REVIEW: “Iron Man 3”

IRON MAN 3 poster

Marvel Studies’ wildly successful 2012 film “The Avengers” confirmed several things. First, the amazing interconnected universe experiment that started all the way back in the first Iron Man film worked brilliantly. Another thing it did was establish Robert Downey Jr. and his Tony Stark character as the biggest draw of the group. Well now Downey Jr. returns for his third individual Iron Man flick in what’s sure to be another mammoth blockbuster hit. And while hordes of moviegoers and fanboys are sure to flock to it, can “Iron Man 3” continue to build on its already successful formula?

Let me say I loved “Iron Man” from 2008. And while its sequel “Iron Man 2” had its shortcomings, it was still a fun and entertaining entry into Marvel’s cinematic universe and a cool link into the Avengers project. I was really hoping that “Iron Man 3” would more closely resemble the franchise’s first film – a movie that I still think is one of the best superhero films period. But for me it more closely resembled the second picture, perhaps better but only slightly.

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Gwyneth Paltrow in “Iron Man 3”

This is the first Marvel Studios film since “The Avengers” and we do get a few cool references to what took place in New York City. But by and large this is a separate story focused on Tony Stark more so than his metal man persona. The movie starts with a flashback to 1999 where Tony (Downey Jr.) and his best friend Happy (Jon Favreau) are partying it up at a science conference in Switzerland on New Years Eve. Tony, ever the womanizer back in the day, hooks up with a brilliant botanist named Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall). At the party Tony pompously brushes off the wormy Aldrich Killian (Guy Pierce) who approaches Stark with an invitation to join his think tank Advanced Idea Mechanics (comic fans will most certainly recognize A.I.M.). This brief prologue introduces the beautiful Maya and the scorned Killian into the movie’s landscape.

From there the film moves to present day where Tony has found himself a nervous wreck since the alien invasion of New York City (ala “The Avengers”). Battling panic attacks and insomnia, he finds refuge in building Iron Man suits. Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), the cure to Tony’s past life of excess and carousing, begins to feel the effects of Tony’s emotional state. Aside from his personal troubles a Bin Laden-esque terrorist named The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) has claimed responsibility for a series of deadly bombings. When Happy is seriously injured in one of those attacks an infuriated Tony calls The Mandarin out publicly. What follows leaves Tony alone, armorless, and presumed dead with only his brains, wits, and deductive skills to find The Mandarin and stop him.

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Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark

Shane Black directs and co-writes the story that tosses a lot at the audience. Killian pops back into picture in a much better physical condition than when we first see him. We also see Maya again and even though its a pretty small role she holds some rather important bits of information. Don Cheadle gets plenty of screen time as “Rhodey” who dons the more politically sensitive Iron Patriot armor. But everything comes back to Tony Stark and the movie really focuses on the man outside of the Iron Man suit. To some degree I enjoyed that and many have responded to the movie because it tries to look more at the man than the superhero. He’s forced to resort more to his inventive ingenuity much like in the early scenes of the first film.

But if I’m honest I have to say that I don’t know if that’s what I want from an Iron Man superhero movie. Don’t misunderstand me, I love the idea of giving the character some depth. The first film did that well. But considering how much time is spent with Tony outside of the armor, I didn’t feel his character was expanded that much. Downey Jr. certainly gives us another solid performance and I love him in this role. And while the more desperate tone did lessen the number of quick quips and smart-alecky jests, he still pulls in some good laughs especially when partnering with a precocious young boy (Ty Simpkins) who otherwise serves no other purpose than to play his cliched temporary sidekick.

The film does have strong moments and it delivers some pretty hefty payoffs. The tension surrounding The Mandarin really works for most of the movie and there are some big time action sequences that visually blew my socks off. I also loved the work of Guy Pearce in a performance that he himself viewed as “experimental” in a sense. Rebecca Hall was also very good and she had me craving more screen time for her. In fact, the entire cast gives us some really good performances and even when the dialogue occasionally trips over itself they still impress.

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Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin

But I keep coming back to one thing, something stemming from a conscious choice of Shane Black. I wanted to see more of Iron Man in his armor and while the buddy cop elements with Rhodey and the super sleuth angle in small town Tennessee didn’t equal bad cinema, it did leave me anxious for a superhero film that I’m not sure ever came. I don’t want to leave the impression that we never see the armor, but even then many of those moments aren’t Tony Stark at all (I’ll leave it at that). Even with the number of wild explosions and hair-raising action scenes which I thoroughly enjoyed, the movie still didn’t feel quite like the second phase of Marvel’s movie universe.

And I can’t help myself, I have to mention another thing. This film takes Tony Stark and his Iron Man story far away from its comic book source material, farther than either of the other films. For many this is a non-issue, but for a fanboy who sees the original material as better, well let’s just say it’s a shame. And it’s not just the Tony Stark character who is altered. There’s a huge reveal in the second half of the film that obliterates a major part of Iron Man’s history. It’s pushed by some pretty lame attempts at comedy and it drains the film of one of its strongest story angles. Frankly, it didn’t work for me. Black and co-writer Drew Pearce’s choice for a twist combined with several plot holes and the typical maniacal world domination story was a surprising letdown.

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Yes, that’s Pepper Potts

I’m still conflicted about “Iron Man 3” and it’s a film I think I need to rewatch before I can truly cement my overall rating. But I don’t want my gripes to overshadow the fact that I had a lot of fun with the movie. The performances are wonderful and I’m surprised to say that they are what kept me enthralled more so than the action or drama. But the action sequences are for the most part outstanding. There are a few cheesy effects but there are also some of the most jaw-dropping visual sequences yet to come out of Marvel Studios.

So is this just a case of enormous expectations or was I expecting a different movie altogether? Well, a little of both I think. In the end “Iron Man 3” does deliver but it’s certainly not the ‘blow you away’ flick both the fanboy and superhero fan in me was hoping for. Black had a decent vision for this film and he certainly had a wonderful cast. But his overall story direction is lacking and his shredding of key source material took away from what he did right. I’m afraid that’s what is keeping me from fully embracing this movie. It’s certainly a fun time, but in a way it was a little disappointing.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

THE SHOWDOWN : “The Avengers” vs “The Dark Knight Rises”

Without a doubt the two biggest movies of the year in terms of box office results and expectations has been Disney/Marvel’s “The Avengers” and Warner Bros./DC Comics’ “The Dark Knight Rises”. Both films were two of the most highly anticipated and heavily promoted pictures leading up to their releases. Now both have hit the theaters, made millions of dollars, and have been talked about by critics, geeks, and movie fans from around the globe. But which is the better movie? I thought it would be fun to put the two side-by-side and see who comes out on top. They’ll face off in several categories and we will see who’s standing in the end.

SPECIAL EFFECTS

When judging the special effects, it’s hard to come up with a fair and conclusive winner. Both movies approach their action sequences in significantly different ways. “The Avengers” uses a lot more CGI and much of director Joss Whedon’s vision is dependant on it. What’s truly amazing is that the movie really pulls it off. The massive CGI set pieces are sights to behold and this is easily the best looking Hulk yet to hit the big screen. Director Christopher Nolan chose a more traditional approach to special effects and they are perfect for the movie he was making. While he did use CGI, he relied much more on intense stunt sequences and traditional set designs. Explosions, flipping cars, and large-scale battles make up the thrust of the action. So judging the two by the same standard is impossible. Therefore I’ll just go by the impressive scope of the vision that’s brought to life on-screen through the effects. WINNER – “The Avengers”

SCORE

Both films have booming, energetic scores but take two very different approaches. I’m a huge fan of Alan Silvestri and he certainly delivers a solid score in “The Avengers”. It works nicely alongside of the action sequences and it’s never overdone or out-of-place. But perhaps the one negative is that I don’t remember one detail about it. Scores that have really resonated with me have also stuck with me. Hans Zimmer’s powerful score in “The Dark Knight Rises” stuck with me on several occasions. His score is ever-present and some have had problems with that. But I found it gives a cinematic pop to so many of the action sequences and in other instances really builds the intensity. His use of familiar tunes from the earlier films are perfectly used and at times had me wanting to pump my fist. Nolan may overuse the score some, but for me it really made an impression. WINNER – “The Dark Knight Rises”

ACTING

One thing both movies were blessed with were remarkable casts. The fantastic collection of actors and actresses give both movies huge dramatic lifts and when combined provide one impressive list of talent. “The Avengers” is led by Robert Downey, Jr.’s razor-sharp, wise-cracking performance that only he could deliver. The movie also introduces Mark Ruffalo who undeniably gives us the best Bruce Banner yet and Jeremy Renner who is wonderful but underused. And then throw in Tom Hiddleston and his Oscar worthy performance as Loki. But while “The Avengers” has a great cast, “The Dark Knight Rises” is a much heavier and more dramatic picture which gives it’s equally phenomenal cast a broader range of material to work with. Christian Bale gives his best performance of the entire series. Gary Oldman is simply perfect as Gordon. Anne Hathaway makes her series debut and really surprises. Tom Hardy is wonderfully brutal. And of course there’s Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Marion Cotillard, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. They’re given much more to do and they each shine. WINNER – “The Dark Knight Rises”

VILLAIN

Both movies have fantastic villains but also very different villains. “The Avengers” finds the heroes up against the mischievious meddler Loki. While he’s not that intimidating in stature, Loki manages all sorts of chaos through manipulation and trickery. But what really makes Loki so impressive is Tom Hiddleston. Without a doubt he is having a blast with the character and he carries over his great work in “Thor”. He makes Loki a viable threat and an incredibly fun villain to watch.

In “The Dark Knight Rises”, Bane is an entirely different creation. Tom Hardy stars as the intelligent but psychotic brute who intimidates more through violence and force than mischief. Bane is a vicious presence and he’s stands out in every scene he’s in. Hardy’s physicality helps give the fight scenes a gritty realism and his swagger shows his fearlessness. From the first scene he’s in, you know that Bane is a villain not to be messed with. So both movies feature villains that are very different yet equally menacing and ultimately engaging. WINNER – DRAW

STORY/WRITING

Both movies feature some outstanding writing. “The Avengers” is faced with the task of taking a handful of earlier films and bringing them and their characters together in a good, cohesive way. It’s a daunting task and Joss Whedon makes it work. He makes “The Avengers” a climax movie that all of the individual superhero pictures were building up to. He also manages his large cast wonderfully. Another strong point with Whedon is the fantastic injection of humor throughout the picture. There are some truly laugh-out-loud moments and Whedon is respectful of the material but never takes it too seriously. It’s really well done.

On the other hand, Christopher Nolan is an incredible storyteller with his own unique visual presentation. His movies are generally more complex and layered and often times he challenges his audience. “The Dark Knight Rises” is no different. The story twists and turns and Nolan injects it with just the right amount of action and intensity. He also does a fine job of connecting it with the previous film as well as wrapping up his trilogy with a near perfect ending. Nolan doesn’t dumb things down and gives us a glorious and rousing ending to what is arguably one of the greatest trilogies in film history. WINNER – “The Dark Knight Rises”

AMBITION

With “The Dark Knight Rises”, Christopher Nolan finishes his spectacular vision of Batman and his universe. It’s most certainly an ambitious film. Nolan introduces new characters, connects us to the previous film, gives us an evil and brutal new villain, tells another deep and satisfying story, and wraps the entire series up, all in one film. It’s quite a vision. For Joss Whedon the task was quite possibly tougher and more ambitious. As mentioned above, Marvel had created several individual superhero franchises and each pointed to the Avengers project. “The Avengers” movie was a culmination of all of those movies and characters and Whedon had to bring it all together – a tricky job. A movie that ambitious had so many things that could have gone wrong but instead we were given one of the best times at the theaters this year. WINNER – “The Avengers”

DIRECTION

Both Joss Whedon and Christopher Nolan had the advantage of directing material that they were instrumental in creating. As writers, they had strong and distinct visions for their movies which carried over into their direction. Whedon wonderfully visualizes his wild superhero world, creates some astonishing action sequences, and nicely utilizes his great cast. Whedon draws everything together with an almost seamless result. Nolan is also a visual storyteller and his style is evident from the opening scene. Again, he is directing much weightier and more layered material and his ability to translate it on-screen so vividly is a testament to his rock solid direction. While “The Avengers” is sharply directed and a huge accomplishment, “The Dark Knight Rises” does go down more challenging roads, features a more hands-on approach to its action, and requires a more complex use of its characters. Nolan’s direction is spot-on. WINNER – “The Dark Knight Rises”

CONCLUSION

Both movies are exceptional examples of why the superhero genre is a legitimate form of cinematic entertainment. These are movies that aren’t just seeking box office numbers and millions of dollars. These are two strong movies with great storytelling, amazing special effects, phenomenal casts, and writers/directors that not only care for their projects, but put a great deal into making them the best movies they can be. But out of the two, “The Dark Knight Rises”…well…rises to the top. The deeper more layered story, the extremely high stakes, the more realistic grounding, and the wonderful way it wraps up Christopher Nolan’s Batman vision give it the edge over Joss Whedon’s fine film. Both films met some really high expectations, but for me “The Dark Knight Rises” was a better film that I will still be talking about for a long time.

THE OVERALL WINNER

Review: “The Avengers”

Marvel Studio’s “The Avengers” is the culmination of what may be the most ambitious project in film history. For those movie fans who have been living in a cave for the past several years, Marvel has been releasing several individual superhero movies that have all set the table for this huge event film. Two “Iron Man” pictures, “Captain America”, “Thor”, and “The Incredible Hulk” have all been linked together through brief reoccuring cameos and hidden after-credits scenes that refer to something called “The Avengers Initiative”. As any comic book geek could tell you, that’s a reference to the Marvel superhero team that first debuted in comics in 1963. On the surface, the idea for an Avengers film that’s directly tied into other individual superhero movies sounds great. On the flip side, even though the other films have been good, there are still plenty of areas where “The Avengers” could go off track. Well as a movie and comic book fan, I’m happy to say that “The Avengers” not only meets the challenges of it’s vision, but it’s an action packed adrenaline rush that offers some of the most fun I’ve had at the theater this year.

To handle this rather large undertaking, Marvel placed the project in the hands of Joss Whedon. Whedon was a good choice mainly due to his variety of experience. He’s found success in television, film, and comic books and he uses his knowledge of each combined with Disney’s deep pockets to create a movie that would appeal to the fanboy and the casual moviegoer alike. One thing that helps Whedon is that the film doesn’t require your traditional origin story. While we do see the generation of the team, we know all of the characters from the previous Marvel movies so Whedon is able to dive right into the story. That being said, don’t mistake this for a deep, engaging story that will challenge the audience. But I’ll also say that anyone going into “The Avengers” for that has already missed the point.

Throughout the other Marvel films, particularly “Captain America”, we learned about a cosmic energy source known as the cosmic cube. In “The Avengers”, S.H.E.I.L.D. head honcho Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has a team of scientists led by physicist Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) trying to harness the power of the cube, now known as the Tesseract. But suddenly the cube activates and opens a portal allowing the evil Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to entire the facility and steal it. Knowing the immense threat associated with the Tesseract being in the wrong hands, Fury activates the Avengers Initiative. But getting such a diverse group of superheroes to cooperate and coexist proves to be a lot harder than expected.

Fury starts by contacting Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). He sends her to India to find Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) while sending Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) to Stark Tower to speak to Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.). While the two are gone, he approaches Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and sends him on a mission to retrieve the Tesseract. Upon hearing of Loki’s involvement, the thunder god Thor (Chris Hemsworth) also entires the mix as does the marksman and assassin known as Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Each of the heroes have their own baggage and their own personalities which often times clash to the point of dysfunction. But their disagreements give us some of the movie’s cooler and often times funnier moments. As you would expect the situation worsens and it’s up to the team to pull together or the world will be taken over starting with New York City.

It’s a pretty cut-and-dry story but it really works because Whedon understand his characters and he knows what kind of movie he’s trying to make. His familiarity with the Marvel comic book universe is clearly seen throughout the picture but nowhere more than in his treatment of the characters. As a comic book fan, I was really impressed with how they all felt right and it’s clear that the source material played a big role in shaping the on-screen versions. But Whedon never falls into the trap of taking things too seriously. The movie is filled with laugh out loud funny moments that are cleverly used and they never feel cheap or forced. They mix perfectly with the razor-sharp dialogue and the jaw-dropping action sequences. But the fantastic action and special effects shouldn’t surprise anyone. Afterall, “The Avengers” is a superhero action picture and Whedon knows it. The action comes at a furious pace and I can see where some may view it as relentless. Personally, I was completely wrapped up in it. The movie sells the superhero action through some of the most spectacular visuals and editing that you’ll see. I was blown away.

I can’t write a review of “The Avengers” without mentioning the incredible cast. One of the reasons the Marvel films and particularly “The Avengers” works so well is because of the amazing casting. Everyone is invested in their character and not one single performer phones it in. Downey, Jr. continues to be the perfect Tony Stark mainly due to his natural ability to use sarcasm and fire off funny quips without hesitation. Chris Evans, known more for his goofier roles,  is also quite good as the serious and straight-laced Captain America. I also really liked Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner. He’s the third actor to take on the role and he nails it. Much like Downey, Jr., Hemsworth is the perfect Thor and he shares some of the film’s best scenes with Hulk. Renner and Johannson also handle their roles very well. But I have to give special time to the wonderful Tom Hiddleston. He’s a remarkably diverse actor and he shows it here. His Loki is mysterious, mischievous, and evil and Hiddleston slithers through his scenes stealing many of them. There are also nice smaller performances from Gregg, Gwyneth Paltrow and Cobie Smulders that are just icing on the cake.

I can see where some people may not respond as positively as I did to “The Avengers”. The action is pretty much start-to-finish and if you’re not interested in the characters you’ll have a hard time embracing the story. There are also a few shortcuts taken with the story for the sake of convenience that could have been done a little better. For me, I have a connection to these characters through all my years of comic book reading and this film exceeded my expectations. But being a comic reader isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying this movie. If you’ve liked what Marvel has put out leading to it, you’re going to love “The Avengers”. Sure, it’s a loud, energetic summer popcorn flick, but it’s also a really good one. It’s honest and it never tries to be something it’s not. Featuring one of the better ensemble casts and some top-notch directing from Joss Whedon, “The Avengers” is a big budget blockbuster that actually deserves all the money it’s going to rake it. When’s the next showing? I’m ready to see it again.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

THIS WEEK IN MOVIES: (APRIL 20th)

One of the more interesting bits of news from the world of movies came in the form of an advertisement for “The David 8“. Released as a promotion for Ridley Scott’s upcoming sci-fi film “Prometheus”, “The David 8” clip introduces us to the artificial life form played in the movie by Michael Fassbender. It’s a quirky and at times eerie clip in the form of a television commercial that promotes this next generation model of synthetics. “The David 8” clip is very well made and hopefully this is just the first in a series of cool promotions that we can expect from this still mysterious film.

Another really cool clip that came out this week was from Marvel’s “The Avengers”. Simply called “The Avengers/Clip #5“, it may be the coolest yet. In it we see Thor (Chris Hemsworth) squaring off against Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr). Why are these two heroes fighting? My guess is the clip is showing the initial dysfunction of the team before the obvious team-up to save the world. Or it could be a simple training exercise. Whatever it is, all I know is that “The Avengers/Clip #5” is really, really cool.

NEW IN THEATERS (APRIL 20th)

  • “CHIMPANZEE” (G) – Family/Documentary
  • “THE LUCKY ONE” (PG-13) – Romance (allegedly)
  • “THINK LIKE A MAN” (PG-13) – Comedy

*Sounds like a good weekend to catch up on my DVD/Blu-Ray watching

“SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS” – 2 STARS

“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” is the sequel to the hugely popular 2009 action adventure mystery film. Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law return as Holmes and Watson as does director Guy Ritchie. Unfortunately the uniqueness, humor, and charm of the first film are all but missing in the sequel. “A Game of Shadows” feels like it hits the same notes over and over and it certainly lacks the freshness of the first picture. It feels bland and generic and even the loud injections of explosions, gunfire, and fist fights can’t break the monotony.

That’s a pretty harsh way to open a review and in all honesty the movie is not all bad. The story pits Holmes and Watson against Professor Moriarty played wonderfully by Jared Harris. Moriarty is a man of great power and is involved in all sorts of criminal activity including terrorist bombings, assassinations, and corrupt business dealings. As with most villains of this type, Moriarty has a much bigger plan at work and the story takes Holmes and Watson through numerous twists and turns, some of which make almost no sense, in their efforts to stop their arch-enemy. The best scenes in the film are the one-on-one conversations between Holmes and Moriarty but sadly we don’t get many of them.

The movie has a few genuinely funny moments. When not bogged down with the sometimes bloated screenplay, Downey, Jr.’s kookiness certainly pulls in a few laughs. There are also a couple of more sequences that are quite funny. But there are several attempts at humor that just fall flat and at times feel out-of-place. Some of these attempts feel cheap and I especially grew tired of certain undertones than seem to run throughout the film. It definitely doesn’t maintain the humor of the first picture.

“A Game of Shadows” won’t do anything to endear itself to fans of the classic characters. But it not only takes the characters further and further away from the source material. I thought this version of Holmes and Watson were quite different from what we saw in the first movie. We get glimpses of the wacky relationship from the previous picture but not enough to drive the film. It overextends itself in so many directions that it seems to have forgotten what made the first film so enjoyable.

I liked the first Sherlock Holmes movie. It was fresh, funny, and quite entertaining. This second installment falls well short of the mark and even with it’s occasional laugh and pulse-pounding action sequences, I couldn’t get past the convoluted plot, cheap gags, and off-balanced direction. If they do decide to try for a third film in the franchise, I for one think they should look to another director. For me, Ritchie’s vision has run it’s course and I can’t see myself sitting through another film that offers as little as “A Game of Shadows”.