It’s finally summer, woot! From the looks of it, there will be at least one major blockbuster release every weekend from now until the end of August, and I will do my best to cover them all. Kicking off this year’s summer blockbuster season is ‘Iron Man 3’, which would sound like it’s a sequel to ‘Iron Man 2’ but it feels more like a sequel to last year’s hugely successful ‘The Avengers’. Shane Black takes over the filmmaking reigns from Jon Favreau and this offering hits enough right notes and is good enough to warrant a passing grade.
The plot – by now, just about everyone knows that billionaire inventor and industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is the man behind the superhero Iron Man. He recently saved the world from an alien invasion with the help of other superheroes, but is now suffering from anxiety attacks and insomnia. Compounding his problems is a mad, bearded jihadist known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) who’s recently surfaced and broadcasts some terrible executions. There’s also a creepy industrialist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) who has his own weird agenda.
Shane Black has penned some good scripts for action pictures of the 80s and 90s (the original ‘Lethal Weapon’, ‘Last Boy Scout’, ‘The Long Kiss Goodnight’, etc.). This is Mr. Black’s second outing as director (his first being ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ from 2005, which also starred Robert Downey Jr.). While that picture only earned $4.4M of its $15M budget, it did gain a cult following once released on DVD. This may seem like an odd choice by the studio – to pass the keys one of Marvel’s most successful film franchises over to Mr. Black. But, it works.
From the opening scene when Robert Downey Jr. starts saying something in voiceover narration, stops, and decides to start this story from a different direction – this is very ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’-ish and Mr. Black opens the picture in a knowingly, self-referential way. I do think this is a script that was made for Downey Jr. Very infrequently does there exist a perfect match between a performer and a screenwriter whereby the actor is able to spew out the writer’s dialogue in the perfect way – such is the case here. The banter between Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow is terrific and the early scenes with these two have a very old-school screwball comedy feel to them. I don’t think that Gwyneth Paltrow has really stood out much as an actress over the years but here she proves she can be quick and funny – again, this could be due to the matched pair factor; maybe Robert Downey Jr. brings out the best in her.
Stark appears to treat everyone (except Paltrow’s character) the same way. He does form an interesting relationship with a kid who helps him when he is desperate and doesn’t have anyone else to turn to. But, he doesn’t treat the kid any differently than he would treat anyone else – the kid is just another annoying adult in Stark’s eyes. I appreciated this element of the picture – most screenwriters would have been tempted to throw in a mushy subplot involving these two characters. How many among of us have fantasized about being able to tell a kid to shut up and stop being annoying? I doubt any of us have actually responded this way. Stark will call it as he sees it.
‘Iron Man 3’ is, however, first and foremost a big-budget summer blockbuster. Does it deliver on that level? Yes. There are some very cool individual moments; for example, each time Stark gets into his Iron Man suit – I won’t spoil this by describing it but each time it happened, I responded mentally with “Well, that was pretty cool.” The most recent Bond film, ‘Skyfall’, was what I like to call a back-to-basics Bond. The situation is this – the hero is stripped away of the tools he or she previously had in their possession. This requires the hero to be resourceful and to use their smarts to assemble something worthwhile. ‘Iron Man 3’ features a similarly cool scene where Stark has to go to a Home Depot-like store to purchase the raw materials needed to re-create a badass suit.
There are also some pretty incredible set pieces and, as one would expect, the film’s climactic action sequence is rather sensational. Let’s face it – summer audience members want to see stuff get blown up real good. ‘Iron Man 3’ doesn’t make the mistake that many big-budget action pictures make – providing viewers with non-stop, wall-to-wall action. Let’s think about that phrase for a moment. Do we want our action films to have never-ending action? When you see something get blown up real good, there should be something underpinning the explosions, or at least someone to care about so that when an explosion does go off, we don’t want to see our characters (that we have a rooting interest for) in harm’s way. It should also be clear why a structure is blowing up at the time it blows up. Thankfully, there are moments of pause between the extravagant set pieces for us to better know these characters.
But, this leads me to some of the weaknesses of the picture. I don’t think that Stark’s character changes here – he always has the perfect response to any situation. One of the joys of the original ‘Iron Man’ was being able to see the evolution of this character from weapons dealer to superhero. He needed to figure out what his true calling was. In ‘Iron Man 3’, it’s clear that he’s battling some internal demons. “Nothing has been the same since New York.” says Stark. Well, we know he’s referring to the events of ‘The Avengers’, but what of that? The fact that he was almost killed while trying to save the planet? I suppose it would be out of character for Stark to talk about his feelings; but, the film doesn’t make the reasons behind his anxiety clear to us. He doesn’t seem to learn from it either. ‘Iron Man 3’ had the stage to intelligently answer a difficult question posed by Captain America’s character in ‘The Avengers’ – “Take off the suit/armour and what are you?”
At one point, Pepper Potts gets to put on the armour, and it had me thinking that she would be more involved in the action this time around. Nope. I think she spends a huge chunk of the back half of the film either hanging upside down or trapped under a heavy structure. I don’t want to see her get rescued in ‘Iron Man 4’ – she’s no longer just a minor character. The bits involving The Mandarin are also very strange, but I also appreciate the inclusion of these scenes because they give ‘Iron Man 3’ its satirical edge.
There’s a lot going on in ‘Iron Man 3’, with its large cast, convoluted storyline, and equally convoluted subplots. I think that Joss Whedon’s ‘The Avengers’ was much better balanced. He was better able to handle the various moving parts – each character received the right amount of screen time needed to shine, and no one was lost in the shuffle. ‘Iron Man 3’ lacks the cohesion of ‘The Avengers’.
Still, ‘Iron Man 3’ is good enough to earn a recommendation from me because the parts that do work are so good; they make some of the lesser moments worth enduring. But, does my assessment really matter? At the point of writing this review (8:09 p.m. EST, May 9th, 2013), ‘Iron Man 3’ has already made $205M domestically, and $563.5M internationally. Those box office figures may have been sufficient enough for a review. QED.