Iron Man Three

The Avengers (sorry, “Avengers Assemble”) was a great film; don’t tell me otherwise. Not only was it the culmination of one of the most ambitious big-budget cinema experiments of the last decade, bringing together four separate IP’s each with their own film series into one place, but it was a triumph of effective characterisation and of emotional investment with all characters on all sides. Loki was the perfect bad guy, Nick Fury the perfect badass leader-figure, the individual Avengers each played their role fantastically and Agent Coulson was just the icing on the cake. Couple that with a solid, well-written plot and one of the most epic and well-done action sequences I’ve ever seen put to film, and it all became a veritable rollercoaster of a good time. Sometimes, films just aren’t meant to be deep artistic explorations, and are never destined to be Oscar-winners, and Avengers was the best example of that.

However, once the dust had settled some started to voice their concerns as to what the sheer magnitude of the film would mean to the Marvel canon. The film had barely been released when Marvel announced plans for Iron Man 3, Thor 2, another Captain America and, somewhere along the line, an Avengers 2 as well. But… where can you really go from Avengers? How can the world face a bigger threat than Loki (the ‘he escapes’ trick is only going to work once, and you just know there’s going to be an Avengers 3 whilst they still make as much money as they currently do) and a horde of marauding aliens, and how could each individual superhero now start facing up to problems that wouldn’t have a massive ‘oh wait why not call in all my superhero buddies’ plothole running straight through the middle of them.

Iron Man Three (apparently the symbol ‘3’ has gone out of fashion for all non-advertising purposes) is the first Marvel film to have to face up to these challenges, and goes about doing so in two ways. The first is to very explicitly state early on that our chosen bad guy, The Mandarin, is very much the US government’s problem rather than one for the world in general, and Tony Stark gets involved for personal reasons. The other is to redefine Tony Stark’s role as a character. This is, arguably, a relic of Iron Man 2; after handing control of Stark Industries to Pepper Potts, Tony Stark is no longer defined by his company’s achievements and behaviour. In this film, Potts’ romantic influence has led him to abandon the flashy partygoer side to his personality too (although, in a nice twist, it is this very part of his old self that has come back to haunt him here), and all that is left is Tony Stark as Iron Man. But this is an Iron Man with no baddies to fight, who spends his days tinkering with the metal suits that have come to define him as a symbol rather than a person, and who still suffers from flashbacks of the last time he had bad guys to face and ended up falling half-dead through a wormhole in space. Indeed, the incident and the way it has changed the world of the Marvel characters is a key centrepoint of the film, the phrase ‘after New York’ uttered with every inch the gravitas used when discussing events such as 9/11. All three Iron Man films have had to work hard to give the ‘genius billionaire playboy philanthropist’ a challenge to face up to by disabling to some degree, but whilst the first two crushed his physical capabilities Iron Man Three is all about his internal demons- a smart move that works extremely well thanks in equal measure to Robert Downey Jnr.’s abilities as an actor and Shane Black’s directorial skill.

However, what makes Iron Man Three a really good film rather than a mediocre one with an interesting premise is what’s built around this. Take, for instance, The Mandarin; my research tells me that in the comics he was almost a caricature of a James Bond baddie, with various magical laser powers, but Ben Kingsley’s version here is an unnervingly real mix of all America’s post-9/11 fears. A cross between an oriental Osama bin Laden and Batman Begins’ portrayal of Ra’as Al Ghul, he is able to strike anywhere without warning and to devastating effect, frequently taking over American airwaves despite all government attempts to stop him. He feels like a genuine threat, something that no amount of Iron Man firepower can take down, and it is worth noting that in this film more than any other, Tony Stark faces up to his problems outside of the Iron Man suit; another nice touch on the character-building front. I would love to say more about this character and the film’s other bad guy, the smooth, dangerous Aldritch Killian (Guy Pearce- oh come on, like you weren’t going to work out in the first five minutes he was a bad guy), but feel I can’t d so without giving away some major spoilers. Awesome spoilers though they would be, I’m just gonna have to let you enjoy them.

It’s also nice to see Pepper Potts finally start to pay back all the slow building of her character the previous two films have done; Gwyneth Paltrow’s character started off in the first film as little more than a device left in because Comic Said So, but her upgrade to CEO in number two reflected her increasing depth and importance as a character. Now, she is the key driving force of the plot and of Stark’s character development, playing both sides of the ‘damsel in distress’ coin, and even gets a chance towards the end to make her own submission to the film’s badassery meter. Which, by the way, is fantastic; every action sequence is supremely well-paced and directed and made to feel all the more awesome thanks to our emotional investment in those involved. Plus, it’s got Robert Downey Jnr. and Jarvis, so you know you’re gonna get a few good laughs along the way.

The one thing I do find somewhat strange about the film is the way it ended. The last scene wrapped up plenty of loose ends and seemed to show Tony Stark at peace with himself, providing a lovely sense of closure to the whole thing. Except that this isn’t going to be an end; we already know there’s an Avengers 2 coming along, and these things are making too much money for this to be the last Iron Man (unless Marvel show a surprising degree of artistic integrity). Whilst the closure felt lovely, whoever has to direct the next one is going to have an awful job trying to write Iron Man out of this hole in a way that doesn’t feel horribly clichéd or just plain weird. Still, that’s for another time; for now, just go and see this film, and have a great time doing so.

The Offensive Warfare Problem

If life has shown itself to be particularly proficient at anything, it is fighting. There is hardly a creature alive today that does not employ physical violence in some form to get what it wants (or defend what it has) and, despite a vast array of moral arguments to the contrary of that being a good idea (I must do a post on the prisoner’s dilemma some time…), humankind is, of course, no exception. Unfortunately, our innate inventiveness and imagination as a race means that we have been able to let our brains take our fighting to the next level, with consequences that have got ever-more destructive as  time has gone  by. With the construction of the first atomic bombs, humankind had finally got to where it had threatened to for so long- the ability to literally wipe out planet earth.

This insane level of offensive firepower is not just restricted to large-scale big-guns (the kind that have been used fir political genital comparison since Napoleon revolutionised the use of artillery in warfare)- perhaps the most interesting and terrifying advancement in modern warfare and conflict has been the increased prevalence and distribution of powerful small arms, giving ‘the common man’ of the battlefield a level of destructive power that would be considered hideously overwrought in any other situation (or, indeed, the battlefield of 100 years ago). The epitomy of this effect is, of course, the Kalashnikov AK-47, whose cheapness and insane durability has rendered it invaluable to rebel groups or other hastily thrown together armies, giving them an ability to kill stuff that makes them very, very dangerous to the population of wherever they’re fighting.

And this distribution of such awesomely dangerous firepower has began to change warfare, and to explain how I need to go on a rather dramatic detour. The goal of warfare has always, basically, centred around the control of land and/or population, and as James Herbert makes so eminently clear in Dune, whoever has the power to destroy something controls it, at least in a military context. In his book Ender’s Shadow (I feel I should apologise for all these sci-fi references), Orson Scott Card makes the entirely separate point that defensive warfare in the context of space warfare makes no practical sense. For a ship & its weapons to work in space warfare, he rather convincingly argues, the level of destruction it must be able to deliver would have to be so large that, were it to ever get within striking distance of earth it would be able to wipe out literally billions- and, given the distance over which any space war must be conducted, mutually assured destruction simply wouldn’t work as a defensive strategy as it would take far too long for any counterstrike attempt to happen. Therefore, any attempt to base one’s warfare effort around defence, in a space warfare context, is simply too risky, since one ship (or even a couple of stray missiles) slipping through in any of the infinite possible approach directions to a planet would be able to cause uncountable levels of damage, leaving the enemy with a demonstrable ability to destroy one’s home planet and, thus, control over it and the tactical initiative. Thus, it doesn’t make sense to focus on a strategy of defensive warfare and any long-distance space war becomes a question of getting there first (plus a bit of luck).

This is all rather theoretical and, since we’re talking about a bunch of spaceships firing missiles at one another, not especially relevant when considering the realities of modern warfare- but it does illustrate a point, namely that as offensive capabilities increase the stakes rise of the prospect of defensive systems failing. This was spectacularly, and horrifyingly, demonstrated during 9/11, during which a handful of fanatics armed with AK’s were able to kill 5,000 people, destroy the world trade centre and irrevocably change the face of the world economy and world in general. And that came from only one mode of attack, and despite all the advances in airport security that have been made since then there is still ample opportunity for an attack of similar magnitude to happen- a terrorist organisation, we must remember, only needs to get lucky once. This means that ‘normal’ defensive methods, especially since they would have to be enforced into all of our everyday lives (given the format that terrorist attacks typically take), cannot be applied to this problem, and we must rely almost solely on intelligence efforts to try and defend ourselves.

This business of defence and offence being in imbalance in some form or another is not a phenomenon solely confined to the modern age. Once, wars were fought solely with clubs and shields, creating a somewhat balanced case of attack and defence;  attack with the club, defend with the shield. If you were good enough at defending, you could survive; simple as that. However, some bright spark then came up with the idea of the bow, and suddenly the world was in imbalance- even if an arrow couldn’t pierce an animal skin stretched over some sticks (which, most of the time, it could), it was fast enough to appear from nowhere before you had a chance to defend yourself. Thus, our defensive capabilities could not match our offensive ones. Fast forward a millennia or two, and we come to a similar situation; now we defended ourselves against arrows and such by hiding in castles behind giant stone walls  and other fortifications that were near-impossible to break down, until some smart alec realised the use of this weird black powder invented in China. The cannons that were subsequently invented could bring down castle walls in a matter of hours or less, and once again they could not be matched from the defensive standpoint- our only option now lay in hiding somewhere the artillery couldn’t get us, or running out of the way of these lumbering beasts. As artillery technology advanced throughout the ensuing centuries, this latter option became less and less feasible as the sheer numbers of high-explosive weaponry trained on opposition armies made them next-to impossible to fight in the field; but they were still difficult to aim accurately at well dug-in soldiers, and from these starting conditions we ended up with the First World War.

However, this is not a direct parallel of the situation we face now; today we deal with the simple and very real truth that a western power attempting to defend its borders (the situation is somewhat different when they are occupying somewhere like Afghanistan, but that can wait until another time) cannot rely on simple defensive methods alone- even if every citizen was an army trained veteran armed with a full complement of sub-machine guns (which they quite obviously aren’t), it wouldn’t be beyond the wit of a terrorist group to sneak a bomb in somewhere destructive. Right now, these methods may only be capable of killing or maiming hundreds or thousands at a time; tragic, but perhaps not capable of restructuring a society- but as our weapon systems get ever more advanced, and our more effective systems get ever cheaper and easier for fanatics to get hold of, the destructive power of lone murderers may increase dramatically, and with deadly consequences.

I’m not sure that counts as a coherent conclusion, or even if this counts as a coherent post, but it’s what y’got.