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It’s tricky—and ultimately, perhaps, meaningless—to evaluate a movie like Iron Man 3 as an aesthetic object. Before it’s anything else, this is a Disney-Marvel product, the latest release from a massive global entertainment empire with enough revenue-earning power that the film’s distribution is currently the object of a politically significant tax dispute between the U.S. and China. I don’t draw this distinction between art and commerce as a way of dismissing the Iron Man series or its Marvel-comic-based brethren, the Avengers movies. It’s simply that, as a tent-pole blockbuster that stands at the crossroads of two hugely successful franchises, Iron Man 3 will inevitably be subject to genre requirements as immutable as the need for axles in a car.
Among the inevitabilities: There will be CGI-augmented fireballs, spectacular skydiving stunts, heaps of smoking rubble, and damsels in distress clinging to cranes. There will be an excess of villains—a mad geneticist bent on world domination (Guy Pearce); an ethnically ambiguous, media-savvy superterrorist (Ben Kingsley); and possibly some additional turncoats who will go unnamed. And all the while, Tony Stark, the billionaire weapons designer turned world-saver played by Robert Downey Jr., will be there, in the melee but never quite of it, fighting evil and cracking wise with such sad-eyed sprezzatura that you can’t even hold his super-coolness against him. That’s what a ticket to Iron Man 3 pays for.
Is it a ticket worth buying? That depends on how you prefer your snappy dialogue/stuff exploding ratio. Every Iron Man movie has been a screwball comedy trapped in the body of a superhero action film. I may have no patience with Gwyneth Paltrow in her more self-serious dramatic roles (though her pill-popping country superstar in Country Strong is, at least, destined for camp glory), but she’s just right as Pepper Potts, Tony Stark’s no-nonsense assistant-turned-girlfriend-turned-CEO. Paltrow and Downey Jr. have old-school Hollywood chemistry to burn—they may yawn and ask for coffee the minute the director yells “Cut!,” but they trade barbs as if they can’t wait to tear each other’s clothes off. And thanks to the generally excellent dialogue by writer-director Shane Black, the verbal sallies often leave a real sting. Wedged in between the explosions on Air Force One and leaps over vats of molten steel, this movie contains an astute study of a relationship in transition: What are a superhero and his girl to do when the honeymoon phase is over and the power balance has shifted?
Unfortunately, that sharp-eyed domestic comedy is dwarfed by the far less well-written supervillain crime plot that surrounds it. It’s not giving away too much about that plot to say that Iron Man 3 has two separate villains whose stories eventually overlap: Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a researcher whose long-ago encounter with Tony Stark has forever altered him, and the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), an indeterminately Orientalist terrorist who hacks into global TV networks to live cast seemingly senseless executions as the world looks on in horror. Killian has created some kind of biotechnology that can heal physical defects and regrow severed limbs but whose off-label side effects include turning human beings into ambulatory bombs who glow red about the chest and neck when angry and breathe jets of fire. These killer fire-people make for a nifty special effect but not nifty enough to justify the time spent in their company. I’d have traded at least one of those here-comes-a-fire-guy scenes for a solid encounter between the two villains, who scarcely share any screen time at all, and whose motivations remain as unsatisfactory as their comeuppances.
Shane Black is known primarily as a screenwriter of self-aware action movies such as Lethal Weapon and Last Action Hero. The only other film he’s directed, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), was an underrated neo-noir crime comedy that in many ways resembles Iron Man: Both star Downey Jr. and begin with a voice-over in which, attempting to sum up recent events, he stumbles and starts again. Iron Man 3 maintains that dry, self-mocking sense of humor throughout—even when Black makes the seemingly pandering choice to throw in a subplot about the friendship between Tony Stark and a fatherless kid he crosses paths with on a crime-fighting sojourn to Tennessee. The scenes between the banged-up superhero and the star-struck boy, which could have been hopeless treacle, are instead sharply funny send-ups of various father-son bonding clichés.
It’s impossible to get into some of Iron Man 3’s more vexed aspects without spoiling the plot—its treatment of race, for example. The Mandarin, a villain from the classic comic books, translates uneasily to the present day. Sitting in a dragon-flanked Chinese throne with a vaguely Middle Eastern beard and what appears to be a flat Midwestern accent, he isn’t the racist caricature one might have feared, but neither does the character’s multiethnic self-presentation really lead anywhere interesting—his character is more or less dropped after one tremendous scene that allows Ben Kingsley to deploy his comic gifts at full throttle. By the time we get to the long final action scene, in which Iron Man and his armor-clad buddy War Machine (now rechristened “the Iron Patriot” and played by Don Cheadle) battle an army of fire-folks at an abandoned shipyard, Iron Man 3 has jettisoned both thoughtfulness and credibility to fulfill its contractual quota of kabooms. Stick around till the end of the credits for a last welcome glimpse at the man beneath the iron.