Thursday, May 16, 2013

Iron Man 3 is 2013's The Odyssey

I saw Iron Man 3 on the Saturday Night of its opening, expecting nothing at all.  Iron Man 2 was one of the least pleasant superhero movies I have ever seen (thought not as awful as Sherlock Holmes 2...yikes) and so I went because there would be other humans sitting in a dark room, looking at the same blinking lights as me on a wall.

Within five minutes, I was hooked.  After an hour, I was squirming with excitement.  After the credits, I felt empowered.

What makes Iron Man 3 kinda awesome?  Also, why is Iron Man 3 like the Odyssey?

Kay, quick summary: In the Odyssey, a heroic man named Odysseus has just finished sacking Troy with his buddies, and spends twenty years trying to get home, brought to the lowest of lows and aided by the gods in trying to get back to his wife.  He weeps for large portions of the book and sleeps with a lot of goddesses on the way, but his homecoming has warmed the hearts of 9th grade English students for, like, 2500+ years.

In Iron Man 3, we begin following Tony Stark's battle of Troy--in case you missed it, it was the huge fight in New York that we saw in the Avengers.  A million gabillion aliens invaded the Big Apple through a big black portal that opened above it, and Tony Stark saved the day by stopping a nuclear bomb that was going to hit the city.  Using his flying Stormtrooper suit, he tossed the bomb into the portal, blew up the aliens, and saved the day.  The fact that this battle never receives an on-screen flashback is actually a nod to the Greeks, whose mythology was so familiar to them that the battle of Troy never receives mention in Homer's epic.  Homer (or the group of people who are now called Homer) was an oral poet who travelled all over Greece giving performances of The Odyssey to towns of people who would gather to hear him.  So it is today--our generation is united in a sense by the stories of the superheroes whose stories are made mythic and shown to us in small groups on the silver screen.

Okay, forgive me the historiology.  Back to Tony Stark.

The guy is suffering anxiety attacks following the battle in New York City, and stays away until all hours of the night tinkering with his suits, much to the frustration of "I-Don't-Get-Your-Hobby" Pepper Potts.  Their relationship is clearly flawed, and not just on his end.  When she comes home for her birthday and is greeted by his remote-controlled suit, she comes downstairs to see him having a breakdown.  Her reaction, that they go upstairs and have a communal shower, is soothing to the sexually-frustrated adolescent but totally insufficient to any reasonable adult.

Tony's condition immediately makes us want to jump into his corner.  He is no longer the overconfident showmaker of Iron Man 2.  He is at wits' end even before the conflict of the movie starts.  And oh, does it start.

Iron Man 3's biggest villain, the Mandarin, is one of the coolest we have seen in superhero movies for a long time.  Played by Ben Kingsley, with a long scraggly beard, greasy ponytail, and armor that makes him look like a tribal warlord, the Mandarin's messages to the United States overcome every channel on television and broadcast into every home.  His rhetoric is tight, his images disturbing, and his threat universal.  Several directorial choices strike me as awesome--the Baptist preacher voice stuns in a way that would make Kingsley's portrayal of Gandhi shudder, the home-video terrorist moments are strikingly real, and the rest of his storyline is a surprise.

There are others--old business compatriots and enemies that seem to have something to do with the mysterious explosions and weird mutant-looking people that we've been seeing all over.  It works out as tightly and simply as superhero movies do, and they're not why it's good.

What endears us to Iron Man 3 is not the tin man aerobics but the bionic heart of the man, who in this case is performed with all of the alacrity, panache, and charm we hope for in Robert Downey Jr., with higher stakes than we have seen in a long time.  Whereas Iron Man 2 was marked with press releases and public scandal, Tony finds himself with a battered, powerless suit in the snowy nowhere of Tennessee.  Watching him figure out the tiny details of how to get back in the air and back to saving the world are hilarious, and he gains a useful ally in a little boy (played like it is by Ty Simpkins) who gives Tony his sister's limited edition Dora the Explorer watch.  The watch later becomes the subject of the movie's funniest joke.

What the film refutes (at least to some degree) is the over-awesomization of superheroes.  Tony Stark storms a villain's lair with explosive Christmas ornaments wearing what looks like a homemade laser tag suit. Don Cheadle, the down-to-earth government employee who happens to be Iron Patriot (a name made fun of repeatedly, and for good reason), runs around in unfashionable jeans and a green polo shirt.  The movie does not glorify violence so much as it showcases larger-than-life people trying to save the very-normal world.

I'll admit some disappointments--one particular revelation lowers the stakes a great deal and the concluding sequence, while full of explosions and Christmas cheer, just didn't draw me in--but Iron Man 3 still might be coming in as one of my favorite superhero movies ever, because instead of trying to be a cultural event through size and spectacle, it manages to be one nonetheless through its humor and heart.

Tony Stark's Odyssey is too much fun for me to bother recreating and ruining for you.  Go see it.  It's as fun as watching a live performance of Homer.

1 comment:

  1. I really like this review Ted. After leaving the theater I felt the same way about it.
    What I thought was cool was how much time he spent outside of the suit and having to solve problems that way. It reminded me of the first movie where Tony creates the Iron Man out of desperation. It was that desperation that made him start to find his real potential. That helped me to connect to him more and therefore sympathize with the character.