If you were in prison, comatose or pinned to the ground by a fallen armoire this weekend, it’s possible you didn’t see “Iron Man 3.” All the rest of us, it seems, ignored our mothers’ protestations and spent a couple of hours of this fine sunny summer weekend indoors in the dark, watching Robert Downey Jr. suit up as Tony Stark/Iron Man for his third solo outing. In fact, judging by these numbers, so did mom. The “Iron Man” threequel (read about some others here) is already in the history books as the second biggest domestic opening of all time, right behind sister film “The Avengers,” and looks on track to be another billion-dollar movie for the unprecedentedly successful Marvel Universe project. But with Shane Black a new recruit for the director’s chair (Iron Throne?) and expectations vertiginously high for the launch of Phase Two, the finished film could be expected to show at least a few stretch marks. Our early review is here and since then, many of The Playlist have managed to catch up with it, so here’s what we thought worked and what did not. **Spoilers abound.**
Everything With Shane Black’s Stamp
When Shane Black was announced as the co-writer/director of “Iron Man 3,” there was a certain amount of inherent excitement, especially since this would serve as the long, long awaited directorial follow-up to his deeply brilliant comic noir “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” (You can read about the scripts that had Black riding so high back in the day right here.) But there was also trepidation – would Black’s voice be lost in a sea of explosions and Marvel-mandated concessions? Well, those fears should have been laid to rest – “Iron Man 3” is so ridiculously Shane Black-y that it’ll have fans of his squealing for joy. While some of his more R-rated trademarks have, obviously, been set aside (no one utters the word “fuck,” for example), there are still plenty that have been implemented. There are the obvious stylistic tics, like the Christmas setting, an abundance of rapid-fire, wisecracking dialogue and book-ending the movie with a hyper-meta voice over narration. But there’s also stuff like how many reversals and reveals there are: the fact that he turns Tony Stark into a detective for a large section of the movie; an element of “Lethal Weapon“-esque buddy movie (especially when Stark and Rhodes are on the boat, with Rhodes (Don Cheadle) getting a long-overdue heroic action sequence all his own); and how the violence is intensified dramatically (we’ve never seen one of his pulsar blasts go through someone before). It’s great to see a Marvel movie with a marked authorial voice, especially when that voice marries into the universe so well.
Skydiving Rescue Sequence
Quick, name a great action sequence from the first two “Iron Man” films! You had to think about it for a moment, didn’t you? Let’s face it, the real attraction of the first two entries in the franchise was a rehabbed and quip-ready Robert Downey Jr. ready to step up to his megastar destiny. But you would be hard pressed to cite anything in those movies to match the white knuckle thrills of the airplane rescue in “Iron Man 3.” With the President snatched from Air Force One by a baddie disguised as Iron Patriot the rest of the crew are left to fall to their death… unless Iron Man can do something about it. Unlike the climax (we’ll get to that), which is an orgy of left-right-and-center action, here we see Iron Man forced to be crafty and find a way to save everyone, with the clock ticking fast. No amount of firepower will save him, and so Stark forms a human chain of sorts relying on not just his own abilities, but on the bravery of the plummeting “ordinary” people too. He brings the President’s crew to safety, dropping them gently in the water to a rousing chorus of grateful cheers (from the characters, though we wouldn’t be surprised if audiences applauded too), only for us to discover that relieved Tony was operating his Iron Man safely and remotely (which we’re not too sure why that is, except that it gives us a neat reveal — minor quibble). While the CGI might be slightly dodgy, the entire segment is cut for maximum effect, with images of innocent bodies in helpless free-fall a truly terrifying sight.
Stark’s Panic Attacks
While Marvel is hesitant to let anybody indulge in the beloved “Demon in a Bottle” storyline (in which Tony Stark becomes a full-fledged alcoholic and Rhodes has to take over the Iron Man guise), Black and his confederates were at least able to chip away at his bulletproof aura by saddling him with crippling panic attacks. This works well for a couple of reasons – one, it acknowledges the events of “The Avengers” in a real and palpable way. That wasn’t just some crazy superhero gang-bang, it was something that has consequences for the participants, particularly Tony, who, it should be remembered, zoomed through an intergalactic wormhole with a nuclear bomb on his back (mind you whether it has the same consequences for anyone else is up for debate, see below). Secondly, the panic attacks give Tony something else to fight through that isn’t a crazy terrorist or bad guy. It’s also really interesting that most of these panic attacks are triggered by children (we love the bit where the kid at the diner asks about the wormhole – so creepy) suggesting another way in which Tony is considering his mortality. The only downside to these panic attacks is that they don’t affect him in any way during the whirligig climax (which in general will figure in the less complimentary portion of this piece) – you’d think that he’d be racked by a panic attack and that is why Pepper would plummet to her (seeming) demise or it would cause him to fuck up in some other, catastrophic way. But no. He’s cool. Maybe he did some breathing exercises right before the big battle began?
With the whole audience (that we saw it with anyway) now savvy enough to know they have to wait through the long, long credit roll for that trademark juicy little nugget at the end, you have to be sure the nugget delivers. After all, there’s only so much wonder overstimulated viewers can express at how many VFX artists are credited (although, seriously — the entire height and width of the screen being full with names is pretty staggering and it lit up the auditorium like daytime). And this one does deliver, giving us a sweet character moment between our beloved Tony Stark and the one other member of “The Avengers” who we most want to see more of — Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner. Nothing blows up, no one turns green, but, aside from delivering a kind of unnecessary “reason” for the voiceover narration, the piece really serves as a timely reminder that there’s a lot more to love in the Marvel kitbag. Oh, and that if there’s one man who can challenge Downey Jr.’s Stark for all-out, not-giving-a-shit, tortured-but-on-top-of-it cool, it’s Ruffalo’s Banner.
Sending Up Father Figure/Son Bonding Cliches
Shane Black is justly well-known for putting a self-referential spin on worn genre cliches to come up with something that gets to have its cake and eat it: it benefits from the familiarity and shorthand nature of these tropes, while also sending them up. Nowhere is that impulse better illustrated than in the Tennessee segment of “Iron Man 3” in which Stark teams up with angel-faced urchin Harley. What threatens to become an obviously manipulative, irritating diversion from People Falling Out Of Things That Are Blowing Up, is pulled back from that brink time and again, by a black hearted one-liner from Stark or a deliberately annoying, un-cute moment from Ty Simpkins (who did a surprisingly non-cloying version of “precocious kid”). Yes they bond in the end, and yes the kid gets the ultimate Extreme Shed Makeover, but there’s been just enough “I am not your father” sourness along the way for that not to grate too much.
As much as some of the more diehard fans are up in arms over the totally non-canon way The Mandarin is portrayed here (and it does open up some interesting questions about future potential Iron Man villains if, despite protestations, they do come back for a fourth outing), we can’t really complain about this major character getting short shrift if only because, written as it is, it gives Ben Kingsley a chance to flex his fun muscles. His Trevor Slattery is a brilliant creation, and if his cluelessness is clearly an impossible front to maintain (he did, after all, shoot a guy in the head on live TV), the portrayal is just sly enough, as well as being outright funny, that it gives a sinister edge to what could otherwise just be a patsy. And the character reveal of him coming out of the toilet was one of the best-done twist moments we’ve seen; he adds a layer of loopy comedy that plays well as distinct from Stark’s quickfire quippy wit. So even though we’ve got big issues with the architecture of the villain plot (see “Worst”), on aggregate we’ll take it if it gives us a performance as enjoyable as this one.
Tony and Pepper’s relationship has gently subverted the typical hero/girl Friday model throughout the series, but it’s at its most interesting here. Where usually there’s some element of rivalry or will they/won’t they suspense, here they’re in love, they’re together and what they’re struggling to do is maintain a mature and mutually fulfilling relationship. Not exactly sexy on paper, but the stars make it so, and give the emotional core of the film a kind of wisdom that is refreshing for a comic-based movie aimed primarily at teenage boys. And it’s not just Pepper and Tony, but Rebecca Hall‘s Maya Hansen (despite the major problems there, see below) runs counter to what we might expect in this regard too. After one night with Stark, she’s not desperately in love with him and the way her arc plays out is less the old Bond routine of the bad girl being made over by love and self-sacrificing at the last minute, and more about her coming to a realization about herself and where her own moral compass has broken down. She’s not a well-drawn character by any means, but at least she’s not a bit of fluff, and the awkward “girl I had a one-night stand with meeting my long-term girlfriend” moment is nicely mined for its comic potential, but not over-egged into being something more important than it is.
Lack Of Motivation For Villainy
Maybe our biggest gripe about the film, and one that bleeds into other points covered in this “worst” section, was the lack of a defined and memorable arch-villain. Guy Pearce is as reliable as ever in the role of Aldrich Killian, but he’s simply not given clear enough motivation or clear enough goals for him to be a truly interesting, worthy adversary to Stark, and with Maya Hansen eliminated relatively early, and The Mandarin revealed to be a stooge, there exists something of a vacuum at the “evil” end of the good/evil spectrum. As much as we enjoyed the opportunity it gave Kingsley to bring us the gonzo entertainment of Trevor Slattery, the fact is that the Big Bad being a guy ultimately motivated by a ruthless but straightforward desire for power is just not as scary as the idea of a terrorist motivated by some arcane and unstoppable whacked-out ideology. What is it that Killian wants exactly? What is his endgame? To control the U.S. government via a proxy President and also have a mouthpiece terrorist at his disposal so he controls both sides of the equation, right, but well, why? What’s in it for him? If he’s supposed to be a crazy-mirror-image of Stark, right down to his genius and his attractive sidekick, we should also have a similar idea of what it is he needs to achieve and why — and revenge on Stark for standing him up a decade ago doesn’t really cut it.
Maya Hansen’s Narrative Superfluity
We love us some Rebecca Hall, and this is not to say there aren’t some good moments featuring her character (see “Best”) but Maya Hansen here does very little except have a one night stand with Stark back in the day, and then inexplicably show up at his house with the idea of what, exactly? If it’s to persuade him to help them stop the unfortunate “exploding” side-effect, why so late in the game, and why does she immediately flip back to Killian’s side, especially if it’s just to get instantly killed (and if that, we haven’t spent enough time with her for that to be a real loss)? Also, she’s so brilliant she developed Extremis, but in a decade has never been able to figure out the equation Stark scrawled drunkenly on the back of that note after looking at her research for about 5 pre-nookie minutes? To say nothing of not being able to work out that Killian having a hold over the Stark (in the form of Pepper being tortured) means he doesn’t really need her any more? Having your hero be richer, morally stronger, more successful and infinitely smarter in every area of expertise than your bad guys doesn’t necessarily increase him, it simply diminishes the stakes.
The Climax And Drone Army Overkill
As the trailers gave away, the conclusion of “Iron Man 3” sees Tony Stark finally unveil his greatest tech yet: a drone army of fully equipped Iron Man suits that can do his bidding. And at first, it’s admittedly kind of cool watching this backup crew swoop in and save the day. But the longer it goes on, the less effective it is. What starts as a pretty nifty idea, quickly turns into a whole bunch of Iron Man suits flying around being conveniently available either to save Tony Stark or suit him up when required. And it’s not really clear how many there are either, so while some of them are shot down, Tony and Pepper are never in any real danger, because there always seems to be one around right when they need it… except when Pepper really does fall to her “death” which winds up coming off as a bit of audience manipulation to heighten a finale that by point feels nothing more than fireworks. A point underscored by Tony blowing up drones to create actual fireworks. The entire climax feels like a mess of CGI and flashy cuts with little sense of coherence, geography or stakes, putting up a lot of window dressing around what is a pretty mediocre showdown between Tony and Aldrich (who dies rather vaguely and unmemorably for what is supposed to be the centerpiece baddie of the movie).
So none of us have yet seen the film both in 2 and 3D to be able to directly compare, but we’re pretty sure the 3D adds very little to anything but the ticket price. The whiz-bang strength of the action sequences when they are good (like the skydiving sequence above) is that they are well cut together, and clearly motivated: innocent people falling to their deaths… Iron Man must save them. It’s the old-fashioned skills of clearly establishing geography and creating coherent beats that make these sequences sing, nothing to do with the odd bit of rubble flying at you through the air. And when the action doesn’t work (as in the climax covered elsewhere in “worst”), the 3D just serves to add another (strangely shallow) layer of visual confusion to an already over-cluttered scene. And it’s not like we’re set in some odd alien landscape in which the 3D can reveal unimagined wonders: this is Florida. Most centrally, though, the film’s greatest assets are (some of) its characterizations and its comedy, and neither of those need another dimension to work.
Dunno about you, but we were happily going along with the glowy-people-sometimes-explode nonsense until Guy Pearce loosed a jet of fire from his mouth, dragon-style. The way the beat was played, with James Badge Dale‘s henchman looking on with surprise/ jealousy it seemed like something else was meant to happen with this ability, beyond abruptly shattering our suspension of disbelief. But no, it never happened again, was never even referred to and ended up just being used for a little meta moment for Rhodey. (“Uh, you breathe fire?”) Note: if the only reason something silly exists is to give a character a self-aware line about how silly it is, perhaps best to leave it out?
The Fallout From “The Avengers” Isn’t Really Explored
Of course the events of “The Avengers” are referred to a few times throughout, but they exist almost solely as motivation/back story for Tony Stark, and are usually referred to as “New York” as if the fact that an alien invasion happened on the other side of the continent makes it kind of irrelevant to people living on the West Coast. We get very little sense of a world that has been fundamentally changed by those events (seriously, wormholes! Aliens! Gods! Rage monsters! Defrosted WWII super-soldiers! Surely that would fundamentally change our idea of ourselves?), something highlighted by the relative weakness of the villain plot. In a world where all the craziness of the Universe has seeped through, one guy’s lust for earthly, governmental power (by kidnapping the president, how old-fashioned!) seems kind of quaint. In fact, Killian himself never really (that we can recall) refers directly to the off-world threat humanity had just faced, though it would surely have to factor into any self-respecting super-villain’s plans one way or the other.
So after the (flawed) climax when Tony has given Pepper the only Christmas present a girl could ever want by turning his life’s work into a really, really expensive fireworks display, the films runs out of steam very abruptly. Stark “cures” Pepper in voice over and suddenly decides to get surgery to have the life-threatening shrapnel removed from his heart. Yes, we get that they want to establish that the superhero resides in the man, and is nothing to do with a suit of armor or a chest-mounted life-saving arc reactor, but it all spins out a little fast and a little throwaway for it to have the weight it should. Did he just now remember that the whole basis for his Iron Man persona (the shrapnel) could be whipped out in Tokyo? Also, by “cure” Pepper, did he mean make her altogether non-glowy and rob her of the pretty neat power to grow back limbs and be practically un-killable, if occasionally warm to the touch? Or just the thing where she might explode? So many questions that the hasty and uncharacteristically pat end voice over narration leaves unanswered.
A few other brief observations, firstly, on the negative end of the scale:
— There’s no way any kid thinks “Iron Patriot” is a cooler name than “War Machine,” is there?
— The climax is a letdown in general, but at the point at which Killian inevitably rises from the dead and stands over the trapped Stark bellowing, inexplicably “I AM the Mandarin” it just goes outright silly and the even the dialogue, usually so surefooted, goes out the window.
But to leave on a positive note (because actually, we mostly enjoyed the hell out of it):
— There are a hundred great jokes and quotable lines (though we still think Joss Whedon may shade Black in terms of giving Stark the funny pop-culture comparisons), but the one that gave us the biggest belly laugh was the unnamed henchman who immediately surrenders to Iron Man with “No, really I hate working for these guys, they’re so weird” and gets to walk away.
— And to end, the opening! Eiffel 65‘s europop smash hit “Blue” which claims a high placement on our all-time most disliked ear-worm songs, actually goes over like gangbusters at the start here. Coupled with RDJ’s faltering opening voice over (a direct nod to “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang“), the song sets up exactly the kind of loopy tone and breakneck pace the rest of the movie captures so effortlessly, and had us smiling even before the logos had faded down.
What did you all think? We know you’ve seen it, so sound off below. — Jessica Kiang, Kevin Jagernauth, Drew Taylor