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Film Review: Iron Man 2 & Iron Man 3

April 15, 2019 Leave a comment

Iron Man 2 (2010; Directed by Jon Favreau)

Iron Man 3 (2013; Directed by Shane Black)

As the multi-film, multi-phase character arc of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s founding and primary figure, Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark/Iron Man, draws to a (probable) close with the forthcoming Avengers: Endgame, it’s worth taking a few moments to return (for the first time, on my part) to the latter two parts of his own movie trilogy. From the halcyon days when the character featured in movies with his own superhero name in the titles and the culture-dominating MCU still counted releases in the single digits, Iron Man 2 and Iron Man 3 are actually fairly disparate films in terms of tone, theme, and quality. It doesn’t necessarily make sense to consider them together, which is why it makes perfect sense to consider them together.

Iron Man 2 was the direct sequel to the origin story of 2008’s Iron Man, and represented distinct growing pains for both the titular character and the embryonic rhizomatic megafranchise that it sought to kickstart. Much of the film, directed like its predecessor by the stalwart elevated hack Jon Favreau (who also appears as Stark toadie Happy Hogan), sees Tony Stark not so much wrestling with his increased fame after revealing himself as the powersuited Iron Man (in a twist ending of the first film apparently adlibbed by Downey) as basking hedonistically in its saturating glow. Tony amps up his zillionaire playboy genius act to stadium-level proportions, posing for adoring crowds at the opening of the World’s Fair-like relaunched Stark Expo with costumed dancing girls, impulsively hopping into a racecar at the Monaco Grand Prix, and donning his Iron Man suit to blast champagne bottles with beautiful party people for his birthday.

But Tony Stark’s jet-setting lifestyle is characterized by Justin Theroux’s screenplay as being fueled by a death drive. He’s partying himself into an expected early grave, a consequence of the blood-poisoning palladium that powers the arc reactor keeping fatal shrapnel away from his heart and running his flying, blasting power suit. Just as the arc reactor is a technological metaphorical substitute for the often-callous Tony Stark’s gradual moral education (a constructed heart that catalyzes the character to develop real heart), the palladium poisoning is a metaphor for the corruption of his poor choices, of his egotistical employment of his gifts and the resurrectionary second chance represented by his emergence from the cave (how Platonic, in hindsight) in Iron Man.

Confronting his imminent mortality has, however, also made Tony Stark thoughtful about his legacy, and how that legacy compares to that of his father, Howard Stark (John Slattery). To the extent that Iron Man is about anything, it’s about the bright and darker sides of legacy, and about reconciling with both those sides. On the bright side of the ledger, Tony revives the Stark Expo, dormant since his father halted its yearly exhibition of the wonders of technology, out of a desire to leave something positive behind as his father did (and his father, as it happens, leaves him a very specific blueprint for the resolution of his palladium poisoning problem). He also names his soon-to-be-girlfriend and hyper-competent business fixer Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) as his successor as Stark Industries CEO, with an eye to leave the company in better hands than his own. After a physical, powersuitted fight with friend and ally Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) over Stark’s self-destructive behaviour, he allows Rhodey to fly off with one of Iron Man prototypes to share with the U.S. military-industrial complex, whom he self-aggrandizingly refuses to cooperate with at a Congressional hearing at the start of the film.

On the darker side, Tony contends with the antagonistic Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a Russian physicist whose father worked with, and saw his career destroyed by, Howard Stark. Avenging the slights against his now-dead father by targetting the Stark son, Vanko employs an arc reactor and crackling energy whips (the character is called Whiplash in Marvel Comics) to assault Tony in Monaco, and with the funding and facilities of Stark’s rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) masterminds a plan to sabotage the Stark Expo with battle drones and an upgraded whip-apparatus.

Iron Man 2 functions nicely enough on these lines, even if Stark’s defeat of Vanko and his drones with the aid of Rhodes’ War Machine concludes a little anticlimactically. The film gets unfortunately lost, as many a later MCU installment would, laying down the breadcrumb trail of world-building. Jokey moments lay the groundwork for then-forthcoming MCU films Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor (and, retroactively at least, even the MCU’s version of Peter Parker/Spider-Man), but mid-film and denouement appearances by Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury foreshadowing the Avengers are more awkwardly shoehorned in. A supporting character in those Avengers movies is introduced as well, but is singularly poorly-served: Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, mostly posing as a Stark employee before emerging as a badass S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, is horribly, inexcusably objectified by the dual male gaze of Favreau’s camera and Downey’s character perspective. She would be poorly treated in other ways in future (particularly by Joss Whedon in Avengers: Age of Ultron), but her presentation does get better in later MCU films. It can’t help but do so, given what is done here.

Freed from such franchise-building asides and entrusted to the skilled hands of director/co-writer Shane Black, one of the most particular film artists who survived the corporate meat-grinder of the MCU, Iron Man 3 has fewer such issues (and one less icky Elon Musk cameo, to boot). Indeed, it might be the strongest of the three Iron Man films: stakes-raising as sequels are expected to be, but surprising and misdirecting, with a smooth set-piece-to-set-piece flow and rhythm that strikes one as quite nearly miraculous. Black’s peculiarized treatment of violence – as random, painful, pregnant with consequence but also darkly comic – works obscenely well when applied to an Iron Man movie starring Robert Downey, Jr., who dwells comfortably in-world while forever teetering on the edge of fourth-wall-breaking meta-deconstruction.

The Tony Stark of Iron Man 3 has just come off an epic, draining, worldview-questioning Avengers movie, and in particular the cataclysmic alien assault on Manhattan at its climax has shaken his usually unimpeachable confidence in his ability to solve any problem and defeat any threat with his genius and his technology. Tony is sleepless and prone to anxiety attacks, a sufferer of PTSD who immerses himself in building Iron Man suits and often neglects his now-girlfriend, Pepper Potts. When the mysterious bombings of an enigmatic terrorist called the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) lead to a serious injury for Happy Hogan, Tony challenges the Mandarin to come after him, which his cronies do, devastating the coastal Stark mansion in Malibu and leaving Tony apparently dead and his many Iron Man suits destroyed.

As Pepper becomes enmeshed in a complex, switchback-heavy plot involving the Mandarin (who is both more and less than he seems, with Kingsley masterful in both iterations) as well as a discarded former lover (Rebecca Hall) and admirer (Guy Pearce) of Tony’s, Stark himself is ripped from the wealthy coastal enclaves that he knows too well and follows a lead on the bombings into the humbler red-state flyover country of Rose Hill, Tennessee. Out of his comfort zone among the heartland salt of the earth and left with only a scrambled J.A.R.V.I.S. (the artificial intelligence sidekick voiced by Paul Bettany, who will later become phasing superhero Vision) and half-functional remnants of his latest prototype suit, Tony reorients and learns to deal with his psychological trauma with the not-at-all-cloying aid of a precocious, pragmatic local boy named Harley (Ty Simpkins). A spectacular airborne rescue following a plane crash which pivots breathlessly into an equally fantastic vertically-integrated battle with Pearce’s Aldrich Killian and his Extremis Project heat-projecting minions at Miami’s container port is one of the MCU’s best sustained action arcs.

Iron Man 3 also has the most on its mind in terms of political resonance of the three Iron Man films. Lest it is misplaced in Black’s breakneck twists and reversals, the dangerous, Osama bin Laden/ISIS hybrid version of the Mandarin is revealed to be a ruse, a fearmongering front by vengeful, power-hungry think-tank capitalist-industrialist Killian that is part of a larger coup to seize control of the White House. A tackily jingo-ized version of Rhodey’s War Machine, re-dubbed the Iron Patriot and painted red, white, and blue, is hijacked in this effort, which is not merely a matter of force but is meticulously stage-managed for media propaganda effect by Killian. It’s hardly the first movie villain who takes the form of a corrupt and evil capitalist, nor one who takes advantage of knee-jerk patriotism to steal power in America, but it’s easily the most effective one in the Iron Man saga.

That saga represents an arc of change and painful maturation for Tony Stark. MCU movies featuring the character are always reluctant to relinquish the quipping, arrogant Stark, which Downey does so magnificently; even the truly axis-shifting Infinity War had him mostly trading barbs with Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange and Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill until the heavy stuff lands in the last act. As much as the Avengers installments have carried the weight of weathering Tony Stark and pressing him down with the heft of the responsibility that his power carries, Iron Man 2 and especially Iron Man 3 each do strong work (if of variant quality) in this regard as well.

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Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Breaker Upperers

The Breaker Upperers (2019; Directed by Madeleine Sami & Jackie van Beek)

Jen (Jackie van Beek) and Mel (Madeleine Sami) are friends and business partners in Auckland, New Zealand. Befriending each other after the same philandering young man (Cohen Holloway) cheated on each of them back in their twenties, Jen and Mel parlayed their common romantic wounds into a service they call “The Breaker Upperers”. In their professional capacity, Jen and Mel are paid by clients to render aid in breaking up with their significant others. This aid is often manifested in an unorthodox and absurdist manner, through door-to-door singing telegrams delivering the breaking-off message, by posing as trysting adulterers staged in flagrante delicto with breakup-desiring customers to be discovered by their partners, even by impersonating police officers notifying distraught husbands and wives that their other halves are missing, or even dead.

Although Jen in particular justifies the obvious moral and ethical dilemmas of such a line of work by telling herself and others that the Breaker Upperers are doing good by extricating people from unhappy relationships, those dilemmas begin to bother Mel. The service, and indeed the entire friendship between Jen and Mel, is at least to some extent a disavowed transference of a whole host of emotional issues arising from the women’s mutual pain and resentment at their treatment at the hands of the heartbreaker Joe (and of their treatment of each other) years before. For Jen especially, who has shut out meaningful attachments and taken refuge in misanthropy after her much deeper hurt at Joe’s betrayal, running the Breaker Upperers is a way of very actively not dealing with lingering emotional baggage, or of repeatedly pummeling it into submission by inflicting similar baggage on others (for a modest fee, of course).

Mel remains more open and active in dating and sex, however. She was one of Joe’s flings, not the more established and permanent cheated-upon party like Jen was, after all. Therefore, she experiences some doubts about what they are doing as well as a growing tension with Jen, particularly when she befriends a lonely female victim of their efforts named Anna (Celia Pacquola) and becomes infatuated with a handsome dimbulb of a Maori rugby player named Jordan (James Rolleston), who seeks the Breaker Upperers’ help in breaking up with his intimidating cornrowed girlfriend Sepa (Ana Scotney).

The Breaker Upperers is executive-produced by the prolific current maven of Kiwi comedy, Taika Waititi, and it displays his trademarked tone of awkward/absurdist hilarity underlied by a persistent grey lining of sadness and pathos. It’s likewise chock-a-block with his prior collaborators from the small but surprisingly talent-deep New Zealand entertainment scene: the flinty and wonderful van Beek had a supporting role in the cult vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, Rolleston was the young lead in Waititi’s dramedy Boy, and supporting players from Shadows, Hunt for the WilderpeopleThor: RagnarokEagle vs. Shark and NZ TV comedy Wellington Paranormal pop up as well (Waititi fave Holloway, Rima Te Wiata as Jen’s wealthy mother, Oscar Kightley in a cameo as a client, Karen O’Leary as a lesbian cop, even Jemaine Clement as a lover of Jen’s). It does, however, redress the generally male-centric perspective that dominates Waititi’s movies, with van Beek and Sami’s female gaze forging a feminine trajectory to similar places of humour and pathos.

There are numerous highlights in this very funny movie. Rolleston’s Jordan is uproarious whenever he opens his mouth, especially when haplessly hijacking Mel’s attempt to engineer the split from Sepa with an elaborate story (“She’s pregnant. It’s twins. We did IVF because her eggs are old.”) and simultaneously accepting an award from his rugby league club while announcing that Mel is actually pregnant by him (“As my mother told me, ‘You fucked up this time, and I’m not paying for any of it'”). Scotney is absolute dynamite as Sepa, who has her cartoonish crew behind her at all times, including at her teller job and when choreographing a dance routine to K-Ci & JoJo’s “All My Life” in order to win Jordan back (“This is our song,” he says as it begins, enraptured and terrified in equal measure).

The Breaker Upperers mines 1990s pop romantic ballads to great effect, also utilizing Celine Dion’s overwrought and histrionic “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” (van Beek and Sami are Celine superfans and started a grassroots viral campaign online to convince Dion to see the film on a recent Australian tour, with happy results) in a nostalgic flashback montage of Jen and Mel’s past liaisons with Joe that transitions to and from a karaoke-bus rendition of the song by Mel (Sami, a musician who is in a band with her two sisters, displays her impressive vocal talents in this sequence, as well as more comedically in the country-music porch telegram featured in the below trailer). As hugely funny as it is, The Breaker Upperers is also surprisingly thoughtful and layered in its consideration of the emotional attachments of relationships and the psychological and personal after-effects that result when those attachments are broken.

Categories: Film, Reviews