Editor’s note: Critical Consensus is a biweekly feature in which two
critics from Indiewire’s Criticwire Network discuss new releases with
Indiewire’s chief film critic, Eric Kohn. In this edition, Grantland’s Wesley Morris and Slate’s Dana Stevens grapple with “Iron Man 3” and its relevance in film culture.
Part of me wants to ignore this movie and focus on the smaller releases that deserve the attention. On the other hand, the “Iron Man” series is too big to ignore — and by many accounts a lot better than the standard blockbuster.
Wesley, I want to start with you because you strike me as a bigger fan of the series as whole. You singled out both “Iron Man” and its sequel because you felt the dialogue scenes were actually stronger than the action. Do you feel that’s still the case here?
WESLEY MORRIS: The action sequences are sort of bigger and there aren’t the action set pieces in this movie. But I think the idea of Shane Black, who directed this movie, was to maybe interweave those things. I think the surprise story of the series for me has been the relationship among the characters — not in any deep way, but just in a classic Hollywood screwball kind of way. They have what passes for witty repartee, eye-rolling, teeth-sucking, putdowns. There’s a very catty aspect to these movies that I love.
Dana, in your “Iron Man 2” review, you wrote that the franchise should trust Downey more. Do you feel like they took your advice this time around?
DANA STEVENS: Not necessarily, but I still think this is my second favorite of the “Iron Man” movies, the first one being my favorite. At this point we know that character, Tony Stark, so well, and what Robert Downey Jr. can do in the interstices of a huge action movie in which so much is foreordained by a global demand for loudness. For the last quarter of the movie there have to be 14 or so spectacular action scenes in a row. That’s just this immutable law. But within that, Robert Downey Jr. does have this amazing ability to create some space of intimacy. I’m not quite sure where that comes from. I think it’s our history with him not just as Iron Man but as Robert Downey Jr. I think people are still sort of proud of Downey Jr. for having gone from junkie to superhero. But he does have to fight against a lot studio-mandated loudness.
When you look at an actor like that do you wish, now that he’s sober and cleaned up in other ways, that he was looking at some roles aside from this and “Sherlock Holmes”?
DS: I assume that he still is, that this is just another phase in his career. He’s reinvented himself so many times, but he’ll always be Iron Man. It does seem at the end of the movie that it’s implied he’ll be in the next “Avengers” movie without question.
WM: I think the intimacy thing is interesting. One of the coolest things about this series to me is the visual decision to put us inside the mask, so you actually do have this physical intimacy with him that creates this other kind of intimacy for the duration of the film. You get to watch this guy close-up do close-ups really well. That’s sustained throughout the movie. It was also fun in this one to see Don Cheadle does the same thing. I really like that, seeing actors like that. I don’t think this movie needs to be in 3D. There’s only one sequence that justifies that, and it’s pretty good, but I don’t think it needs to be in 3D.
DS: Which sequence justifies it?
WM: The skydiving one. That’s the only one where you really get a sense of it. I imagine if that’s being shown in IMAX, that’s how you want to watch that sequence. I didn’t see it in IMAX so I can’t say. But I like that you’re so close to this guy.
The idea of a blockbuster franchise creating any kind of physical intimacy with actors does have a unique ring to it. Did “The Avengers” raise the bar in terms of quality superhero movies?
WM: I think there are several bars. You know, the benchmarks for this type of movie are pretty significant. There’s the original “Superman,” Tim Burton’s first “Batman” movie and maybe the second one, the “X-Men” movie, and the first and second “Spider-Man” movie. And then, last year, “The Avengers.” These movies really explain how this comic book movie adaptation thing can and should work in a way that gratifies people who are slavishly devoted to the comic books, people who just like expensive summer movies, and people who just want competently-made movies with a story and a screenplay and performances. I think those benchmarks really explain how it works. I don’t think “The Avengers” is a great movie, but it’s one of the best examples of making something that I think from a comic book fan standpoint is really nothing. I was never really into “The Avengers.” I read it but I didn’t love it, and I didn’t know why, out of all the things you could do with a movie franchise, you would even bother with it. But it has proven to be fruitful and the story of “The Avengers” movie for me was this combination of special effects being state of the art and having these actors also willing to have have fun with it. Each one of those actors did something interesting, including Scarlett Johannson. She could’ve phoned it in, but I don’t think she necessarily did. I thought she was really interesting to watch.
DS: I think what all those movies have in common is a light-heartedness. Except maybe the Christopher Nolan movies.
WM: No, but obviously “The Dark Knight” is another benchmark.
DS: Setting “The Dark Knight” aside because that’s getting into the whole Wagnerian brooding territory, I still think a light-hearted comic book movie is what it’s all about. I’ve had it with the “Hamlet”-type brooding of the superhero. Like that terrible Brandon Routh “Superman,” that kind of mood — as if we have to bring darkness, gloom and introspection into every superhero. And Robert Downey Jr. really tows that line beautifully because he creates Tony Stark, along with Shane Black’s dialogue in this version, as someone who has superiority but is also thoroughly funny.
Dana, when “The Avengers” came out, you said that you were “starting to feel something akin to being defeated” by superhero movies. Have you given up yet?
DS: Yeah, I definitely have a kind of Stockholm Syndrome for superhero movies because it’s very clear that’s the era we’re in. It’s like Christianity in the Middle Ages. So the question is, like the studio system, what creativity can be defined within those strictures? And “Iron Man” almost has an indie status within the superhero movies because its playfulness.
I’m glad we found an indie hook.
Next: How to honor “the seriousness of comic books.”
WM: I do think there’s a way to honor the seriousness of comic books. Nolan goes hard in one direction in that sense. But there’s always been a kind of brooding aspect to comic books and sort of an unhappy feeling. There’s an allegorical stamp on the great comic book runs. I’m thinking about X-Men during the Civil Rights movement and the identity politics of the eighties. Even Superman, in “Superman II,” gave up everything to be with Lois Lane and had to figure out how to become Superman again to save all of us. That’s some heavy shit. But you have a director like Richard Donner, who is not an artist at all, but is a really good craftsman, making these movies. He’s not interested in any allegory, and allegory explains itself in some way — but a really good comic book movie knows the source material, knows the audience in some way, and hopes they grow it and bring in people who don’t read comic books. But they know it’s a movie, and there are things a movie has to do. One of them is kind of make sense. All of the good movies do all of those things really well in a way that’s recognizable to people who know the source material.
DS: The first “Superman” movie is really the benchmark. As a non-comic book reader, the Donner-directed “Superman” movie is the one that makes me understand why people read comics and why those heroes need so much to them. There’s a playfulness, even if there’s a seriousness as well. Yes, there’s abandonment, obviously, but there’s a playfullness as well.
WM: Dana, there’s one other thing though.
W: It’s that Superman is hot.
Missed that one.
WM: Christopher Reeve was sexy, and I think there was a kind of virginal sexiness about that Superman that really really worked. Margot Kidder! With the first “Superman” movie and even the second one, they were screwball comedies that blew into into action sequences. But the set-up, Kal-El gets to Metropolis, the movie is a screwball comedy with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. And he’s really sexy, and she’s sexy in her way, too — and I just think that that awareness of Hollywood genres in the context of superhero movies is something that doesn’t happen that often. But with a smart director that’s a really good hook. And the second “Iron Man” movie has that dynamic. It’s a screwball comedy. There’s a reception that all the characters show up at and it’s very funny.
What do you make of the bad guy in “Iron Man 3”?
WM: The twist too good to ruin it.
DS: I’m hitting up against this while writing my review. It’s very smart but under-explored. More than any other movie of its kind, this movie acknowledges super villainy as a construct. It acknowledges it and thinks about what goes into making a super villain. We see that construction under way. I wish there had been more of that. Guy Pearce’s motivations, on a plot level, make no sense. I guess he wants to rule the world.
Despite the plot holes, you seem to agree that this is another superhero movie that’s a cut above, so maybe there’s less of a reason to grouse about all the money it’s going to make. Meanwhile, there’s a new Olivier Assayas film opening this week. Do you think there’s a newer tension between two opposing film cultures when it comes to the receptions of these movies? Or is it an issue that has persisted for some time now?
WM: There’s no pressure on me at Grantland to do one thing over the other. I had a moment a couple of weeks ago where I realized that there is a way to cover both of these things without losing people. The people who don’t want to read about Olivier Assayas don’t have to, but hopefully they will, and maybe they’ll go see the movie. There’s a way in which what we do — you, me, Dana — where acknowledging the existence of these movies is important for us. I also think that, in many ways, it’s important to assess where an “Iron Man” or “Hangover 3” stand in the larger film conversation. Despite occupying a big part of the movie apparatus, its occupation is still worth analyzing. At the same time, I like “Something in the Air” so much and I’m going to write about the new Carlos Reygadas movie in the next few weeks. When I was at the Boston Globe, there was no pressure on my end because I just wrote about everything that opened. I didn’t have the luxury of choosing. Now there’s a bit of curation on my part. Art house culture is important. Even the ones that don’t work — they don’t work for much more interesting reasons than “Die Harder” or whatever that last piece of shit was.
DS: I’m in a similar situation. There’s usually one huge thing that needs to be covered. “Iron Man 3” is the one this week. Usually that leaves room for an extra review. But even in film culture at large, in terms of reception, people are getting more and more omnivorous. The audience I imagine writing for is equally interested in “Iron Man” and the new Assayas film. They would be disappointed in Slate didn’t try to cover both.
WM: Did you see you see Steven Soderbergh’s “State of Cinema” address? I think it’s relevant. He gave this kind of rambling speech, but the meat of it was what we all know to be true: Hollywood has completely colonized moviegoing, moviemaking and cinema. It’s corporatizing and zombifying it out of existence. I guess he’s talking about all movies, but principally, he’s talking about American movies and the way they choke the life out of art filmmaking from an exhibition standpoint. The numbers are astonishing when you look at them. The number of Hollywood movies released per year has gone down 28% in 10 years. The number of independent movies has gone up 100% according to him. But marketing and advertising for those movies has risen to something like 68% of all marketing for all movies. We are living in a time when of course “Iron Man” made $200 million in its first week of release overseas, because it was probably the only movie people knew was out. For us, it’s an obvious point, but one that really bears repeating often: There is a creative crisis in American movies.
DS: Insofar as “Iron Man 3” is a symptom of that, it is depressing. But again, within the strictures, there’s this small room for play. That’s why people are so enlivened by the presence of Robert Downey Jr.: Just to have some moment of humanity in these movies. It’s kind of split down the middle. We know that Shane Black can make a really good indie movie with Robert Downey Jr. [“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”]. Why is it the pinnacle of his career to make a studio blockbuster?
WM: These are calling card movies. It’s hard to say no when a studio is thinking about hiring you to do something like this. You can to prove you can do it, and it’s lucrative both financially and for your reputation. It’s hard for me to feel bad for Robert Downey Jr. As a moviegoer, I wish he were in other things, and when he did have time off, he didn’t do “Due Date” — but while I would like to see him in something more subversive than what he has been doing, instead he chooses to subvert these comic book movies, which I think is kind of smart. He has imprisoned himself, but it’s a pretty nice prison.