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Feature


When Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) finds his personal world destroyed at his enemy’s hands, he embarks on a harrowing quest to find those responsible. This journey, at every turn, will test his mettle. With his back against the wall, Stark is left to survive by his own devices, relying on his ingenuity and instincts to protect those closest to him. As he fights his way back, Stark discovers the answer to the question that has secretly haunted him: Does the man make the suit or does the suit make the man? (From Marvel’s original synopsis)

 Iron Man 3 (2D)
The third film in a studio-driven, blockbuster series – especially a superhero franchise – is always a hard one. Years ago, sequels were generally reserved for B-movies and they would generally be copies of the original films. If a series made it to a second sequel, it was usually not a sign of creative/artistic quality. In the ‘80s, movies like The Empire Strikes Back and The Wrath of Khan changed the rules and the second film became a viable storytelling option. In this modern era of superhero origin stories, the first film in a franchise has become proof of product and, quite often, with that awkward origin out of the way, the sequel ends up being the better movie. But, following that second movie, creative forces find themselves at war with studio mandates. For example, Bryan Singer wanted a break from the X-Men to make a Superman movie. Seemingly offended, Fox dropped him from the property altogether and pushed a substandard X-Men 3 out into theaters to compete with Superman Returns. Studios are also sort of obsessed with the closure of a capped trilogy and they force everything and the kitchen sink into a single film. This is what happened to Sam Raimi when he made Spider-Man 3 and was made to cram two movies – the one he wanted to make and the one Sony wanted to make – into a two and a half hour mess (I mess I happen to enjoy, but a mess nonetheless). Other times, the creative lead(s) is/are spent and has/have no interest in making a third movie. When Warner Bros. paid a dispassionate Chris Nolan enough money to make him commit to The Dark Knight Rises, he made the least Batmany Batman movie ever made.

Perhaps without even intending to do it, Marvel set up a system that avoided the second sequel problem for their flagship franchise. The Avengers was, effectively, Iron Man 3 or at least Iron Man 2.5. Tony Stark was about as central as any character can get in an ensemble superhero movie. In turn, Iron Man 3 is more like Iron Man 3.5 and doesn’t carry the same baggage a second sequel normally would. Marvel also avoided the ‘tired creative team’ problem when Jon Favreau chose to step down (though he still acted as executive-producer and appeared as Happy Hogan) and was replaced by Robert Downey Jr.’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang director, Shane Black. Over five years and seven movies Marvel’s directing staff has gone from predictable (Favreau, Louis Leterrier) to interesting (Kenneth Branagh, Joe Johnston), eventually culminating in the brilliant hiring of Joss Whedon for The Avengers. Following their success with Whedon, the studio started taking chances on writer/directors with cult followings and unique voices, specifically James Gunn ( Guardians of the Galaxy), Edgar Wright ( Ant-Man) and, of course, Shane Black (the jury is still out on Alan Taylor and Anthony & Joe Russo).

 Iron Man 3 (2D)
Like Whedon and Gunn, Black spent most of his career as a famous writer, rather than a famous director and his name signifies an uncommon storytelling style. Black was joined by co-writer Drew Pearce, who was reportedly brought on for his familiarity with the Marvel universe (Pearce was initially hired to write a Runaways movie, which reminds me, why hasn’t Marvel made a damn Runaways movie yet?). Pearce appears to have deferred to his co-writer in most cases though, because Iron Man 3 feels every inch a Shane Black superhero movie – from the savvy kid sidekick to its kidnapping subplot, its disillusioned henchmen (‘honestly, I hate working here, they are so weird’), and the Christmas time setting. Black even does his best to develop a Murtaugh and Riggs-like relationship between Tony and Col. Rhodes (Don Cheadle), though there just isn’t enough time for Rhodes to be anything but a secondary character (though he is a first-rate MacGuffin).

It’s understandable that some people would be suspicious when producer Kevin Feige hired a guy that had only directed one, extensively smaller action/comedy back in 2005. The scale required of a post- Avengers Marvel movie is certainly imposing. Thankfully, these valid concerns quickly evaporated as Black demonstrates he’s a more confident director than Favreau ever was. Despite oodles of state-of-the-art special effects, Iron Man 3 gives the impression of a late-‘80s/early-‘90s action flick, the kind that Black had a hand in creating. He takes inspiration from the best of Richard Donner, John McTiernan, and Renny Harlin to make Iron Man 3 into a briskly-paced, smoothly-edited film that deftly balances levity and pathos, and doesn’t lean too heavily on handheld camerawork. More importantly for the blockbuster crowd, Black creates two of the best action scenes of the entire summer – namely, the mournful destruction of Tony’s Malibu mansion and the joyous rescue of Air Force One’s flight crew (or, if you prefer, the ‘barrel of monkeys’ scene). Even the slightly less sublime action set-pieces offer a lot of stylistic texture. The battles include a wide range of colossal, CG-assisted smack-downs and old-fashioned, analogue fisticuffs. It doesn’t necessarily relate to Iron Man 3, but I think it’s still interesting to note that Whedon had also only directed a single movie before The Avengers, Serenity, and it was also a financial disappointment when released.

Black’s relative detachment from the source material and his creative need to be subversive leads him to take some huge chances with the film’s tone and narrative. The audience expects a lot from an Iron Man movie and it is Black’s risks that turn an acceptable sequel into the best in the series and possibly even the second best movie in the entire Marvel movie franchise. The people in charge at Marvel understand that you don’t make great films by trying to please everyone, especially not when you’re dealing with the fourth appearance of a popular character. The first film was a risk by definition – it was a multi-million dollar adaptation of a (then) B-list character (from the general public’s point-of-view) that stared an actor who was trying to rebuild his career after a very public fall from grace. The second film was a risk, because it was the studio’s first attempt at interlocking the franchises (aside from the brief, last minute cameos in Iron Man and Incredible Hulk). Avengers was a risk because it was the culmination of those interlocking franchises. There were no inherent risks in Iron Man 3 – it was set to be a financial slam-dunk the second Avengers had a record-breaking opening weekend.

 Iron Man 3 (2D)

Huge spoilers follow for the rest of the feature section of this review.



Of course, risks are called risks for a reason and, if website forums are any indication, not everyone was happy with some of Black and Pearce’s choices, chiefly one concerning the main villain (according to Black, who may be trying to avoid being stabbed to death by zealous fans, this was originally Pearce’s idea). The Mandarin, as played by Ben Kingsley, is introduced as a frightening amalgamation of every terrorist leader since WWII. He represents the black & white supervillain Tony wants to react to, following the space magic that challenged him in The Avengers and, in his distressed state, he decides that it’s his ‘duty’ to confront this evil. He is overwhelmed in his hubris and easily defeated. Then, after finally pulling himself together and realizing he doesn’t need the armor to be a hero, a de-suited Tony infiltrates The Mandarin’s compound to find that Kingsley is actually playing Trevor Slattery – a drunken, out-of-work actor that the real villain, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), hired to be his generic, catchall terrorist figure-head. Trevor is introduced coming out of the bathroom where he announces he has just taken a particularly smelly dump. Some fans may argue that he took that dump all over the memory of one of their favourite comic book antagonists.

I admit that my initial reaction to the twist was to be disappointed. Like most people, I wanted to see Iron Man involved in an epic throw-down with his archenemy and I was looking forward to an interpretation of the comic’s technology vs. magic motifs. But this is a modern adaptation of a character that was born out of the post-Korean War/Vietnam War era’s Yellow Peril stereotypes. He has since been used in less one-dimensional, less racist capacities over the years, but doesn’t work with this franchise, not ethnically (hence his non-racially specific false appearance), not socially (a $200 million movie can afford to alienate some of its core fanbase, but it can’t afford to alienate entire countries of viewers), and not thematically (the Iron Man movies have been science fiction and military thriller-based since the first film). Besides, a megalomaniacal, super-powered puppet-master is still the film’s chief villain – he just usually operates under his given name ‘Aldrich Killian.’ I’m not sure why so many people missed the part where Killian implicitly states that he is The Mandarin. I also wonder where all these people were when Christopher Nolan turned Bane from a Latin Luchador with a steroid addiction into an ethnically vague economic terrorist – who also happens to be a mere tool for the ‘real villain’ – in The Dark Knight Rises. There must be rules to fandom-based, pedantic outrage that I just don’t understand (please note that I don’t care about the Bane change either – I’m using it as a glib example). Again, comic lore aside, the ‘villain behind the villain’ motif has been a common one throughout the Iron Man series and the James Bond movies the series seems to have been emulating all along.

 Iron Man 3 (2D)
The issue with the twist isn’t that they’ve ‘ruined the Mandarin,’ it’s that Killian is so similar to the other villains in the series. The news that he’s been behind just about every evil event in the movie (possibly even the series) is awfully similar to the mid-film reveal in the first Iron Man, where we discover that Obadiah Stane was the architect of Stark’s original capture. He also has a little in common with Iron Man 2’s two villains, Justin Hammer and Ivan Vanko – all three are Tony Stark doppelgangers. Funnily enough, Killian actually represents several different Marvel Universe villains. A character named Aldrich Killian does create the Extremis virus alongside Maya Hansen (played by Rebecca Hall in this movie), but, in the comic, he also feels so guilty about selling it to terrorists that he kills himself. The movie version of Killian has less in common with his comic counterpart and The Mandarin than he does with an A.I.M. Scientist Supreme. One of the Scientist Supremes was George Tarleton, who eventually transformed into M.O.D.O.K. – a bizarre, giant-headed Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing (I’ve since discovered that Killian does become M.O.D.O.K. in the Iron Man 3 video game). Black has also verified that Killian’s dragon tattoo and a brief gag where he breathes fire were nods to Fing Fang Foom – the giant, purple-pant-wearing dragon that Iron Man occasionally faces off against. On a meta-textual level, the fake Mandarin is also a provocative satire of the new Hollywood tradition of hiring award-winning actors to play comic book villains. Kingsley even puts on a strange accent and intonation, mocking the trademark voices other actors have brought to more ‘serious’ villain roles.

The other big change the writers make might be the more contentious one, because it fundamentally changes the physical definition of main character and because the information is delivered in passing at the very end of the film. Those that left the theater to beat the traffic when they felt things wrapping up might have missed the fact that Tony removes the arc reactor from his chest. There’s a part of me that doesn’t like changes to the essential ingredients of a decades-old character, but there are also already three films that have paid thorough homage to the character’s tradition. Movies aren’t comics – they require closure and, Marvel’s ongoing franchise blueprints aside, I like the closure this third film offers. Not to mention that Downey Jr.’s contract was up and there was no guarantee that he would be back to play the character ever again (it’s still possible that this is his last solo Iron Man movie). Tony Stark has taken a four-film journey beyond his materialism, over his daddy issues, into the committed relationship he’d been skating for years, and even found emotional security in being a superhero. Not all franchise films have to end on a ‘to be continued’ note – as evident in Iron Man 3’s post-credit gag that pokes fun at the Marvel’s continued ‘tease the next movie’ formula.

 Iron Man 3 (2D)
For all of their surprises, Black and Pearce still make some mistakes, most of which are common second sequel follies. The basic plot is built around the same skeleton as the first film. The writers often use this to their advantage, playing on our expectations to invert them and creating thematic symmetry between the trilogy’s bookends, but there are definitely some moments where I wish that they’d stepped away from the superhero movie sequel prototype. Once Killian’s plan is revealed, the film loses a lot of its narrative steam as it builds to the typical action climax. This particular climax still serves the greater story – there’s plenty of character development advancement and elegant exposition – it just gets away from the director in terms of arbitrary background mayhem. The action is noisy and the sequence is overlong, robbing it of some of its emotional impact. Still, occasional imbalances aside, Iron Man 3 is probably the most solidly-structured, three-act movie Marvel has ever made. I imagine that this will become a trend now that we’re well into sequels and can avoid the awkward halving of movies between origin stories and confrontations with arch villains (though I suspect that further Avengers movies will always have an extended first-act issues while bringing the team back together).

Tony’s arc is the film’s central focus, but I also think Black and Pearce deserve some credit for their treatment of Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). The original trailers implied that Pepper might not make it through this movie and that her death would motivate Tony. This wouldn’t have been unexpected (Paltrow has got to be an expensive supporting player at this point), but it would’ve been incredibly lazy, not to mention particularly damaging to Pepper as a character. Favreau found awkward ways to shoehorn her into minor heroism in his films, but she was never far from a typical damsel in distress – a fine line the Marvel movies have been walking all along (I’m not sure if any of these films pass the Bechel Test, despite a cadre of strong female characters). Black and Pearce clearly understand this problem and even exploit it during the final act, where Pepper is captured and experimented on by Killian, who, in proper misogynistic comic book villain tradition, sees her as his trophy. Black shifts the entire tone of these final scenes to all but verify that she is, indeed, going to die, because he needs to condition us for the surprise we would’ve otherwise seen coming a million miles away – she doesn’t only survive, she save Tony and vanquishes the villain. It might not be a giant leap for gender equality in Marvel’s cinematic universe, but it feels a lot like the first baby steps to a lady-led superhero flick.

 Iron Man 3 (2D)

Video


Iron Man 3 was shot in digital HD using Arri Alexa and Phantom Flex cameras. It was post-converted for its 3D release and blown up for IMAX releases (no scenes were shot using IMAX cameras). This 1080p, 2.40:1, 2D Blu-ray meets all the expectations set by similar blockbuster Hollywood fare shot using the Alexa system. Black and cinematographer John Toll treat the digital photography like they would standard film, for the most part. It’s not like they attempt to disguise the digital source, they just avoid the weird smoothing and hue blending effects that similarly shot movies tend to embrace. The look is very clean, but not unnaturally so. The images here are mostly divided between the gleam of the tech world and the crust of the regular world. The tech world is all sleek and shiny, without only a hint of digital noise to sully its clarity, and the regular world is brimming with texture and complex patterns, none of which feature any notable edge haloes. The colour palette isn’t super-themed like other digital releases, though the hues are solid, tight, and a bit more evenly graded than 35mm. The warmer hues are pumped up a bit and the cooler hues have a tidy glowing quality. The highlight colours, many of which are Christmas themed, are quite vivid. There’s a sort of overcast throughout most of the film that keeps the image pretty dark, but this is rarely at the risk of the crisp details or colour separation. As a matter of fact, the darkest scenes are often the most impressive, especially the finer highlights that would go missing on a DVD version. The blacks are occasionally a bit light, but the differentiations in shades are strong. The only problem I can see here are some low level noise/macro blocking issues in the out of focus background shapes.

 Iron Man 3 (2D)

Audio


Iron Man 3 is one of those Blu-rays you just assume will be brimming with demo-worthy material. It’s a big-budget, sci-fi action film and, like all big-budget, sci-fi action films, a lot of effort has been put into its intricate and dynamic sound design. This disc features a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix that delivers thoroughly upon all assumptions. The early parts of the film are subtle and fill out the stereo and surround channels with general ambience that doesn’t overwhelm the clean, centered dialogue. This ‘light touch’ approach helps set up the dynamic range for the film’s first big action set-piece – the assault on the Malibu house. This one sequence has every bit of directional enhancement and LFE punch you could ever want in a demo disc. Missiles and large calibre bullets zip through the channels as the entire structure of the mansion crumbles into the water. Like I said in the feature part of the review, Black’s action scenes are tonally different from each other and, as a result, feature varied sound designs, so if explosions and crumbling mansions don’t do it for you, there’s a lot of fiery, crackling Extremis soldiers, low-tech fisticuffs, and even a huge airplane disaster to give texture to your sound system. This time around, the musical score was composed by Brian Tyler, who is the third Iron Man composer in as many films (Ramin Djawadi scored Iron Man and John Debney scored Iron Man 2). Tyler has rode a long trail of underappreciated B-horror/thriller/action scores to take a part in A-list Hollywood pictures. This might actually be his best score. It’s definitely the best Iron Man score and among the top Marvel scores period (at this point, I’d rank it just behind Alan Silvestri’s Captain America and Avengers compositions). The music is big and brassy, like a good John Barry score, but also features all the electronic embellishments a modern superhero score requires.

 Iron Man 3 (2D)

Extras


The extras begin with a commentary from Black and his co-writer Pearce. The commentators are expectedly good-natured, flippant and don’t waste too much time in describing the behind-the-scenes processes. The focus is occasionally split, but the majority of discussion surrounds the construction of the film on a story level, which isn’t surprising, considering that Black and Pearce had spent months together writing the film. This includes in-depth illustrations of alternative sequences (lots of different beginnings), themes that were eventually lost in story editing (Extremis people are good-looking for evolutionary purposes), and notes of what lines the actors made up themselves. It is a lesson in solid screenwriting practices, which they jokingly refer to as a ‘master class.’ I’m not sure if they realize how close they are to the truth with this statement, though. Black catches himself not talking about the non-thematic issues on several occasions and tries to paint a nice picture of the actors and basic on-set mechanisms, but he and Pearce are both much more comfortable talking about storytelling and, as such, this track is best when their attention is centered on screenwriting. For those that care, there’s very little discussion concerning the film’s more controversial moments, because the film hadn’t yet been released stateside and the complaints hadn’t quite escaped.

Up next is Marvel One-Shot: Agent Carter (15:30, HD, DTS-HD MA), a much appreciated short film that covers Peggy Carter’s (Hayley Atwell) post- Captain America adventures with the Strategic Scientific Reserve. This mini-movie, which was directed by Louis D’Esposito, sees Carter and the SSR in search of ‘Zodiac’ – a criminal organization from the original Marvel comics comprised of villains with Zodiac-themed names. Word on the street is that Marvel is considering Carter for an ongoing television series, which makes sense, now that former Marvel One-Shot star, Agent Coulson, heads ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. show.

The featurettes begin with Iron Man 3: Unmasked (11:00, HD), a generalized look behind-the-scenes with cast and crew interviews and raw on-set footage. This is, as the promotional material puts it, a ‘crash course’ on the production of all the major set-pieces and footage from the premiere. Deconstructing The Scene: Attack On Air Force One (8:40, HD) covers the making of the film’s most enjoyable action scene, which involved a lot more in-camera stunt performance than you’d usually expect from a modern special effects blockbuster (though that raw footage was digitally augmented). The final ‘featurette’ is really an extended trailer for Thor: The Dark World (1:50, HD), plus some cast interviews. Interviews in these featurettes include Black, producers Kevin Feige, Louis D’Esposito, Stephen Broussard, and Victoria Alanzo, stunt coordinator Markos Rounthwaite, VFX supervisors Christopher Townsend and Mark Soper, production designer Bill Brzeski, stunt double Trevor Habberstad, 2nd unit director Jim Churchman, production supervisor Jason Tamez, and cast members Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Stephanie Szostak, James Badge Dale, and Guy Pearce.

The extras also include ten deleted/extended/alternate scenes (16:20, HD), including longer versions of the faux-TV shows, improv outtakes, and an extended death for Maya (note that none of the scenes shot for the Chinese release are included), a gag reel (mostly more outtakes, 5:10, HD), and trailers.

 Iron Man 3 (2D)

Overall


Iron Man 3 (or Iron Man Three, if you’d prefer) doesn’t only overcome the curse of being the third (or third and a half) movie in a superhero series – it ends up being a strong standalone feature and, against all odds, it’s probably my favourite film in the series. It might even be my second favourite Marvel universe movie, just behind Joss Whedon’s messier, but more triumphant The Avengers. I understand the complaints some fans have, especially those based on the supposed betrayal of the comic franchise’s original characters and concepts, but I don’t agree with them, especially not when we’re judging the film on the merits of the movie universe alone. I also know that, if Marvel wasn’t willing to take chances with their material, these films would grow stale very quickly. I hope that Iron Man 3 is an indication of the surprises we’re in for throughout the rest of the ‘Stage 2’ build-up to Avengers: Age of Ultron. This 2D Blu-ray features predictably perfect video and audio qualities, but, aside from a fantastic director/co-writer commentary track, the extras are pretty disappointing.

* Note: The images on this page were taken from the Blu-ray disc, but because of .jpg compression may not be representative of its true high definition quality.


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