The movies highlighted in the Sky Christmas ads are a strangely familiar choice. Oz The Great And Powerful and Wreck It Ralph are like Old Skool family filler tv staples Zulu and The Sound of Music. Arthur Christmas has the Santa title sewn up. So, only Iron Man 3 stands as both Christmassy and any-time-of-the-year blockbuster actioner.
A METAL SHELL THAT CAN’T WITHSTAND SEASON OF LOVE AND GRACE
Malibu, California, and a hyped-up Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), wired by 72 hours of sleeplessness is in his hi-tech uber-modern basement den trialing the latest generation of his project. A traditional decorated tinsel tree stands tall amid the digital paraphernalia and robot mechanics. He requests virtual sidekick, Jarvis (voiced by Paul Bettany) to fire up the old-style record player turntable to which Stark flexes his muscles to the strains of a jazzed up version of Jingle Bells, before calling forth the latest version of Iron Man. Which goes wrong, flinging metal limbs and armour all over the workshop and trashing the place.
As an action movie, albeit a superhero one, Iron Man 3 (!2A) feels very much a crash! bang! whallop! Christmas movie in the tradition of the Die Hard trilogy. However, with Robert Downey Jnr in the eponymous role, then his earlier Christmas film, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) springs to mind.
It’s not surprising there’s even the same jump cut narration at the film’s very start where the hero is confused about the story he’s telling and has to show us a flashback – here, it’s to New Year’s Eve 1999 – and how consequences of actions then will come back to bite him. After all, Shane Black helmed and had a hand in writing both films.
Seasonal celluloid top trumps
In fact, Iron Man 3 enjoys making little Christmas film in-jokes. ‘I loved you in A Christmas Story,’ Stark tells a young lad in specs (which will be lost on most British audiences, which is a great shame since it’s one of the best seasonal movies). And later, he admits ‘Every one needs a hobby’ to girlfriend Pepper (the always classy Gwyneth Paltrow) as if he’s Norman Bates talking about his taxidermy in Psycho.
But when Guy Pearce turns up as over-reaching geneticist, Aldrich Killian, then it is as if we are watching a yuletide face-off. Given Downey Jr appreared as a reporter in Zodiac, a film as Christmas-themed as L.A Confidential in which Pearce played a cop, then the fact Pearce was also in The Proposition puts the two actors at level pegging in a strong Xmas hand, though perhaps not quite up to Hugh Grant’s record when it comes to featuring in films with at least one Christmas theme. (Paltrow herself also has a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance at the start of Infamous.)
A hero dragged back down to Earth
Ben Kingsley’s scary turn as anti-American terrorist, The Mandarin operates what he refers to as a ‘season of terror’ which contrasts sharply not only with the holiday season of peace and goodwill but also with the world Iron Man is striving to achieve in spite of his neurosis since The Avengers (2012).
Stark has been damaged by messing with aliens and worm holes, and what we see in this sequel is a man very much struggling with his humanness though not his humanity; he has chosen to be on the side of good. He has been dragged back down to Earth where he belongs even as he continues to develop his advanced technology that enhances his abilities.
Yet Iron Man 3’s emotional heft also resides in the story of Stark’s relationship history. (Perhaps another similarity with Die Hard where the story of a struggling marriage is played out through the sequels) There is an obvious evolution of maturity from Tony’s flaky one night stand at the turn of the century with Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) to being able to love and commit to Pepper Potts even as he’s giving her a ceiling high toy rabbit for Christmas. This is mirrored too in his acquaintance with the young Tennessee lad (Ty Sinclair) whose shed he holes up in with the damaged suit: he goes from flippant and brutal to genuine friendship and generosity.
We see Tony’s struggle as well to truly engage with the world when he crash lands in his Iron Man suit in the snow in Tennessee and ends up pulling the comatose shell behind him, leaving it seated outside a phonebox as he makes a call to Pepper. She is on his mind at Christmastime even as he is laden down with his add-on hero identity.
Finding power in frail humanity
I’ll be honest. This isn’t the type of film I normally go for. I had no knowledge of the Iron Man character and cannot even remember seeing any marketing of Iron Mans 1 or 2. I didn’t catch last summer’s Avengers but now having watched Iron Man 3 and enjoyed it, I am tempted to take a step back to see what made Stark the man he is in this latest episode. I can’t be the only one. Iron Man 3 had huge international box office success for Disney and Marvel Studios’, grossing over $1bn within a month of release, and looks set to be the sales hit of 2013.
By the end of Iron Man 3, Tony Stark has learnt his lesson, and now understands what is important and valuable. He chooses warm human intimacy over steel. His Clean Slate Protocol sees his team of Iron Men flare up like fireworks in the sky to fall as ash, heralding in Christmas morning and a fresh start.
The story of Christmas is that God was born in human form and lived among us. The story of Iron Man 3 is that Tony Stark has learnt that Iron Man resides within him. Our very humanity is what gives us power: all we do can only ever be is human-sized. That is what we have to go on and what we do with that limitation, its extent is what defines us.