Leave Reality at Home

One of the most contentious issues surrounding criticisms of many forms of media, particularly in films and videogames, is the issue of realism. How realistic a videogame is, how accurately it replicates the world around us both visually and thematically, is the most frequently cited factor in determining how immersive a game is, how much you ‘get into it’, and films that keep their feet very much in the real world delight both nerds and film critics alike by responding favourably to their nit-picking. But the place of realism in these media is not a simple question of ‘as much realism as possible is better’; finding the ideally realistic situation (which is a phrase I totally didn’t just make up) is a delicate balance that can vary enormously from one product to another, and getting that balance right is frequently the key to success.

That too much realism can be a bad thing can be demonstrated quite easily on both a thematic and visual front. To deal with the visual sphere of things first, I believe I have talked before about ‘the uncanny valley’, which is originated as a robotics term first hypothesised by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori. The theory, now supported by research from the likes of Hiroshi Ishiguro (who specialises in making hyper-realistic robots), states that as a robot gets steadily more and more human in appearance, humans tend to react more favourably to it, until we reach a high point of a stylised, human-like appearance that is nonetheless clearly non-human. Beyond this point, however, our reactions to such a robot get dramatically worse, as the design starts to look less like a human-like robot and more like a very weird looking human, until we get to the point at which the two are indistinguishable from one another and we reach another peak. This dip in positive reacton, the point where faces start to look ‘creepy’, is known as the uncanny valley, and the principle can be applied just as easily to computer graphics as it can to robots. The main way of overcoming the issue involves a careful design process intended to stylise certain features; in other words, the only way to make something quite realistic not look creepy is to make it selectively less realistic. Thus, hyper-realism is not always the way forward in drawn/animated forms of media, and won’t be until the magical end-goal of photorealistic graphics are achieved. If that ever happens.

However, the uncanny valley is far less interesting than the questions that arise when considering the idea of thematic realism (which I again totally didn’t just make up). These are the extent to which stories are realistic, or aspects of a story, or events in a film and somesuch, and here we arrive at an apparent double standard. Here, our evidence comes from nerds; as we all know, film nerds (and I suspect everyone else if they can find them) delight in pointing out continuity errors in everything they watch (a personal favourite is the ‘Hollywood’ sign in the remake of The Italian Job that quite clearly says OHLLYWOOD at one camera angle), and are prepared to go into a veritable tizz of enjoyment when something apparently implausible is somehow able to adhere fastidiously to the laws of physics. Being realistic is clearly something that can add a great deal to a film, indicating that the director has really thought about this; not only is this frequently an indicator of a properly good film, but it also helps satisfy a nerd’s natural desire to know all the details and background (which is the reason, by the way, that comic books spend so much of their time referencing to overcomplicated bits of canon).

However, evidence that reality is not at the core of our enjoyment when it comes to film and gaming can be quite easily revealed by considering the enormous popularity of the sci-fi and fantasy genres. We all of course know that these worlds are not real and, despite a lot of the jargon spouted in sci-fi to satisfy the already mentioned nerd curiosity, we also know that they fundamentally cannot be real. There is no such thing as magic, no dilithium crystals, no hyperspace and no elves, but that doesn’t prevent the idea of them from enjoying massive popularity from all sides. I mean, just about the biggest film of last summer was The Avengers, in which a group of superheroes fight a group of giant monsters sent through a magical portal by an ancient Norse god; about as realistic as a tap-dancing elephant, and yet most agreed as to the general awesomeness of that film. These fantastical, otherworldly and/or downright ridiculous worlds and stories have barely any bearing on the real world, and yet somehow this somehow makes it better.

The key detail here is, I think, the concept of escapism. Possibly the single biggest reason why we watch films, spend hours in front of Netflix, dedicate days of our life to videogames, is in pursuit of escapism; to get away from the mundaneness of our world and escape into our own little fantasy. We can follow a super-soldier blasting through waves of bad guys such as we all dream to be able to do, we can play as a hero with otherworldly magic at our fingertips , we can lead our sports teams to glory like we could never do in real life. Some of these stories take place in a realistic setting, others in a world of fantasy, yet in all the real pull factor is the same; we are getting to play or see a world that we fantasise about being able to live ourselves, and yet cannot.

The trick of successfully incorporating reality into these worlds is, therefore, one of supporting our escapism. In certain situations, such as in an ultra-realistic modern military shooter, an increasingly realistic situation makes this situation more like our fantasy, and as such adds to the immersion and the joy of the escapism; when we are facing challenges similar to those experienced by real soldiers (or at least the over-romanticised view of soldiering that we in fact fantasise about, rather than the day-to-day drudgery that is so often ignored), it makes our fantasy seem more tangible, fuelling the idea that we are, in fact, living the dream. On the other hand, applying the wrong sort of realism to a situation (like, say, not being able to make the impossible jumps or failing to have perfect balance) can kill the fantasy, reminding us just as easily as the unreality of a continuity error that this fantasy we are entertaining cannot actually happen, reminding us of the real world and ruining all the fun. There is, therefore, a kind of thematic uncanny valley as well; a state at which the reality of a film or videogame is just… wrong, and is thus able to take us out of the act of escapism. The location of this valley, however, is a lot harder to plot on a graph.

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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.