“When reality knocks, I don’t open.”
It may not be publicized as much as it should, but 1968 was a major cultural turning point, certainly in the cinematic context. One of the strongest lines in Olivier Assayas’ 70s European travelogue Something in the Air, which I had the pleasure of reviewing last September, states that “Cinema is for a future generation.” That speaks so much of the divide that year made between cinema up to that point, driven most distinctly by technical aesthetics, manipulating sound, editing, and image to push the boundaries, and film after ’68.
Such distinct theoretical movements as the Feminist Film movement that bolstered the career of Chantal Akerman, and the L.A. Rebellion which brought African-American filmmakers to the fore through films like Killer of Sheep and Bush Mama, bloomed following the May, 1968 protests. It pretty much democratized filmmaking as a practice, empowering the individual rather than playing to the masses. It’s a shame, then, that for all the lovingly nostalgic moments Olivier Assayas conjures in Something in the Air, too many of the characters lack individuality. Some even feel as though they’re retreads of the same persona.
Now, it might be a mistake to greet Iron Man 3 being simply a product of our culture, rather than a statement on it. Mind you, I don’t consider it to be a particular resonant statement, but from the very first beat, we’re painted a cultural picture, and it’s decidedly, well, “Blue”.
Yo, listen up! Here’s a story
about a little guy who lives in a blue world
And all day and all night, and everything he sees
is just blue, like him, inside and outside.
Blue is house, with a blue little window,
and a blue corvette, and everything is blue for him,
and himself, and everybody around him,
’cause he ain’t got nobody to listen.
That electric Eiffel 68 song that plays as the film sets up its 1999 intro is nothing if not cool, which was a major preoccupation of late 90’s cinema in general, with such films as Fight Club and Trainspotting making an exciting case for living dangerously, even destructively. That is the Tony Stark we see in this opening sequence of the film, the life of the party, not even phased when his one-night-stand’s plant spontaneously explodes. “The old days. Never thought they’d come back to bite me. Why would they?”
Flash forward to 2013, a year after another major cultural event: The Avengers. The film deals with it in perhaps the opposite way that fans would have hoped, raising it most strictly as a 9/11 allegory, with characters referencing the events in New York only as something that vaguely happened. Rather than the universe being expanded, the world’s become a much smaller place, set almost entirely within the confines of Tony Stark’s paranoid insomniac psyche.
The world has become a culturally saturated acid pool, with kids asking him about traumatic events of The Avengers and people tuning in every night to see the latest terrorist broadcast by The Mandarin, a literal melting pot of western iconography, with camouflage cargo pants, orientalist cloak, and a prophetically thick accent. This is the sickness that rampant Americanism has bred, and the only peace Tony gets is in working endlessly on his suits.
In a way, Iron Man 3 is the perfect superhero threequel, in that it shows the exponential irrelevance of repeated spectacle. Take the Iron Man suit as example, in the first three iterations of the first film, a sleek, badass invention of style and efficiency. Now, though, Tony’s gone into overdrive, the repetitive updates doing little more than adding inconceivable new features, such as “catching explosions midair”. NOTE: We never actually see him use that bit of spectacle, so he’s wasting his time on effects we never even get to see. At Mark 42, the suit has become a flimsy armor that falls apart at the slightest inconsistency. What was once cool has now become a contrivance.
This is even more relevant in Tony himself, who once got off on being the charismatic party boy, but now is turned off by the spectacle he once got his rocks off to. He responds to an amateur reporter (okay, probably vlogger) with an iPhone asking “when is somebody going to kill this guy?” Much as The Mandarin has hit Tony deep, rendering Happy Hogan in a hospital watching Downton Abbey – yes, we’ve become the generation who sits inside with our girlfriends watching boring British period drama – the mayhem of a superhero’s life isn’t something he wants, but he’s become addicted to it.
What Tony is, at the film’s best, is a brilliant nerd who cracks wise. “A Cheap Trick and a Cheesy One-Liner[…] That could be the title of my autobiography.” The true villain of the film, on the other hand, has the precise opposite journey that Tony has. When we see Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian in the ’99 intro, he’s the most adorably affable geek you could imagine. There’s a lot of talk about how Tony feels he’s created his own demons by standing up Killian at that party, but it’s really Aldrich chasing the image of his idol.
What was Tony Stark originally? He was an asshole and a war profiteer. That’s the image Killian idolized to a fault, and by 2013 he has perfected that role. But to what end? The world has definitively changed in the Avengers revolution. The charming assholes of yesteryear are no longer the position of power. The world belongs to the geeks now, and Aldrich is even more on the wrong end of the spectrum now.
Even in Assayas’ film, though, people become addicted to the rush of the revolution. The exhilarating events of Something in the Air‘s first third show the immediacy of the movement, like an exhilarating drug of youth. While most of the students flee throughout Europe, though, one stays behind and becomes even more committed to a cause that is very quickly going out of style, though not to the needlessly sociopathic degree as Killian.
The women of Something in the Air do their best to defy their gender roles, following their own initiatives, often to the dissatisfaction of the boys who are obsessed with them. Marvel certainly tries to give their girls more to do in Phase Two, with both Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts and Rebecca Hall’s Maya Hansen using their enhanced skills to prove themselves essential commodities. Sadly, those superpowers are inevitably smote by their male masters, Aldrich arrogantly killing off Maya without a second’s hesitation, and Tony “fixing” Pepper’s superpowered potential at the end of the film to return her to her boring girlfriend role. Men can change, but women better not!
At the end of Something in the Air, we’re really given the seeds of Olivier Assayas’ filmmaking future, inspiring the bright new generation of directors. At the very end of Iron Man 3, we’re still played out by something that takes pride in how obviously cool it is, but it’s a different kind of cool than the moody 90’s beat the film started out with. It’s a lively, Saturday morning cartoonish ending credits sequence that proves more exciting than any of the overly lavish action sequences. The geeks that were once the butt of every immature joke are now the masters of the universe, giving rise to a new generation of their own. I’d express more malice at Marvel increasingly falling into generics under the Disney banner, but it’s hard when they’re able to make moments like this happen for a kid. Until they start doing any real harm, play on, nerds!