Iron Man Three
The summer kicked off with Shane Black's Iron Man Three. I purposely refer to the film as Shane Black's instead of "Marvel Studios', because this film seems to highlight the first major trend of the summer of auteurship.
The secret to Marvel Studios' success, and the one thing WB/DC hasn't yet picked up on -- and we'll get to that later -- is they have consistently gone after interesting yet inevitable choices for directors. It all started with Jon Faverau, whose work on the first Iron Man is so strong and so important that it defined the entire Marvel Studios tonal output for their next five films. Each film picks a director, Louis Leterrier, Kenneth Branagh, Joe Johnston and Joss Whedon who seem at first like odd choices, but upon second glance fit the material perfectly.
Who better than Branagh to capture the Shakespearean drama and bombast of the Norse Gods, and after The Rocketeer, was there anyone else who could have made Captain America: The First Avenger?
Despite the strong choices, each director was firmly shaped into the Marvel Studios aesthetic. They got to play with the Marvel toys, but it was clearly the studio's sandbox. The films, varying in quality as they do, all seem to exist in a world of a studio auteur over any individual filmmaker.
That all changed with Shane Black.
Let's get this straight. Iron Man Three is not a Marvel movie directed by Black. It is a Shane Black movie that happens to feature Marvel characters.
Everything from the tone, to the structure, to the humor is so distinctly Black's that the film fits slightly uneasily when placed next to the other Marvel pictures, which despite their deviations in plot, all seem to be cut from the same cloth.
The film wastes no time jumping into Black's mind, with some Robert Downey Jr. self-reflexive narration straight out of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang which fades into the studio logos to the tune of Eiffel 65's "Blue (Da Ba Dee)."
These early left field choices let the audiences know that this is a film that's going to abandon the Marvel three-act structure they had established with their earlier films -- literally each film can be broken into three segments with a major battle scene marking the end of each major act -- for something a little more stream-of-conscious. By the time of the mid-movie major reveal, it announces that this is a movie that holds nothing sacred, and anything can happen.
Iron Man Three introduced the blockbuster season with an intimate look at the ways we create and depict our own heroes and villains, and what these creations mean to our society. It's a film of great thematic weight packaged into the most entertaining format possible. Black returns fragility to Iron Man, both in his character and in the action scenes. The reason none of the earlier Iron Man films' action scenes really worked for audiences -- check back at all of those rave reviews from the first one, they all agree that the final Iron Man/Iron Monger battle drops the ball -- is that Iron Man was always evenly matched with his opponents. Two men in iron suits clanging each other isn't interesting because there's no inherent sense of stakes or drama. Iron Man Three rectifies that by overpowering the villains, making the Iron Man suits more fragile -- honestly, the henchmen tear through them like butter -- and trapping Tony Stark in the most compromising situations possible. Every battle begins with Stark at a severe disadvantage: he's handcuffed and out of his suit; he only has one boot and one glove and they've got guns; he's infiltrating the villains secret lair with MacGuyver'ed weapons built out of Christmas ornaments.
The film is an exploration on the nature of male vulnerability, a rarity in a genre that is defined by its devotion to wish-fulfillment and power fantasies. It takes the central conceit of Iron Man, a man whose super power is literally a physical vulnerability, and extrapolates that to his ego and emotional state. By emphasizing Tony Stark's smallness in the wake of the cosmic battle of The Avengers, Black and co-writer Drew Pearce recast Stark's super hero identity as a hollow shell -- intentionally visualized in the way the suits crack open and spill out their users -- a defense mechanism designed to patch a broken man. Time and again, black returns to visualizing this metaphor in both hero and villain -- when Tony stares down his faceplate and declares "I'm not scared of you," to the way Killian repairs and designs his body to mask his inadequacies, a body which later literally breaks apart into camera.
The film argues for a holistic form of masculinity; one that is based in both accomplishment and empathy. It's a movie about a man who has to come to terms with the fact that he is not the center of the universe -- both on the macro in terms of Norse gods and alien warriors and in the micro in terms of his relationship with Pepper as she moves into his mansion and invades his space.
Die Hard is a similar film about masculine inadequacy which culminates in McClane's speech to Powell, "She's heard me say I love you a thousand times, but she's never heard me say I'm sorry." McClane's admission is the emotional climax of the film, which is then unfortunately undercut by the action climax of the movie where he reinforces his role as the dominant hero and savior.
Iron Man Three intelligently sideswipes this disconnect between the needs of the genre and the themes its trying to discuss by removing Stark from the climactic moment of the film. Instead of asserting his traditional masculinity and saving the damsel, Stark lays helpless while a newly superpowered Pepper Pots saves his butt and defeats the main villain single handedly. This moment is immediately followed up with Stark's rejection of the suits as an alternate persona as he destroys them.
In the closing moments of the film, Tony Stark, now without his toys, without his armor, with nothing but his brain and his true love declares over black, "I am Iron Man."