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Some are born powerful (Wonder Woman), some achieve power (Batman), others have power thrust upon them. Such is the case with foster child Billy Batson (Asher Angel), blessed with superpowers by a mysterious wizard (Djimon Hounsou) by virtue of his, well, virtues. Curiously, much of Shazam! actively avoids these virtues, as Billy shows the zero responsibility that comes from his great powers. Super powers have been linked to growing pains and puberty before, especially with Spider-Man, but with Shazam! this becomes literal, the film quirkily merging superpowered antics with the out-of-body humour of Big. It proves a pleasant addition to the DCEU, as director David F. Sandberg and star Zachary Levi bring levity and humour to the film, that are generally lacking in the largely grim franchise. Some of this humour consists of lightly mocking the other films, as Wonder Woman, Batman, Aquaman and Superman merchandise appear and references are made to the events of other films in the series. Many of these jokes find their mark, as Shazam! is frequently very funny, as Billy/Shazam along with friend Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) experiment with superpowers as well as super names, investigate lairs and struggle to keep everything a secret. Once villain Dr Sivana (Mark Strong) comes on the scene, Billy must step up to the ‘hero’ part of superhero, and again the film is acutely aware of the legacy it joins, echoing sequences from Man of Steel especially with a cheeky humour, as well as overt references to Big and Rocky. Along the way, the film also makes some interesting explorations of family, both in the traditional and non-traditional sense. Combined with the humour, this is the most satisfying aspect of Shazam!, as the film provides some genuine surprises in its exploration of familial ties. It is less successful in its pacing, often feeling languorous and overlong. This is down to its many parts not being brought together cohesively: Billy exploring his powers; Sivana pursuing his ambition; the trials and tribulations of Billy’s fellow foster children and foster parents. These elements remain disparate rather than coherent, ham-fistedly roped together rather than linked by connective tissue. Other filmmakers have struck the balance between internal story strands, franchise tie-ins and acknowledging fan knowledge through references. With Shazam established, along with a group of supporting characters and adversaries, maybe future instalments will strike a better balance than this initial effort. In the meantime, there’s plenty of fun to be had here.
Spider-Man has a long and varied history across media, from comic books to TV series to blockbuster movies. Devoted fans will be aware of different permutations of Peter Parker, Aunt May, Gwen Stacy and various villains, but it takes a special level of dedication to recognise Spider-Man Noir and Spider-Ham. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse rewards dabbling and dedicated fans alike, with dazzlingly vibrant animation, a multitude of references and characterisation that is warm and engaging. Simultaneously, directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman create a level of postmodern self-awareness that could be infuriating but always feels inclusive. Multiple recountings of Spider-Man’s origin(s) are prefaced with ‘You know the story’, but slight differences indicate the malleability and adaptability of this character. Yet, far from being a film by geeks for geeks, SMITSV is a welcoming celebration of popular culture, blending the obscure with the mainstream. This blend takes place within a high stakes super-powered tale of dimensional rifts, fanatical villains, destiny and choice, identity, family and coming of age, as well as reminders that with great power comes, you know the rest, and the film knows that you know the rest. The material is handled with affection and irreverence, both by the directors and the game voice cast, including Shameik Moore as Miles Morales, Jake Johnson as Peter B. Parker and Liev Schreiber as Wilson Fisk. Johnson is a particular highlight, his cynical, jaded and rather flabby Spider-Man a welcome contrast to the idealised and naivety of Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland, not to mention the irrepressible Mile Morales. Spider-Verse also features the most kick-ass Aunt May (Lily Tomlin) yet to grace the screen, and even includes footage from the 1960s TV series. The nostalgia and love for the character and his fans give the film a delightful edge, while the animation is creative and delivers genuine visual impact. Spider-Man will doubtless continue as a live action character, but this animated adventure is a welcome and wonderful addition to the verse.
Lucy dramatises the title of a film from earlier this year that also featured Morgan Freeman explaining pseudo-science – Transcendence. Lucy has already been more commercially successful than Wally Pfister’s film (over $270 million at the time of writing as opposed to $103 million for Transcendence’s entire theatrical run), and Luc Besson’s film could easily have been called Transcendence while Pfister’s could have been called Singularity (which might also work as a title for the forthcoming Interstellar, but I digress). Lucy is effectively a superhero film, the digital sequences that display the effect of a mysterious blue powder on the titular protagonist (Scarlett Johansson) are reminiscent of scenes in Blade (1998), Spider-Man (2002), Hulk (2003) and Daredevil (2003). But rather than emphasising spectacular action (which does appear but in a subordinate role), Lucy’s focus is on higher states of consciousness, increased intelligence and alternative perceptions of reality. The character Lucy transcends the film’s starting point for humanity and the film builds steadily towards transcendence with a focus upon heightened experience. Besson does not always strike the right balance between his (completely fictional) science and the spectacle of elevated experience, but Johansson is an engaging and reliable presence who carries the film for its brief running time.
It is often the case that lowered expectations leads to a better than expected response. Such was the case with The Amazing Spider-Man 2, due both to mediocre reviews and 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man being less than amazing. But I was pleasantly surprised and found the film to be an intriguing and emotional exploration of identity, esteem and choice. I was thrilled at several points, laughed and even cried. While Marc Webb’s first Spider-Man film felt somewhat underpowered against Sam Raimi’s trilogy, it did provide a solid foundation on which to build, most importantly the relationship between Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). Superhero dramas live and die on the tension between the super and everyday identities, and Peter’s attempts to reconcile his life as Spider-Man with his love for Gwen provides a consistent emotional throughline for the film. Nor is the angst of this throughline overplayed, as Peter and Gwen are a sparky and amusing couple (perhaps fuelled by the actors’ off-screen relationship), and Spider-Man slings as many jokes as he does webbing. Also, beautifully, Gwen is far from being a damsel in distress as, much as in The Amazing Spider-Man, she and Peter make a great team in combating the supervillains that New York throws at them.
With the romance taking centre stage, the villains could be left somewhat short-changed. The Rhino/Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti) only appears briefly, Harry Osborne (Dane Dahaan) spends more time being ill than goblin-ish and Max Dillon/Electro could be little more than an evil version of Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan. The different narrative threads often seem disconnected and the film could be accused of set-up syndrome – mainly existing to set up a sequel as well as the spin-off The Sinister Six. While it is easy for any filmgoer to suggest that they know how the film “should” have been put together, surely true appreciation is assessing whether the way it is put together actually works, and in the case of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the disparate nature of the different narrative strands does work, because they are thematically resonant. The film is an exploration of identity, esteem and choice because these themes fuel the major characters, their development and the collisions between them. The film’s exploration of identity runs through the four major characters, each of whom make significant choices that relate to their own senses of self and how others view them.
Peter is not Spider-Man because he has to be but because he wants to be, he enjoys it, it provides meaning to his life, and so strong is this meaning that he is willing to give up Gwen for it, while the haunting presence of her father (Denis Leary) serves as a grim reminder of the great responsibility that comes with great power (if the writers won’t use the phrase, I will). Gwen makes a number of significant choices both relating to herself solely and to her relationship with Peter, which prove to have significant repercussions that are dramatically satisfying and emotionally powerful. Harry’s initial bitterness is replaced by desperation, whatever sense of identity he may have had replaced with a craving to live.
Most interestingly of all, Max only wants to be noticed, recognised and appreciated. Rather than being power mad, Max expands a brief moment with Spider-Man into an obsession that is both pitiful and endearing, before his unfortunate accident grants him immense power. The first confrontation between Spider-Man and Electro highlights the film’s concern with esteem, as Electro (who has not yet adopted this monicker) is terrified of the police but fills with delight at seeing his face on all the screens of Times Square. He only turns EVIL when his face is replaced with that of Spider-Man, this moment of recognition and attention twisted into murderous rage by being so fleeting. Yet even after he is imprisoned and tortured in an extremely dubious institute for the criminally insane, Max, now Electro, remains desirous of other people’s attention to him – what persuades him to help Harry is the plea “I need you!” Electro does go on a rampage concerned only with power and revenge, but his desire for recognition remains pertinent throughout, best demonstrated when his face is reproduced in light on the side of a building. Previously, Max was replaced on billboard screens with Spider-Man – now he creates his own screen for his image.
The conceit of how we decide who we are is so prevalent in popular culture as to be almost a cliché. It is testament, therefore, to the continued creativity of storymakers that new and exciting explorations continue to be produced, such as The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and the recent Divergent. Combinations are key to this continued innovation, as we see the quest for self-identification tied in with how others view the central characters. Furthermore, the film understands that these questions are never really answered. There is doubt, loss, revelation, rejection and heartbreak, but none of these experiences provide final resolution. As the final sequence demonstrates, even when it looks to be over, it’s good to be home.
I recently posted on my top five of the year so far, and placed Man of Steel at number 4. This puts it ahead of Oblivion, After Earth, Iron Man Three and Star Trek Into Darkness as the finest blockbuster I’ve seen in 2013, a film I would describe as swell, and it is a film that swells. This might be a controversial choice, as Man of Steel has been met with very mixed reviews, some disappointed over its treatment of beloved comic book elements (which always happens with adaptations), others complaining that it is too dour and not enough fun, and the standard criticism of blockbusters that plot and character get left behind in the midst of all the destruction and special effects.
For me though, Man of Steel provided everything I want from a blockbuster and a superhero movie. There are others later this year, including The Wolverine and Thor: The Dark World, but the standard set by Man of Steel (as well as Iron Man Three) is pretty high. I have never been as big a fan of Superman as I am of Batman and Spider-Man, because Superman can be too powerful to be relatable – if he is invulnerable, there is no drama. Man of Steel avoids this pitfall of the character, making Kal vulnerable, relatable and human. At the same time, director Zack Snyder delivers enthralling and enveloping action sequences that allow the viewer to experience the thrills and pains of super powers, which is a key ingredient in the superhero genre.
Movie of Swells
The trope of swelling recurs throughout Man of Steel, apparent from the very beginning as Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) gives birth, her screaming and panting swelling along with the music. As we subsequently learn, Kal is the first Kyptonian to have been born this way in generations, so his very existence is a swelling of resistance. Rebellion swells across the opening sequence on Krypton, as Jor El (Russell Crowe) faces the senior council and urges evacuation as the planet itself swells with tectonic forces. The swelling menace erupts as General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts a coup, and the sequence culminates with the explosion of Krypton.
Swelling continues as the adult Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) travels north in search of answers, and his memories demonstrate his swelling confusion and inner turmoil. Man of Steel’s flashbacks echo Batman Begins, with the young adult developing his hero persona through current events, like saving men aboard a burning oil rig, and those from his childhood, such as lifting a school bus out of a river. Finally, when Clark reaches a crashed Kryptonian scoutship and learns the truth of who he is, the swelling of his potential continues through a montage, once again reminiscent of writer/producer Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. The suit that Kal El will wear, the history of Krypton, the philosophy that Jor delivers to him, are all intercut with Kal striding out of the ship, cape billowing behind him, until he stands in the sun and crouches, ready to take flight. His first flight comes one hour into the film (just like “I’m Batman!”), which has been swelling towards this point. When I saw Kal ascend, less like a speeding bullet and more reminiscent of a bolt of light, the hairs rose on my arms as I felt myself vicariously hurtling up with him. The greatest moments in movies are often those that transport us, and for that moment, I felt myself transported with him.
Not that the first flight goes too well, as Kal crashes into a mountain and takes some time getting used to his abilities. This is one of Man of Steel’s great strengths, showing the confusing effect of superpowers as well as their glory. Superpowers are often presented as exhilarating, such as Peter Parker’s discovery of his ability to climb walls and jump great distances in both Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man. Powers can also be presented as dangerous, as in the emergence of Jimmy Logan’s bone claws in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Rogue’s ability to suck energy in X-Men, or the first emergence of the Hulk in both Hulk and The Incredible Hulk. But these are presented as dangerous to the viewer, in the position of a bystander. In Man of Steel the frightening element of superpowers is presented from the perspective of the super being himself. An impressive instance of this appears in an early flashback, as Clark becomes disorientated and scared at school because he can see and hear too much. The scene begins with extreme close-ups of pencils, the edges of desks and other classroom clutter, culminating in his teacher and classmates appearing as moving skeletons. This visual and aural cacophony overwhelms the viewer much as it does Clark, who hides in a closet until his mother Martha (Diane Lane) can talk him out, soothing him with the recommendation to make the frighteningly large world smaller. He may have super powers, but they are no protection against fear.
Man of Steel works for me because it conveys consistently and convincingly the experience of super powers. As Kal grows in confidence, so do we follow his progress. Subsequent scenes of flight are both beautiful and compelling – the tagline for the original Superman: The Movie was “You’ll believe a man can fly”. Man of Steel, oddly, has no tagline, but it could easily be “You’ll believe a man can fly, and you with him”. Not only fly, but fight, as the final act, when Kal battles the forces of Zod, yanks the viewer right into the action. This sequence has been a major target for criticism, described as nothing but mindless action in the vein of Transformers, rendered in such a way that you cannot see what is going on, and with insufficient attention paid to the inevitable death toll of such extensive destruction.
I did not have these problems, as not only could I see everything that was going on, I also felt it, the kinetic force of Snyder’s camera, not to mention the cacophonic soundtrack, had me sharing every swoop, collision and explosion. As mentioned above, a key ingredient for me in a successful superhero film is the cinematic expression of superpowers, and Man of Steel delivers both on the intimate scale in the flashbacks, and the epic grandeur of the almighty Kryptonian smackdown. In addition, the stakes of this climactic battle are abundantly clear, as Zod’s mission is to preserve the Kryptonian race, to the extent of terra-forming Earth into a new Krypton. The impact of this mission is illustrated in a dream Kal shares with Zod, in which Earth is re-shaped and Kal sinks into a pile of skulls, this grim horror serving as perfect motivation for the climax.
Man of Steel is not without problems. Shaky cam in the opening sequence is an unfortunate distraction because Krypton is a glorious creation that cannot be fully enjoyed. Also, while the climax is spectacular, it takes too long to get going, initial skirmishes between Kal and Zod’s forces proving to be false starts that become tiresome as they are clearly preludes. That said, these skirmishes do continue the film’s interest in power as disorientating, as Zod and his troops also have to adjust to seeing through their own hands. The alien element of Man of Steel is well-handled, but the early scraps fail to add drama, although it is effective to see Kal getting his ass kicked by trained soldiers.
Once the final battle really kicks off though, it is as spectacular as anything I’ve seen in a cinema this year, rising above Iron Man Three and Star Trek Into Darkness to name a couple (although at the time of writing I am yet to see Pacific Rim). Kal’s desperate attempt to save Lois Lane (Amy Adams), his struggle to destroy the world engine and his eventual return of the Kryptonian ship to the Phantom Zone are all enveloping action sequences, the slightly grainy film quality and detail of the production design and effects creating an absorbing and enthralling cinematic experience.
Best of all is the final clash between Kal and Zod, as Zod fully embraces the power that Earth’s sun imbues him with, mocking Kal with his warrior background while ‘Superman’ was raised on a farm. A true clash of the titans, Kal and Zod’s titanic duel is literally out of this world, as the two hurl each other out of the atmosphere and collide with satellites (amusingly branded as Wayne Enterprises, perhaps foreshadowing a Justice League movie). But the culmination of their clash is a perfect encapsulation of inner and outer conflict, as Kal must kill Zod in order to save innocent bystanders. I had a debate over the importance of this killing, as it seems did the director, writer and producer. For Superman to kill was shocking, as I had never seen that before. Apparently there are comic book stories in which he has killed, but these are outside the accepted canon. Either way, that moment in Man of Steel was superb because it was genuinely shocking. I’ve barely read a Superman comic book, but the film and TV versions I have seen emphasise Superman’s moral compass and restraint. Therefore, seeing him kill someone was a huge surprise and clearly a massive emotional blow, demonstrated by his scream of anguish and collapse into Lois’ arms. We now know how far Kal-El can go, and to have him traumatised makes him all the more interesting.
It is probably no coincidence that the superhero genre has been so embraced in the aftermath of 9/11, and much like Spider-Man, The Dark Knight and The Avengers, the shadow of the infamous terrorist attacks hang over Man of Steel. The devastation of Metropolis is reminiscent of images of New York from 9/11, as buildings collapse and debris falls from the sky. Some have criticised the sanitisation of this destruction – surely thousands of people must have been killed – and while this is valid I think the criticism misses the point. In a crucial moment, Jenny Olsen (Rebecca Buller) is trapped under debris, and Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and Steve Lombard (Michael Kelly) struggle to free her. They are themselves in danger, and indeed they would all have died had Kal not arrived in the nick of time, but the moments of Perry and Steve doing what they can to try and free Jenny is a wonderful illustration of ordinary heroism. Perhaps they have been inspired by Kal’s example, willing to surrender himself to Zod’s forces, or they were already brave and selfless, but whatever their motivation, it is a powerful moment, mixing the terror of the attack with a positive vision of humanity. It is post-9/11 romantic wish-fulfilment, to have a superman come to the rescue, and I find it satisfying because of the recognition and catharsis stimulated by this fulfilment.
I recently had a long debate over what superheroes are ‘doing’, beyond blowing stuff up and acquiring/achieving. I found the argument rather odd, because saving the world, in style, blowing stuff up and taking us along for the ride seems exactly what superheroes are there for. My fellow debater was being unfairly judgemental, I thought, as they seemed to have a sense that superheroes should do something more, but it was unclear exactly what that more would be. In the case of Man of Steel, I think the film is doing exactly what Jor El tells his son – that he will give the people of Earth something to aspire to. Superpowers are not necessarily a blessing, and they are not a prerequisite for doing good and helping others. The young Clark may have the strength to lift buses out of rivers, but one of the boys Clark saves offers his hand to help Clark up when bullies have knocked him down, but he has not struck back at them. Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) sacrifices his own life to save others, including telling Clark not to use his powers to save him. Perry and Steve must use their own strength and resourcefulness to try and save Jenny, and Lois proves her mettle in Zod’s ship with timely advice from Jor. Repeatedly in Man of Steel, heroism is shown to be a choice, not a destiny, and a choice that we can all make. Perhaps, in time, we can all join Kal El in the sun.
To those (like me) who have watched and enjoyed the Avengers franchise since its inception in 2008 with Iron Man (Jon Favreau), Iron Man Three offers both variation and familiarity. It has the obligatory action sequences, including the pinnacle of the Iron Man movies at its climax as multiple Iron Man suits battle the super-powered minions of Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). These build upon the technophilia established in Iron Man, with protracted shots and sequences emphasising the sleek technology and mutable digital images. These are sometimes at odds with the vague social critique that the first film performed – as one viewer described it, “Michael Moore pimps my ride”. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Junior) is not only a master builder, or “tinkerer” as he calls himself, but also handles information and images with perfect ease.
Iron Man Three features plenty of witty repartee between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), as well as between Tony and his computer Jarvis (Paul Bettany). There is also great banter between Tony and Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), which echoes the previous film directed by Shane Black, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which also starred Downey, Jnr. as well as Val Kilmer (Iron Man and Batman together!). Here is where the variation comes in, as much of Iron Man Three focuses on human exploits. This links to the darker element in the film, which is a change from the previous instalments. Since the superhero cycle began in earnest with X-Men (Bryan Singer) in 2000 and swung to dizzying heights in Spider-Man (Sam Raimi, 2002), there was a consistent presence of “darkness”, with superheroes suffering from relatable problems and sometimes going to sinister places. The peak of this tendency was Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, which went so far as to feature an anarchic psychopath, scenes of torture and the repeated failure of our favourite Caped Crusader.
In contrast to the grim exploits of the X-Men, Spider-Man and Batman, Marvel’s Avengers have been light, frothy fun. Humour has been a constant presence, especially with RDJ’s razor sharp performance of Tony Stark, but also with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) as a fish out of water and Captain America (Chris Evans) being a laughing stock. Best of all, The Avengers featured Joss Whedon’s trademark wit and irreverence, making it possibly the funniest superhero film to date.
Iron Man Three is also humorous, especially in its banter but also in character responses, such as when Rhodes says with deadpan incredulity (something of an oxymoron): “You breathe fire?!” after Killian does just that. Furthermore, the character of the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) provides very significant humour, to which I return later. But alongside the humour, there are some grim moments that make Iron Man Three the darkest entry in the Avengers franchise.
The presence of the Mandarin as the film’s big bad begins this, as the propaganda videos with his threats are reminiscent of Al Qaeda videos. These threats come home to roost when Tony’s friend and former bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) is badly injured in an explosion linked to the Mandarin. The aftermath of this attack, in which Happy is shown hooked to monitors in a hospital bed, swathed in bandages, is a very poignant scene that fuels Tony’s anger.
Of course, Tony’s anger makes him reckless and stupid, and his TV interview in which he invites the Mandarin to a confrontation results in his Malibu home being destroyed. Tellingly, several Iron Man suits are destroyed, demonstrating Iron Man’s vulnerability, which continues as Tony himself falls into the sea and is then automatically flown away, before his remaining suit loses power and crashes (startling a digital deer as it falls). Cut off from his equipment, Tony must rely on his own wits and ingenuity. Yet his mind also poses a problem that he must confront.
A significant development of Tony’s character is his post-traumatic-stress-disorder. The entire film features voiceover, some of which echoes the meta-cinematic voiceover of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and the (very funny) post-credits scene shows us Tony talking with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who is woefully ill-equipped to offer therapy for Tony’s psychological problems. These problems permeate the film, as Tony is, plagued with nightmares about his experience in New York in The Avengers, when he travelled through a portal to destroy an alien armada and almost died. Tony’s PTSD is consistently demonstrated as he suffers panic attacks whenever New York is mentioned, his trauma casting a sombre pall over much of the film. Nor is the trauma limited to Tony, as the Mandarin’s previous victims leave behind grieving family and literal impressions, as Tony finds in Tennessee, where an explosion left both a crater and seared shadows on nearby walls. The soldiers of Killian, infected with Extremis, are shown to be suffering agony as the nanoprobes reformulate their bodies, and Pepper herself is also tortured in this way. Trauma cuts deep, and cannot be hidden from in a metal suit.
Iron Man Three brings Tony out of the suit, having him build more modest devices so that he can save Pepper, the US President and half the world. At times, he seems more like 007 (or MacGyver) than Iron Man, using a gun, homemade tazers and other improvised weapons. This creates variation from the previous films, which never quite got the balance right between super-techno-heroics and human ingenuity and interactions. Whereas Iron Man and Iron Man 2 made abrupt shifts from Tony tinkering to mechanical mayhem, Iron Man Three escalates its action. Once Tony invades the Mandarin’s secret headquarters, using his various improvised weapons, he has some success but is eventually taken prisoner and only breaks free when the re-charged Iron Man suit arrives. Even then, the suit arrives one piece at a time and operates at less than full power so the ensuing battle is more comical as spectacular, featuring the very funny line from one of Killian’s minions, “I don’t even like working here. They are so weird!”
The spectacle comes later, as Tony powers the suit completely and flies after Air Force One to save President Ellis (William Sadler). He fails, but succeeds in disposing of Killian’s head henchman, Savin (James Badge Dale) and, in a spectacular aerial sequence, he rescues the passengers as they tumble towards their deaths. This sequence, like others, contains a surprise as Tony is operating the suit remotely, which emphasises his distance from the suit, which is less cocoon and more human-shaped coffin. It does not detract from the visceral excitement of the action set piece, which is spectacular and involving. Furthermore, the final spectacular battle of Iron Man Three feels like a natural progression, as multiple Iron Man suits battle Killan’s minions and Tony himself fights Killian. Whereas the action set pieces in Favreau’s films felt like departures, Black’s are escalations, making the film coherent and satisfying, with a continual focus on Tony’s personal journey.
MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW
This can also be the film’s detriment, as it is more a Tony Stark movie than an Iron Man movie. This is further demonstrated by the licence taken with the Mandarin, a major character from the comic books and Iron Man’s classic foe. Most superheroes have these – for the Fantastic Four it’s Doctor Doom, for the X-Men it’s the Brotherhood of Mutants, for Superman it’s Lex Luthor and for Batman it’s the Joker. Iron Man’s greatest nemesis has long been the Mandarin, and for many viewers the prospect of having these two great adversaries clash was one of the most exciting elements of Iron Man Three. Imagine the surprise and (in some cases) disappointment when the Mandarin turns out to be an actor playing a role devised by Killian. Some viewers were very disappointed by this, which indicates the importance of the Mandarin within Iron Man lore.
For my part, I was genuinely shocked by the revelation of Trevor Slattery, to such an extent that I didn’t believe it initially. I was waiting for Slattery to be a decoy and the real Mandarin attack, or at least be somewhere else. But instead, we get an actor whose Lear is the “toast of Croydon” (very funny for a British viewer). But the surprise worked, and Ben Kingsley’s hilarious performance meant that I was carried along for the ride.
Furthermore, it is actually a relief that the Mandarin turned out to be a fiction within the film. The original character is a Chinese stereotype and somewhat racist, and the casting of Kingsley raised questions of why such a role should be played by a white actor (not forgetting Kingsley’s Oscar-winning role in Gandhi). The film avoided the Fu Manchu territory by making the Mandarin more of a Bin Laden figure, and in “his” propaganda videos he had an American accent (replaced with a British one when he was discovered). These elements in his character serve several functions. Firstly, it avoids racism, because the Mandarin never seems Other. Secondly, it avoids the fantastical nature of a character that possessed “power rings” in the comic books, either magical or derived from alien technology. While Thor managed to incorporate science and mythology very nicely, Iron Man has been somewhat grounded in practical science (however fanciful) and the inclusion of power rings would have jarred with the overall possible world. Thirdly, and most importantly, for the Mandarin to be a smokescreen, and the real enemy to be Killian the power-mad weapons manufacturer emphasises the contemporary concern over internal threats. Killian recognises the opportunity in giving people a figurehead to fear, in order to legitimate arms manufacture, and uses it to great effect. Tony’s discovery of Slattery demonstrates the conceit of true danger often being less exotic but no less dangerous.
As with much of the film, the climax had its surprises, both with the multiple suits and Tony, not to mention Pepper, proving to be able combatants in their own right. For Killian to be in league with the Mandarin was not surprising; for him to actually be the Mandarin is a masterstroke, as it maintains the conceit of military contractors being a threat. This may not be original, and indeed forms the conceit of more “realistic” films as Snake Eyes, The Manchurian Candidate and The Ghost Writer, but it works, maintaining the critical eye on the military-industrial complex that has characterized the Iron Man franchise since it began in 2008. Tony Stark may have learned the error of his ways, but other arms manufacturers still pose a threat.
For Killian to be the true locus of the film’s threat serves as the external version of Tony’s internal conflict – he needs to address the trauma he suffered and face up to danger, which he does by doing his fighting himself. Except that Killian is far more powerful and without his suit Tony would be finished, but fortunately Pepper is there to save the day. When Pepper fell into a fiery explosion, I thought she had been killed, and was delighted when she re-appeared, reconstructed by Extremis. While it was gratuitous to have her in a bra at the film’s climax, it was very pleasing for a woman to save a man and put down the bad guy for a change. But Tony faces up to his demons and succeeds in overcoming them, demonstrated by the destruction of all his suits and the removal of the arc reactor and shrapnel from his chest, as these defences are no longer needed.
By reworking the characters of the Mandarin and Iron Man himself, Iron Man Three departs significantly from the comic books. None of this hurt it at the box office, as its current take stands at $1,077,068,034 worldwide. It is easy to be protective about the texts we love, but reinterpretation need not devalue the original. There are multiple versions of Iron Man to enjoy, in comic book, animation and feature film. Iron Man Three builds upon the strength of what has come before, and does a very fine job of being its own model.