“Iron Man 3,” and why all superhero movies should visit rural Tennessee

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Note: This article contains spoilers. Don’t read it if you haven’t seen “Iron Man 3,” especially since the film has more surprises than your average superhero movie.

The first half-hour or so of “Iron Man 3” is fine. Certainly better than the sloppy “Iron Man 2,” but just fine. It’s familiar in its set-ups, giving us backstory, the introduction of a cut-and-dried villain in The Mandarin, the start of a dramatic arc for Tony Stark in his post-“Avengers” anxiety attacks. When Tony’s seaside home is destroyed, it’s the typical summer movie end-of-Act-I visual effects sequence that we expect to see in a modern blockbuster.

It’s fine. At that point I thought “Iron Man 3” was going to be a decent but unnecessary third installment

And then director and co-writer Shane Black throws the first big switchback of the film, and lets us know “Iron Man 3” is going to be a little different than what we expect from superhero movies. For example, big-budget action movies all take place in major cities, right? Batman cruises Gotham, and The Avengers fought the aliens in the heart of Manhattan because — it’s Manhattan.

Welcome to Rose Hill, Tennessee.

Following a lead, Tony Stark crash-lands in the small town, where he spends the next half-hour of the movie, his suit useless (that shot of him dragging it behind him in the show, like a kid with his sled, is classic), his defenses down. The only costume he has is a plaid vest and a camo cap.

And it’s awesome. It’s exactly what this movie, and what most superhero movies need — some grounding. After the spectacle of the first act, it takes some confidence in a filmmaker to pull back like that when the conventional wisdom is to keep piling spectacle on top of spectacle. But he doesn’t.

Instead, the Tennessee section focuses on humor — the scene with Adam Pally of “Happy Endings” as a superfan (“A Hispanic Scott Baio?” — a callback to “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” maybe?) is a riot, and the back-and-forth with the kid who takes him in is great.

It’s great because it’s funny, but also because the kid is not just some cute tyke, but in many ways a young Tony Stark. Note how he describes his parents: “My mom just left for the diner, and my dad went out for scratchers. He must have won, because it’s been six years.” The way that line is written and delivered is classic Tony Stark, right? Sardonic humor masking pain. Stark immediately recognizes a kindred spirit (similar to his affectionate teasing of Bruce Banner in “The Avengers”) and responds in affably caustic style. It’s a strong relationship — despite the joke, they really are “connected.”

That’s the other value of the Tennessee section, focusing on character. Without the distractions of his usual toys, we really get to see Stark up close, out of his usual franchise cocoon, interacting with strangers, whether it’s the kid or the grieving mom at the bar. How do you make a movie about a man in an invincible suit interesting? Take him out of the suit, and leave him out for as long as possible. (That’s what helps make that one action scene in Rose Hill so effective — out of the suit, Stark seems unusually vulnerable.) And Black knows to ease him slowly back into the suit — even when he goes to Miami, he’s got a bunch of jury-rigged gadgets, and has to fight a big battle with only an Iron Man glove and one boot. It’s smart filmmaking — rather than make the villains bigger and bigger, make the hero smaller.

Which brings me to the third important part of the Tennessee section — it alerts the audience not to rely too comfortably on its expectations, paving the way for the surprisingly fun third-act reveals. (Ah, Trevor, we can’t help but love you!) As a result, the third act for me is a lot more fun than the first, with unexpectedly funny lines (“Seriously, I just work here. These people are so weird!”) and plot turns I never saw coming. Because plot turns aren’t supposed to be part of superhero movies. You set up the hero, you set up the villain, and you send them into epic battle. Black gets there, with that oil rig battle at the end (back to the familiar) but the path he takes is much more idiosyncratic and satisfying. Because it goes through a small town in Tennessee.

What’s playing in Madison theaters: May 3-9, 2013

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I don’t care if it is dropping 14 inches of snow on northern Wisconsin. It’s May 3, and dang it, we’re going to start the summer movie season whether the weather is on board or not!

All week

Iron Man 3” (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema, Sundance, Cinema Cafe) – I couldn’t have felt more let down by “Iron Man 2” (“Bring me bird.”), which combined two uninspired villains, some weak action, and some labored set-ups for the big Marvel crossover. But “The Avengers” was a ton of fun that restored my faith in Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, and the fact that “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”‘s Shane Black is behind this one has my hopes pretty high.

The Angels’ Share” (Sundance) — My full review is here. Ken Loach’s latest film starts off as a miserablist drama about deliquent Scotsmen, then turns into a zippy heist film involving a precious cask of whisky halfway through. It’s not his best, but it’s an endearing film nonetheless, right down to the subtitles to help us get through those thick Scottish burrs.

Renoir” (Sundance) — The name in this French drama, fresh from the Wisconsin Film Festival, refers to both the impressionist painter Philippe-August and his filmmaker son Jean. At the family home on the French Riviera that’s almost too achingly beautiful to behold, father and son reunite and spar over the mysterious young woman who comes to inspire both.

Friday

Amour” (Union South Marquee, 6:30 p.m.) — My full review is here. The closest thing Michael Haneke will ever make to a sentimental film is this largely unsentimental look at an elderly Parisian couple, and what happens when the wife falls chronically ill. Haneke wants his audience to face the fact that we’re all going to die, many of us badly, but love might provide a little comfort along the way. Free!

Classe Tous Risques” (UW Cinematheque, 7 p.m.) — In this 1960 French film noir, a thief (Lino Ventura) teams up with a new partner (Jean-Paul Belmondo) but learns too late that there’s more to life than crime. Free!

Silver Linings Playbook” (Union South Marquee, 9:30 p.m.) — My full review is here. Writer-director David O. Russell messes with the romantic comedy genre much as he did with the sports movie in “The Fighter,” roughing up the formula even as he still delivers the same beats. The result is a screwball comedy for the age of anti-depressants, with winning performances and a generosity of spirit all around. Free!

Birdemic: Shock and Terror” (Union South Marquee, midnight) –This shockingly inept low-budget horror film rips off “The Birds” in its ecologically-minded tale of avians gone amok, which make noises like World War II fighter planes as they dive-bomb citizens, spitting acid. The film is an unintentional riot, full of terrible acting and cheap special effects. I kind of love it. Free!

Saturday

Silver Linings Playbook” (Union South, 7 and 9:30 p.m.) — See Friday listing

Marriage Italian Style” (UW Cinematheque, 7 p.m.) — One of the classics of Italian cinema, Vittorio De Sica’s caustic film about marriage and infidelity stars screen legends Marcello Mastrioianni and Sophia Loren. Free!

The World’s Fastest Indian” (Barrymore Theatre, 8 p.m.) — Anthony Hopkins plays a bit against type as Burt Munro, a New Zealander obsessed with tinkering with motorcycles and making them faster, and dreaming of entering a race. Tickets are $8 in advance through barrymorelive.com or $10 at the door, and there’s a party with a cash bar afterward.

Birdemic; Shock and Terror” (Union South Marquee, midnight) — See Friday listing

Sunday

The Cat Returns” (UW Chazen, 2 p.m.) — The UW Cinematheque at the Chazen series on Studio Ghibli is winding down, but not before this charming animated film about a bored teenager who must stop the cat king from turning her into a feline. Free!

Silver Linings Playbook” (Union South Marquee, 3 p.m.) — See Friday listing

Forward” (Sundance Cinemas, 4 p.m.) — The premiere was sold out, but tickets remain for this encore presentation of this stirring documentary about the 2011 Capitol protests, mixing interviews with participants and time-lapse photos of the event itself.

Monday

Bag It!” (Barrymore Theatre, 7 p.m.) — Madison East High’s Mass Media class presents this thoughtful documentary about the impact of using plastic bags on the environment, and the value of using cloth ones instead. Tickets are only $5 for students, $10 for all others.

Wednesday

Alien” (Sundance Cinemas, 1:30 and 6:45 p.m.) — This film was reliable nightmare fuel for me as a kid, putting a nasty twist on familiar science-fiction themes.

The Italian Job” (Union South Marquee, 7 p.m.) — The original heist film features Michael Caine, Benny Hill and three Mini Coopers in a daffy caper plot. Free!

Thursday

Tommy” (Union South Marquee, 6:45 p.m.) — That deaf, dumb and blind kid still plays a mean pinball in The Who’s phantasmagoric 1975 musical, packed with all-stars. Free!

Django Unchained” (Union South Marquee, 9:15 p.m.) — Quentin Tarantino mashes up the Western and the blaxploitation film to intense and funny effect in this dizzyingly entertaining film, his best since “Jackie Brown.” Free!