Iron Man 3 (2013) is more than enough fun and entertainment, completely in line with the quality of its predecessors, though I should preface that with a caveat. I’ve enjoyed the previous two Iron Man movies, but for the life of me can’t tell you the first thing, in terms of plot, about either of them; they engage me while I’m watching them then elude me when I’m not. I remember a pleasant enough experience but the salient details are gone, lost to memory. I have a feeling that is the destiny for Iron Man 3, but now I’m equipped with a movie review website as a pseudo-dream journal to write down my thoughts before—poof—they go away like the remnants of an affable but ultimately inconsequential dream.
The movie stars Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, the man inside the suit (or suits) that is Iron Man, a super soldier with the ability to fly, get knocked around a great deal, and fire projectiles of all sorts. This time, Stark finds himself up against a terrorist named The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) who, in an odd but compelling quasi-Native American accent, hijacks the American airwaves to forecast doom and gloom then pays that off with bombings in which there are mysteriously no evidence of bombs. Into the mix as well is Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) a maniacal scientist behind AIM (a think tank and not the instant messenger, though I’m sure there were lawsuits), which has developed a serum that can regenerate body parts. This is attractive for amputees, but unfortunately the serum comes with a side effect that make the recipients unstable flame monsters with the ability to generate huge amounts of heat, even going so far that if they get too hot, they explode, creating the effect of a bombing in which there is no evidence of a bomb. At the halfway point in the movie we find Stark in the middle of Tennessee with a busted Iron Man suit, his Malibu mansion destroyed, his girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) kidnapped, and facing an imminent plot to murder the president of the United States (William Sadler) and many other innocent Americans. The rest of the movie is devoted to the way he overcomes all those obstacles.
Downey Jr. is the defining aspect of these movies (if that seems self-evident, think of how many franchises there are in which the hero is the most boring character), and his dry flippancy informs the tone of the entire thing, which is much better for it. This is, after all, a movie about robots fighting flame monsters, so it’s under no obligation to take itself seriously, and I’m glad it doesn’t. The movie naturally raises some timely issues about drones and the nature of security but wonderfully, it doesn’t deal with them; that would make, I would imagine, a far more depressing movie, and Iron Man 3 is effectively a special effects comedy. There has been a trend in superhero movies of late, ushered in, perhaps, by the first Iron Man (2008), of deflating potentially tense sequences with broad humor, even during the height of the action, and Iron Man 3 is the new poster child for that movement. Does this undercut the movie’s ability to generate actual tension when it needs to? Absolutely, but this isn’t a thriller. It doesn’t want you on the edge of your seat; it wants you rolling in the aisles. It stars a man who wears a big red suit—he’s a clown who fires missiles instead of soda water.
It’s important that the movie keeps this timbre throughout because it alleviates a number of the narrative and character issues that would sink a more serious ship. The villains, played by Pearce and Kingsley, are given free rein to be as big as they can be, and it’s actually Kingsley who emerges as the star of the show. The real casualties of the Downey Hour are the women. Paltrow is boxed in as a standard damsel in distress and seems a little too smart to be going along for the ride with Iron Man for the third time. Worse is a character played by Rebecca Hall who oscillates from being good to bad to good with no real motivation other than that of the screenwriters. It’s a shame that while Stark and the baddies hog all the funny and dramatic lines, the girls have to stay home and do the superhero equivalent of cooking dinner and raising the kids (to be fair, Don Cheadle, playing a second pilot of an Iron Man suit, is given things to do but isn’t allowed to be very interesting while doing it).
More damaging is a number of nagging story issues that never stray far from your consciousness even when you’re trying to tell your irritating brain to just shut up and enjoy the movie. Obviously, the science of a serum that turns people in to ultra-hot geckos is ludicrous, but one can accept it if the movie does its work in defining the nature of its effects. Iron Man 3 doesn’t even begin to do that, so we have an army of flame monsters whose mortality is unreliable. Sometimes they die away fairly easily; other times they come back time and again like Jason. This, more than the mid-fight jokes, deflates the tension because we can’t get invested in a battle we don’t trust. The rest of the narrative malaise is more forgivable because the plot has a fealty to an emotional arc and not a logical one (it would be nice if these arcs were the same but I digress). See, you may ask yourself as you exit the theater why Tony Stark was concerned with fixing one broken down Iron Man suit for three-quarters of the movie when later it’s revealed that he has about two dozen other functional ones in his basement, and you’d be completely within your rights to ask that question.
While that may represent a lack of common sense on Stark’s part, it represents an understanding on the movie’s part that it’s more interesting to see Stark struggle and take away what makes him invincible to get us invested in his vulnerability. I’ll call this the Captain Planet principal. Captain Planet was a cartoon TV show that I watched when I was a kid in which five or six preteens with moderate special powers would fight against the forces of pollution and other eco-threats, personified by monstrous villains. The kids would battle the baddies on their own then, when their plight was at its darkest moment, they would summon Captain Planet, an unkillable alien in red briefs who would save the day. Even as a child it was obvious to me that the human heroes should have just summoned Captain Planet the second trouble reared its head, but on an emotional level the show was satisfying because it highlighted the kids’ human fallibility and their desire to rise above it. I thought about Captain Planet a lot during Iron Man 3, which is the first Marvel release after last year’s The Avengers to feature one of the superheroes of that group. The Avengers and its story must be referenced a dozen times during Iron Man 3. Considering there’s a private army of flame monsters being raised and a plot against the president’s life, doesn’t that seem like a good time to bring together a team of otherworldly superheroes? Especially when that’s all the characters talk about?
Still, these problems do little from keeping Iron Man 3 from accomplishing its goals, which are to entertain and get out of town. The movie was directed by Shane Black, who cut his teeth writing screenplays for funny action movies like Lethal Weapon (1987), and that same balance of humor and excitement is present here but so is a dialed-down sensibility that focuses on human stunts more than CGI clutter. Don’t get me wrong; there’s plenty of special effects (created by a phone book’s worth of people listed in the 10-minute credits, credits which, more than most, seem to genuinely value the technicians as much as the actors), but there are a number of sequences that don’t simply include two undying forces wailing spiritlessly against each other (though that happens as well). There’s a long section when Downey Jr. and Cheadle are fighting it out sans suits when they might as well be Murtaugh and Riggs from Lethal Weapon, and the best sequence in the movie involves nothing more than the rescue of a gaggle of falling people, regular people made neither of iron nor fire. All and all, this is a good movie, nothing more but certainly nothing less, and that’s worth something this time of year. Maybe this one will stick around in my memory.