The end of an era? – Iron Man 3
Is it really possible that this is the fourth film in which that Robert Downey, Jr. has brought Tony Stark to vivid life? It doesn’t, does it? Was there ever a time when we looked at the moustached playboy of the Marvel U. as anyone other than the quick-witted, arrogant yet virtuous man whom Downey has come to embody? And now that I think of it, this is the fifth time that Downey has played Stark, since you have to count the Incredible Hulk cameo. Five times. It’s been five years since the first Iron Man film. Five movies in five years reeks of overkill, of a studio strip-mining a fanbase to squeeze every last drop of box office cash out of them, overplayed consequences be damned. And guess what? Audiences are nowhere close to being tired of Downey in this role. I know I’m not. Even in the at times underwhelming Iron Man 2, Downey never faltered.
It’s really amazing when you think about it.
Iron Man 3 is a different animal, though. The post-credits Nick Fury cameo at the end of 2008’s Iron Man was the starter’s pistol that got the Avengers steamroller going. Every MCU film that was released after that had the Phase One finish line in mind, when worlds would collide and the hints and teases would come together for something that we had never seen before: a movie crossover to end all movie crossovers. But when the credits rolled on last year’s Avengers, we all knew that nothing was ending — and we didn’t need Thanos’ pruney chin to tell us that. The characters that had meshed so well would spin back off into their own pics, which was fine. But questions were begged: After seeing a spectacle like The Avengers, would we ever be able to squeeze back into the box of one star per movie? Would that feel claustrophobic? Were we now spoiled, ruined for the individual entries that we had once treasured so very much?
Iron Man 3 is the first to be put to the test. And it fails miserably. While not a terrible film, 3 suffers from a plot even more scatter-brained than the series’ somewhat underwhelming second entry, and competes with that film for the dubious prize of the weakest Marvel Studios effort. Some thoughts follow, and fair warning, there are spoilers in a few (1, 3, 8) — only because I can’t talk adequately about the disappointment before us without delving a bit. There’s no point-by-point dissection, though.
- There’s a stunning lack of Iron Man in Iron Man 3. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of armor — too much, in fact. If you’ve seen the last trailer, you’ve glimpsed the armada of suits that comes to the aid of Tony and James Rhodes (the returning Don Cheadle). But Tony is rarely suited up, and has developed new technology that allows him (and/or Jarvis) to control his tech remotely. This leaves him conducting little more than drone warfare at times, robbing the film of a great deal of suspense, and the last battle turns into someone playing a video game on god mode, with infinite lives and unlimited ammo. I liked Iron Man a whole lot better when he was one suit at a time, and couldn’t eject from one into another.
- The movie opens in 1999 (complete with an Eiffel 65 soundtrack), with a flashback to a New Year’s Eve that set the film’s events in motion. Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan — early in his bodyguard days — sports a hideous mullet during this sequence. It dominates the screen: 90% mullet, 10% everything else. Not complaining, just saying.
- Warning: If you’re a fan of the Mandarin, one the classic villains in the Marvel repertoire, and were looking forward to Ben Kingsley’s take on the character, then you will be sorely, sorely disappointed. Granted, the Mandarin is hard to translate into a world of PC run amok, but what they do with him is unbelievably insulting for devotees of the source material. It’s like they took the Ra’s al Ghul bait-and-switch from Batman Begins and made it dopey(er). What’s worse, the marketing of the film plays with audience expectations in such a way, it’s almost grounds for going out to the box office and asking for your money back — like, ironically enough (you’ll see), a lead actor being unavailable for a Broadway performance and an understudy taking the stage. Seriously, you may want to pre-emptively pad the seatback in front of you, because you’ll be compelled to bash your head into it at the big “reveal.”
- The great saving grace of the film, and this is no surprise, is Downey. He remains an irresistible screen presence, one you’d be happy to just watch read a list of soup ingredients. His delivery is impeccable, and there’s a sojourn in Tennessee where you see him at his finest. He befriends a young boy named Harley (wonderfully played by Ty Simpkins) and it’s in their repartee that the movie comes closest to replicating the success of previous Marvel films. It throws a dash of E.T. in there, and that’s never a bad ingredient in any celluloid stew.
- Guy Pearce (mercifully not wearing the atrocious old man makeup from last year’s Prometheus) plays Aldrich Killian, the head of a think tank named AIM (hey…) and the developer of Extremis, a genetic supercharger that can regenerate human tissue and turn people into fiery super-beings. Pearce is a man with talent and his work here actually isn’t that bad, but his villainy might have worked better in a more well thought out plot. Oh, about that plot…
- This one’s all over the place. It feels contrived and poorly planned, with leaps of logic and tests of the audience’s patience throughout. (Unarmored Tony can invade a heavily armed compound singlehandedly one moment, but needs advice on how to fire a gun later?) Remember how in the second movie Tony and Pepper were always talking over each other? This movie feels like it’s always talking over itself. It tries far too hard to make itself a personal, human journey, and forgets the fantastical playground it inhabits. Director/Screenwriter Shane Black brought legitimate helming chops (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Lethal Weapon) to this production, but things seemed to get away from him. Pressure? Too much budget? There’s a good (if heavy-handed) story in there somewhere, about what happens to a man when his tough outer shell cracks. We don’t really get much of the creamy center, though, as things clumsily vacillate between action and drama.
- Cameo Watch: Bill Maher, Joan Rivers, Miguel Ferrer as the Vice President. Also, remember Chase (James Badge Dale) from the second season of 24? Jack Bauer’s partner and son-in-law-to-be? He plays a key henchman, and apparently the Extremis thingy helped him grow back the hand that Jack chopped off. Good to know.
- Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts gets to briefly wear the armor in this one. Fine. She’s a damsel in distress for much of the action. Fine. But she turns into a superheroine at the end, and by that time the thing was really circling the drain. I can accept many things, but a lady with a daughter named Apple as a poor (wo)man’s Phoenix is not one of them. COME ON. Also, one of the most discordant elements in the film comes when she apparently plummets to a fiery death and Stark, after a few seconds of screaming and staring broken-hearted, quickly returns to quipping — without really skipping a beat. This was perhaps the most damning element of the film, even worse than the mismanagement of the Mandarin. It was a moment that stunk of artifice.
- Is there a post-credits scene? Yes. Can you skip it? Yes. It teases no future films, but instead ties into Stark’s psychoanalytical narration, which bookends the runtime. But another member of the “Super Friends” does make an appearance, so there’s that.
- There will be points that you’ll ask yourself: “So what’s Captain American doing?” “Gee, a well-aimed Clint Barton arrow would be great right about now, wouldn’t it?” “Doesn’t Tony know a giant green rage monster? Did he lose his number?” This is a problem, one that exists outside the four corners of the movie. But it’s nevertheless there, and it will remain an obstacle in all the standalones going forward — and it’s not because we’re spoiled. We have an (incomplete, granted) answer to those burning questions.
Iron Man 3 is a disappointment, there’s no sugar-coating it, one that relies heavily on the baseline of Downey’s appeal to salvage what it can. In addition, it wraps up the trilogy, and may leave you questioning at the end whether Tony Stark, despite statements to the contrary, is done being Iron Man. I hope he’s not. I hope Downey and Marvel come to terms on a new contract (3 is the last mile marker on his first deal) and he’s exploring this character well into the foreseeable future. But it’s fair to hope that future efforts will be more concise and intelligent, and won’t play so fast and loose with venerable bedrock elements. We deserve better. So does Downey. So does Stark.
Two and a half Shellhead Widow’s Peaks out of five.