Iron Man 3Dby Kavish Chetty / 02.05.2013
“Ever since that big dude with the hammer fell out of the sky,” says Aldrich Killian, “subtlety had its day.” Tony Stark’s latest and forgettable arch-enemy has a point here. Iron Man 3 is not a film which shares the tenuous obligation to realism that The Dark Knight imagines it does. Instead, it is a superhero epic of vertiginous mania, machinic cinema which swoops between its aesthetic excesses; it runs on for an eternity, each successive scene ramping up its quotient of camp and violence, endlessly one-upping itself into oblivion.
This is the current malaise of blockbuster/spectacular cinema: self-satisfied, self-aware entertainment engines, architected with mechanical precision. Even Robert Downey has now mastered his style so brilliantly as to pose no challenge to even himself: he’s acidic and funny, but programmatic at the same time. This is a mortal universe in which imagination has been leashed. The rogue’s gallery of Iron Man is as banal as the superhero himself. The former is composed – in the films, I mean – of Jeff Lebowski in a tin suit and now Guy Pearce as a greasy nanotechnology genius who can breathe fire (there is none of the sociopathic charisma of the Joker, nor the fairytale anarchism of Bane). And of the latter, Stark is an egotistical playboy billionaire, endlessly on the fringe of burn-out, who flies around in an indestructible suit firing rockets at things.
Iron Man 3 embraces the absurdity which derives from these visions with lunatic charm and hence manages to playfully evade the duller contradictions of comic-book adaptation. The story this time is one which merits atmospheric preface: Iron Man is in some sense, the ultimate fantasy of an imperial America. He is the one-man army of individual enterprise, or the very idea that geopolitical might and aggression can in fact be contained, reduced metaphorically, into a single entity. Incarnated into this singular war-machine, he – or his licensed ally, the “Iron Patriot” – can conduct incursions and campaigns into the uncomfortable territories of the East, while simultaneously flattening the complex network of political and economic relationships which structure these forms of war and its world hegemony more broadly. In a pivotal moment in the movie, Tony Stark issues a threat to his new antagonist via the media, saying “There’s no politics here; just good, old-fashioned revenge.”
This is a perfectly phantasmal idea because the subject of his threat is The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a hyper-aware play on the simulacral nature of terrorist identities: he is a mesh of signifiers from the Oriental to the Middle-East, broadcasting his VHS-grain death-letters to the world with a Taliban mise-en-scene. He is rumored to operate from Pakistan, and the whole of his morbid ambition appears to centre on a contextless and “depoliticized” revenge against the United States, bombing theatres, kidnapping and executing luminaries on camera. It is tempting to spoil the plot at this point, but leaving its twists and torsions for the viewer to experience first-hand, I should mention that Kingsley’s performance is excellent, and that the exploitation of the Mandarin character – a wild divergence from the comic-book mythos – works to the effect of a clever and witty deconstruction of terrorism and its representations in the media. I was told, seriously, that when Bin Laden was finally caught lamming in his secluded and anonymous fortress, he had in his possession a treasure trove of hardcore American pornography – real old-school stuff, like Jenna Jameson and Briana Banks (The deleted scenes of Zero Dark Thirty may or may not contain visuals of the CIA raid busting Osama while he’s hypnotically touching his wiel to a VHS copy of Country Comfort). The strange truth of the Mandarin works with this kind of logic to hilarious effect.
I have delayed the plot for long enough: Stark has survived the extraterrestrial invasion of The Avengers and is now playing boyfriend to the malnourished and uninteresting Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Poultry). He suffers from spasmodic bouts of anxiety disorder – although nothing quite so serious as to effect anything like an existential re-evaluation of what he’s doing with his life – and spends his time in the basement of his Malibu mansion, in deep technological onanism, obsessively building more Iron Man suits (one might instinctively wonder what it is he’s trying, psychically, to avoid, and it certainly isn’t anything that confronts him at any point in the film). Meanwhile, Aldrich Killian of terrorist corporation AIM, has developed technology that allows him to “hack” into the DNA of human subjects: this allows him manipulate the architecture of the brain, getting test subjects to heal themselves (grow back limbs), or take charge of enormous heat energy to melt things. When The Mandarin blows up a public landmark and injures Stark’s head of security Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), Stark wages a personal vendetta against him. Things go awry, and before long, Stark is out in frigid Tennessee trying to piece together the connection between the Mandarin and Killian and serve justice via his usual complement of missiles and homing quips.
There is perhaps too much, and at the same too little, going on in Iron Man 3. It runs through the usual machinations of the fall from grace and return to power that all superhero films seem to centrifuge around, but while it does its circuit of explosions and boss-fights, it manages to charmingly decentre expectations. It can be funny – in fact, most of its characters have a least one deliriously ridiculous line of dialogue – and playful. It’s forgettable, enjoyable, formulaic blockbuster cinema, another pushed off the Hollywood assembly line.