Back in 2010, the powers that be at Marvel weren’t satisfied with Iron Man 2. Neither was its director, Jon Favreau, who clashed with the company over, among other things, creative differences. By the time a third film was being batted around, Favreau was folding up his director’s chair, agreeing to stay on only as a player. With the production rudderless, star Robert Downey Jr. exercised his director-approval clause on Lethal Weapon scribe Shane Black, who also wrote and directed the excellent Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (also starring Downey), and did dialogue rewrites on the first Iron Man. Apparently, Black held no such reservations when it came to creative conflict.
Iron Man 3 opens with a flashback to 1999, when endearing narcissist Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) and fellow scientist/one-night stand Maya (Rebecca Hall) are celebrating the new millennium. At the party, they run into Adrian Killian (Guy Pierce), a local nerd who tries to pitch his new science project to the two geniuses. Tony ditches him on the roof of the building and leaves the lonely Pierce staring at his watch waiting. This is to be our villain, and this is to be his sole motivation for what’s to come. It’s the kind of foreshadowing you’d expect from a bad Disney cartoon.
Back in the present, Tony is suffering from panic attacks after the events of The Avengers, spending all his time tinkering around in his basement and unable to sleep, while girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow) grows increasingly concerned and frustrated. At the same time, the ruthless terrorist Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) is sending video threats a la Bin Laden, and somehow blowing up landmarks around the country with no evidence of a planted bomb. After former bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) is injured in one of the blasts, Tony issues the Mandarin a threat too far, compelling the Mandarin to level Tony’s cliffside mansion and fling him far from home. Tony must then team with a young boy (Ty Simpkins) and use his skills as a tech wizard, sans Iron Man suit, to overcome the surmounting obstacles in his path and figure out the real culprit behind the madness.
There are clever moments in Iron Man 3, like the new injection Tony takes that allows him to call his suit of iron to him with his mind. There are less and less of these light, fun moments as the film progresses, wearing out its welcome by quickly descending into a clumsy mishmash of director Black’s dark, self-aware style and that of a big-budget studio tentpole. Is Iron Man 3 a winking, postmodern whodunnit mystery, or an effects-heavy Iron Man film following the classic hero’s journey? We don’t know, because there’s a ragingly uneven balance between the two, making for a film that doesn’t really let on whether it takes itself seriously or not. So, when we finally start to settle in for an outstanding sequence of Iron Man risking life and limb, zooming through the sky and rescuing individual people plummeting to their deaths from a destroyed airplane, we’re suddenly faced with the realization that it was all a ruse – Tony was actually perfectly safe piloting the suit remotely from a passing cruise ship below, completely robbing the scene of its effectiveness. In short, it’s a tonal clusterfuck.
Black’s style is, in the end, quite unsuited to the task of creating a straightforward Iron Man. The writer is all about upending expectations, pulling the rug out from under us so many times that our patience is gone by the film’s resolution. You can tell he isn’t enamored with the mythology, preferring instead to tell a story about a typical Downey Jr. character designing tech and making funnies. Favreau’s films, all flaws aside, at least worked in part because the director cared for the comics and believed in the reality of their universe. Black merely takes what he can from the canon and bends it to meet his and co-writer Drew Pierce’s storytelling needs. Consider Iron Patriot, the government’s rebranding of War Machine/Colonel Rhodes (Don Cheadle) from Iron Man 2. The suit itself has nothing to do with the Iron Man mythos, and in the comics was actually piloted by Norman Osborne, alias Green Goblin, for a new team of Avengers. Ironically, like in the film itself, the new “re-branding” conceit is more a marketing gimmick than a legitimate plot point.
After several hints in the previous films, we finally get to see the Mandarin, considered in the comics to be the Joker to Stark’s Batman. In the 1960s, the character was nothing more than a face for yellow power and the evils of Communism, a magic-wielding Fu Manchu, so to speak. Black claims he wanted to deviate from that potentially controversial characterization for the film, for obvious reasons. And yet, I can’t help but feel the direction he chose was the more offensive of the two. Without giving anything away, The Mandarin is not who you think it is. Black uses the character as merely a punch line to, again, upend expectations. It’s not only a colossal middle finger to fans of the character, but also to Ben Kingsley, whose considerable talents are utterly wasted for mere stunt casting. Black said he chose Mandarin because he didn’t want Stark to end up fighting another guy in a robot suit like in the last two movies. I’d have preferred the latter.
Yes, if Iron Man 2 was the apathetic, uninspired Avengers promo many claimed it to be, then Iron Man 3 fails for the exact opposite reason – it tries too hard. Suffering from Spider-Man 3 syndrome, there are simply too many characters that are flippantly discarded (anyone remember Rebecca Hall was in this movie?), too many twists, turns, and plot threads, that by the time we reach the climax, we’re exhausted. That’s on top of the final, tacked-on full-circle resolution to remind us that this movie is actually part of a trilogy that, you know, should probably be paid off in some way. It all stems from Marvel’s perceived need to make a case for solo superhero movies after the success of The Avengers, without people wondering why Iron Man can’t just call in Thor or Captain America to save the day. Trouble is, there’s no need to go completely overblown by, say, throwing in 30 different Iron Mans at us, to do that. Producer Kevin Feige wants Iron Man 3 to put Stark, “back in the cave,” referring to the character’s capture and transformation in the first film. The film does no such thing; Tony is always within communicable reach of his companions, always has allies at his side, always has people there who recognize his celebrity status and are willing to help. If Marvel really wanted to do something bold, they’d adapt “Demon in a Bottle”, the comic arc wherein Stark is forced to confront his alcoholism, which would make for a far more poignant, challenging experience.
“Once you have gods with hammers falling from the sky, subtlety kind of goes out the window,” says a paraphrased Killian in the third act of Iron Man 3. Yet Joss Whedon and Kenneth Branagh’s films were both infinitely more subtle, satisfying, and more clearly, unabashedly entertaining than Black’s. It’s a shame; Black is a famously talented filmmaker, and there are still a few genuinely great, funny moments in the third Iron Man. But in the end, the film misses the spirit, the believability, the fan-conscious mythology the first film delivered so effectively. And with Downey Jr. staying mum on reprising his role in future solo installments, it seems high time to retire this character to appearances in Avengers sequels for the time being, at least until Marvel is ready to bring him back with a consistent, comic-conscious vision.