The New York Times' Review on Iron Man 3 Misses the Point

As a media critic, I don't usually argue with film critics, but sometimes a review leaves me wondering: Did the critic and I see the same movie?

Such is the case with Iron Man 3 and its New York Times review by Manohla Dargis (5/3/13), headlined "Bang, Boom: Terrorism as a Game." Here's the essence of her take on the film:

Iron Man 3 is conspicuously meant to be escapist entertainment…. But Mr. Black and his colleagues, like other filmmakers who use the iconography of September 11 and its aftershocks, want to have it both ways.

They want to tap into the powerful reactions those events induced, while dodging the complex issues and especially the political arguments that might turn off ticket buyers. The result is that in some movies September 11–along with Afghanistan, Iraq, terrorism, the war on terror and torture –registers as just a device, at once inherently political and empty, in a filmmaker's tool kit.

Now, Dargis says critics at the screening she attended were urged by a studio publicist not to divulge critical plot details, a request that made her wonder "what I could possibly divulge that would spoil the pleasure of an innocent ticket buyer." In fact, the film's plot hinges on a major twist–and I don't think it's possible to explain how peculiar her take on the film is without at least hinting at what that twist involves. So if you haven't seen it, might still want to see it and like to be surprised, you should probably stop reading here.

Whereas in the previous Iron Man movies, the hero Tony Stark generally wears his super-powered armor, in this incarnation the suits are more often deployed as remote-controlled flying weapon platforms–evoking the rise of drone technology. In this context, the fact that Stark chooses to destroy his suits at the end of the film–and at the same time remove the shrapnel from his heart that made him need to wear the armor in the first place–is a political message that's not particularly hard to decipher.The argument of the film, essentially, is that terrorists and the military contractors who fight terrorism are actually on the same side–and both in the business of terror to profit from it. It suggests that you should worry less about supervillains making "death to America" videos and more about sinister vice presidents. It also urges you to be skeptical when weapon systems are rebranded from "War Machine" to "Iron Patriot."

Yet fail to decipher it Dargis evidently did. If she objected to the film's politics, I wouldn't be writing this post, but instead she asserts, at length, that the film has no politics whatsoever:

Iron Man 3…at once invokes September 11 and dodges it, and does so with a wink and a smile. It's not the first movie to do so, by any means. But the proximity of its highly publicized release to the Boston Marathon bombings simply makes it the latest, most conspicuous example of how profoundly disconnected big studio movies of this sort are from the world in which the rest of us live.

The point isn’t that movies like Iron Man 3 don't have any business taking on tough issues. The point is that…they should take on the toughest issues–not just exploit them.

As an example of the kind of filmmaker willing to take on tough issues, she cites Steven Soderbergh–whose latest movie, the drug industry thriller Side Effects, is actually far less political than Shane Black's Iron Man 3, with a plot twist that neutralizes all social issues. She quotes his recent speech at a film festival:

Mr. Soderbergh said he thought that the country still has post-traumatic stress disorder "and that we haven't really healed in any sort of complete way and that people are, as a result, looking more toward escapist entertainment."

Which is an odd thing to quote as an attack on Iron Man 3, because in that film Tony Stark is literally suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from the horrors his character experienced in the film The Avengers–events that are repeatedly referred to in IM3 by the shorthand "New York," if the analogy were not clear enough. But rather than giving Black credit for taking on the very issue that Soderbergh highlights–or, say, criticizing him for doing so in a heavy-handed way–she seems to have missed the fact that the title character is suffering from PTSD altogether:

Originality isn't the point of a product like Iron Man 3, which, despite the needless addition of 3-D and negligible differences in quips, gadgets, villains and the type of stuff blown up, plays out much like the first two movies…. Once again, Tony Stark aka Iron Man aka Robert Downey Jr. jokes and poses, wears his superhero suit and flirts with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow)…. He essentially functions as the delivery system for a repertory of Tony Stark poses, gestures, expressions and line readings that, with his superhero costume, established the Iron Man brand on screen.

Again, you could argue that Downey portrays PTSD well or poorly. But to not notice that the character is suddenly having dramatic anxiety attacks and days-long bouts of insomnia, explicitly as a result of experiences that evoke September 11–it makes me wonder whether Dargis actually did watch the same movie I did, or whether perhaps instead of watching the film, she was typing up a review claiming she'd already seen it.

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