The first installment featured a small cast of characters arguing about Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder. Now, some of them have returned, and a few new characters have stepped in. They’ve just been to a sneak preview of Iron Man 3, and they don’t agree about what they saw.
My thoughts about the movie? I have mixed feelings, and I’ve stirred them into the batter of this review.
Note: I reserve the right to continue editing and polishing the review in second and third drafts over the first week of its publication. Feel free to send corrections or questions in an email or a comment. I’ll make repairs with gratitude.
All Thumbs Video, Part 2 — Iron Man 3
“I am Iron Man!”
He was a five-year-old in a Spider-man pajama top. His hair was wet from the downpour outside. And he stood at the counter of All Thumbs Video holding up his palms as if to blast hand-lasers at a stranger, Steven Dark, who stood behind the counter checking in DVDs that had been returned overnight.
Amused, Steve zapped in Star Trek 3: The Search for Spock, The Dark Knight Rises, and Die Hard with a Vengeance. “Hello, Iron Man! I’m such a big fan. It’s so great to meet you.” He leaned over the counter. “Hey, while your dad is shopping for movies, would you be sure to keep our store safe?”
“Kevin!” the boy’s scowling father, who looked like an embittered Seahawks fan in a jersey, stood up to look over a rack in the Action/Adventure section. “Leave the video guy alone.”
“My name’s not Kevin,” Kevin announced, sounding more like a supervillain than a hero. “My name’s Tony Stark! That’s my secret identisty.”
“Secret identisty?” That was Dennis, the film studies instructor from the community college down the street. For an adjunct professor, he seemed to live on a perpetual lunch break at All Thumbs. He sat, as usual, at the end of the counter, wolfing down a late breakfast — slices of leftover Domino’s pizza (from the top of Queen Anne Hill) and taking swigs from a bottled Starbucks Frappuccino. “That’s what Marvel needs, Steve. A cavity fighter with a secret i-dentist-y.”
“I-dent-i-ty,” said Steve to Kevin slowly, like a pre-school teacher. “But Iron Man, if your identity’s a secret, why did you just tell me who you really are?”
The child’s brow furrowed, disgruntled by these challenges to his fantasy. Then he decided that violence was the best course of action against anything that confused him, so he punched the air with his palms as if to hurl laser blasts at Steven and Dennis. “Pow! POW!”
“There you go! Give us what the people want, Kevin! Pow, POW!” Dennis, who had attended Seattle’s sneak preview of Iron Man 3 with Steven the night before, looked at every child (even his own) as if wondering why they hadn’t graduated from college yet. “Uh-oh! Is the plot not making sense? Quick, bring on an action scene! Blow some sh—“ He caught himself. “Blow some stuff up! Pow!”
This was Dennis’s first sarcastic attack on the movie, but Steve had known it would come.
Due to the first rule of Sight Club, their evening movie group, nobody was allowed to say anything critical about a film until the next day. Steve had intended to take some notes so he could be ready with a stack of printed reviews to give to customers today. (He distributed reviews regularly to customers, and posted them on the All Thumbs website.) But the film, which was fun while it lasted, seemed to have evaporated from his memory overnight, leaving him with a faint headache and surprising indifference.
Still, the threat of Dennis disillusioning an awestruck five-year-old struck him as cruel and unusual punishment, sparking his as-yet-unfulfilled fatherly impulses.
“So, that’s your criticism? Plot holes and an excess of action?” He checked in a few more films, the process automatic: Goldfinger. The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. X-Men: The Last Stand. “Kevin, you’ll have to excuse my friend Dennis. The only genre film he’ll accept is one forsakes its genre conventions.”
Kevin, uncomprehending, and probably sensing that he was no longer the center of attention, blasted away at both Steven and Dennis some more. His dad, meanwhile, was studying the DVD case of a Jason Statham movie as if he were reading a study in Film Comment.
“Look, I love superhero movies,” said Dennis, “so long as they tell a good story and, you know, explore something. The Dark Knight, for instance Comic books get treated like junk food, and that’s why we get junk food comic book movies. Hollywood thinks comic book audiences are only interested in smack-down and explosions. But comics give us some of the most profound and timely social commentary.”
“At their best, yeah.”
“Take X-Men 2, for instance. That was thoughtful storytelling and imaginative action, and it was a creative way to explore societal intolerance. But then we got this.” He picked up X-Men: The Last Standby the corner as if it were a soiled napkin. “Brett Ratner’s X-Men movie, like so many third movies, is clearly the result of committee meetings. It’s about money. It’s about stuffing the package with extra helpings of every sensational element, until there’s no room for real storytelling or art. It’s more machine than man.” He held up his hands as if he were a puppeteer controlling a conversation. “‘What’s working in superhero movies today, Jim?’ ‘I’ll tell you, Frank — It’s the threat of terrorism. It’s the White House and Air Force One being violated. It’s girl-power sidekicks and madman villains in the field of genetic experimentation. It’s adult males who need to learn how to be father figures, so this time Tony gets his own Short Round.'”
“Aw, come on. Don’t knock the kid. I liked him. He was a good representative for the film’s target audience.” He nodded at Kevin. “And he reminded me of somebody.” He picked up a 7″-tall action figure of Brad Bird’s famous Iron Giant and pointed to the tiny boy — Hogarth — standing on the sturdy plastic shoulder. “And yet, Tony Stark absolutely refused to get sappy about him.”
“Yeah,” said Steve. “They even did that to the strongest characters in Return of the King. Aragorn and Gandalf, who are both supremely confident and authoritative in the novels, become whimpering and disillusioned until the little guys bring them around — like the kid in this movie brings Tony Stark around. But why? Why do that to characters who were distinct in their confidence, authority, courage, and hope — characters who stood up under pressure?”
“I can almost guarantee you that Star Trek Into Darkness is going to be made of the same stuff,” said Dennis. “Same plot twists, same patterns. Remember, in Before Midnight… what did Jesse say? He said that computers will eventually learn how to write novels just like those that humans write today.”
Steve nodded, thinking back to last week’s sneak preview of 2013’s other highly anticipated threequel. “Well, I can believe computers will write best-sellers someday.”
“But that doesn’t mean they’ll write anything good. Any industry machine can fill in the blanks, calculate audience responses, and come up with a blockbuster like Iron Man 3. Vending-machine cinema. But art… that requires a sense of collaboration with something mysterious, a sense of deliberation and poetry and restraint. Artists know what to include but they also know what to hold back, what to leave to our imagination.” He pointed to the nearest screen, on which the trailer for The Avengers was booming and exploding. “Iron Man 3 is the movie you get when a committee has studied the success of The Avengers. They saw the hordes of vicious and expendable aliens, and they substituted a gang of genetically enhanced undead inspired by Terminator 2 who have some inexplicable ability to burn things. You need them, you see, so that the good guys are justified in firing away with impunity.”
“That was awesome,” said Kevin, “when that bad guy breathed fire!”
Steven looked at Dennis, startled. “Sounds like this kid was at the sneak preview.”
“We were there,” said Kevin’s dad, beaming with pride. He tousled Kevin’s hair and then straightened his own baseball cap which said “Homeland Security.” “Got free passes from my wife’s boss. It was awesome. Best movie we’ve seen in a long time, right, Kevin?” Apparently, Kevin’s dad hadn’t been paying attention.
“Best movie ever!” said Kevin. “Except maybe Transformers: Dark of the Moon.”
A rumbling in the distance, and they all glanced toward the street. Raindrops like ball bearings battered the car windshields, streaming with such density that the lights of Nickerson Street traffic became a gleaming blur. “Let’s wait for the rain to slow down,” said Kevin’s dad. “You go look at the kid’s movies, okay? I’ll find you when the rain slows down.” Then, just as Steve had known he would, the man ambled back to the foreign films section in the corner where he would, eventually, when he thought no one was paying attention, slip through the curtain into the “Adult” section.
“Search your feelings, Steven,” whispered Dennis in his best Darth Vader voice. “You liked Iron Man 3. You know this to be true.”
Steve shrugged. “It’s the most fun of all the Iron Man movies. It moves really fast, it gets the most out of Robert Downey Jr., and it has more Gwyneth Paltrow than the other two movies combined.”
Dennis shook his head. “I knew it.”
“But that’s why I go to Iron Man movies. The action is just sound and fury, but everything else has real personality. The first one, back in 2008… it gave comic book movies a jolt of attitude. I appreciated how it reminded us of what is possible when you have great actors and a smart script. It struck just the right balance: Enough humanity to make you care, enough comic-book-crazy to make geeks cheer. Shane Black was just the right choice to direct Iron Man 3. He gets the attitude just right, and he lets the actors act. George Lucas should feel about two inches tall when he watches this movie.”
“Was the first Iron Man only five years ago?” asked Dennis. “Feels like it’s been a decade.” He took a long slurp of Frappuccino, then winced and slapped his palm to his forehead. “Brain freeze.”
“POW! I’ve melted your brain freeze!” said Kevin, who had stayed at the counter, the better to hover within reach of the candy rack.
“And I liked its references to The Iron Giant,” said Steve. “You know, the sight of the giant lying down in the snow, and the way the pieces of his armor can come and find him now from far distances, even if they were scattered all over the place.”
“You say ‘references,’ but I say ‘rip-offs,” laughed Dennis. “There was nothing in those moments that said ‘homage.’ Just ideas stolen from a movie that used them to greater effect.”
“And Ben Kingsley,” said Steven. “What a great performance! Totally steals the show. Matt Zoller Seitz says the same thing. His review’s up today on Roger Ebert’s site.”
“I’m going to fight the Mandarin before he kills the President!” Kevin boasted.
“Yeah, but weren’t you paying attention, Kevin?” said Dennis. “Don’t you remember the Mandarin’s big secret?”
“Shh,” said Steve. “No spoilers!” He nodded toward two customers from the espresso cart next door who had come in to escape the rain. They had wandered as far as the “Movies for Sale” racks, and were actually seriously considering a purchase of The Guilt Trip on blu-ray.
“The Mandarin’s secret,” said Kevin, “was the fire zombies.”
“Wow,” Dennis murmured to Steve. “You said this kid is the movie’s target audience. But have you thought about how violent it is? I mean, there’s some seriously effed-up — for lack of a better term — cruelty in this movie.”
“Kevin, can you say ‘Extremis’?” said Steve.
“What’s… Extremz?” Kevin asked cautiously.
“Extremis,” said Steve, “is the bad guy’s magical super-serum that turns people into… into the fire zombies, as you called them.”
“Extremis,” added Dennis, “is a good word for describing the whole film, actually. I think the ‘threequel’ that this movie most resembles is…”
“Don’t say it,” said Steve “Do not speak its name!”
“Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End! Way, way, way too much happening, way too fast, with so many challenges to our belief that pretty soon there isn’t a lick of suspense anymore.” He stuffed half a slice of Domino’s triple pepperoni in his mouth, and kept on talking. “Doesn’t it bother anybody that they’re paying good money for this crap? They gripe about the lack of gun control all day, then they go out and cheer as their hero learns that the bad guys won’t be stopped unless he shoots them a lot harder, a lot faster, at much closer range, several times.”
“The only person who can stop a bad guy with Extremis,” said Steve, “is a good guy with an army of drones.”
“And to make matters worse, those poor fire-zombies. Is it really their fault that they’ve become evil minions? Don’t you feel kinda gross when Tony just blasts away at them without flinching?”
“Fine, fine,” said Steve, raising his hands in surrender. “You’re right. As much fun as I had while I watched it, it’s falling apart like Tony Stark’s armor now that I’m putting it to the test of… you know… making sense. Or meaning anything. It’s a bunch of shiny hunks of comic-book-movie metal arranged with the assumption that something like a theme will magically emerge to hold it together. Much as I hate to say it, I think Downey Jr. should quit while he’s ahead and close the book on Tony Stark.”
Kevin’s father had returned, looking dissatisfied with his exploration, and set his choice down on the counter — Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. But then he spotted X-Men: The Last Stand. “Oh… I need to see this again.”
“Are you serious?” asked Dennis. Steve punished him with a glare.
“Look, Kevin!” said the man. “X-Men! You like them, don’t you?”
“I like Avengers better,” said Kevin. “They have better fights. But Transformers are the best movies.”
Dennis put his forehead down on the counter, apparently losing all hope in the youth of America. “You hear that distant thunder?” he said. “A tremendous storm system of summer blockbusters is coming. How’re you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm once they’ve seen Pacific Rim?”
“Dad, can I get this?” Kevin held up a jumbo party-size bag of Mounds and Almond Joy bars. Without even pausing for a thought, his father agreed and dropped the bag on the counter.
Steve began to ring up the order for X-Men 3 and sugar, trying to hide his worry about the poor child’s head, heart, and health. “Did you like how they found ways to refer to The Avengers in Iron Man 3?”
“Yeah, but that brings up another question,” said Dennis. “Where are the rest of those guys? The Avengers ended with Nick Fury saying that the world will need the Avengers again. Well, this was a crisis that really, really needed the Avengers. But they left Tony to fight the bad guys all alone.”
“Alone with an army of his own remote-controlled Iron Men,” said Steve. “He seems to have an endless supply of Iron Man suits ready to help him.”
“What about that? Why did he conveniently forget about them until the end of the movie?”
“I see you’ve read the Decent Films review,” laughed Steven.
Dennis shrugged. “Who?”
“Steven Greydanus. Decent Films. You haven’t read him? Roger Ebert was a fan. That guy knows superheroes. He should be a script consultant for the next episode.” Putting on his feeble Ian Holm voice, he tested Dennis’s memory of Chariots of Fire, saying, “He could find Iron Man another two yards.”
“Sam Mussabini!” Dennis shouted. “Okay, but seriously, aren’t you feeling some Iron Man innovation fatigue? How many upgrades will Stark’s armor get before the American people say enough and demand their old clunky hero back?”
“Well, the film does suggest that too much innovation is a bad thing. Stark suffers for going into action with untested technology.” Steve paused. “He suffers a lot, actually. He’s having trouble sleeping. And he has a panic attack whenever anybody says ‘New York.’ The writers seemed interested in what kind of superhero would best sum up the zeitgeist. And it makes sense. Look at the Boston Marathon bombings last month, and how the media went into full 9/11 panic mode. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was horrifying. But it’s been 12 years since the towers fell, and Americans are still in Apocalypse Now mode.”
“Sure,” said Dennis. “I can see the themes it might have explored. Did you see that comic-strip review that argues the film is about drones and the emptiness of social networking? It’s a nice idea. But the movie’s too busy trying to be everything all at once for themes to really develop.”
The door’s jingle bells rang as Kristy, the barista who ran the coffee cart next door, brought in a steaming cup. “Your triple Americano.” She glanced at Dennis’s Starbucks bottle and raised an eyebrow. “Handmade,” she said, waving her hand in front of her white paper cup as if working a magic spell. “With beans from a local and organic roaster. And local whole milk. Something you’ll never get from a 7-11 refrigerator.”
Steve took the cup and raised it as if in a toast. “You’re an artist, Kristy. But good luck trying to get Dennis off of his push-button Starbucks routine. He’s more machine than man.”
“Hey, why does he get special treatment?” Dennis asked. (He was quoting Marvin the Bounty Hunter from Midnight Run in a way that only Steve would catch.) “I’ll trade you a slice of triple pepperoni for a cookie.”
Kristy wrinkled her nose. “Why would I want that, when I can go next door and get fresh-baked Zack’s Pizza with fresh local ingredients?”
“Because Domino’s delivers?” Dennis asked weakly.
“Seriously, Dennis,” said Kristy, “do you ever find yourself saying, ‘Wow, this Domino’s pizza is the best pizza I’ve ever had’? No, of course not. Because it’s by the numbers, and made with factory-produced, artificial everything. It’s like a Big Mac — you get exactly what you expect. But the guys at Zack’s …”
“Let me guess,” said Dennis. “Love, right? They sprinkle every pizza with love.”
“Zack’s Pizza is actually pretty good for you,” said Kristy. “You might actually benefit from it.”
“Oh, but this isn’t just pepperoni. This is triple pepperoni.”
“The American way,” laughed Steve. “More equals better. Which brings us back to Iron Man 3.”
“When it comes to summer movies,” said Dennis, “send me away with some Bergman and Bresson DVDs. But when it comes to pizza, call me the Iron Patriot.”
“Are you tearing apart Iron Man 3 already?” She patted Kevin on the head. “In front of the children? You critics. Can’t you ever just enjoy the movies?”
Simultaneously, Steve and Dennis responded, “This is how we enjoy the movies.”
“Weren’t you ever like Spider-man here?” she pinched Kevin’s cheek, and he frowned, probably thinking about blasting her with lasers. “Did big, wild, crazy movies ever light up your summer?”
Steve shrugged. “Of course they did. I remember in high school we saw Top Gun, Goonies, Highlander, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier… I saw Willow in the theater nine times.”
Dennis choked on a pepperoni slice.
“I used to order coffee at Denny’s too. And I ate… that.” He pointed to the cardboard pizza box. “But then I started paying attention. And that’s why, if I can afford it, I’ll eat pizza that’s made from… you know… real food. And drink coffee like yours. And I won’t go back to Denny’s, or Domino’s, unless I have to. Now, if we start sneering at people who drink Denny’s, then we’re snobs. But if we love coffee so much we pay attention to every aspect of it? And if we recommend The Grinder’s coffee to everybody else to they can see what’s possible?” He held up his espresso. “That’s passion.”
Kristy rolled her eyes, applauded slowly as if obligated. But she stopped when Dennis got out his wallet and put a five down on the counter. Mimicking a woman in When Harry Met Sally, he said, “I’ll have what he’s having.”
She took the five and smiled a smile that, Steve knew, had a lot to do with the success of her independent coffee cart. “Coming right up.”
More thunder rumbled and she stepped out through the door. They watched the river that the road had become.
“Well, I’ll bet your next cup of coffee’s free,” said Dennis.
And then, Marcus Clark, the All Thumbs manager, pulled up in his storm-scrubbed yellow Corvette, struggled to drag something from the back seat, and hurried in. “So,” he roared, an enormous, flat, rain-darkened cardboard package under his arm. “Time to redecorate. Get ready to welcome Tom Cruise and Arnold Schwarzenegger standees to the store. Hey, why isn’t Iron Man 3 up on your scoreboard?”
Steve turned and scribbled the title into the grid under the heading “New Releases.”
“One and a half,” Dennis coached him. “Maybe two out of five.”
But Steve, knowing that Kevin was watching him with curiosity, put three upturned-thumb magnets next to the title. “For the Downey Jr., Kingsley, Paltrow, Rebecca Hall, a bunch of laughs and a helluva sky-diving scene,” he said, without enthusiasm. “But I have a sinking feeling that when I see it again, I’ll knock it down to two.”
Just then, a flash erased the world outside, and a tremendous explosion rocked the neighborhood. The view returned, dark and grim, sparks drifting down from the top of a telephone pole across the street.
“Sounded like a transformer’s exploded,” said Marcus.
“Really?” Kevin, his eyes widening, ran to the window and pressed his face against the glass. “Where?!”
[To Be Continued in Part 3… an epic argument about Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight.]