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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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