I go to the Iron Man films, like everyone else, for Robert Downey Jr

Reviewed: Iron Man 3.

Iron Man is an unusual superhero. He may be festooned with gadgets and equipped with rocket-booster boots; he may also be kitted out in spectacular armour which he is able to summon to attach itself to his body at a moment’s notice. But his real superpower, at least in cinematic form, is his personality.

Of course, I’m really talking about Robert Downey Jr, the actor who plays Iron Man and his alter-ego, zillionaire inventor and industrialist Tony Stark, but as there have been no other screen Iron Men, any conflation between actor and role is surely excusable. Besides, I don’t go to the Iron Man films for the effects or the fights or the gadgets. I go for the sparky writing, the character doodles for which other superhero franchises don’t have the time or the lightness of touch: hello, Dark Knight. (As Sam Rockwell reflected last year on his part as one of the villains in Iron Man 2: “For an action movie, I did a lot of talking and a lot of acting. You can only handle so many explosions. It’s the shits-and-giggles that make it.”) And I go to the Iron Man films, like everyone else, for Robert Downey Jr. He is the series in the way that few actors, outside of Sean Connery as James Bond or Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, have ever been.

He’s as energised and witty as ever in Iron Man 3. And his charisma is such a source of pleasure that the filmmakers have ensured he spends less time than ever in the superhero suit; they aren’t about to hide their star away in a chunk of metal for any longer than is absolutely necessary. In many scenes, he even gets to control the suit remotely, so that the audience can savour the kick of the action scenes while still enjoying Downey unencumbered by the concealing suit. The movie has some claim on being the best of the series, thanks largely to the input of its co-writer and director, Shane Black (who wrote Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout and my nomination for the finest action movie of the 1990s, The Long Kiss Goodnight). Not that Jon Favreau, director of the previous films, did a bad job. But there is a Black mark, evident here particularly in scenes between Stark and one of his adversaries, the terrorist known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), which the writer-director’s fans will recognise instantly for the way it introduces into action movie conventions transformative aspects like bathos, deadpan comedy and humdrum detail (Exhibit A: a joke about Croydon).

It is an inherent problem of most sequels that the protagonist is usually forced to endure the same character arc, the same life lessons, which defined their previous adventures, and Iron Man 3 doesn’t entirely sidestep this problem: once again, we have to watch Stark becoming a victim of his own hubris, and having his arrogance destabilised and then built up all over again. But the movie sensibly keeps to a minimum the scenes of Downey Jr being vulnerable. After all, where’s the fun in that? This actor’s pseudo-smug, preening complacency is novel precisely because we don’t want to see him taken down a peg or two: he’s one of the few movie braggarts who’s at his best when he’s on the top of the pile, strutting and crowing and howling at the moon. (Bill Murray is another actor who can get away with unalloyed smugness at no cost to his appeal.)

Including as it does a flashback to scenes that took place before the first Iron Man movie, Iron Man 3 gives Downey the sumptuous opportunity to play Stark in both his completely pre-PC and partly-reconstructed incarnations. No matter which situations he is plunged into, he emerges unscathed, his Robert Downey Jr-ness untainted by convention. His off-screen trajectory (which can be described approximately as “rise-and-fall-and-rise-higher-than-we-could-ever-have-imagined”) undoubtedly feeds into the pleasure of his on-screen resilience: anyone who knows what he’s been through cannot help but be thrilled at his ongoing survival. The new movie even pairs him at one point with that hoary old device, the fatherless boy in need of paternal guidance. Even that can’t dent his armour: the armour, that is, of the movie star who has found a persona which works a dream and is sticking with it.

"Iron Man 3" opens tomorrow.

Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark in Iron Man 3.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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The mass trespass that opened the gates of the countryside

Over the 18th and 19th century, common land was privatised. But 85 years ago, a group of radical ramblers decided to make their mark on it. 

On 24 April 1932, hundreds of ramblers from Manchester and Sheffield set off for the highest point in the Peaks. They were intending to highlight the gross unfairness of their severely limited rights to access an outstandingly beautiful area of country which was rarely farmed by its wealthy, aristocratic owner but instead kept only for occasional grouse shooting. The walk would go down in history as the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass of 1932 (named after the moorland plateau), and would later be seen as a seminal moment in the struggle for public access to private land. 

At the time of the Trespass in 1932, calls for a "right to roam" had been being made for years. This was at base a question of competing freedoms, and of course one of class: should the land-owners be able to prevent the common man and woman from traversing open country, or did the latter have a fundamental and basic right to enjoy the countryside as much as the former?

In the 18th and 19th centuries, various Enclosures Acts packaged up common land and moved it into privately-owned estates. Altogether, millions of acres of common land, which had been used by Britain’s rural population to graze cattle and grow crops, were privatised. This in turn robbed many of their livelihoods and way of life. 

The first parliamentary demand for the right to roam was made in 1884. It was unsuccessful, as were the many subsequent calls. 

In 1932, the Kinder ramblers were stopped by the local police force. Five were subsequently jailed for breach of the peace and unlawful assembly. It only caused the pressure for working people’s access rights to areas of open country grew stronger. As public awareness of the campaign increased, its popularity grew and more and more people became involved in the subsequent trespasses which followed. 

However, as is true of the history of many progressive causes, it wasn't until the election of the next Labour government that the cause saw progress. In Clement Attlee's post-war administration of 1945, the ramblers at last had a government which shared their desire for reform of landowners' rights as against those of the public. 

A National Parks Commission was established in July 1945, under the chairmanship of Sir Arthur Hobhouse, and in 1949, the National Parks and Countryside Act was passed by Parliament. The Act facilitated the enhancement, protection and public enjoyment of “those extensive tracts of country in England and Wales” designated “by reason of their natural beauty and the opportunities they afford for open-air recreation”. Two years later, in 1951, the UK’s first national park – the Peak District – was formally born. 

Attlee’s legislation did not just allow for the creation of national parks, but also for the negotiation of access agreements to privately-owned areas of countryside. It was the Labour government’s view that working people ought to be able to enjoy their country’s areas of natural beauty. A view borne of the same philosophical underpinning which characterised much else in that post-war Parliament – a radical reformism which aimed to reconstruct war-ravaged Britain as a more fair and more equal country. It was of course the same government which introduced the National Health Service and the "cradle to grave" welfare state.

This said, for all the strides forward for public rights to private land made under the post-war Labour government, very significant parts of British countryside remained completely out of bounds for working people. 

Whilst more national parks came into being over the years, and further access agreements were negotiated with estate owners, it wasn’t until the 1997 Labour government introduced the Countryside and Rights of Way Act that the right to roam formally made its way on to the statute book. That it took so long for this country to recognise public access rights to open countryside is shocking - but not surprising given the historic power and influence of landowners in our democracy. 

Now, 85 years on from the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, we should commemorate and celebrate its power, and of course the rights we take for granted today. But the anniversary should also serve to give hope to all those of us who campaign for all manner of progressive change - hope that one day we will see the causes we campaign for today made law.

 

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