“Iron Man 3”: a cynical plot drowned out by the clang clang action

Summary:  Today Locke Peterseim reviews Iron Man 3. It’s “still slick and mostly entertaining, but with a cold heart that feels hung out over the chasm between Black’s cynical, subversive attitude and Marvel’s bright, shiny franchise-building.”  It’s a myth told by people who don’t like it, which requires a higher level of story-telling skill than Marvel’s agents bring to the game.

Iron Man poster

Iron Man Three:
Kiss Kiss Clang Clang

By Locke Peterseim.
From the film blog of Open Letters Monthly.
9 May 2013

Reposted with his generous permission.

I’d guess most everyone who helped give Iron Man Three the #2  box-office opening of all time (after its stable mate The Avengers last year) came away from it feeling suitably entertained by the First Summer Film of the Year. But so much of that feeling, including the public’s attendance and “A” CinemaScore, can’t help but feel obligatory, even somewhat hollow.

As I’ve said many times before, for the general movie-going public the first weekend of May (which Marvel Studios has owned for most of the past decade) is Opening Day, when, like supporters of a sports team, fans are filled with soaring, somewhat delusional hope for the upcoming season. Because it carries with it more than just cinematic promise, but also the heralding of warmer weather and higher spirits, we want so much to like the First Summer Film that not only do we forgive it most of its flaws, but to criticize it can feel like an early abandonment of the Promise of Summer itself.

Co-written by Shane Black and Drew Pearce and directed by the erstwhile action-movie wunderkind Black, Iron Man Three isn’t badly constructed or executed. Like all superhero movies, it’s full of plot stuff. Tony Stark is suffering PTSD from the epic, cosmic events of The Avengers just as a new threat arises from an international terrorist who calls himself The Mandarin.

Sir Ben Kingsley has a ball with an accent that sounds like Tom Brokaw, Hugo Weaving, and John Huston performing as a spoken-word trio, but in the wake of Ledger’s Joker and Hardy’s Bane, I think we’re all getting a little weary of the oh-so-quickly-played out “Super Villains with Weird Speech Patterns” trope. Still, as is so often the case, Kingsley’s Mandarin gets away with the best and most delightfully surprising parts of the film.

Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts
Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts.

Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow) and James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) are back, plus Guy Pearce and Rebecca Hall as a bio-tech scientists of varying and uncertain moralities. There’s a young kid (Ty Simpkins) for Tony to get stuck with and be snarkily, amusingly dismissive of, and a bunch of lab-experiment soldiers who turn orange and sometimes blow up. (Us comic-book-reading Marvel Zombies get tossed a few Easter eggs with mentions of A.I.M. and Extremis.) Throughout Iron Man Three lots of things happen in lots of places for various reasons, but in the general armor-plated clang-and-tumble of the film, none of it will make it out of the theater with you.

Iron Man Three arrives as part of the ongoing cornerstone of Marvel Studios’ “Avengers” cineverse, a broad, lucrative franchise that was super-charged by the dazzling success (both creatively and financially) of last year’s The Avengers. After all, if there is a Face of Marvel’s Avengers Box-Office Dreams it is Iron Man star Robert Downey Jr.

Of course it was 2008’s Iron Man that helped propel Robert Downey Jr out of Hollywood’s addiction-afflicted doghouse into a Depp-like stratosphere of Super Stardom. But it was three years earlier — as Downey struggled to return to the Industry after not one, not two, but three career derailments and squandered second and third chances — that Shane Black had given the actor a solid boost back into the world of reliable screen work.

Iron Man and  Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark
Iron Man and Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark.

Black, like Downey, rose to prominence (and immense personal wealth) in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s with his famously entertaining action-flick screenplays for Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and The Last Action Hero. But the combination of Black’s exorbitant payday and Schadenfreude-rich box-office failure of 1996’s The Long Kiss Goodnight grey-balled him from the Industry.

Almost a decade later, Black re-emerged with his directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a wry, mean-spirited, but darkly funny take on both the hard-boiled detective genre and the cruel shallowness of a Hollywood film industry that feeds on its players’ self-loathing. And who better to star in it than Robert Downey Jr, a kindred spirit who’d been bounced just as forcefully from the Hollywood Winners Club?

But while Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was well-received in 2005 both as a film and as creative rehabilitation for its writer-director and star, Black never directed a follow up. Until now, when it seems likely Downey used his clout as Marvel Studios’ 500-lb-gorilla to land Black the Iron Man Three writing/direction job, in the wake of Iron Man I & II helmer Jon Favreau’s departure from the director’s chair. Here, Black’s penchant for testosterone-fueled self-destruction may be kept contained within the PG-13 formula of a superhero movie, but his sharp-tongued attitude and aggressive visual flair pounds through Iron Man Three. (Like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Downey sardonically narrates in voice over what is often feels like a detective tale.)

Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts
Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts.

Iron Man Three feels bigger, louder, and busier (as every subsequent cog in an action franchise must), but to Black’s credit, his and Pearce’s script, though still forced to jump through the same narrative hoops as every other superhero film, holds together better than most. Black knows how to spin a giant, chaotic, action bonanza and make the plot pieces work, but his natural tendencies pull him and the film toward a crueler, more brutal vision. (At one point even Pepper exclaims, “Oh my god, that was really violent!”)

There are laudable intentions at play in Iron Man Three (even if they often feel more like work than play), like keeping Stark out of the armor for a large amount of the film and having him deal with the summer-movie version of PTSD. Though as tossed-off and perfunctory as the PTSD “struggle” is both narratively and in terms of Downey’s performance, you’d be forgiven for thinking Tony’s more upset about no longer being the only Super Star on the Stage, than his brush with death (which, frankly, happens in every film) or his newly forced awareness of a bigger, more dangerous cosmic world beyond his. (The latter of which will be part of the longer-game set up for Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers II films.)

When we do see the Iron Man armor in Iron Man Three, it very often turns out to be remote controlled by Tony from a distance. This conceit slightly diminishes the film’s entertainment value: It’s hard to get emotionally jacked into the action when there’s rarely any direct bodily threat to the hero — he’s not “there,” so why should we be? But it also, probably unintentionally, tosses off a glancing commentary on the morality of America using Predator drones; of the new nature of warfare when our “heroes” can afford to deal out destruction without putting themselves at physical risk. (Don’t worry about popcorn preaching — there’s no indication in Iron Man Three that the film makers are aware of this parallel, and if they were, they’d no doubt think it was “awesome!”)

Ben Kingsley as Trevor Slattery
Ben Kingsley as Trevor Slattery.

It must seem like a “no-win” scenario with critics like myself: We fall over ourselves to praise Downey Jr for the first Iron Man and go out of our way to note that the film is often better when it focuses on the character instead of the armored superhero. Then Black comes along and makes a film that does just that, and we complain there’s too much Downey, not enough armored action. But the fact is that Downey is, for better or worse, an artistic, subversive-minded performer, and like Depp with Capt. Jack Sparrow, you sense that the deeper he gets pulled down into the cash-machine creative restrictions of a giant summer-movie franchise, the more he bristles with dismissive distaste for his role.

Favreau and Whedon did so well with the first Iron Man and Avengers movies because, despite their jaded willingness to dig at people’s less-admirable traits, they are at heart, humanists who also happen to believe in four-color superheroes.

Black and Downey Jr come off more as self-loathing cynics and nearly every move they make behind and in front of the camera — though adept and entertaining — feels driven by disdain for the superhero genre instead of the glee and genuine belief in the need for heroic ideals that Favreau and especially Whedon exude.

No one’s more aware than Downey that Stark’s wisecracking shtick is developing worn-out cracks of its own, and while he still tosses off the snark with lazy ease, there are times the actor seems as trapped in the role as Stark feels in the armor. At one point, Tony whines that he wants out of the “superhero business,” and you can’t help but feel it’s Downey speaking, not Stark.

Rebecca Hall as Maya Hansen
Rebecca Hall as Maya Hansen.

The irony is that as comic-book superhero movies get more and more popular, superhero comic books get less and less so, having steadily lost sales ground in the battle for kids’ hearts and imaginations to video-game sales since the ‘80s. Grown-up comic-book fans heading into their 40s and 50s want adult-themed stories about flawed, broken heroes dealing with emotional issues (yes, sometimes by way of energy blasts and super-powered fists) and on the surface, in his big, brash way, Black seems the perfect choice for that.

But ultimately Marvel and Disney still want to sell toys to kids and create a new generation of superhero fans (like my eight-year-old nephew) who may never actually pick up a comic book. (In the film, Rhodes dons the red-white-and-blue Iron Patriot armor — originally worn by a villain in the comics — only because they needed a new action figure to hawk.)

That disconnect leaves Iron Man Three still slick and mostly entertaining, but with a cold heart that feels hung out over the chasm between Black’s cynical, subversive attitude and Marvel’s bright, shiny franchise-building. It’s telling that the new movie’s closing credits, done in the winking swaggering style of ‘70s and ‘80s spy or cop shows, are intended as a wry joke about the inherent cheesiness of the genre, but they come off as the most fun — and heroic — part of the entire film.

Click here to buy the DVD of Iron Man Three.

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About the author

Locke Peterseim writes the Hammer and Thump film blog at Open Letters Monthly, an online arts and literature magazine. A film critic whose work has appeared on Redbox, WGN Radio, and in the Magill’s Cinema Annual, he also serves on the board of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

These days he still enjoys films on their artistic and entertainment merits, but also finds himself as much if not more interested in them as cultural mirrors; artifacts of how we want to see ourselves — and how mainstream studios want to sell those desires back to us.

Some of his other reviews:

  1. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” asks if you want a Revolution.
  2. Transformers 4: the Greatest Film Ever Made About 21st Century America.
  3. 300: Rise of an Empire – The Half-Truths and Bloody Fog of Cartoon War.
  4. “Edge of Tomorrow”: Cruise, Again and Again.
  5. A new Man of Steel for 21st century America: a warrior superman.
  6. Hollywood transforms “The Hobbit” into The Desolation of Tolkien.
  7. Interstellar’s Quantum Love and Other Cosmic Horses#*t.
  8. Star Trek reboots to give us simple stories, the cartoons we like.

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One thought on ““Iron Man 3”: a cynical plot drowned out by the clang clang action

  1. Like most others, I really liked the original Iron Man but I thought it was intended to be a stand-alone film because I could not see how a series of films could entertainingly sustain Tony Stark’s self-destructive, egomaniacal, and unlikeable personality.

    After having been bored silly by the second film and being increasingly annoyed by really stupid plot lapses in the third film, I feel my original opinion was vindicated. Stark is only entertaining when Joss Whedon has a major say in the story and dialog.

    I disagree with Locke’s interpretation of the “empty suit” phenomenon in the third film, I think the directors intentionally imitated the “drone warfare” concept to communicate a did-you-realize-the-implications-of this message about current affairs. I have no proof but I will continue to be that Hollywood is at least a tiny bit driven by a need to comment on current affairs in their movies. The most memorable (even though the rest of the movie was terribly inept) was the line from the second Star Wars trilogy “so this is how a democracy dies.”

    Liked by 1 person

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