Five years ago, Iron Man blasted into theaters, bringing a new sensibility and vitality to comic-book movies. Iron Man opened the door not only to a new franchise, but a whole universe of Marvel heroes, culminating in last summer’s triumphant mega-blockbuster The Avengers.
That’s a lot for Iron Man 3 — the first post-Avengers film in Marvel’s cinematic universe — to live up to. (The Amazing Spider-Man, which opened last July, doesn’t count, since it’s a Sony film outside Disney-owned Marvel continuity.)
At this point, there’s no doubt that Robert Downey Jr. is up to the challenge. His patented blend of self-deprecating arrogance and neurotic insouciance has made Tony Stark the most vividly rendered big-screen superhero of all time.
Downey is up to the challenge — but is Tony? The Avengers business catapulted him into a whole new league: Asgardian demigods, outer-space alien armies, an enormous green rage monster and much more. In the end, he almost died on the threshold of another universe. What kind of toll does that take on a man, even a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist in a shiny metal suit?
Even Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, who’s always been Tony’s link to sanity, is feeling the strain. She and Tony are living together now, but at times Tony seems more, um, distant than ever before. He isn’t sleeping, and he’s obsessively working in his basement laboratory … building armor.
Well, it’s a scary world. A ruthless terrorist mastermind called the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) is bombing targets on U.S. soil and threatening to kill the president. If all this seems potentially grim and Dark Knight-ish, the snappy banter and jokey humor of past installments are still very much in evidence, courtesy of co-writer and director Shane Black, a veteran screenwriter with only one other directorial credit, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
It’s a potentially promising setup for a slam-bang finale to what has been, despite its flaws, one of the brightest and most entertaining franchises around. Unfortunately, the slapdash plot is pretty much a disaster. A string of miscalculations hamper the fun. And a late revelation, when you stop and think about it, undermines most of the preceding drama.
Start with the Mandarin, whose role is drastically reinterpreted in an anticlimactic plot twist, a chickenhearted cop-out presumably intended to help the movie play well in China, one of Hollywood’s biggest foreign markets. (Studio claims that a separate Chinese edition of the film differs only slightly from the international version are probably true. At least, there’s little if anything here one could imagine being censored for Chinese audiences.)
As played by Kingsley, there’s nothing ostensibly even remotely Chinese about this “Mandarin,” beyond his trappings (Asian attendants and what we see of a Hollywood opium-den compound). Then comes a revisionistic twist that will make fans of the comics character wonder why they used the name “Mandarin” at all. (For what it’s worth, I have no attachment myself to the character; I’m not sure I’ve ever read a single story in which he appears. I am informed that the fistful of rings worn by the terrorist in the original film was a nod to the Mandarin, who in the comics wears rings of power derived from alien technology on each of his fingers.)
But the problem goes deeper. The original Iron Man was willing to deal pretty honestly, within its comic-book milieu, with the reality of foreign terrorism. The terrorists in its Afghanistan caves were an international lot with no explicit religious or political agenda, but their methods and behavior looked realistic enough, and there was a certain thoughtfulness to the political subtext of Iron Man touching down in the Middle East to clean up a problem that he had inadvertently created with his own weapons.
Compared to that, what happens in Iron Man 3 is a travesty — one in which the U.S. government is implicated at (almost) the highest level. As it happens, this cop-out plays particularly poorly after the Boston Marathon bombings and the inevitable, inflammatory “truther” allegations of an inside job with government involvement.
As in Iron Man 2, there are two villains who turn out to be connected. The second, more formidable opponent is a scientist named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) who is working on a bioresearch project to create a serum called “Extremis” that’s supposed to “hack” the human genetic code and, like, improve it or something. (Killian and Extremis are adapted from a well-regarded story line from the comics, also unread by me.)
For the uninitiated, the effects of the serum seem kind of random and … non-Iron-Man-y, somehow. Maybe it worked in the comics, but it doesn’t feel of a piece with the first two films.
To begin with, there are extraordinary regenerative powers that would put the X-Men’s Wolverine to shame. They also have hopped-up aggressive tendencies, which means they’re all supervillains. This is a problem, since you basically can’t stop them unless you kill them (which isn’t easy).
All the violent killing, of people who may not be entirely morally responsible for their actions, puts a damper on the escapist fun quotient — and that’s apart from Extremis-powered villains going haywire and literally exploding with such force that bystanders are vaporized.
For some reason, the super-baddies’ regenerative powers generate enormous amounts of heat — but they can also generate heat at will, melting steel with their bare hands and so forth (a little Human Torch thrown in). One of them even breathes fire, an unnecessary flourish that isn’t much helped by having Tony’s armored ally Jim Rhodes (Don Cheadle) comment disbelievingly on it (“You breathe fire?!”).
Oh, and they do electricity, too. Well, why not. With a single zappy touch, one of them shorts out the armor Rhodey wears as War Machine (or “Iron Patriot,” as the government has rebranded him). In The Avengers, Thor hit Iron Man with a lightning bolt, and it charged up the suit to “400% capacity.” Now an electrical zap shuts down the armor? How does that work?
Then there’s Tony’s newest armor. It seems each movie must reveal more high-tech coolness, but at this point they’ve improved the armor to the point where it’s basically magic. The armor now has the power to assemble itself around him, each individual piece flying under its own power, ostensibly responding to tiny computer chips embedded in Tony’s arm but seemingly obeying his very thoughts. He can command them to do other things too — assemble around someone else, for instance.
In the past, we accepted the crazy things the suit could do because it was all powered by the “arc reactor” in Tony’s chest. Now we’ve got individual bits of armor — boots, gauntlets, shoulder thingies — flying around at Tony’s command, sometimes miles at a time. In one scene, Tony does battle wearing only one glove and one boot, jetting a bit and firing repulsor rays. The units aren’t connected, so what’s powering them?
The magic armor might not be as big of a problem if it weren’t for the fact that Tony goes for almost half the movie with the armor in a busted-down state (shades of The Dark Knight Rises after all), battling superpowered foes and breaking into fortified terrorist compounds as Tony Stark … and then, at the climax, he suddenly pulls an ace from his sleeve — no, not an ace, a whole royal flush, and then some.
Wait. Tony’s been fighting with two hands tied behind his back while lives were on the line, and, suddenly, it’s revealed that, from the start, he could have gone for the cavalry at any time? It’s far from the only plot hole (or even the only time Tony belatedly pulls an ace from his sleeve — literally in one action sequence, at least as regards the sleeve, if not the ace). But it’s the most maddening.
In the very end comes a moment that’s meant to be redemptive, to suggest that Tony has somehow conquered a problem he had. It doesn’t work. For one thing, the problem itself was never effectively established. For another … well, let’s just say that while there might be something cathartic about an alcoholic smashing bottles of booze, what happens here doesn’t play as a liberating moment. Then … well, I’ve been trying to avoid spoilers, but I guess I’ll just come right out and say it, so skip the rest of this paragraph if you don’t want to know: Tony built a fireworks-display self-destruct mechanism into every suit of armor he made. Really? Good thing that never malfunctioned.
None of this is to say Iron Man 3 isn’t entertaining. There are some slick set pieces, and Downey’s charisma and energy continue to power the franchise. When he says here, as he did in the last shot of the first film, “I am Iron Man,” it’s Downey talking as much as Tony; he owns the role.
But there’s a problem at the movie’s heart, which, as always, is Pepper.
“I get to wake up every morning with someone who still has her soul,” Tony says in one of the film’s few morally resonant lines. Unfortunately, there’s more tell than show. Pepper was underutilized in Iron Man 2, but what happens here isn’t an improvement.
The movie separates Tony and Pepper for most of the story, and when she finally reappears, it’s in a capacity that, suffice to say, doesn’t play to her strengths as a character. Pepper has always been what grounded Tony, what connected him to reality. Iron Man 3 ultimately disconnects Pepper from reality, which is just not right.
In The Avengers, Pepper had one real scene and a couple of other moments, but, in those brief appearances, Joss Whedon nailed what’s special about her character and her relationship with Tony. That’s missing here. Whether or not Tony deserves better, Pepper certainly does.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is studying for the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Content Advisory: Much comic-book action and sometimes graphic mayhem and deadly injuries (some temporary, some not); images of mutated human beings exploding and killing others; sexual references, innuendo and mild rude humor; a depiction of a live-in relationship; some scantily clad women; some objectionable language. Older teens and up.