Review: Iron Man 3

Robert Downey Jr. returns for another go-round as the Man in the Iron Mask.

Three films (four if you count “The Avengers,” which you probably should) and approximately a kajillion dollars later, it might be a good time to start asking what, exactly, the Iron Man franchise is supposed to be about, anyway. I realize it might be silly of me to expect some kind of internal consistency from a string of summer blockbusters designed specifically to make unprecedented piles of money, but given Marvel Studios’ recent emphasis on building a massive, continuing narrative within its film universe, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to start asking what the point of that narrative is.  What is the point of establishing a consistent plot if these sequels are going to sport the same kind of incoherent characterization that we saw in the old days before “Phase One”?

If the point of an “Iron Man” film is to see Robert Downey Jr. talk fast and witty, that’s fine. But then why not just hit the “reset” button after every film, like James Bond? Marvel has gotten caught in the trench that lies between moving its characters forward and doing what they’ve always done, because it is safe and they know people will turn out in droves anyway. This is the fourth straight film we’ve been treated to Tony Stark’s same self-centered-jerk-finds-redemption arc; one has to wonder how Stark is as big a genius as everyone claims when he fits so neatly into Einstein’s definition of insanity. Marvel Studios, on the other hand, not only expect the same result, they rely on it. From a financial standpoint, it’s hard to argue with them, but it isn’t going to be long before the law of diminishing returns gives us the Iron Man equivalent of “Rocky V.”

Studio executives know that Christopher Nolan and the Dark Knight franchise changed the game – but I still don’t think they understand the extent of the damage. They’ve superficially appropriated Nolan’s darker, portentous tone but applied it to a world entirely without consequences. What that presents us with is an uncanny and jarring mixture of comic-book clowning and shock and awe. This is a consistent problem in “Iron Man 3:” bombs explode, a disconcerting number of bodies hit the floor, but Downey Jr.’s quips suggest its all a joke.

Perhaps it’s the unexpected relevancy of the Boston bombing that produces this discomfort, but I doubt it. It has more to do with the sensibility of writer/director Shane Black, and the tendency of his parodic streak to clash with any hint of seriousness in his films. The first couple “Lethal Weapon” films and “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” avoided trouble by making no attempt to be anything other than quick-witted diversions; “Iron Man 3” pays lip service to some legitimately troubling developments in the Marvel Universe (notably Tony Stark’s development of anxiety attacks following the events at the climax of “The Avengers”) before abandoning them in favor of more explosions and one-liners. By the time Stark was cheerfully mowing down an army of super-enhanced U.S. Army veterans,  I couldn’t help but think Black was pulling my leg with the whole thing.

I wanted to believe that, because again, that’s what Black does best. Like the original film, the best moments in “Iron Man 3” are those where the movie all but abandons the plot and just fiddles around with completely inconsequential banter. Downey Jr.’s performance in “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” was probably a major part of his casting in “Iron Man,” so it’s only appropriate that he should get another chance to chew on Black’s rapid-fire dialogue. But you get the feeling that more than anything the writer/director wanted to make a send-up of the entire superhero genre, much as he’s done with noir, crime films, and early 90’s action. But while it appreciates some fun now and then, this Marvel universe isn’t looking to completely undermine itself, hence the tonal whiplash.

All of this is a very long and roundabout way of describing a film that feels incomplete, but far from worthless. For one, Downey Jr. isn’t the only actor having fun with Black’s script. Whereas the first “Iron Man” had elements of classic screwball comedy in the banter between Tony and Pepper Potts, the screen here is so crowded with lateral riffing it’s almost Altman-esque, with several actors clamoring to be heard at once. Recurring players like Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Paul Bettany (in voice, anyway), along with newcomers like Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley and Rebecca Hall are all clearly having a grand time, and a lot of that good humor naturally rubs off on the audience. Pearce in particular, as scientist/think-tank leader Aldrich Killian, exudes sleazeball charm so effortlessly, you wish his character had given anything in the way of motivation. His telegraphed turn to villainy might be more interesting if we had any notion of what he plans to do with his newfound viciousness. Perhaps it would’ve been better to leave the evil to Kingsley (in a captivatingly, bizarrely affected performance) and henchman James Badge Dale (last seen stealing a scene from Denzel Washington in “Flight”), who injects some invigorating devil-may-care energy into a tiny role.

Ultimately, though, “Iron Man 3” feels like one of Stark’s remotely-controlled power suits: it’s still got a piece of the original in it, but overall it’s an empty part of the Marvel Machine. Character development, when it exists, is redundant from previous installments, and even the quick dialogue often gets drowned out by the blaring self-conscious AWESOMENESS of the action set-pieces. It’s great that Tony Stark is Iron Man and all, but does that even mean anything?

Now playing in theaters.

Verdict: 2 out of 4 stars

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