'Iron Man 3': 'A worthy addition to Marvel's movie library' compromised by 'clever, stealth ways' to appease the Chinese market
Much has happened since the events of 2010's Iron Man 2, and we're not talking about Tony Stark's side adventure in last year's surprisingly satisfying The Avengers. Nor are we talking about anything related to the intricate motion picture universe of Marvel's superhero characters. What's happened since 2010 is that American movie studios have gotten ever closer to the tipping point in their fealty to China in order to insure production funding and/or theatrical distribution of their films in the exploding Chinese market. While many films have taken advantage of Chinese money lately, the most troubling is Iron Man 3, even more so than the recent remake of Red Dawn, in which all the Chinese villains were digitally replaced with North Koreans to avoid potential distribution problems in the world's fastest-growing major movie market.
Normally such mundane, inside-baseball concerns should take a back seat to hoping Robert Downey Jr. hasn't lost a charming, insouciant step in his portrayal of the industrialist turned “man in a can,” or whether this third outing will right the ship that foundered slightly the last time out. But Iron Man 3 has been too obviously massaged to earn the Chinese payday granted to American films that satisfy that country's stringent, yet capricious, Film Censorship Committee.
Tony Stark's latest escapade, on which Disney and Marvel partnered with the Shanghai-based media company DMG, feels compromised by the clever, stealth ways in which it protects China's image, promotes Chinese companies, and makes America look bad – always a plus to a government that only allows 34 foreign movies per year to screen within its borders.
And that's to say nothing of the special cut of Iron Man 3 that will only play in Chinese theaters and features popular Chinese actress Fan Bingbing. One can assume the Chinese version also turns on the idea that the American War on Terror is just another capitalist pursuit by greedy, bad-guy Americans. (The actors playing two such baddies even traded their native accents for American accents.)
If all this sounds like a conspiracy theory, it's not entirely. The Chinese market is now the second largest moviegoing market in the world and American tentpole films are extremely expensive propositions. Marvel has every right to minimize its risk. However, when these deals impact or limit a filmmaker's creative options, that's where it becomes an issue.
Iron Man 3: Robert Downey Jr keeps franchise fatigue at bay
Now, it might seem ridiculous to admit this after such a rant, but Shane Black's return to directing is still a worthy addition to Marvel's movie library. There's little franchise fatigue noted here, probably because Robert Downey Jr. talks too fast for the thought to take hold. Refreshingly, while there are a few exciting superhero set pieces, including a gangbuster sequence featuring a dozen civilians getting blown out of Air Force One and falling through the sky, co-writers Black and Drew Pearce find enough for Tony to do without resorting to the metal suit.
Capitulations and compromises aside, Iron Man 3 is yet another state-of-the-art Marvel creation that strikes an entertaining balance between heart, swagger, and volume in a way that seemed impossible during the years when DC characters were the only ones given blockbuster treatment. We just would have been better off not knowing that Chinese fortune cookies are an American invention that, like Americans, are “hollow and full of lies.”
Four movies into the character, one can still marvel (sorry about that) at Robert Downey Jr.'s resourcefulness, playfulness and seriousness-of-purpose in being Tony Stark. It's hard to imagine caring about the Iron Man series if Downey Jr. weren't in it. He even shines when trying to sell Tony's less worked-out new character traits, like the post-traumatic stress he's been suffering since the events depicted in The Avengers.
Iron Man 3's villains: The Mandarin, Aldrich Killian
Tony copes by throwing himself into his work, meaning more Iron Man suits and less time with girlfriend and Stark Industries head honcho, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Stark's hiatus ends when forced to track down a terrorist called The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), an Osama bin Laden look-alike who was born in China in the original comic book (don't worry, China, we'll change that) and now issues dire threats with an American accent.
Part of Tony Stark's appeal (and Robert Downey Jr.'s appeal) is his thoroughly modern mix of cockiness and charm. That hip arrogance helps to create Iron Man 3's second villain, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a smooth-talking brain researcher who has developed a something or other that'll “hack” into a person's DNA to heal their injuries and cure their diseases.
Later, Stark's brashness hits closer to home. After The Mandarin takes credit for an attack on Hollywood's iconic Chinese Theatre (whose naming rights were recently purchased by Chinese tech company TCL), an over-confident Stark throws down the gauntlet, leading to the destruction of his Malibu mountainside mansion. It's a spectacular collision of ones and zeros that Shane Black handles like a genre veteran, an impressive feat considering his only other directing credit is 2005's CGI-less Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, also starring Downey Jr.
Iron Man 3 Review: Worthy But Compromised Sequel.”] At its noisiest, Iron Man 3 proves that Black successfully studied the masters of “more is more” sequel-making. A climatic showdown at a shipping port is busily crammed with a dozen flying, diving, crashing iterations of self-propelled Iron Man suits. Tony leaps from platform to superhero armor and back again like a man whose battle skills were honed playing Doodle Jump.
Such mayhem only reminds us that the true test of a superhero film is how well it holds your interest when the hero isn't in costume. Iron Man 3, on that count, holds us pretty tight. After his mansion is destroyed, Tony winds up in snowy Tennessee dragging behind him a busted Iron Man suit, courtesy of the Department of Cheap Symbolism. In Tennessee, he meets a little boy (Ty Simpkins, just terrific) who helps Tony solve the mystery of the Chinese Theatre bombing. He's also on-hand when Tony first encounters the results of Killian's ominously-titled Project Extremis, an evil, glowing, unstoppable member of Homeland Security.
Robert Downey Jr.'s quicksilver delivery style never diminishes or alienates the other performers. It welcomes all comers and it's hard not to watch Tony bantering with Colonel Rhodes (Don Cheadle) and not think of Mel Gibson / Danny Glover's Lethal Weapon (1987), the first script Shane Black ever sold. Rhodes, though, is mostly stuck in his Iron Patriot metal suit, which comes in handy when the U.S. President faces a horrible demise that's partially justified because he refused to prosecute corporate fat cats for the damage caused by oil spills, an assertion that Chinese audiences may enjoy.
Marvel's cinematic emergence
It was only about thirty-five years ago that the Richard Donner-launched Superman series signaled DC's decades-long stay at the top of Comic Book Adaptation Mountain. Marvel characters felt small and not ready for primetime, and were thus relegated to low-budget embarrassments like Albert Pyun's Captain America. Today, even conceding the triumph of Christopher Nolan's Batman movies, Marvel is making some very exciting, ambitious moves with its properties. It did an outstanding job creating individual films based on its characters and then gathering them up for a big-tent epic that will subsequently create its own diaspora of future storylines.
Marvel deserves the hand-over-fist cash it has been making these last few years. But looping in foreign governments, even if indirectly, and giving them the power to influence a filmmaker's creative intentions in exchange for money is “mission creep” at its most disappointing. Even if the results, in the case of Iron Man 3, aren't disappointing at all.
Iron Man 3 (2013). Director: Shane Black. Screenplay: Shane Black and Drew Pearce. Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Ben Kingsley, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, Jon Favreau, James Badge Dale, Stephanie Szostak, William Sadler, Dale Dickey, Ty Simpkins, Miguel Ferrer, Shaun Toub, cameos by Joan Rivers, Bill Maher, and Mark Ruffalo, and the voice of Paul Bettany.
Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in Iron Man 3 photo: Marvel / Disney Enterprises.
Robert Downey Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow Iron Man 3 photo: Marvel / Disney Enterprises.