Thursday, May 09, 2013

Culture Shock 05.09.13: New director builds a better Iron Man

Like its two predecessors and "The Avengers" before it, "Iron Man 3" is as much a comedy as an action movie. As before, it's fueled by the affable, wisecracking presence of Robert Downey Jr., again making the now 50-year-old comic book character Tony Stark his own.

Don't believe me? Open the latest "Invincible Iron Man" comic book and you'll see the character now more closely resembles Downey than the Stark of old. The movies have become the real Marvel Universe, while the comics have become a kind of fan fiction, except the writers get paid.

Joining Downey this time is writer/director Shane Black ("Lethal Weapon," "Monster Squad"), who has inherited the franchise from "Iron Man" and "Iron Man 2" director Jon Favreau, although Favreau still gets screen time as Stark's chauffeur/head of security Happy Hogan.

No stranger to the action-comedy formula, Black handles the alternating punches and punchlines so deftly you barely notice that it's all just a high-octane feint for his real agenda: a critique of the war on terror.

After the somewhat disappointing "Iron Man 2," which had to do too much heavy lifting to set up the Marvel movies that followed, "Iron Man 3" gets us back on track, with a more personal story that puts a new spin on Stark's "I am Iron Man" confession at the end of the first film.

Following the world-changing events of "The Avengers," the formerly confident Stark is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He's finally in a committed relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), but he doesn't know how to protect her from the threats he knows are out there. So, he retreats to the security of his workshop and his armor.

He's only forced out of hiding when Happy is critically injured in an attack apparently staged by the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), the mysterious terrorist hinted at in the first film.

The Mandarin is behind a bombing campaign that has American intelligence agencies baffled. What they don't know is the apparent suicide bombers aren't detonating bombs, they are bombs — living bombs caused by an experiment gone wrong.

That experiment is extremis, a biotechnology created by Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), who sought Tony's help with it — unsuccessfully — years before. Now extremis is in the hands of Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), another scientist Tony brushed off back in his playboy days.

What extremis is supposed to do is regenerate lost limbs, making it a godsend for veterans who have returned from the war on terror missing arms and legs. What Killian wants it to do is create super soldiers. And when its recipients literally go off, well, that's where the Mandarin comes in.

Under all of this is the subtext: an indictment both of the war on terror, as being largely a fiction exploited by military contractors, and the government's treatment of injured veterans. It's a coincidence that "Iron Man 3" opens as the Veterans Administration's case backlog reaches critical mass.

Between the Mandarin's living bombs and Stark's PTSD, this is a movie about wounded warriors.

Also back from "Iron Man 2" is Don Cheadle as Tony's best friend and government liaison Col. James "Rhodey" Rhodes, whose Stark-designed War Machine armor has been given a red, white and blue makeover and rebranded the Iron Patriot.

For Tony and Rhodey it's a joke. War Machine is a much cooler name. But as far as the subtext is concerned, it's a more honest name. The "war machine" is what everyone in "Iron Man 3" has been put through.

The Tony Stark we all know and love is still here, and "Iron Man 3" is up there with "Iron Man" and Joss Whedon's "The Avengers" as the most entertaining Marvel films. But Black has done something surprising. He's given the Marvel movie universe depth. Now it's Whedon's turn to answer.

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