Sunday, May 5, 2013

Iron Man 3: In Defence of the Blockbuster

Image source: Marvel.

You might call me a fan of Robert Downey, Jr. I have not watched the TV series Sherlock because I cannot fathom Benedict Cumberbatch's performance rivalling Downey's in his own Sherlock Holmes movies. In fact, I fully believe that almost any movie could be improved by the inclusion of Downey. Star Wars? Sorry, Harrison Ford. Casino Royale? Get him playing both James Bond and Felix Leiter, and then we can talk. Maybe cast him as Le Chiffre too. Mean Girls? Put a wig on Downey and call him Lindsay Lohan if you have to.

My unhealthy levels of fanboyism aside, I still like to believe I can critically assess a movie despite the Downey factor. When I went to the advance screening of Iron Man 3 Thursday night, I expected Downey's performance to be entertaining, because I don't think he's been physically capable of anything else since at least 2007. But I also braced myself for the idea that the rest of the movie might not quite live up to its predecessors, not to mention The Avengers. I also knew that the movie was inspired by the Extremis storyline from the comics, which was a good arc, but certainly not my favourite. (I'm still waiting for some studio to greenlight a Superior Spider-Man movie.)

Thankfully, I was entirely wrong to doubt the movie, and completely blown away as a result. Of course, however, not everyone felt this way. One negative review that particularly caught my attention was that of Manohla Dargis in The New York Times. Dargis approaches the review from a perspective very different from that of, say, the late Roger Ebert. Rather than giving advice on whether or not the average viewer might enjoy the movie, she uses it as a springboard to launch a scholarly critique of Hollywood's entire contemporary approach to the War on Terror. I wish to respond to her criticisms of Iron Man 3, and perhaps even defend the Hollywood blockbuster as an art form in the process.

But first: If you have not already seen the movie, go see it right now. Don't wait a single minute more. And certainly do not read the rest of this post, because from here on out, spoilers will be legion.

Dargis's summary of the movie is almost entirely relegated to two sentences. She writes, "There’s a bunch of plot, the usual special effects and new faces, including Rebecca Hall as Maya Hansen, a geneticist, and Guy Pearce as Aldrich Killian, a rich guy with one of those mysterioso organizations that are invariably up to no good. That’s more or less it, give or take a few explosions."

I realize she is limited by the newspaper format, but this is insultingly lazy writing. If the plot were bad, she should at least have put some effort into explaining why. Bad movies frequently allow critics to exercise their creative muscles in pointing out exactly why they are bad, such as overuse of clichés and tired tropes, or unacceptable leaps in logic that shatter the viewer's suspension of disbelief. People like Doug Walker, better known as the Nostalgia Critic, have built entire careers off of this fact. Dargis doesn't even try to engage with Iron Man 3 on its own terms, leading to a number of criticisms that are entirely wrongheaded.

For starters, Dargis criticizes Downey's performance in Iron Man 3 as nothing more than "the delivery system for a repertory of Tony Stark poses, gestures, expressions and line readings". I predictably disagree. But Dargis also does not mention that Downey is portraying a version of Tony Stark that has developed post-traumatic stress disorder after almost dying in deep space at the end of The Avengers. This Stark practically embodies the DSM-IV definition of PTSD, with flashbacks, insomnia, intense avoidance of any reminders of what he simply calls "New York", and full-on panic attacks. Emotional numbing is also a common symptom of PTSD; if Downey's performance is indeed flatter, it could therefore have been intentional.

Perhaps Dargis found this portrayal of PTSD to be unrealistic, but chose not to mention it, because she felt that fact would be obvious. As someone who personally suffers from a chronic anxiety disorder with occasional panic attacks, I can say that Downey's performance was almost unsettlingly spot-on. At one point, Harley, a young boy whom Stark has befriended, begins asking a string of questions about the events of The Avengers. Stark asks him repeatedly to stop, growing gradually more uneasy. After several more questions, Stark snaps. He abruptly stands up and briskly walks away, with wide eyes and no particular purpose other than wanting to escape. Some other people in the theatre were still laughing at the kid's admittedly somewhat amusing dialogue. I, meanwhile, was frozen staring at the screen, because I was watching one of my all-time favourite actors playing one of my all-time favourite characters acting out something I'd experienced myself far too many times before. A triggering statement, said with no malicious purpose, followed by a growing internal horror. The desire to get away without showing any sign of weakness. Usually I can get away with just silence and the marks of my fingernails digging into my palms, but especially when I'm alone, I have not been immune to panic attacks of a similar or worse nature to Stark's in the film.

Stark's interactions with Harley, which I initially feared were a blatant attempt to inject "kid appeal" into the movie, are actually the method by which Stark finally gets his anxiety under control. Earlier in the movie, Stark had already explained his symptoms to his girlfriend, Pepper Potts, which effectively patched up the problems in their relationship that had resulted from trying to hide them. But by the time Stark befriends Harley, he has become separated from Potts once again by forces beyond their control, and he finds himself alone. After seeing Stark break down multiple times, Harley speaks with the sort of frankness that, sometimes, only children can use: "You're a mechanic, right? You fix things." This triggers a sort of epiphany in Stark, a realization that his life and destiny are still within his control. For the first time in the film, he gains the will to fight back, not out of mere defensiveness, but out of the knowledge that he still has the power to set things right. It's an empowering moment of character development, and possibly one of the most effective uses of a child actor ever in a blockbuster.

(In a side note, the way Stark warms up to Harley could indicate, on a subtextual level, an increased willingness to settle down and have kids of his own - a sentiment that fits very nicely with the end of the movie.)

Returning to Dargis's review, she subsequently bemoans the current state of cinema, quoting a recent speech on the matter by Steven Soderbergh. He mentioned Iron Man 3 only once, as an illustration of the massive marketing blitz that has surrounded its release. (The movie had not yet been released at the time, so it's very unlikely that he had seen it.) Dargis takes his general criticisms and fires them all directly at Iron Man 3, accusing the movie of playing to post-9/11 sensibilities without engaging them in any meaningful way.

First off, no one involved with Iron Man 3 should be blamed for the current state of cinema. They all knew that the studio wanted a blockbuster sequel, so they collectively set out to make the best movie they could within those predefined parameters. You could consider it a kind of constrained art, not unlike early video game composers who attempted to write songs using nothing more than the limited sound cards of systems like the Nintendo Entertainment System. Sometimes, even those basic chiptunes became masterpieces. (Obligatory shout-out here to my friend over at Trumpet Meta, who wrote an entire thesis on that topic.)

Meanwhile, Dargis's 9/11-related criticisms completely miss the point of the movie. She writes, "Iron Man 3 [...] at once invokes Sept. 11 and dodges it, and does so with a wink and a smile. It’s not the first movie to do so, by any means. But the proximity of its highly publicized release to the Boston Marathon bombings simply makes it the latest, most conspicuous example of how profoundly disconnected big studio movies of this sort are from the world in which the rest of us live."

It is true that Iron Man 3 directly invokes the War on Terror and post-9/11 sensibilities. The Mandarin's appearances on live television are directly compared in the movie itself to Osama bin Laden's. But what Dargis doesn't mention is that these images are only present because they are exploited by the villain, Aldrich Killian. Killian uses the Mandarin - actually a small-time British stage actor, paid in drugs - purely as a distraction, choosing the imagery of a foreign terrorist because he knows it will invoke a visceral response from his American audience. With all the attention on the Mandarin, Killian is free to work behind the scenes, bribing the vice-president into his service by promising to cure his daughter's unspecified disability. On a more practical level, the terrorist distraction also provides a convenient excuse for his failed Extremis experiments, which resulted in the spontaneous detonation of the test subjects as living bombs.

Only one intentional detonation of an Extremis test subject is shown in the movie, namely the one that destroys Grauman's Chinese Theatre in order to solidify the mythos of the Mandarin. But other terrorist attacks are carried out in his name, such as the televised execution of an oil company accountant, in order to establish that he is a threat. Killian's plans involve misdirecting global intelligence to a false hideout in Pakistan, knowing that the US military will deploy their top soldier - Colonel Rhodes, the Iron Patriot - to neutralize a person who has killed so many civilians and has directly threatened the president. There, a couple of Extremis-enhanced soldiers ambush Rhodes and steal his armour, using it to get aboard Air Force One without raising suspicion. From there, the president is kidnapped and held prisoner in advance of a televised execution. The vice-president would be promoted on the president's death, and Killian would be holding all of the strings.

A proper criticism of the movie, perhaps the only one that I would make, is that Killian's plan is rather convoluted. In the comic, the villain (not Killian, who commits suicide in the opening pages) plans to sell Extremis to the US military, and has no grand designs on controlling the government. Killian's plan in the movie, however, has so many failure conditions that it's a miracle he got as close to victory as he did. To wit: If a single intelligence agency in the world managed to figure out that the Mandarin was based in Miami, which Tony Stark did from a garage in Tennessee (with a box of scraps!), the game would have been up instantly. Even if he succeeded in misdirecting them to Pakistan, as he did, the plan would have fallen apart if the Iron Patriot was not specifically deployed there, since Killian needed the armour to sneak one of his henchmen onto Air Force One.

But even this convoluted plan involves some fascinating questions and commentary about the nature of terrorism. When Stark's AI assistant, JARVIS, first identifies the Mandarin's broadcasts as originating from Miami, Stark assumes that it was a malfunction. Perhaps the CIA made the same mistake. After all, how could a foreign terrorist with all the hallmarks of a bin Laden figure be based on US soil? The fact that the white American Killian is the mastermind, and that even the Mandarin is British, is a reminder that homegrown terrorists can be as deadly as foreign ones, and that it is folly to assume that every attack has a foreign connection.

Meanwhile, the fact that the president immediately deploys the Iron Patriot to the Mandarin's presumed hideout in Pakistan reveals another folly: that cutting off the head of an organization will eliminate the problem. The Boston Marathon bombings, mentioned repeatedly by Dargis, grimly proved that terrorists don't need Osama bin Laden or al-Qaeda to carry out horrendous acts. In Iron Man 3, the president's single-minded goal of capturing or killing the Mandarin led directly to Rhodes's capture, and subsequently the president's own near-execution.

Finally, Killian's plan, when taken as a whole, can be interpreted in an even darker way than the previous two elements. The image of an American scientist/businessman collaborating with a British actor to manufacture an entirely new branch of the War on Terror is unsettling, carrying the implication that Osama bin Laden figures like the Mandarin are as much a product of our own society as conditions in foreign countries. Note also that those foreign conditions are often directly related to Western lifestyles. It's a subtle connection, perhaps even unintentional, but present nonetheless.

These sorts of commentary are not new by any means. But Dargis's claim that Iron Man 3 presents a hollow facsimile of 9/11 without the courage to "take on the toughest issues" is clearly false. The only person guilty of that kind of exploitation is Aldrich Killian, and he is unambiguously the villain in the film.

The last remaining leg of criticism in Dargis's review is a condemnation of the entire concept of escapist fiction. She calls it "a pathetic conceit, given what it says movie people think about real life — or rather the real lives of their customers". In her view, The Dark Knight and an unspecified Harry Potter movie, two films she enjoyed, were worthwhile only because of how they "engage Sept. 11 and the world it made while transporting viewers into fantastical realms."

This final criticism cannot be rebutted because it is purely a matter of personal taste. But the fact is that Dargis apparently does not like any movie that does not have an element of social criticism or commentary. Upon being assigned to review the latest Marvel superhero blockbuster, she likely assumed she wouldn't see any of that, putting her in a dismissive mindset from the beginning.

Even if all of my deeper analysis is wrong and the movie was intended to be as simple and base as Dargis alleges, there must still be room for that kind of story in our society. Not every movie has to be dark and "realistic". Even adults need to be reminded that sometimes, even in a world of 24-hour news anchors preaching death and destruction, the good guys can earn a happy ending against impossible odds. Ultimately, we are reminded through Tony Stark's example that each individual is in control of their own destiny, and that even the worst anxieties can be confronted and defeated. If that's not a message worth making a movie about, then I don't know what is.

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