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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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear