In the third Iron Man film, the adage, “A hero is only as good as his villain,” certainly applies. Iron Man 3’s baddie easily eclipses such forgettable foes as Whiplash and Obadiah Stane in terms of banality. However, what’s worse is that the film’s eponymous hero, portrayed once more with a snarky playfulness by Robert Downey Jr. (RDJ), has now clearly worn out his welcome. The character’s mild complexity and charisma stopped feeling fresh long ago, and he now evokes comparisons to a something like Captain Sparrow: another character who started strongly and now doesn’t know when to quit.
Iron Man 3 is more of an Iron Turkey than anything else, suffering from a far too glib attitude, a bland love story and action sequences that feel cribbed. Additionally, Iron Man 3 does not provide the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe with any forward momentum. Essentially, for now, “Phase Two” of the massive Marvel money-grab appears to be off to a poor start.
The opening sequence of the film features Stark waxing abstractly about how, “We create our own demons,” before flashing back to 1999. There, Stark appears (amazingly unchanged physically) at a New Years Eve party in Switzerland. it should be noted, that Robert Downey Jr. is now Stark personified; the actor could play him in his sleep. This is not necessarily a good thing because it reveals the inherent thinness of the character. Not that the script gives Downey Jr. anything significant on which to chew. The actor can only do so much with Black’s rapid-fire, jokey, yet ultimately vapid dialogue.
So anyway, it’s 1999, and Stark is canoodling an amazingly attractive scientist named Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall – slumming it). There is some nonsense discussed about something called “Extremis,” a drug with superhuman regenerative properties. Suddenly Guy Pearce (also slumming it – hard) shows up, playing a poor mook named Aldrich Killian who is in desperate need of some Clearasil. After Killian is humiliated by Stark, who really is more of a superprick than a superhero, we flash forward to the present day. Stark, once again bearded and douchey, must confront a bombing campaign by some goofy creep named the Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley, in the film’s best performance). But is everything what it appears to be?
Iron Man 3 doesn’t have a clear vision, with the creators throwing seemingly everything they could think of at the screen. We are a long way from Black’s tightly-written past efforts. Much of this comes down to screenwriting fundamentals. There are a lack of viable characters in Iron Man 3. To their credit, Black and Downey Jr. try to come up with something new for the ol’ Iron windbag, but the new facets highlighted by this third outing are uninvolving and frankly unbelievable. For example, Stark’s main dilemma this time around is not a supervillain – but instead his own anxiety, provoked by his near-death experience in 2012’s The Avengers. This detail is incongruent with Stark’s character; he is a superhero who has continually has faced life or death situations, but that it is also sloppily handled. It is addressed only sporadically and is given no conclusion.
But far worse than Stark’s anxiety problems is his relationship with Paltrow’s Pepper Potts. This is a pairing so devoid of chemistry that it makes the romance between Hayden Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker and Natalie Portman’s Queen Amidala look positively scintillating. The scene where he talks about how he can’t live without her is a true eye-raiser. Robert Downey Jr. is a formidable actor, surely, but you don’t feel anything between the two characters. He might as well have been talking about how much he needs chocolate, or his love for a hot shower after a long day in the Iron Man suit. There is just no passion there.
Still RDJ is a bright spot when viewed in comparison with his supporting cast, which squanders some of the most powerful, A-list actors in film today. For example, Guy Pearce is a marvelous performer capable of transforming himself into a role with preternatural, chameleon-like grace. But in Iron Man 3 he is utterly wasted, burdened with a motivation system so obtuse, so convoluted, that it would be a miracle if anyone involved with the production had a clue what this guy was after. At one point in the film, Pearce mentions something about trying to control the War on Terror, but ultimately his character seems much more titillated with the prospect of stealing a smooch from Paltrow’s clueless Pepper. In their shared scenes, he leers hungrily over her like a puppy approaching a bowl of freshly-poured kibble.
The other main cast members don’t fare much better. Don Cheadle, an enormously gifted actor, is again restricted to being a boring stuffed shirt. The scenes following his Col. James Rhodes blasting his way into some poor Middle Eastern homestead (ostensibly in search of terrorists) are probably some of the film’s most interesting moments. They offer a satirical counter-point to the pro-military philosophy of Iron Man 1 and 2. Yet other scenes, such as when Rhodes’ Iron Patriot is incapacitated with remarkable (and laughable) ease, come off as contrived at best.
As poor as the screenwriting is, it is Black’s inability to showcase the film’s superhero concept that leaves one feeling so underwhelmed. Ironically, the film’s most successful sequence transpires while Downey is out of the suit and must tackle a Extremis-infused duo with little more than his wits and superhuman resourcefulness. This scene provides the film with some tension, and even some stakes for a few moments, but is ultimately fleeting. Still, it doesn’t really capture the best aspects of the Iron Man idea, where the dichotomy between Stark’s physical frailty and the invincibility of his suit is clearly expressed. While scenes of a suitless Stark in action are easily the most exciting in the film, the playboy still moves and fights like a seamless powerhouse, making you wonder why he even BOTHERS with such a donning such a wretched suit of armor.
At the end of Josh Whedon’s The Avengers, Samuel L. Jackson’s myopic Nick Fury attempts to soothe the shadowy political figures of the world (you know, the ones who wanted to blow up New York with nukes) who are irate about the titular team’s unregulated presence on Earth. One of the silhouettes exclaims that Fury doesn’t know what he’s started by “letting The Avengers loose on this world.” This is a meta-film statement if there ever was one. The success of The Avengers guaranteed not only the continuation of all of Marvel’s pre-existing franchises but also the green-lighting of other comic properties that have even less business being adapted. This includes the hilarious looking Guardians of the Galaxy and the proposed Dr. Strange and Ant Man movies.
Yet the film even more worthy of such derision is the original Iron Man movie, a fun experiment that unfortunately set in motion the unstoppable corporate assembly line that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. How could we have known all the way back in 2008 that a film featuring a second-tier (at best) comic character, starring a washed-up actor with a criminal record, and directed by the guy who made Elf would unleash enough films to constitute multiple “phases.” Little did we know that it would eventually spark a superhero film arms race between two comic industry giants or damn us to redundant superhero exercises every summer until the end of time.
Perhaps though there is no point in harping on it. Like RDJ said all the way back in the original Iron Man film from 2008, “I am Iron Man.” And he has proved it through three films (with only one of them being sorta, kinda good). Will there be a fourth film? Well, he is not yet signed, but let’s be honest: It’s highly probable. It’s not like he needs to take into consideration the quality of the script or story; he didn’t with part II or III. Why would he need those things when a fortune can be made that would rival Tony Stark?