We can probably all agree that Iron Man 2 is the Green Lantern of this particular franchise in that it just isn’t good. There’s a lot going on and even more characters to keep track of, but none of it congeals into anything remotely compelling or more than slightly entertaining.
Well the good news is that Iron Man 3 is a better movie. The bad news is that’s not saying a whole hell of a lot.
As befits the third film in a comic book franchise, our hero Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), is finally being forced to look within for his greatest challenge. He became a hero in part one, fought off powerful enemies in part two and is now coming to grips with the toll his superhero lifestyle has incurred. The events in The Avengers have left Stark suffering from PTSD, insomnia and anxiety attacks, and his romance with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is on the rocks. Coincidentally enough, his beautiful Malibu mansion is heading the same direction courtesy of two new threats. The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) is a jihadist of indiscriminate ethnic background with a penchant for blowing up Americans, and Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) is a hotshot scientist still smarting from one of Stark’s pranks many years before.
When the most recent bombing leaves one of his people in the hospital, Stark issues a challenge to the Mandarin and then suffers the consequences. Separated from those he loves and expelled from his iron shell like a sketchy pistachio nut, Stark bonds with a young boy (Ty Simpkins), banters with Colonel Rhodes (Don Cheadle) and comes face to face with the twin evils intent on ruining his day.
Shane Black brings a lot of personality and wit to his second directorial outing, but while his debut film (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) remains a fantastically executed gem, he seems a bit out of his element here. Plot holes and head-scratchers abound, the motivations behind every single bad guy/gal are fuzzy at best and absent at worst, and the third act is a sloppy mess of indistinguishable and impersonal action.
Black and co-writer Drew Pearce deserve credit for trying something somewhat beyond the expected and adding presumed layers to the simple “good vs bad plus CGI” equation, but their reach exceeds their grasp. All of the film’s other positives and negatives aside, this is the core problem it never recovers from.
Unlike the alter egos of Batman or Superman, Stark is not the same capable hero outside of his costume. Sure he can play MacGyver with the best of them, but his power lies in what he can do from within the iron suit. (Captain America acknowledged as much in The Avengers.) This film takes him out of it for great lengths of time, and while these scenes are some of the film’s best they decidedly diminish the super-heroism. Adding to the weakened Iron Man character are scenes featuring someone else in the suit and multiple examples where no one’s driving from the inside at all. What makes Stark special if anyone can be Iron Man? What makes him special if he can (repeatedly) remote-operate an empty suit from afar?
The answer is a disappointing “nothing.” (And don’t even get me started on how apparently easy it is to destroy these suits.)
It’s not all for naught though as the film still manages to find entertainment value in the trilogy’s greatest asset: Downey Jr. His Stark remains a wonderfully rude, narcissistic and smooth-talking prick made all the better with dialogue punch-ups from Black. Downey Jr. sells the minor dips into emotion, but he excels at the devilish charm. Although maybe sarcasm isn’t the best choice mere moments after a devastating loss…
The remainder of the cast is strong too even when their characters don’t deserve it. Pearce brings real gusto, Kingsley brings his genius and Paltrow brings her tight abs. Simpkins does a lively job with the little wise-cracking junior engineer, but I can’t help thinking this was a missed opportunity to show a capable young girl incredibly interested in science instead. Oh, and much like the filmmakers, I almost forgot the lovely Rebecca Hall is in the movie too.
As mentioned above the third-act action centerpiece is a smorgasbord of individual fights we simply don’t care about, and even when it’s made personal, it’s done so in an anticlimactic and obvious way. Earlier action scenes fare better including the initial assault on Stark’s home and a spectacular set-piece involving Air Force One that sees a baker’s dozen people falling through the sky. Smaller skirmishes are more funny than impressive, but knowing the mess at the end, that’s good enough.
Iron Man 3 is an decent movie that really should have been far better with this pedigree. It’s funny and features a couple exciting sequences, but it’s ultimately an underwhelming experience. The script seems more focused on laughs than on actually being focused, and we’re left with a hero that’s more Pyrite Man than Iron Man. (This will make even more sense once Downey Jr.’s convinced by a dump-truck filled with gold to come back for a fourth film.)
The Upside: Often very funny; some thrilling action sequences including a kick-ass skydive rescue; Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin; music over end credits is incredibly good
The Downside: Wasted characters; third act is a jumbled and unaffecting mess; final conflict resolution is incredibly weak; nonsensical battle interactions between good guys and bad; 3D adds nothing; scenes starring Fan Bingbing are only available in the Chinese cut
On the Side: Drew Pearce is the creator of the short-lived but very funny UK superhero comedy series “No Heroics”