Some of the content in Iron Man 3 may disappoint a few nasally-voiced nerds and fanatic purists, but for the non-comic book types who just like superhero movies, and the majority of the crowds herding along or riding their bandwagons to theaters this week, it should do just fine. It’s a much needed improvement after the second installment, and it makes a better companion to the first film, yet it doesn’t quite reach the thoroughly satisfying level that The Avengers provided (a comparison I make only because it seems to aim for a similar blend of magnitude, comedic levity, and character intimacy).
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is now suffering from PTSD and anxiety attacks (of the shoddy Hollywood variety) after he nearly sacrificed his life for humanity at the end of The Avengers. Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), and Happy Hogan (ex-franchise director/skinnier actor, Jon Favreau) return as Stark’s partners in anticrime. Stark has been ignoring them as he slips further into isolation and obsession with tech tinkering in his workshop. A trio of new characters come in the form of Maya Hansen (played by the underutilized Rebecca Hall), Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), and The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley).
The film’s plot is introduced through some interesting ideas that never really play out. Killian comes to Stark Industries to propose a project, and it turns out he and Pepper are longtime acquaintances. He has gone from über-geek-loser to dashing millionaire scientist since she last saw him, and he resumes putting some moves on her. We think there might be some romantic drama derived from Killian’s strong interest in Pepper, as opposed to the relationship problems she’s having with Stark, but that potential plot thread fizzles out about 15 minutes into the movie.
Killian’s proposed project is also an intriguing idea at first. He explains that there is an unused portion of the human brain that can be targeted by his company’s formula, Extremis, to push humans closer to their biological potential. This notion turns out to be a plot device when Extremis falls into malicious hands and populates the film with mostly disposable bad guys who are fast, strong, get really hot and glow when they are angry, and stomp around wreaking havoc for no clear rhyme or reason. Aside from Extremis’ initial introduction, the movie has no interest in explaining the pseudo-science behind the drug. Some users seem addicted while others don’t, some can handle its effects while others explode, and some seem fully autonomous while others are basically murderous zombies.
The main missteps of Iron Man 3 are in its inconsistent narrative pacing and tone. As with most big-budget summer movies as of late, it runs over two hours and has its peaks and valleys. There are not any truly boring moments, but I found myself briefly zoning out a bit around the three-quarters mark. The action scenes are heavily computerized and overblown, but aside from the climax, they never really pour over into sensory overload.
The best action feat is the Air Force One crash sequence we got a glimpse of during the Super Bowl earlier this year. Not only is it the most visually exciting and superhero-y moment in terms of audience engagement, but it also counteracts the film’s tonal flaws. Shane Black directed and co-wrote the film, and he seems to be intent on seizing opportunities to subvert the superhero movie genre. There are numerous occasions where a scene sets itself up for something nerdgasmic and badass to happen, and breaks the expectation at the last minute by diverting to slapsticky humor.
There are two crucial situations in the last act in which Tony calls for his newly developed set of nanobot-respondent armor. In the first, one glove and one boot make it there before the rest of the suit, and he’s left ungracefully hovering around the room and fighting his attackers off. In the second, he’s poised and ready to have all the pieces assemble themselves on his body so he can triumphantly take out the main villain, and the suit collides with a pillar next to him, falling to the ground anticlimactically. The most obvious example of the film’s defiance of convention comes from a plot twist surrounding Kingsley’s Mandarin. Let’s just say he’s not exactly the archenemy, bin Laden-esque, America-hating, philosophizing super terrorist he makes himself out to be in the beginning.
It’s a conflicting thing to see this betrayal of audience presumptions. On the one hand, we’re always criticizing movies for being cliché and predictable, but at the same time it feels strangely off-putting when we are geared up by expectations for a familiar valiant pose, one-liner, or payoff, and they are deflated by a visual or narrative punch line. Some of these instances were clever and refreshing, but not all of them sat right with me. They were eliciting laughs from the audience, but I was almost wishing Black had just gone with convention and played more of them with the typical aggrandizing movie flair that makes the testosterone-loaded frat boys in the back row of the movie theater hoot and holler in approval.
Most of this humility is funneled into the main thematic stream of humanizing Tony Stark. There is a constant question about whether the man makes the suit or the suit makes the man. The trials and tribulations employed to develop Tony are actually pretty akin to those of a classic Joseph Campbell hero’s journey. We get to see him out of his comfort zone and away from his abundant money and resources for a long stretch in the middle of the movie. During this segment, there are a few MacGyver-like sequences that showcase the same brainy ingenuity that led Stark to escape his captors and become Iron Man in the first film.
All-in-all, this installment did not leave me with any strong positive or negative reaction. It’s more satisfactory than satisfying, but not completely forgettable like Iron Man 2. It takes a kind of ho-hum position in the Marvel adaptation lexicon, but that’s probably a fate that would have befallen any movie that followed-up The Avengers. It won’t leave a bad taste in your mouth, but don’t expect to be singing its praises either.