"You know what keeps going through my head... where's my sandwich?"
I'm not entirely sure why I have a preternatural desire to re-establish my geek cred every time a new superhero movie comes out, but here goes... I have never really been a fan of Marvel Comics. Growing up, Daredevil was the only Marvel superhero I read with any regularity. I was always, and will likely always be, a DC kid at heart. Since Bryan Singer's X-Men in 2000, however, I have enjoyed Marvel's film output much more than DC's. I'm not a big fan of any of the Spider-Man films, or anything 20th Century Fox has done with Marvel characters, except the first two X-Men films and First Class. Beyond that, though, I have thoroughly enjoyed the Marvel cinematic universe that has been mythologized beginning with 2008's Iron Man.
The casting of Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark was the first step they made towards upping their game, and it hasn't let up at all, creating some really great comic book films up through last year's Avengers, which I liked despite not loving it like everyone else. So now that all the setup is over, what's the next step for this batch of Marvel superheroes? If Iron Man 3 is any indication, it's time to start throwing all of the comic mythology out the window, and start creating more realistic confines, similar to what Christopher Nolan did with his marvelous Dark Knight trilogy. But do these characters really lend themselves to this treatment? Read on to find out...
In the aftermath of the epic battle that saw him team up with The Avengers, Tony Stark is experiencing something he never has before... anxiety & panic attacks. He is haunted by his memories of seeing and fighting against things he never dreamed possible. Meanwhile, the US Government is facing a new terror threat in the form of The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a next level terrorist, seeking to instill fear in the American people by routinely hijacking the airwaves & broadcasting terrifying messages.
Tony finds himself tinkering away, trying to create a new Iron Man suit that can fuse to his body from great distances, but finds himself sucked into The Mandarin's game when his bodyguard Happy (Jon Favreau) is seriously injured in one of The Mandarin's attacks. Tony goads The Mandarin into coming after him, and ends up losing his home, suits & direction in an attack on his Malibu home. Tony must now get his groove back and find out what's at the heart of The Mandarin's plot, and find out if it has anything to do with an old adversary, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), that has reemerged, seemingly out of nowhere.
First things first, I think that choosing Shane Black to write & direct this film was an inspired choice on Marvel's part. Black was the go-to big budget action screenwriter for most of the late 80s & early 90s, and has sensibilities that play directly into this new breed of big-budget action films. Downey is an actor blessed with the ability to deliver Black's dialogue incredibly well, and their pairing is what keeps Iron Man 3 afloat, even as it gets bogged down in nonsense.
A lot of people get down on Iron Man 2, but apart from the fact that it spent more time setting up The Avengers than anything else, I thoroughly enjoy Iron Man 2. It certainly doesn't hurt that it had two fantastic actors (Sam Rockwell & Mickey Rourke) teaming up in a classic villain revenge plot. Having said that, I don't understand, then, why everyone is giving Iron Man 3 a pass for having, basically, the exact same villain dynamic, except for the fact that Killian's tech is more advanced than what Hammer & Vanko were working with. Can anyone explain this to me? It's basically the exact same motives for this villain as they were for the previous villain. Is this the new trend in Iron Man villains? They're all motivated by revenge on Tony Stark for being an asshole?
The similarities between this film and The Dark Knight Rises are staggering. I know that this film was in production when that one was released, so it's unlikely they could have incorporated so many similar elements intentionally, but this film really felt like an attempt to say, "we can deal with all of the same subject matter in a more lighthearted way." Here are just a few of the strange coincidences: Main villain turns out to be a pawn of another villain, hero spends most of the film out of his trademark suit trying to deal with crippling psychological issues, hero is a playboy billionaire philanthropist who inexplicably only has eyes for one woman, terrorist mastermind seeking to instill fear through the destruction of the elite in our society, stupid kid sidekick for no good reason, "clean slate" program. I'm not saying... I'm just saying.
My biggest gripe, however, is the way they handle The Mandarin. If you haven't seen the film, skip to the next paragraph, as there's some serious spoilers ahead. Let me start by saying that Ben Kingsley is FANTASTIC in this film, without a doubt the best thing about it. Even when he's revealed to be just an actor playing a part, I loved what he did. I was not crazy about that particular reveal, but I fully admired his choices and thought he was outstanding in the film. In the comics, The Mandarin has 10 magical rings that he acquired from an alien race that crash landed, and he uses them against Stark in ever interesting & creative ways. This universe has already established aliens, why not keep this element intact? Are they afraid that introducing magic into this world will be the last straw for some people? We've come this far, why not go whole hog? It's a cop out, and a nasty one at that, to introduce this particular supervillain, and then wash him away as a plot device, only to have Tony Stark end up battling, essentially, zombies. I know the Extremis infected people weren't really zombies, but that's more or less what they were. This entire subplot was troubling to me and makes me upset that if they're willing to introduce major characters into this universe just to throw them away at the drop of a hat, what are they going to do with Thanos or Doctor Strange or some of the even more fantastical characters?
I'm being a tad unfair towards Iron Man 3. For the bulk of its running time, it's solidly entertaining. Black deserves all the credit in the world for this, as I'm sure most of the plot developments I disagree with were studio mandated. Downey will never be as good as he was in the first Iron Man, but he's still very good here. His scene in the news van with his biggest fan was my favorite in the entire film, and was the perfect synergy of Black's great writing and Downey's terrific delivery. Don Cheadle is perfectly fine as Rhodey, but he's given very little to do here beyond sidekick shit. His handful of scenes with Downey, though, are among the best in the film.
Guy Pearce is someone that I used to like a lot, throughout the 90s and early 00s, but I'm just not a fan of what he does anymore. It's sad to me that they made a point of not killing of Justin Hammer at the end of Iron Man 2, and he could have very easily have been this character without having to establish an entirely new character and backstory, but some of that may have to do with my undying love for Sam Rockwell. The less said about Gwyneth Paltrow, the better. She's someone I genuinely cannot stand (with the exception of Sliding Doors), and beefing up her role just helped to push me further and further away from the love story elements they're so desperate to infuse this series with.
Lots of great actors are more or less wasted in glorified cameos, like Rebecca Hall, William Sadler, and Miguel Ferrer, but one actor I would like to praise is James Badge Dale. I first took real notice of him with his fantastic five minute scene in the hospital stairwell in Flight, but his role here as Killian's main henchman is great also. He's a vastly more interesting screen presence than Pearce, and I would have actually liked to have seen what he would have done with a better or more meaty role. He is, most assuredly, an actor to watch.
So yeah, I know I'm supposed to just take these things with a grain of salt, and sit back and not think too much, but I'm really bothered by a lot of what they did with this film. Again, I can only fault Marvel and Disney for these decisions, as they seem to great to leave solely to the writer/director. I didn't dislike Iron Man 3, I'm just disappointed by it. Maybe my attitude toward it will change over time, as it sort of has for The Avengers, but only time will tell. Right now though, at this moment, I have no qualms with saying it is my least favorite of the Marvel Avengers films.
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]