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.

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder