Sunday, August 11, 2013

Iron Man 3: The MCU Winning Streak Continues

Iron Man 3 just might be the best MCU flick to date. Yes, even better than IM2, my prior favorite. (Disclaimer: I unapologetically love IM2, despite its very minor and easily-overlooked flaws.) Granted, this may be the MCU installment in which all sense of believability goes out the window, down a manhole, and tumbling into a bottomless pit towards the Earth's core. Sure, we've had plenty of outlandish stuff in the series before, but individual components of an armor-suit flying hundreds of miles under their own power requires not just a suspension but an annihilation of disbelief.

And yet... I'm okay with that. When Thor and Cap came out in the same summer of '11, I wasn't crazy about either of their aesthetics - I wished at the time they'd gone with a less sci-fi-looking Asgardian society than one the ancient Vikings themselves would have imagined, and I was a bit disappointed to see full-on laser guns, massive tanks and HYDRA rather than a more conventional, grittier Indiana Jones vs. Nazis-style flick. The first three MCU movies had mostly stuck to a more or less realistic "real world" - as real as a comic-book movie saga can be, that is - and the Thor and Cap one-two punch inaugurated the series' new direction, which The Avengers subsequently cemented. Yes, the individual suit components flying from Tennessee to Florida is absurd, but so is a frickin' flying aircraft carrier. As Killian so aptly notes, in the wake of that movie, subtlety is clearly gone for good: this is a cartoon fantasy series now, no more grounded in the real, contemporary world than Star Trek, with its magic transporters and humanoid aliens ostensibly speaking through a universal translator, but moving mouths as if they're speaking English. These are the terms; all we can plausibly ask for now is that they tell compelling and engaging stories.

And IM3 is relentlessly engaging. It's almost hard to believe that despite being the seventh entry in the MCU, this is only the second sequel, as The Avengers was far more of a team origin story than a continuation of the characters' previous plot threads. And what I really love about IM2, apart from the awesome cast (with guest stars Rockwell and Rourke in the mix, it's still the series' finest), is the way it deepens and builds upon the Stark/SHIELD saga - the WW2-era American/Russian cooperation, the Cold War frictions, and the perils of having an egomaniac as the only superhero in town. Also, contrary to what many said, the SHIELD subplot in that movie wasn't at all superfluous to the story - by presenting Tony with his first legitimate authority figures since his school days, Fury and Co. allowed him to mature to the point where he finally merited an adult relationship with Pepper. Without an Avengers membership to aspire to, Tony would have imploded through a lethal cocktail (pun intended) of hubris and apathy. And in The Avengers, of course, he (eventually) proved himself capable of wholeheartedly joining a team and a larger purpose, albeit briefly. But, much like real people, no one dramatic incident can fundamentally change or reform him; he's still just an imperfect, deeply self-adoring mortal. Cue IM3.

The greatest thing about IM3 may be what it isn't: it isn't a retread, or a reset of Tony's character or journey. Pepper hasn't been stuffed in a fridge, leaving him single again, nor has he reverted to his irresponsible, hubristic ways. He's still a slightly mad/obsessive inventor and tinkerer, of course, but his fear of a universe full of potential threats now justifies those neuroses, and his friendship with Rhodey as a now-brother-in-armor anchors him to a more responsible path than before. Until Happy is injured, at least, he actually asks to help the authorities track down The Mandarin instead of going right after him directly, something he never would have done before Nick Fury told him to grow the hell up in a doughnut shop. Okay, so his character arc of regaining mojo by cooking up some new gadgets is more or less a repeat of what's happened before, plot-wise - this is still an Iron Man flick - but the execution is more than fresh enough to maintain the series' momentum.

I'd also like to point out another great thematic moment, namely, the untapped genetic potential of the human brain Killian refers to. Since Thor told Jane that magic is just science one doesn't yet understand, this seems like a pretty cool hint that we Terran apes might not be all that far from the Asgardian race as we might think.

Finally, I'd be remiss in not giving special attention to the action sequences. Back when I was in high school, there'd be two or three astounding action sequences a year, like the Battle of Helm's Deep or the Matrix Reloaded freeway pileup, that'd fairly blow the minds of me and my peers. A whole decade later, such first-rate thrills seem rarer - as much as I enjoyed The Avengers, even its climactic throwdown was merely pretty good, familiar fun. So it's to Marvel's and Shane Black's immense credit that the Stark house attack is genuinely frightening and moving, the deliriously ludicrous Air Force One rescue was more fun than anything in the last two Superman movies, and the harbor rescue finale was a triumph of giddy, fun and wildly inventive action that didn't involve the fate of the world or the complete destruction of a major city.

In fairness, there were some missteps: the scene with the satellite guy was amusing but added nothing, the wondrous Rebecca Hall was sadly underused (though her completely unexpected exit was a fun jolt), the corrupt Vice President subplot was moronic and could've been cut without affecting the plot one iota, and the whole Extremis stuff is pretty wobbly and short on sense. But when the overall result is this much fun and solid character development for our heroes, none of those bits detract from my enjoyment of the flick.

Throughout seven movies to date, Marvel Studios hasn't produced a single clunker - even the weakest so far, Cap 1, is still plenty enjoyable, and I can't wait to see how Rogers reacts to the world beyond SHIELD facilities in The Winter Soldier. No other movie franchise - not DC, not Harry Potter, certainly not Bond or Star Wars or Trek - can claim that kind of winning streak. And a special shout-out goes to the awesome and perpetually unsung supporting player Paul Bettany - next to the Stark/Jarvis running banter throughout all sorts of mayhem, Kal-El's solo flying-and-punching routine feels positively etiolated. Meanwhile, how about an Iron Patriot flick? Cheadle proved himself much too awesome here to remain in the background indefinitely.

In conclusion - and if you read all this, tell your local Chipotle server "Gaith rocks" for a free burrito - the MCU continues to rock my world; only the "One-Shot" short films (apart from the pretty neat "The Consultant") have really disappointed so far, and the arrival of the Peggy Carter one coming on IM3 home releases sounds as though that too could be about to change. Do we really need a SHIELD show on top of all this awesomeness? I doubt it, but it, too, sound fun enough regardless. Now bring on Thor: The Dark World!

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