder for the final battle.
Ah, the final battle. Once all of the Avengers are assembled, and something has finally been worked out for them to be Avenging, Whedon and co finally let rip. Everything that you’d possibly hoped this could be and more comes to pass, with scores of moments to please both the general crowd and the fanboys and an epic sweep to the action, which comes in wave after wave of that Avenger fodder mentioned earlier, that does finally give each of its leads stand out, iconic moments. The third act of The Avengers, taken on its own, has to be one of the best summer blockbusters ever, there’s just a risk that when you get the Blu-ray that may be the stretch which gets worn out first, as everything of the highest quality is weighted into that final third. Producer Kevin Feige somewhat bizarrely compared The Avengers to the most recent Transformers sequel in interviews, and he’s actually right in the sense that the film increases in quality over the course of time, but thankfully even the dullest moments here are better than the heights that the giant fighty robots managed last time out. The better comparison here is the first Spider-Man and X-Men movies, for despite what amounts to five prequels The Avengers turns out to be an origin movie, as good as its Marvel brethren but sadly suffering from the same flaws as almost every origin film in its genre. When you consider how well the second entries in each series turned out, and how high the heights reached are here, you’ll be salivating at the thought of Avengers 2. Let’s just hope that Iron Man 3, Captain America 2 and all of the other required interquels can keep us entertained in the mean time.
Why see it at the cinema: For the first of the main summer blockbusters of the years it’s oddly uncinematic, shot in 1.85:1 (the widescreen TV ratio, rather than the normal cinema widescreen of 2.35:1), but the combination of the sweeping visuals and the gut-aching humour of the last third mean this is best seen with company.
Why see it in 3D: Don’t, if you can help it. The first third is swathed in darkness and becomes almost unwatchable with the polarising filter reducing the light levels, and when the film does move into daylight some of the 3D in-your-face moments have a disappointing feeling of fakery. You’re absolutely better off not paying the premium.
Should I wait for the obligatory end credits sequence? Only if you’re a hardcore fanboy. I’m not, so I had to come home and Google what happened. This one’s also in the middle of the credits, so only sit through all the names if you have a genuine appreciation for the craft involved or Alan Silvestri’s bombastic score.
The Score: 8/10
The Review: Has Hollywood finally run out of ideas? For anyone around the same age as me, if you were to start describing a film where an odd couple are forced to engage in a road trip together, you’d probably think of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, the John Hughes movie from nearly twenty-five years ago. But this isn’t a remake – or at least, it doesn’t claim to be one – but conceptually it’s so similar that the two would happily pass as related. So if we’re not to get originality in concept, we could at least hope that execution would see us through.
So casting Robert Downey Jr. in the “straight” man role taken by Steve Martin would seem to be a wise choice. Downey Jr.’s star is as high as it’s ever been right now, and if anyone can do the sardonic, oppressed narcissism required for such a role and still remain charming it’s surely the Iron Man. Or at least, it should be. He’s not helped out by a script which requires him to be graphically unpleasant on at least a couple of occasions, and while the moments in isolation are funny they go a very long way to undermining our sympathy for his plight.
Zach Galifianakis gets the John Candy role, although at times it feels as if he got a single card with the word “simpleton” on it in place of a script. He’s slightly more affable than his co-star, but his rank stupidity begins to grate when it becomes clear that it’s the only thing servicing the plot. Actually, that’s not quite true; Downey Jr. gets his own share of stupid moments, not least in his jealousy over Jamie Foxx’s character that strains credulity more than a little. Michelle Monaghan is in the movie as well, but has so little to actually do that I could have played the role in a wig with a cushion up my jumper, and you might well not have noticed.
Director Todd Philips, as well as throwing himself a cameo, keeps the action moving along, and when the script calls for actual action, the set pieces are efficient. It actually works marginally more effectively as a buddy action road movie than it does as a comedy, but it’s not really working particularly well on any level. There’s parts to enjoy, but there’s just as much that will cause you to hope that the next close scrape for our dynamic duo turns out to be fatal, so we can all be put out of our misery. There’s precious little feeling of development to cling to, either, more a sense from the characters that they’re glad it’s all over, and you may share a similar feeling. John Hughes’ original remains the benchmark in cross-country curmudgeons for the time being.
Why see it at the cinema: Some nice views of the Grand Canyon to be fully appreciated and a few chuckles to share with your fellow audience, but sadly only a few. Although if you ever wanted to see America’s highest rated sitcom on the big screen, the bizarre Two And A Half Men cameos will give you that chance.
The Score: 5/10