Following in the footsteps of The Avengers, the most comic booky of comic book movies, writer/director Shane Black has helped redefine the Marvel hero Iron Man for his third outing by giving the cold shoulder to the source material. It's hard to call Iron Man 3 a "comic book movie," even while Robert Downey, Jr. flies around in a destructive exoskeleton, aiming to put a stop to a baddie named The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) and his fire-breathing minions. The movie plays more like a sequel to Black's 2005 neo-noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (also starring Downey, Jr.). Detective-esque voiceover, razor sharp banter, and an obstacle that has Tony Stark piecing together clues and rarely appearing in his iconic armor, Iron Man 3 avoids fantasy in favor of a hefty helping of pulp fiction. The setup makes way for Downey, Jr.'s best work in the franchise.
Iron Man 3 suggests that the whole flying-into-space-to-blow-up-a-worm-hole-and-almost-dying thing from The Avengers' Battle of New York took a toll on Tony. To cope with PTSD, he remains cooped up in his lab, endlessly building new Iron Man suits for whatever otherworldly adversary may hit him next. All the while, his girlfriend/replacement CEO Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) attempts to manage Tony's money machine, Stark Industries. The latest proposition for the tech conglomerate comes from nerd-turned-playboy Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a man with clear resentment for Tony, who still pitches Pepper his latest creation (if only to woo her with genius). It's called Extremis, a genetic treatment that allows for unprecedented human regeneration. It also causes people to gain superhuman powers... with the potential of internal combustion — but hey, it's still in development.
There's an abidance of plot in Iron Man 3: along with Killian's sneaky schemes, The Mandarin, a bin Laden-like terrorist, is growing in power and detonating bombs in random places across the U.S.. Hoping to put a stop to him is Tony's BFF James Rhodes (Don Cheadle). He's painted his Iron Man armor Red, White and Blue to become Iron Patriot, crusader of the War on Terror. In a surprise to no one, intelligence gathered on The Mandarin continually leads him in the wrong directions. When one Mandarin attack hits too close to home, Tony is shaken out of his comfort zone. He goes on the offense, but his cocky attitude is his downfall. After an attack on his cliffside mansion (a tremendous sequence of architectural dismemberment), Tony is left on his butt in the middle of nowhere, with no one to help him.
Black's clear goal is to keep Tony out of the armor. The Marvel regime forces its movies to stylistically conform, keeping Iron Man 3 as flat and generic across the technical board. So Black innovates on the page as he did during his screenwriting days (he's the man behind Lethal Weapon and The Last Boyscout). Downey, Jr. is firing on all cylinders here, shooting off wisecracks faster than Iron Man's repulser rays and giving Tony something to grapple with. Black connects the character with one of the scariest companion tropes in all of filmmaking: "random helpful kid." It ends up working because Tony never loses his sardonic tone — when his 11-year-old helper reveals that his dad walked out a few years prior, Tony tells him to get over it (using very colorful language). They've got bad guys to fight. Completely rude, completely genuine. Downey, Jr. is one of the few performers who can drop that comedy gold then match it with a stunt-filled set piece.
Downey, Jr. isn't alone. Black has a dream cast for Iron Man 3, helping keep the convoluted plot in check with personality. Pearce has a ball with his diabolical Killian while Kingsley subverts every villain trope in the book. His performance as The Mandarin pulls the rug from under the audiences' feet with cackling glee. It might be Black's way of flipping the bird to die hard comic fans, but depending on your investment, Kingsley dominates the movie.
While Black injects his wry sensibilities into the superhero format, he also plays ball with the necessary evils. There's big action in Iron Man 3 and, unlike the previous two installments, it delivers. A scene in which Iron Man swoops through the sky to catch fallen airplane passengers will make your heart race. Whether it's incredible CG or practical stunts, the airborne wrangling feels all too real. Black has his classic '90s action moments too: if Iron Man 3 didn't have a swing-away-from-an-explosion moment, it wouldn't be a Shane Black movie.
Aside from a few raised eyebrows provoked by the film's logic, Downey, Jr. and Black once again found magic together — and on a scale worthy of summer blockbusters. Iron Man 3 easily tops the first two movies and starts the summer off with a bang and a sly wink to camera.
(And don't forget to stay after the credits — Marvel once again drops a scene that completes the film!)
What do you think? Tell Matt Patches directly on Twitter @misterpatches and read more of his reviews on Rotten Tomatoes!
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The Amazing Spider-Man would prefer if you didn't call it the fourth Spider-Man movie. See this ain't the Spider-Man your older brother knew from ten years ago — it's a reboot. The latest adventure to feature the comic book webslinger throws three movies worth of established mythology straight out the window swapping the original cast with an ensemble of fresh faces and resetting the franchise with a spiffy new origin story. "New" in the loosest sense of the word — the highlights of ASM mainly a sleek new design and spunky reinterpretation of Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and gal pal Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone) are weighed down by overpowering sense of familiarity. Nearly a beat for beat replica of the 2002 original with some irksome twists of mystery thrown in Amazing Spider-Man fails to evolve its hero or his quarrels. The film has a great sense of cinematic power but little responsibility in making it interesting.
We're first introduced to Peter Parker as a young boy watching as his parents rush out of the house in response to a hidden danger. Mr. and Mrs. Parker leave their son in the care of his Aunt May (Sally Fields) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) who raise him into Andrew Garfield's geeky cool spin on the character. Parker's a science whiz but faces the challenges of every day life — passing classes talking to girls the occasional jock with aggression issues — but all of life's woes are put on hold when the teen discovers a new clue in the mystery behind his parents' disappearance. The discovery of his dad's old briefcase and notes leads Peter to Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) a scientist working for mega-conglomerate Oscorp and his Dad's old partner. When they cross paths Connors instantly takes a liking to the wunderkind and loops him into the work he started with his father: replicating the regeneration abilities of lizards in amputee humans (Connors is driven to reform his own missing arm). But when Parker wanders into Oscorp's room full of spiders (a sloppily explained this-needs-to-be-here-for-this-to-happen device) he receives his legendary spider bite that transforms him into the hero we know.
Director Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer) desperately wants Amazing Spider-Man to work as a high school relationship movie but with the burden of massive amounts of plot and mythology to introduce the movie sags under the sheer volume of stuff. Stone turns Parker's object of affection Gwen Stacey into a three-dimensional character. Whenever they happen upon each other an awkward exchange in the hallway a flirtatious back-and-forth in the Oscorp lab (where Stacey is head…intern) or when the two finally begin a romantic relationship the two stars shine. They're vivid characters chopped to bits in the editing room diluted by boring franchise-building plot threads and routine action sequences. Seriously Amazing Spider-Man another mad scientist villain who uses himself as a test subject only to become a monster? And another bridge rescue scene? Amazing Spider-Man desperately wants to disconnect from the original trilogy but it's trapped in an inescapable shadow and does nothing radical to shake things up. Instead it settles for the same old same old while preparing for inevitable sequels instead of investing in its dynamic duo.
There's a sweet spot where the film really hits his stride. After discovering his spider-abilities Peter hits the streets for the first time. He's superhuman but still a headstrong teen full of obnoxious quips and close calls with shiv-wielding thugs. The action is slick small and playful Webb showing us something new by melding his indie sensibilities with big scale action. If only it lasted — the introduction of Ifans reptilian half The Lizard implodes Amazing Spider-Man into incomprehensible blockbuster chaos. A gargantuan beast wreaking havoc around New York City promises King Kong-like escapades for the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man but the lizard man has other plans: to rule the world! Or something. Whatever it takes to get Lizard and Spider-Man fighting on the top of a skyscraper over a doomsday machine — logic be damned.
Amazing Spider-Man peppers its banal foundation with great talent from Denis Leary as Gwen's wickedly funny dad and the police captain hunting down Spider-Man to Fields and Sheen as two loving adults in Peter's life to Garfield and Stone whose chemistry demands a follow-up for the sake of seeing them reunited. But it's all at the cost of putting on the most expensive recreation of all time with new demands imposed by the success Marvel's other properties (except that franchise teasing worked). Amazing Spider-Man introduces too many ideas that go nowhere undermining the actual threat at hand. No one wants to be unfulfilled but that's the overriding difference between the original movie and the update. You need to pay for the sequel to know what the heck is going on in this one.
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.