There was a time when DC Comics were the big boys of the movie world. After a resounding success with the first two Superman movies (the next two weren’t so great, especially the fourth one), and then Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns, followed by Christopher Nolan’s rebooted trilogy, I got the feeling that characters from the DC Comics world were just more easily transferable to the big screen. Or at least, their big two, Superman and Batman, were.
Marvel had a whole raft of heroes that they should’ve taken advantage of. Most attempts at live action ended up looking cheap and cheesy. Stuff like the Spider-Man TV series, and the Captain America movie from 1990. Sure, there’s a lot of love for The Incredible Hulk television show, and the late Bill Bixby as Doctor Banner, but that too had its fair share of crappy moments, not least the TV movies which also starred Thor.
Why it ended up this way, I don’t know. Probably having movie and TV rights for different characters scattered across various studios and TV networks just scuppered Marvel’s real plans for a more cohesive and quality controlled superhero universe. Indeed, the rights to The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man are still entrenched deep in the studio vaults of Fox and Sony respectively. They don’t look as though they’re letting go of them any time soon. Just how often will Sony reboot Spider-Man before deciding to let the rights go back to Marvel? Probably when the comic book cash cow has been milked so utterly dry, it tumbles on its side, farting nothing but stale air from its withered teats.
However, in recent years, enough movie rights have ended up back under Marvel’s roof, leading to what’s known as “Phase 1″. A series of individual superhero movies, followed by The Avengers, where all the heroes get together for a world saving scrap, before grabbing a few beers.
Iron Man 3 marks the beginning of “Phase 2″. Robert Downey Jr. returns as Tony Stark, but he’s a changed man after the events of The Avengers, prone to nightmares and panic attacks. “I’m just a man in a can,” he says. Quite right. He’s no super soldier, or hammer wielding god. He’s a normal guy, reliant on his tech, and the pitfalls that come with such a thing.
Mind you, Scarlet Johansson is just a girl in a catsuit. I wonder if we’ll end up with scenes in later films where she too has panic attacks? I doubt it. We might get a scene where she gets stressed out by struggling to pull her catsuit zipper up over her boobs, but that’s about it.
All joking aside, I do like these slightly darker elements. In the comics, Stark has a big problem with alcohol addiction. The film doesn’t plumb those depths, but it’s still interesting to watch a hero battling his demons just as much as he’s battling the villains.
Fruit based terrorism
This time, Iron Man is up against one of his most dangerous foes so far, The Mandarin. No, he’s not a fruit based terrorist, with a lesser known brother, The Tangerine, but a villain with years of comic book history behind him. Most of that history is giving Iron Man the runaround.
Ben Kingsley certainly gives it his best shot, enunciating every other word of each sentence in odd ways. In the film, he’s portrayed as a shadowy harbinger of death, a puppeteer working from the sidelines to cause chaos. He hijacks TV stations to make boastful broadcasts of his success, impending or otherwise.
He’s the instigator of two of the film’s best action scenes: a huge assault on Tony Stark’s home (small tip: if your enemies are megalomaniacs with vast firepower at their disposal, don’t build your house on the edge of a cliff), and an attack on a plane which segues into a thrilling mid-air rescue by Iron Man. I’m always a fan of scenes where the superhero uses all his strength and wits to intervene in a catastrophe, and save ordinary people. It shows a more altruistic side to them. They’re not saving people because it’s “personal”, but because they can. Because they have the power. Those, for me, are the real air punching moments in superhero movies.
The twist (no spoilers)
And then there’s a twist. I won’t say what it is, but when it happens, it’s a real “What the fuck?” moment, unlike anything I’ve seen in other superhero movies. It’s also pretty funny. It’s the sort of thing that’ll have hardened fans of the comic spitting their soft drink over the person in the row in front of them, and others chuckling at the audacity. I fall somewhere in the middle, as I think this is where the film’s problems really begin.
The twist, strange and funny and subversive as it is, near enough kills the movie. Not quite enough to make the action that follows unenjoyable, but enough to make me not really care any more. Before this, there has been a slow build of subversive one liners and cleverness that, after a time, starts to get tiresome (in a way that it didn’t in The Avengers). One joke almost destroys the excitement of the last ten or so minutes that precede it. Jokes for the sake of jokes. So, the big twist, when it happens, is the last straw. Very neat, very clever, very funny, but ultimately very hollow.
As a result, when the action climax arrives (as is the way), I actually found my mind wandering a bit. I think there was even a few precious seconds where my eyelids fluttered and closed for a little power nap, such was the boredom that I was beginning to feel, as Robert Downey Jr. leapt in and out and on top of various Iron Man suits like a Stark-in-the-box.
Overall, the first three-quarters of the film are difficult to dislike. Shane Black’s knowing humour is all present and correct. But eventually, it just wears the film down. Recommended viewing, sure, and it’s another example of just how far — in terms of production values — Marvel has come since the bad old days. They’re taking the fight to DC Comics, no doubt about it. I left the cinema feeling that I’d maybe had a good time. But there was also a sense of disappointment that I found hard to shake.