DIRECTED BY: Shane Black
WRITTEN BY: Drew Pearce, Shane Black
STARRING: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, Stephanie Szostack, James Badge Dale, Jon Favreau, Ben Kingsly.
I’m disappointed by Iron Man 3, and walking out of the theater I couldn’t even tell you why I was disappointed. It’s got a lot going for it I guess. It has decent enough action, good performances from pretty much everyone, witty dialogue, and a few unexpected twists here and there (the previews were actually fairly misleading in that regard). Despite all of these things, I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that the movie was kind of hollow and ultimately meaningless. Maybe the issue simply lies in expectations. Be warned, from here on in its pretty spoilerific, so proceed with caution.
A lot of what seems to keep Iron Man 3 working from a narrative perspective is the films refusal to significantly up the stakes. In Iron Man 1, the villain is a war profiteer who feels upstaged by Tony Stark, so he takes revenge. In the second film it’s the same thing. Now in the third film, we have a villain who is both enigmatic and powerful, and notably Iron Man’s arch-nemesis in the comics. About midway through, the film pulls the rug out from under the audience and says “Nope, War profiteer again!”
I kind of have mixed feelings about the twist. On the one hand, I do like how it goes out of its way to betray the audience expectations. There seems to be this fascination with foreign and exotic villains, a relic from an age where “pc” wasn’t exactly commonplace in the comic’s world. It also tweaks at society’s tendency to gravitate their attention towards figurehead “villains”. It sends a very clear message about the kind of real life villains who control wars and conflicts behind the scenes…and they apparently breathe fire. I have no qualms with betrayed expectations; in fact I actively encourage it. The problem here is that it’s betraying them in the wrong direction. We go from a character that has very clear motivations (albeit hackneyed ones) to one who I still can’t figure out exactly what he wants. I like the idea of a “man behind the man” villain, but what does he want out of it? Is it control of the country? Does he want funding? His reasons seem to bounce from one thing to another until I think it settles on “owning the war on terror” whatever that means. It’s not that Guy Pearce isn’t giving it his all, but we’ve seen this villain a million times before (and done much better). When you really think about it, he’s really just a mash-up of all the other Iron Man villains.
I do love Ben Kingsly in this movie, though, the actor the villains hire to play the infamous Mandarin. Even when he’s not “The Mandarin”, he still owns every scene he’s in. He’s such a versatile actor, bouncing between enigmatic villain and bumbling front man with wonderfully comic ease. It’s maybe not what I expected, but a treat to watch regardless. Gwyneth Paltrow gets some time to shine (heh…) and she gets a chance to actually do something rather than remaining passive like in Iron Man 2. Don Cheadle is Don Cheadle. The other supporting actors are good, but otherwise serve little purpose beyond moving the plot forward.
As far as Robert Downey Jr. is concerned, it’s no question, he is Iron Man. I could never see any other actor play this role other than him, a testament to just how good his performance is. With that said, though, the character of Tony Stark seems to be trapped in some weird developmental stasis. There’s an interesting subplot regarding Tony’s frequent post-Avengers anxiety attacks. Unfortunately this has been relegated to a subplot between action scenes and is wrapped up rather unsatisfactorily in the last few minutes. He calls out the villain and gives him his home address in a split second decision, and yet doesn’t immediately leave said home with the person he claims he’s protecting. It feels like an excuse to kickstart the plot and not something the character would actually do. I also can’t help but wonder: where the Avengers are in all of this? Maybe they’ll explain it in the other Phase 2 movies, but when one of your major team members is presumed dead in a terrorist incident, you’d think there’d be some movement by SHIELD to get the ones responsible. What’s more, Tony can’t seem to keep his suits together for more than 20 seconds, having them get casually destroyed and ripped apart with frequent ease. Status Quo is king I suppose, but the shtick is getting old.
That thing with the suits, though, brings up an important thematic point that I wish they’d stuck with more. It can be best summed up by something Captain America said in The Avengers: “Big man in a suit of armor, take that off, what are you?” It’s an interesting question, and the movie spends its first 2/3rds kind of exploring that. There’s a sizeable portion of this movie that takes place in a rural Tennessee town. Here Tony’s got to rely more on his own wits and physical stamina rather than gadgets and armor. He’s also got a surprisingly not annoying kid sidekick for a little while. I mean, it’s pretty obvious the kid was added just to appeal to a demographic, but he and Downey’s scenes together are some of the best in the film. You can really see in this part where Shane Black relishes in toying around with genre conventions, and this part is filled with a lot of jabs at the “father-son” arc. There’s a ton of other fan-service like things, and while it’s…good, it doesn’t really go anywhere.
That and the pacing have a lot of fundamental issues, and I feel like a lot of those could have been solved by having stronger character moments and not relying on “wittiness” as a crutch. While there are character threads for Tony Stark that are initially compelling, most of those threads just get tied up with a nice messy bow in about two minutes to make room for the final battle/toy commercial. Seriously, outside of Shane Black’s trademark cleverness, it feels like this movie was made by a marketing team around a core concept that couldn’t really support it. It’s not helped by the really obvious product placement dotted throughout. Altogether, the movie just kind of feels soulless in comparison to the earlier ones. I get that this is supposed to be a fun popcorn flick, and to an extent it is, but I can’t shake the feeling that this movie was carefully calculated to appeal to as many people as possible, and thus doesn’t really carry a strong identity of its own. It’s empty Calories, more or less, but occasionally tasty calories nonetheless.
As far as placement amongst the other Iron Man movies, it is marginally better than two, but not nearly as good as one. Not saying Iron Man one was a paragon of excellent movie making, it has plenty of problems, but each attempt at following up that success is just coming off as trying to recapture the spark rather than creating a new one. Not sure why I’m surprised by this, it is a big blockbuster film. As an addendum, unless you’re really itching for more, don’t bother with the (obligatory it seems) after credits sequence. It might get a chuckle, but it’s not especially worth sitting through 11 (yes I counted) minutes of credits. Seriously, I read somewhere there were over 800 visual effects artists! Their names almost whited out the screen with a wall of names. Now that’s some coordination.
RATING: * * ½ (out of four)