Sunday, May 19, 2013

Rev-nalysis of Iron Man 3

As of last night I was officially the last person in the world to see this movie, right?  Okay, good, 'cause I'm going to lay out some spoilers in here and this is one of those movies where not knowing some things when you go in is a good thing.  These are just the thoughts I wrote out last night and it takes me a while to process things these days so my opinions are subject to change the longer I have to go over them.  Heck, they changed during the course of my writing this so meh.



SPOILER LINE SPOILER LINE DO NOT CROSS BLAH BLAH BLAH

Basically this is the story of one man's trauma and how he ended up dealing with it.  This is both a good thing and something that bothered me.  It's good for reasons that I'll get to in a second and it's bad because every other character ended up as a prop for the main character's emotional journey instead of having their own stories.  That wasn't a huge problem until the climax of the movie when it was suddenly very noticeable and detracted from the choices Shane Black made there.  Honestly the story really only works if you look at it through the lens of "Tony dealing with his issues;" once you try to assign outside motivations to any other character, including the villains, things don't really hold together in a logical way.  Through the trauma lens, though, this movie's pretty good.

I don't have a problem with most of the actual events of the movie like the attack on the mansion, the twist with the Mandarin, destroying his suits, getting the shrapnel removed, I'm totally fine with all of that. The whole movie was hinged on Stark's emotional trauma after the events of The Avengers and I have to say, speaking as the child of a former soldier with deep psychological and physical trauma that affected him his entire life (and not inconsequentially affected the lives of those around him), this story was very welcome for me. There's this deep-set aversion in American society to acknowledge this type of problem in former military, or even just for men in general to admit to emotional problems like this, and that aversion alone can compound the issues. It can lead to feelings of inadequacy, weakness, loss of masculinity, emotional isolation, emotional repression, and can keep them from seeking help or feeling comfortable opening up about it to anyone or even admitting they have a problem. Things are probably a bit better now than they were for my dad's generation but it's still an issue. Seeing Stark not only dealing with possible PTSD but being able to take the initiative to admit that he's having a problem to someone-- Pepper, Banner in the voice over narration and the end cut scene-- without suffering a terrible loss of pride or feeling of masculinity, even gaining something from the experience, was enormously positive. A superhero, the most popular one in Marvel's current movie franchises, doing this during a time when there are so many younger veterans living in or returning to the US was honestly moving to me; I'm hopeful that with things like this there will be more people seeking help and more help available to them. But I'm starting to digress.

So back to Stark's trauma, here's the downside of this all-encompassing viewpoint: everything else in the film like the villains and Stark's supporting cast also seem to exist to serve Tony's emotional arc more than their own stories. I'm not sure that they even have their own stories here. Up until around the climax this isn't too big of a problem but then suddenly there's a villain about to execute the US President for very unspecified reasons; Rhodey is there basically as more of a plot device for the suit than much else, even if he does get some nice action hero moments (these are not substitutes for actual character development or emotional catharsis); Pepper is the damsel in distress until the moment where she is suddenly a superpowered "badass" (actually the least badass Pepper has been in all three movies) which rings emotionally false because there's no need for it-- Pepper's story gains nothing from this experience and it's so antithetical to what actually makes her strong that it robs the villain's defeat of actual catharsis; Happy seems to exist primarily as a catalyst to get Tony on the bad guy's radar-- not that he's ever been terribly crucial to anything beyond comic relief but he just felt more like a plot device than anything.

I even felt like I lost my emotional connection to Stark during this big action scene, which considering how deeply invested in his emotional arc I was until then is a pretty big disappointment. Maybe they were going for "Tony gets his groove back" here, seeing him in his element after floundering for control for the whole movie but I tend to prefer action scenes where, if a character has a close call, that might register with them for a split second instead of the stare-down-certain-death-without-breaking-a-sweat thing. I got the former from most of the movie so to have that missing from the final fight was a little jarring and helped me to lose that human connection to Tony. Also, Tony was already getting his groove back before then without the suits (one of the major points of the film) so to have that be the point of the climax feels like a false note. I totally lost him after Pepper fell to her seeming death and didn't reconnect with him at all until the end of the fight. Maybe that was just me, I dunno, but it was probably the worst point in the film to lose that connection to him since he's the only character who really has an emotional arc and that scene is basically the catharsis for everything he's been dealing with. So for me to miss out on it was disappointing.

That seems like a lot of complaints but honestly, so much else from the movie worked and was so well done that even biffing up the climax only rattled my enjoyment of it a bit. The stuff at the beginning is the highlight for me, when Tony is still mister banter while also an accessible, somewhat fragile but still heroic human being. The metaphor with the armor being... well his armor to the point where it's becoming his surrogate self, sent into situations he doesn't feel like he can cope with, taking its time getting to him when he's under attack, literally giving him a hand when he's drowning, then being dead weight he has to carry, then repair, then do without, and finally let go of completely because he's finally allowing himself to heal. Not just from his most recent trauma but the one that began his need for the armor in the first place, the kidnapping in Afghanistan that literally and metaphorically damaged his heart. The narration was a bit on the nose with the "a man creates his own demons" line but it's apt. Not just with Killian who's almost a dark mirror for Tony (I always forget how good Guy Pierce is until I see him in something but man do I wish he had more to work with here) as someone physically wounded but brilliant enough to grant himself power; not just with Killian's operatives who serve as lesser "demons," like little cipher splinters of Killian's dark mirror; but in a much broader, collective sense with the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley just killed that part), who ends up being an almost meta-textual case of presenting the villain everyone expects and so becomes the summation of and focal point for our anxieties and fears, only in the end for it to have been built up in our minds precisely because it's what we expected to see, not what was really there. If that makes sense. For a movie all about anxiety, that's not only clever it's downright relevant. And of course there's the "how you choose to use the power you have" stuff but it takes it a step further: in finally coping with our fear and anxiety and defeating our demons, we stop clinging so hard to our need for more power, our desire to control our surroundings and ourselves in order to feel secure.

The movie takes us full circle, from the arrogant, drunken, pre-Iron Man Stark to the man it took him four movies to become. It felt like closure and yet we know he'll be back for at least one more Avengers movie; this movie took him so much further than I expected and did so in a careful, thoughtful way that my normal hesitance about going further has taken a back seat to cautiously optimistic curiosity. Where can they take him next?

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