Director: Shane Black
Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Ben Kinsley, Jon Favreau
Iron Man 3 provides our first look at ‘Phase Two’ of Marvel’s Avengers plan – that is, the movies that come between The Avengers and its sequel – and our first insight into how that process is going to work.
For starters, there is continuity from the events of The Avengers into this next Tony Stark adventure. However, these events have resulted in a logical shift within realism of the ‘Iron Man universe.’ For the first two films in the trilogy, Stark existed in a world that was more or less realistic. Our heroes and villains may have been ultra-rich and incredibly smart, but they were always basically human beings transformed into superheroes and villains through the use of technology. But The Avengers broke this realism by introducing aliens and gods, alternate dimensions and portals. Iron Man 3 acknowledges this shift in reality, giving a prominent narrative place to Tony Stark and other characters coming to terms with what they experienced in New York (“In New York” becomes code for the things that happened in The Avengers). Stark himself is traumatised by the events to the point that he suffers from anxiety attacks.
This shift in reality also allows for a scaling up of the threat in Iron Man 3. Our villain this time is the mysterious terrorist, the Mandarin, played menacingly by Ben Kingsley with a voice that is some combination of Richard Nixon and Heath Ledger’s Joker. The Mandarin is resourced by jaded scientist Aldrich Killian, continuing the tradition from the first two films of it being a battle of the brains. However rather than resourcing him with weapons or super-suits, Killian resources him with an army of genetically modified super soldiers. Therein lays the break in realism which would not have been acceptable without The Avengers.
Of course, not all our questions are answered. The primary one being, when the world comes under threat again, why does Tony Stark have to face this particular challenge on his own? At what point does a catastrophe become significant enough to warrant getting the band back together?
For this third instalment in the Iron Man trilogy, Jon Favreau has handed over directorial duties to Shane Black. Black’s only previous directorial experience was 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a brilliant if under-appreciated film which represented a very important step the comeback of Robert Downey Jr. which ultimately culminated in Iron Man. Black had made his name as a screenwriter of action-comedies, most notably the Lethal Weapon series, making him a pretty good fit for Iron Man 3. And Black does what he does best in this film, ramping up the laughs and the sense of fun in the film without undermining its drama and tension. Black taking over as director has also enabled Jon Favreau’s character, Stark’s body guard Happy Hogan, to take on a much larger role than he did in the first two films.
For a film about a superhero who wears a mechanical suit, Drew Pearce and Shane Black’s screenplay surprisingly sees Tony Stark spending the vast majority of the film, including a number of the action sequences, not suited up. That they felt the freedom to do this is indicative of the fact that over the span of this franchise the writers have successfully achieved what all superhero scribes wish for; they have got the audience invested in Tony Stark as a person, not just as Iron Man. When Christopher Nolan and David Goyer set about writing Batman Begins, one of their primary goals was to get the audience to care about Bruce Wayne as a person so that they weren’t just killing time until he put on the suit. In the case of the Iron Man franchise, you could almost go so far as to argue that audiences have a greater investment in the character of Tony Stark, and the charisma of Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of him, than they do in the figure of Iron Man. Downey Jr. as Tony Stark is the trump card this franchise has to play, so it makes sense that Black set out to give him as much screen time as possible. This is further assisted from within the unfolding narrative of the series, with the constant evolution of the suit now seeing it as a piecemeal set of armour, which enables him to have any combination of his arms, legs and torso suited up without necessarily having to have his face covered.
Amazingly, Iron Man 3 represents Downey Jr.’s fifth appearance as Tony Stark – the Iron Man trilogy, The Avengers and a brief cameo The Incredible Hulk. This is staggering considering that the first Iron Man film was only released in 2008. It took Bruce Willis 25 years to appear five times as John McClane. Stark is now without a doubt the role with which Robert Downey Jr. will be forever associated. The way in which he has brought this character to life could also be arguably his greatest acting achievement, although he is excellent in Chaplin. It does not necessarily go hand in hand that the role for which an actor is remembered is also their best work, so he is quite fortunate there.
Iron Man 3 also contains a very brave plot twist, which I’ve been careful not to give away here. Brave in the sense that it is in equal parts fantastic and disappointing, and has thus far left audiences very divided.
Where Iron Man goes from here is anyone’s guess. We know there is going to be a sequel to The Avengers, there is no way that Marvel will let that not happen, and Iron Man 3 finishes with a Bond-esque “Tony Stark Will Return,” but it also has a sense of wrapping up which makes gives the impression that this may be the last solo Iron Man adventure. If that ends up being the case, Iron Man 3 is a fitting completion to a rollickingly fun trilogy.
Rating – ★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Morgan Freeman
With the exception of perhaps Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, no film released this year has had to contend with the immense weight of expectation that met The Dark Knight Rises, the final film in Christopher Nolan’s brilliant Dark Knight Trilogy, when it hit theatres in July. Nolan’s films had re-written the rules of comic-book movie-making, combining box office success with critical reverence.
The Dark Knight Rises sees Bruce Wayne living in self-imposed exile after the events of The Dark Knight. When the terrorist Bane releases thousands of Gotham’s most dangerous criminals from Blackgate Prison, and succeeds in prompting a class war which brings the city to its knees – all the while obscuring his even more devastating plan – it becomes apparent that Gotham has no other hope, and Wayne is forced to once again don the Bat-suit.
When the first film in the trilogy, Batman Begins, was released, much was said about this being a ‘darker’ approach to Batman. But the darkness wasn’t really anything new. Tim Burton’s films, Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) had been dark. Frank Miller’s comic The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One had been dark. Batman had always been a character who suited a dark, gothic interpretation. Rather, what made Nolan’s take on the Batman mythology different was his intent to ground it in the real world, asking the question “How would this work in real life?” This emphasis on grounding the action in the real world then allowed for the film to engage with real world issues.
While other comic book adaptations like The Avengers and Iron Man have been incredibly successful, their pure escapism lacks the real-world relevance of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were both very much products of the War on Terror. The Dark Knight Rises draws on the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movement to deal with themes of revolution, capitalism and economic imbalance (as Nolan said in an interview, “You can’t really deal with Bruce Wayne without eventually acknowledging the massive wealth he’s a part of”).
Likewise, this grounding of the Batman story in a real world means that in Nolan’s films we see explorations of the consequences of Bruce Wayne’s decisions and actions. The Dark Knight Rises is a film about consequences – physical, emotional, psychological.
Each of Nolan’s three Batman films have been generically quite different. Batman Begins had a very mythological feel to it, with Bruce Wayne travelling to the farthest ends of the earth to learn his craft from a mysterious cult. The Dark Knight largely abandoned that mythological sensibility, and instead became an urban crime thriller (Nolan often compared the picture to Michael Mann’s Heat (1995)). The Dark Knight Rises again changes direction. This time Nolan is taking us into the world of the historical epic.
Whether or not you think that The Dark Knight Rises succeeds in what it is attempting, you can’t help but admire the ambition of the film. Nolan is attempting to tell a historical epic (not the persistant allusions to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and the French Revolution) on an epic scale, resulting in filmmaking on a scale that has not been seen in Hollywood for a long, long time. The scale of the picture is immense, with this size emphasised by the fact that so much of it was shot in IMAX format. The magnitude of some of the set pieces, literally employing a cast of thousands, harks back to the epics of classical Hollywood and a style of filmmaking we just don’t see in the CGI era.
The Dark Knight Rises does not quite reach the lofty heights of its prequel, but then very few films have. It is, none the less, a very good film and a satisfying end to a very impressive trilogy. It is pleasing to see a filmmaker with the conviction to take a very popular film franchise and bring it to a close rather than giving in to the temptation to drag it out. In closing the story of Bruce Wayne with The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan has retained the integrity of what will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the key film franchises of the early 21st century.
Rating – ★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean