I’m not sure one can entirely, or even adequately, separate how one feels about Marvel’s latest bloated billion-dollar blockbuster, Iron Man 3, from how one feels about their last one, The Avengers — excuse me, Marvel’s The Avengers — since Joss Whedon’s flick has been positioned, story-wise, as a thematic and consequential lead-in to director Shane Black’s first crack at the cinematic exploits of Tony Stark and his super-suit. After all, it’s Stark himself who solemnly informs us that “nothing’s been the same since New York,” and the events he “endured” there are supposedly the catalyst for a new, darker, more somber and “mature” phase of his life that’s now begun.
Right off the bat, then, you’ll have to forgive me if I just don’t “buy in” to that whole scenario. I know, I know — I’m one of only about ten people on the entire planet who was less than blown away by Marvel’s The Avengers (got it right this time), but let’s leave that aside for a moment, because the fact is that even if I did love it to pieces, it’s essentially nothing more than a fairly light-hearted, superheroes-save-the-world romp. It didn’t even try to have some kind of “heavy,” far- reaching resonance. It was a popcorn movie. You might feel it was a particularly good, or even terrific, popcorn movie, but come on — if you think it was a work of lasting emotional depth and impact, I think you’re kidding yourself, friend.
Still, that’s the hook we’re being told to swallow in order to fully “appreciate” the baseline Iron Man 3 is starting from. And things only get more quasi-resonant from there, as we see Stark (Robert Downey Jr. doing a fine job essentially playing himself, as usual) inadvertently create a rival/enemy for himself in Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian before taking on a genuinely big menace in the form of mysterious international terrorist The Mandarin, superbly brought to life by a genuinely menacing Ben Kingsley. Flat-as-cardboard side characters “Pepper” Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, who as always probably deserves more to do), James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle, clearly in it for the paycheck) and Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) essentially aren’t given much to do apart from complicate things here and there for Stark/Iron Man, and help him out when he needs it in various forms, whether that be in the boardroom, bedroom, or battlefield (depending on which of the three we’re talking about), but Black and co-writer Drew Pearce are clearly interested in putting some of their eggs in the baskets marked ” Stark’s struggle against himself” and “where does the man end and the armor begin?,” as well.
And hey, kudos to them for at least trying to give this superhero property some heft and gravitas of some sort — and if the Shane Black who gave us Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and scripted The Monster Squad were the one running the show here, maybe it would have worked out fine, but his work this time around hews more closely to his efforts as screenwriter on such middling testosterone-laced fare as The Last Boy Scout and the Lethal Weapon movies than anything else. Which is to say that this is certainly a competent-enough film in terms of its execution, but doesn’t offer a whole lot beyond that, despite its director’s best intentions.
Maybe the die was cast from the outset. Maybe the Iron Man franchise is such a juggernaut at this point that it’s propelled forward by nothing but its own apparently-unstoppable momentum and all attempts at interjecting some personality into things are bound to fail. I give Black points for at least wanting, apparently, to vary things up from the Jon Favreau/Joss Whedon formula, and for doing something radically different with the character of The Mandarin that probably not all fans of his comic book appearances will appreciate and/or approve of, but in the end it feels like he put up a fight for some kind of individualistic vision for a minute there, knew he was beaten, threw in the towel, and just decided to go with the flow. His bank account will surely thank him — as will, I’m willing to bet, the majority of viewers — but for my part, I was left feeling more than a bit underwhelmed by the whole spectacle.
For those who are only in it for that, though — for spectacle for spectacle’s sake alone — Iron Man 3 will probably have you smiling from start to finish, and that’s fine. It’s kinda what these summer blockbusters are all about, after all. But for those of us who were hoping for something maybe a little bit more radically divergent from the pre-set path, it’s pretty fair to say that this Black and company seem content to lead us on, then leave us hanging.