Spoiler Level: Safe
The challenge of superhero movies—and of superheroes in general, actually—is to balance the human elements with the super-human. This is especially important for retaining the interest of fans who may be past the age of puberty, but we underestimate children if we think they don't prefer to have believable, relatable characters behind the masks, beneath the capes, inside the armor.
For most of my comic-book reading childhood, in the 70s and 80s, there were two big companies producing superhero comics, DC and Marvel. I was a Marvel guy all the way, and—though I couldn't have articulated it at the time—it was because I preferred the characters of that company over their counterparts at DC. And by characters, I don't mean the hero design—because, obviously, DC's Superman could beat the crap out of just about anyone in Marvel's stable, and DC's Batman was way cooler—but the people themselves: they were, within the limitations of the form, real people. DC's heroes, like Superman (as Tarantino points out in Kill Bill 2), tended to be unrelatable demigods who only pretended to be human. Marvel's heroes, on the other hand, were humans who just happened to have superpowers. Spider-Man (my first fave) was a geeky kid named Peter Parker, who had money problems, girl problems, bully problems, and a frail, over-protective aunt. The Fantastic Four were a family; the X-Men were misunderstood teenagers. It was cool when they all battled monsters and villains and alien invasions, but I enjoyed these books just as much when the characters were squabbling or joking or dealing with their always tortured romantic lives. Now, thirty-odd years later, I don't remember too many of the fight scenes, but I remember the jokes, the developing friendships between characters, the burgeoning romances and tragic deaths. I remember the human stuff.
But the balance between the human and the super-human is tricky to maintain, and it becomes even more challenging on film. For one thing, directors don't have the luxury of an infinitely unfolding story, but must do service to both the personal and the pyrotechnic within a span of a few hours. For another thing, films must appeal to the kids and the fans while still playing to a mainstream audience, which may be less naturally disposed towards taking the cape-and-cowl crowd seriously. This is why so many superhero movies err on the side of camp (the Burton/Shumacher Batman movies, for example), or else move so far away from their four-color roots that their connection to the comics seems almost coincidental (the Christopher Nolan Batman movies).
Though many of its properties had already been licensed (and mostly butchered) by other studios, Marvel Entertainment went into the movie business in 2008 with the first Iron Man, which launched what is now being called "Phase One" of their movie masterplan. That phase included both earlier Iron Man movies (2008 & 2010), The Incredible Hulk (2008), Thor (2011), and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), before culminating in the unlikely triumph of Joss Whedon'sThe Avengers in 2012. These weren't always great movies, but as straight comic-book adaptations they were vast improvements on what had come before, staying relatively faithful to the tone and traditions of their source material while playing to a more mainstream audience.
However, with the notable exception of The Avengers, all of them dealt with the human/super-human balance the same way: by essentially treating the two sides of that equation as different movies. This duality is natural: it's built into both comic-book characters (with their dual identities) and movie-making (wherein, for large chunks of each movie, the actors step aside and let the computer geniuses, stunt-men, and special-effect crews take over). But it is a problem, and its one that not even Marvel has solved yet. The first half of Captain America, for example, was a wonderfully nostalgic and deeply personal story, with a plucky hero for whom we could root: the second half, however, was a dull slugfest that lost the main character behind the mask and lost the film's heart in too many overly choreographed action sequences. The human element largely worked, while the hero element largely didn't. (In Thor, on the other hand, the balance was screwed up in the other direction.)
One of the reasons The Avengers worked so well is that writer/director Joss Whedon—who had the advantage of working mostly with already developed characters—got this delicate mixture right. The Avengers is one movie, not two: the people saving the world in Act Three feel like the very same characters to whom we've been introduced in Act One. All the concerns and relationships and personal stakes remain consistent throughout, whether the heroes are bickering around a table or flying through the air, and so our interest and investment never flags.
The reason I bring all of this up is that the Iron Man franchise has always suffered terribly from an inability to meld its human and heroic elements, and you can feel director and co-writer Shane Black (Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang) struggling with this conundrum throughout Iron Man 3, whichlaunches Phase Two of the Marvel Movie Masterplan.
The star of the Iron Man franchise is both its greatest strength and its greatest challenge. Try to imagine these movies with anyone but Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark, and you'll see that I mean. (When the first script was still in development, for example, Tom Cruise was in talks to wear the armor, a decision which would have been—to my mind, at least—disastrous.) Iron Man is not, for most people, a beloved character from the comics, and he is such a blank slate of a super-hero in the armor—his face a stiff, expressionless mask—that we needed an actor behind the mask who had enough wit, charm, and force of personality to carry through the metal. Casting Downey Jr. was a masterstroke, and these films would be fairly dire things without him.
But that's also a problem, because watching Tony Stark on screen is so much more interesting than watching Iron Man. I've forgotten most of the very forgettable Iron Man 2, but even in the superior first movie there was a sharp line of demarcation between the scenes in and out of the armor: parts with the wonderfully human Tony Stark were a joy, while action sequences with the CGI-heavy Iron Man felt obligatory and by-the-book. It was essentially two different movies, and the first was so much more enjoyable than the second.
In Iron Man 3, Shane Black attempts to solve this problem by keeping Tony Stark out of—and even away from—the armor for as long as possible. After a brief prologue showing a pre-heroic Tony Stark in 1999, making romantic conquests and political enemies at a scientific conference, we find him in the present day having settled down with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). But Stark is not doing well: he is dealing with post-traumatic stress after the events of The Avengers, suffering anxiety attacks and spending sleepless nights trying to come up with ways to keep himself and Pepper safe.
But "safe" is only a temporary state in these movies, and soon Stark has recklessly drawn the attention of a terrorist called the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a Bin Laden-type warlord who sets off explosions for non-specific reasons and employs super-powered, fire-breathing minions.Working with the Mandarin is Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), the director of a sinister scientific organization called AIM, who carries both a grudge against Stark and a torch for Pepper.
I won't spoil any more of the mysteries here, except to say that, in the comics, the Mandarin was a fairly reprehensible Chinese stereotype, and I was seriously concerned about his inclusion as the main villain here—especially considering the fact that Kingsley is not, to my knowledge, Chinese. But what Black and co-writer Drew Pearce have done with this character is actually fairly clever, and Kingsley delivers a performance that acknowledges the character's xenophobic roots and plays upon them in ways that are both surprising and enjoyable. (The overall sinister plan, and the motivations of Guy Pearce's underwritten character, are murkier and more problematic, but that's par for the course.)
Soon—and this is no spoiler for anyone who has seen the trailer—the Mandarin and his minions have destroyed Stark's home and most of his equipment, leaving Stark alone, unarmored, presumed dead, and on the lam with only his wits to sustain him. This leads to the longest and best segment of the film, in which Downey Jr. gets to play Stark's charm, arrogance, intelligence, and misanthropy to their limits; particularly enjoyable are his interactions with a young would-be scientist named Harley (Ty Simpkins), from whom Stark receives some valuable assistance, and to whom Stark demonstrates his almost complete lack of parenting skills. ("Dads leave," Tony says, when hearing of Harley's absent father. "No need to be such a pussy about it.") Watching the unarmored Tony Stark MacGyver and wise-ass his way around the country in pursuit of the truth is the chief pleasure to be found in Iron Man 3.
But there are other pleasures. Shane Black's dialogue is a joy—in addition to his previous collaboration with Downey Jr., Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Black wrote the first Lethal Weapon movie—and he actually turns out to have a light and snappy touch with this material overall that makes Iron Man 3 brisk and entertaining for most of its (gratuitous) two-hour-twenty-minute running time. The action scenes mostly work: the climax of the film, typically, goes on too long and too loudly, but some earlier sequences (like the destruction of Stark's house, and a rescue of passengers aboard Air Force One) are entertaining and original. Don Cheadle (as the other Iron Man "War Machine," now re-branded the "Iron Patriot") is along for much of the ride, but mostly proves that even a very good actor becomes less interesting when encased in armor. Paltrow, on the other hand—though largely wasted in the first two movies—has more to do here, and even gets to indulge in some super heroics herself. There are some fine supporting turns, including James Badge Dale as one of the baddies, Dale Dickey as a key witness to a terrorist attack, and Rebecca Hall in the somewhat thankless and woefully underdeveloped role as a brilliant botanist with whom Tony shared a one-night stand.
But all of these incidental pleasures don't, in the end, add up to much of a movie. Black seems only occasionally interested in telling a superhero story, meaning that Iron Man 3 oftenfeels more like a sci-fi infested buddy cop movie than a worthy follow-up to The Avengers. It's an understandable choice—and perhaps even a clever one—to give Downey Jr. as much face-time as possible, and maximize the human elements of this franchise that work so much better than the heroics. But here, too, the film ultimately proves a let-down, because the screenplay relies on Downey Jr.'s considerable charm and glibness without ever delving any deeper into Stark's character. The PTSD seems to have been included just to give Downey Jr. something else to play besides arrogance, but it never really forms the basis for any kind of character arc: we never get a sense that he has faced and conquered his fears, or changed, or grown in any real way. The last act not only fails to bring any emotional closure or heroic redemption to Stark's thin story, it leaves him as almost a bystander, lost in the climactic pyrotechnics of his own movie.
It is regrettable, perhaps, that Marvel reportedly nixed Black's original plan to include elements of the comic's 1979 storyline "Demon in a Bottle," by David Michelinie and Bob Layton, which found Tony Stark coming to terms with his alcoholism. It's an understandable decision on Marvel's part—especially after the disastrously silly drunken party scenes in Iron Man 2—but here we come back to the point I was making earlier about the human elements in superhero stories. I was never a huge fan of the character as a kid, but the "Demon in a Bottle" storyline is about the only thing I remember from the Iron Man comics. Though hardly a literary masterpiece, "Demon in a Bottle" humanized this playboy billionaire genius for the first time, adding a layer of pathos and complexity to a character who had previously been little more than a stiff in a metal suit.
Here, however, despite the expanded screen-time, the always watchable Downey Jr. never gets to play much more than glib, and Stark never deepens into anything terribly interesting. (The character actually had a much more satisfactory arc as one of six major figures in The Avengers, where his willingness to sacrifice himself in the film's climax countered Captain America's earlier accusations that he was a selfish, self-centered dilettante.)
Iron Man 3 isn't a bad way to spend 2+ hours—I enjoyed it far more than I was expecting to—but it is ultimately disappointing and disposable. Marvel has steadily raised the bar for what we expect from superhero movies, and this kind of fairly faithful, mildly diverting throw-away no longer seems like enough. If Marvel wants to keep raising the bar in Phase 2—which continues with Thor: The Dark World this November—they're going to need to find a way to continue delivering the heroics for the kids while making human storylines compelling enough, and organic enough, to keep the adults in their seats. As it stands, they're off to a mediocre start: Iron Man 3 is shiny enough, but it turns out to be something of an empty shell.
Note: I saw Iron Man 2 in 2D. I think my new policy is to see films in 3D only if they are shot in 3D; with films converted to 3D in post (as this one was), I feel justified in skipping the glasses.
Additional Note: As has come to be expected, there is a post-credits sequence. The credits are very long, and so I can't swear you'll find it worth sticking around for, but I will say it provides a humorous and welcome glimpse of another character from the Marvel Universe.