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[HanCinema's Film Talk] Iron Man, Iron Curtain, and Christmas Cake.

2013/05/11 | Permalink

Marvel's metal magician is in its third week in Korea and fans are still throwing money at the screen to catch Tony Stark's latest outing. The previous "Iron Man" films performed admirably at the Korean box office (each claiming around 4.5 million admissions), and this latest instalment is fast approaching 7 million admissions and has yet to see any challengers to its iron crown. It's no real surprise that the film has dominated proceedings, especially considering the massive success of "The Avengers" last year, which snatched 7 million tickets itself in Korea alone. "Iron Man 3" has also been heavily marketing and promoted in Korea. Its lone star, Robert Downey Jr., did some serious PR in Korea, the cinema houses have allocated an extremely large number of screenings to the film, even Korean franchises such as Paris Baguette have been getting in on the action with themed cakes and packaging!

"Iron Man 3" didn't just get passively released in Korea; it was almost guaranteed success before fans even took to the ticket counter! Such heavy-handed endorsements and press coverage has made local films quiver as Hollywood blockbusters do what they do best-dominated. Last year saw "The Avengers" spend seven productive weeks in the top ten, and it will be interesting to see how long "Iron Man 3" dictates the flow of figures in Korea.

It has already placed itself as the second highest grossing film of year, overtaking  "The Berlin File" (which spent seven weeks amassing its 7.1 million admissions) and although the film is unlikely to do more than taste the dust of Lee Hwan-gyeong's "Miracle in Cell No.7" (12.8 million during 11 weeks in the top ten), "Iron Man 3" has quickly identified itself as a top finisher for the year.

Consider that in its first week of release "Iron Man 3" captured more than 80% of total ticket sales over its first weekend. That is an astonishing piece of the pie, and it leaves little and less to local films such as Kang Woo-seok's "Fist of Legend" which, before the Iron curtain fell, had to contend with Tom Cruise in a sci-fi film. A tough ask of any Korean fan, I suppose, to choose between Cruise running around in the future, Downey in robot suit, or Hwang fighting in a cage.

"Iron Man 3" opened with 1,379 screenings, while "Fist of Legend" had to compete with just 426. Stacking the odds in your favour is one thing, but also consider that before the release of "Iron Man 3" "Oblivion" was the one sitting pretty. Both "Fist of Legend" and "Oblivion" were released on the same day, with "Oblivion" opening to 631 screens and "Fist of Legend" 724. Even when given a greater number of screenings the Hollywood favourites still come out on top. To be fair though, those two weeks before the release of "Iron Man" were extremely close, with the difference between the films being only around 50,000 admissions. However this close competition between local and foreign was quickly swayed as Cruise tagged Downey for the knockout blow.

Putting box office figures and marketing aside for the moment, a question that I think filmgoers should be asking is: Is the film actually any good? Popular sites like IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes have Marvel's "Iron Man 3" around a positive 78%, while Metacritic (which takes the aggregate score of reviews) puts the film at 62%. Interestingly, Korea's own DAUM has the highest rating of 7.9/10 at the moment. Indeed it is hard for fans and critics not to consider the giants ("Iron Man", "Iron Man 2" and "The Avengers") on which such a film comes to the fold, but as a single filmic experience "Iron Man 3" is, in this writer's opinion, the weakest of them all by some measure.

The trailer for "Iron Man 3" looked incredible. As an avid fan of comic books and their growing popularity on the big screen, I found the film disappointing and lacklustre to say the least. I don't care for how the actual Marvel universe was adaptation in terms of its 'faithfulness' to the character's and events. Such considerations are 'extra-textual' information as far as I am concerned, as is the shoulders it was struggling to stand on. Yes, my enjoyment of the pervious films definitely sparked my interest, resulting me purchasing a ticket for the 3D screenings. But once the cinema goes black and film's world unfolds before my eyes, it's magic of that single experience that I evaluate and gauge enjoyment. It's hard to avoid the 'halo effect', whereby one attributes positive emotions to something that has previously been deemed pleasant or enjoyable, and filmgoers should be wary of letting such forces impact their assessment of the quality of a film. By over-valuing extra-textual influences, we are doomed to wallow in the unoriginal, and be persuaded to appreciate the unworthy as our culture of film-going gets lost in self-fulfilling prophecies of enjoyment and quality dictated by the industry.

The film re-introduces us to Iron Man's world through a clumsy, but awkwardly charming, narration by the man himself. It's terribly scripted and uncomfortable, even if its loosely fits with the film's theme of humanising Tony Stark. But I did, like I am sure so many others did and will do, hold onto the past and ride it out in hopes that what follows will shine. Unfortunately, when that same style of narration returns at the end of the film, I was once again reminded of the curious case of dissatisfaction I felt. Trilogies are a tricky beast in whatever genre of films, and there is culture around valuing the original over what follows. I fall into this category (at least in this case) as I feel that, although I am not opposed or guarded against them, origin stories seem to involve more of the essence of storytelling that what usually follows. "Iron Man" was the birth of a hero, the genesis of this new world on screen that fans have come to love and support. Subsequent films are, undoubtedly, produced for the very simple fact that the original was such a success. This may be a valid reason to produce a sequel, perhaps even a third, but I believe it is important that filmgoers don't buy into the same logic that production houses use to justify sequels.

In terms of the actual film, I rather enjoyed the overarching themes at play in "Iron Man 3". Debunking the myth of the 'Iron Man' as a single entity and humanising Tony Stark the individual was an appropriate direction for the series to take-and problematizing the difference between Stark and the suit he wears was brilliant. Who is Iron Man? What is Tony Stark without his suit? Such questions to plagued superheroes as we, the audience, wonder about the depth of their superhuman abilities. Indeed, fans will recall a number of instances in the previous films where other characters have challenged Tony in this regards. In "The Avengers" it came up a few times, as Stark's vulnerability was continually question by both his comrades and his enemies. "Take off that suit and what are you?" Captain America ask Stark in a heated conversation. Naturally, Stark deflects his very real absences of power by joking, but the audience still wonders about Stark and his abilities beyond the suit locked away below.

"Iron Man 3" shows Stark as a psychologically troubled individual, he is still a bit of a recluse who spends most of his time working in the basement of his sea-side mansion, but his reasons for doing so are drastically different. Fear has infiltrated the man, and his illusions of grandiose have come into question. This is a man who travelled to another dimension and almost died saving the city, and the film is asking the right questions here as the myth of the Iron Man is reduced to the man and his deepest fears.

Sadly though, the film's execution of this notion is lost in an unsympathetic world that offers Stark no relief or comfort. In the previous films, Stark was the centre of his world, with all other parties dancing around the tornado that is Tony Stark. Here, that model has been inverted but the same level of conflict remains. Stark is now more of an introvert who orbits himself, while the rest of the world spins off its own axis, as if lacking the very axis mundi Stark represents. It would seem that whether Stark is the party-hard, egocentric extrovert or the recluse and troubled introvert, the world will always be in opposition to him.

Seeing a superhero come down to earth is a common chapter in superhero mythology. The last Batman film revolved around this same idea. However in reaching for such a milestone in our screen heroes' lives, we are forced to re-address the heroes from the start, and re-create them as men first and super second. The notion is sound but the delivery is where so many sequels fumble as production deadlines and screen schedules plague the quality of scripts. In "Iron Man 3" we want to sympathise with Stark as he struggles with traumatic memories of his past, but our emotional responses are once again trivialised through the unsympathetic actions of his world and the Stark humour we come to expect, anticipate, and, narcissistically, enjoy no matter the cost.

"Iron Man 3" was also troubled by a series of mixed messages. Despite the director's response to the bizarre Christmas setting, as some abstract universalising agent, the time period did not add to the plot. In fact it distracted from it and alienate viewers from this seasonal celebration. This inappropriate framing can be seem through Stark's relationship with a young boy he encounters in the film. The film hammers home the idea that Iron Man is not the suit that Starks dons, but the man beneath. It's an anti-materialist theme that does fit the Christmas tones, but that theme doesn't fit the audience and is contradicted throughout the film itself. And what does Stark give this young boy on Christmas to say thank you for his help in his time of need? A whole bunch of stuff, material and shiny goods that will, of course, bring a smile to any child's face on Christmas. But consistent with the film's theme of Stark shedding himself of exterior baggage, I think not. How about paying for the boy's education? Getting him a scholarship to a top school, or praising the kid's technical ability but enrolling him in some unknown branch of Stark Industries? Perhaps I being idealistic here, but the hypocrisy of the message is my point. Iron Man may not be the physical suit, the expensive shiny amour, but that external stuff is apparently good enough to give.

The film also shoots itself in the foot to some degree through its depiction of the very technology that franchise is known for. No longer is the suit a special item, one only shares with a trusted friend in the pentagon, in the film everyone is given a ride in them. Stark's lover, the president, bad guys, suits for everyone! It is Christmas after all. Even the villains' special powers aren't unique (for some unexplained reasons), so again everyone gets to have the taste of power as these mythical abilities are unobtrusively handed out like false hope and candy. Again, one can't fault the filmmakers for working such ideas into the film's theme, but that doesn't mean it should have been there in the first place. Christmas time or not, the unbiased dishing out of power in the film works towards their point only to an extent, beyond that the filmmaker's start hitting trouble, if not only in this film, then the next.

"Iron Man 3" struggled to harness the momentum (at least in terms of quality storytelling) built up by Marvel's previous hits, and is instead now relying solely on the history of the "Iron Man" on screen.  As a film itself, "Iron Man 3" is riddled with thematic inconsistencies, cursed by the ghost of Christmas past, and sugar coated with enough Bang! and Pow! at the end for us to almost forget that fake snow and false-Santas does not a Christmas make.

One would have thought that these oddities might translate into a lesser response to the film in Korea. American values and depictions of Christmas, Western heroes with middle-Eastern illusions of terror, along with all the other cultural utterances that exists with such an Americanised tale of personal triumph and glory. The stereotype of the tech-crazed Asian market is also undermined to some degree, as Stark takes forever to actually get into his metal exoskeleton. Perhaps it was the trailer then, with its exciting and well-crafted persuasive punch, the big star name of 'Downey' and the Hollywood blockbuster, maybe its sales hit a high in the aftermath of "The Avengers", it might have been purely a fanatical response as comic book films always seem to excel in Korea, or maybe it was always the cake.

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