Iron Man 3 feels like a shrug of a film partly because it’s the third installment in the franchise and partly because that’s how the movie carries itself. Light on action, short on new ideas and constantly referring to last summer’s bigger, better The Avengers – in which Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark featured prominently – Iron Man 3 has the diminutive stature of a DVD extra.
That has been something of a problem with these Marvel movies, in which characters make cameos in each others’ pictures and some of the films – such as Captain America – play like extended trailers for forthcoming installments. All of this is supposed to give us the sense of a richly imagined universe beyond the particular film we happen to be watching, but in Iron Man 3 it’s a distraction. It’s as if Stark keeps bringing up The Avengers because it’s part of his contract.
Not that the movie itself offers much to arrest our attention. In the wake of the climactic New York City battle of The Avengers, Stark has begun to suffer anxiety attacks. Meanwhile, an enigmatic terrorist know as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) has been hitting American targets, including Stark’s Malibu fortress. Left with only one, badly damaged Iron Man suit – and still suffering from those attacks – Stark goes underground to try and track the Mandarin down.
The anxiety angle never quite works. The movie isn’t really interested in the concept as more than a plot device and, anyway, the depiction of an emotionally crippled Stark is at odds with the snarky Stark that the picture emphasizes (for good reason; Downey’s wit has been the hallmark of the franchise). It’s hard to become too invested in the angst-ridden journey of the character when he’s constantly dismissing it with a one-liner.
For a movie that’s timely in so many ways, Iron Man 3 is also disinterested in pursuing any real ideas.
For a movie that’s timely in so many ways, Iron Man 3 is also disinterested in pursuing any real ideas. Even those it seems to be broaching – the Iron Man suits as metaphors for U.S. drones, say, or the fear of technology’s invasion of our everyday lives, a la Google glass – are quickly forgotten. And if you think I’m asking too much of an Iron Man movie, recall that the first film worked quite well as a reflection of American interventionism in the wake of 9/11.
Other quibbles? Aside from a giddy, mid-air rescue of plummeting Air Force One crew members, there’s little exciting action. (Downey spends a curious amount of time fighting his battles while not wearing the title suit.) The biologically enhanced terrorist agents, with their steely gazes and regenerative abilities, crib way too much from Terminator 2: Judgment Day. And while I was fine with previous director Jon Favreau stepping down (Shane Black takes over here), I didn’t realize he did so in order to bump up his screen time as Stark’s awkwardly unfunny bodyguard Happy Hogan.
It would have taken quite a finale to get me back on board after all this, and Iron Man 3’s climax is bombastic without being engaging. Set on a tanker ship with cranes and storage containers, its use of moving parts and multiple levels recalls a game of Donkey Kong more than anything else. By the time Stark calls in reinforcements – about a dozen independently automated Iron Man suits, each with its own look and weaponry – I felt less like I was watching an action movie than the reveal of a new toy line.
I also kept wondering, given he’d been mentioning them so much, why didn’t Stark just call the Avengers?