It’s finally the beginning of summer – and just for good measure, the moviegoing season opens with one of my most-anticipated films this year. Though I certainly wasn’t familiar with Iron Man prior to his big-budget cinematic debut, he’s quickly become one of the most entertaining characters in Marvel’s ever-swelling arsenal of superheroes…thanks in large part to Robert Downey Jr.’s winning portrayal. Needless to say, I was pretty excited about “Iron Man 3.”
And indeed, it’s a rousing sci-fi/action flick that concludes hero’s story arc in fine fashion. It’s a strong finale…but falls just short of brilliance.
The film picks up shortly after the events of “The Avengers.” Tony Stark (Iron Man’s billionaire-playboy-philanthropist alter ego) is traumatized by flashbacks from the battle of New York, to say nothing of the looming threat from a terrorist identified only as “The Mandarin” (Ben Kingsley). To further muddy the waters, rogue scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) has resurfaced, after a twelve-year hiatus, with a mysterious new “wonder drug.” Killian’s Extremis promises to allow the user to regenerate lost body tissue…but there may be a terrifying (and fiery) price attached.
Technically, it’s great – and a cut above its predecessor. RDJ’s performance is as fantastic as expected, and the special effects never overwhelm the human drama. That said, I only wish it had taken the chance to delve deeper into some of the questions it raises.
It’s not hard to interpret the “Extremis” concept as a metaphor for insidious ideology (heck, all you have to do is stick an “m” or “t” on the end). In an early scene, Aldrich Killian describes the Extremis drug as filling a void inside the brain…a slot “designed” for such an infusion. In other words, human beings are quite literally completed by a powerful, burning force that promises to restore the parts of themselves they have lost.
This is a potentially brilliant concept. One of the biggest weaknesses in the “Iron Man” films (and indeed, in Marvel’s superhero lineup as a whole) has been the failure to develop a truly iconic ensemble of antagonists.
The most terrifying villains are those fueled by non-self-serving interests (this is something Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” movies exploited brilliantly). People who sincerely believe they are in the right, pursuing a grand ideological goal beyond their personal ambition, can’t often be fought via strength of arms. Conflicts over principles, rather than mere immediate power, drive the stories that are truly outstanding. (Why is Heath Ledger’s Joker so scary? Precisely because he can’t be “bought, bullied, or reasoned with.”)
“Iron Man 3” hints at a willingness to develop this. In several intense sequences, seemingly innocent civilians turn out to be infected with Extremis…making it virtually impossible to trust anyone. This is precisely what makes films like “The Dark Knight” and TV shows like “The Following” so menacing: a pervasive sense of dread, stemming from the very amorphousness of the enemy. After all, how can you fight a force – religious, ideological, or utopian – that can’t be punched, burned, or tossed in prison? Furthermore, director Shane Black draws in a steady stream of parallels with the War on Terror (most notably when one of Stark’s allies, girded in red-white-and-blue “Iron Patriot” armor, breaks into a Pakistani sweatshop). Threatening videos released by the Mandarin are clearly patterned after those put out by al-Qaeda and its affiliates. When coupled with the Extremis element, it’s not hard to read “Iron Man 3” as a cogent study of worldview clash.
(Some spoilers follow)
Unfortunately, Black jettisons these elements as the film progresses toward the inevitable bang-bang-bang conclusion. It soon becomes clear that the entire Extremis plot is simply a mad-scientist scheme from weapons developer Killian. (A striking tableau, in which the Iron Patriot is suspended crucifix-style over a flaming abyss, drives this point home with a sledgehammer: obviously, the military-industrial complex is crucifying America.) Even the Mandarin himself turns out to be somewhat…less intimidating…than one would expect. In “Iron Man 3,” real intellectual complexity simply doesn’t materialize as well as one might hope. (This is exacerbated by the constant use of glib one-liners, which occasionally serve to cripple the film’s dramatic tension.) By the time the credits roll, Tony Stark has yet to face an enemy fueled not by power-lust or greed, but by belief. And that is perhaps an unfortunate concession to popcorn-movie palatability.
To be fair, all of this is much deeper than what most superhero films even try to accomplish, so “Iron Man 3” is to be commended in that regard. And none of the foregoing discussion should be read to imply that “Iron Man 3” isn’t worth watching. The action scenes are great – really great. Certain sequences do bear a passing resemblance to “Transformers,” but they never become pointlessly cacophonous. Overall, the film is immensely entertaining, anchored by strong performances and effects, and eminently quotable. (In fact, it’s probably a better movie than last summer’s “The Avengers”). And, honestly, there’s something to be said for a little levity in an increasingly dark-and-edgy genre.
So, in the end, go see “Iron Man 3” (especially if you’re a superhero movie aficionado). Just don’t expect much complexity.
A worthy capstone to a solid superhero saga, marred only by a few missed opportunities for greater depth.
Normalized Score: 6.9