I’m in a weird place with IRON MAN 3. I should be totally happy. I mean, what else could I ask for, right? A cast of great actors.State-of-the-art visual effects.Robots.Explosions. The big-budget studio return of Shane Black, writer of LETHAL WEAPON, THE MONSTER SQUAD, THE LAST BOY SCOUT, THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT, KISS KISS BANG BANG and (rumor had it) some of PREDATOR– an influence on my own writing style before the internet was really even a thing. And all of that in a Marvel Comics movie. I’m firmly a Marvel kid. Batman aside, DC Comics were always a bit too corny to me. Marvel Comics were more irreverent, more character-based, more angst-ridden, more indulgent of bold weirdness. To me. Marvel had all the wise-asses. Spider-Man. Hawkeye.The Thing. I don’t remember Iron Man as being that, but it sure is the way Robert Downey Jr. has been playing him for a bunch of movies now. It’s more fun that way. Really: Just because the world is in danger of ending every time one of these movies happens, that doesn’t necessitate mopiness and agita all the time. I mean, honestly, could there possibly anyone who’d rather watch THE DARK KNIGHT RISES than THE AVENGERS? And if there are, could I not ever have to hang out with them, please? You know, ladies say they prefer a sense of humor.
And there’s a ton to be happy about with Shane Black’s IRON MAN 3. So much that I’d have to forego regular review formatting protocol and instead provide an itemized checklist:
- Robert Downey Jr. as gazillionaire inventor Tony Stark, the man in the iron mask, presiding over these movies like the jazziest party host in town, forever an example of offbeat casting paying off to monumental rewards.
- Jon Favreau as the guy who cast him, not directing the movies anymore but still appearing in the supporting role of Stark’s bodyguard and buddy Happy Hogan. Like everybody else in the movie, he gets some fun comedy bits to play before being benched for most of the big game. (Is that a spoiler?)
- Speaking of spoilers, I’m definitely not going to ruin Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin. Envisioned in the comics as a kind of now-egregiously-dated Yellow Terror pulp mastermind with the sartorial sense of David Lo Pan, the thinktank of Marvel/Shane Black/original writer Drew Pearce have come up with a remarkably savvy way to update the Mandarin for the 21st century. I did have a hunch what they were getting at early on, but discarded the notion, More the fool I. More monster-budgeted movies should be this clever.
- Don Cheadle as James Rhodes/War Machine/Iron Patriot (everyone has multiple identities in these movies; mere double-identities are for squares) is reliably spry and charismatic. He’s not in the movie remotely enough, but the final showdown reminded me so much of 2011’s THE GUARD that I will forgive it.
- Guy Pearce, quite frankly one of the most interesting guys in movies right now, as the nefarious madman Aldrich Killian, rival to Tony Stark and creator of the technology that turns invalids (like himself, originally) into super-powered techno-zombies. Guy Pearce is coming off a 2012 in which he gave us whackadoo freak-punk performances in LOCKOUT, PROMETHEUS, and LAWLESS, and his role in IRON MAN 3 only continues the hot, weird streak. I mean, he’s basically a dragon in this movie. You’ll have to see it to get what I mean.
- James Badge Dale as Killian’s main henchman, Eric Savin (who? doesn’t really matter) is a jolt of nasty energy. This guy has been around for a while, racking up a killer filmography as a solid ensemble player (THE DEPARTED, SHAME, THE GREY, Spielberg’s THE PACIFIC) without really hitting the way he always seemed he would. Between his indelible appearance as a dying cancer patient with a unique outlook in last year’s FLIGHT and now his scornfully enjoyable scene-chewing in IRON MAN 3, I’d put money on this dude to start making waves in larger parts. You won’t care about the character – I can’t even be sure I caught the name during the movie – but you’ll remember the actor.
- Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, Tony Stark’s love interest for three films now, only Shane Black, like Joss Whedon, isn’t a writer who’s at all interest in the standard damsel-in-distress, underwritten, never-even-kissed-a-girl shoddiness that characterizes so much of American action cinema in general, not just the superhero ones. The same way Joss somehow managed to make the Black Widow my favorite character in the AVENGERS movies, Shane Black gives Pepper a couple big moments that – honestly could stand to have been expanded upon – would certainly be promising, female-friendly developments if the franchise were to continue. It’s a shame Paltrow in real life insists on giving such noxious interviews, because I really do like her on screen.
- Rebecca Hall from THE TOWN shows up to create a bit of romantic tension between Downey and Paltrow’s characters. It’d be hard to argue that her subplot really goes anywhere, but at least there’s an emphasis placed on developing and complicating one of the few semi-mature relationships in modern superhero movies. That said, Tony Stark also gets a kid sidekick in this movie, which is cute but not really much in character. It also takes up quite a bit of screentime, not in an obnoxious way, but not in a way that grown-ups won’t notice kid appeal being shoehorned into a movie which otherwise isn’t very much for kids at all. (Once the word “pussy” gets dropped in casual conversation, you can be sure no kid in my own life will be shown this movie for a couple years more at least.)
- William Sadler plays the president. That alone is a fucking masterstroke worthy of my fealty to this film. I would like to live in a country where William Sadler is the president. Do you think you do not know who William Sadler is? Yes you definitely do. Scan through his IMDb page. Better yet, check out his hilariously rad personal website. Then join me at campaign headquarters for Sadler ‘2016.
- The score by Brian Tyler is noticeably good. I’ve been appreciating this guy’s stuff since his work for Don Coscarelli on 2002’s BUBBA HO-TEP. He’s been doing stellar work on mostly medium-profile projects for a long time now. Unlike the more workmanlike scores from IRON MAN’s Ramin Djawadi and IRON MAN 2’s John Debney, you might actually remember some of the themes from IRON MAN 3. (It also helps that we’ve finally dumped all the Black Sabbath and the AC/DC. It was time.) You have to hand it to a guy who makes music for IRON MAN 3 and JOHN DIES AT THE END in the same year.
- More than all of the above, there’s a spritely inventiveness to this movie that makes it go down easy. Before he’s James Bond in a robot costume, Tony Stark is an inventor, and that’s the emphasis the Marvel team has placed on the movie. Even if it’s pseudo-science, it’s neat to see a focus on science. Stark creates the tools to solve his problems. That’s gratifying to watch. The way he hops around from suit to suit, surprises us with remote-controlled Iron Man suits, and creates a small robot army of multiple flavors of Iron Men – all of this as it plays on screen has an effect similar to the feeling you get when you solve a row of simple answers on a crossword.
Obviously I liked plenty about it. So why am I not buzzing with unbridled joy? I feel like I still got the bridle on. The audience I saw IRON MAN 3 with was vibrating at a level of hooting and hollering that would imply Jesus was in town and he brought his all-star rock band with him. People were screaming for the split-second cameo from Shaun Toub, and who the hell normally even knows who that guy is besides a sponge for random character actor names like myself? Believe me guys, I’d like to be that happy. I’d like to experience joy. But something’s missing, not just in the heart, but lower. I am fond of IRON MAN 3 as a person, but it doesn’t give me a boner.
For one thing, even though the recent Marvel films are the best possible versions of what they are (huge-scale action/sci-fi superhero spectacles), there is a basic sameness to their structure that is starting to wear on me. Maybe normal people won’t ever notice it, maybe it’s only one of those high-pitched dog-frequency cinemaniac levels that only I and poor souls like me catch onto, but it does effect my enjoyment. In other words, pretty much all the new Marvel movies start slowly and escalate – which, by the way, is smart storytelling. Each one gets you acclimated to the unusual characters and their abilities before the main threat hovers into view, at which point the movie turns into an extended, CGI-abetted battle royale. There are a lot of conversation scenes, about heroism and identity and so on, and those scenes are punctuated by big action scenes, but the biggest action scene always comes in the last third of the movie and lasts what usually feels like half an hour at least. If you’ve been sitting in the theater a while and onscreen all the human beings have put on their masks and turned into little computer-animated cartoons, you can tell whether or not you’ll need to feed the meter.
Marvel could not possibly make me any happier with the writers and directors they have hired, first and foremost Joss Whedon and now Shane Black. They could not possibly have done any better for their characters , who are now being written by some of the best sculptors of quip-heavy, personality-revealing dialogue ever to work in movies. I don’t entirely know what I could be complaining about.
My guess is that I think I’d rather stay longer with those sharply-written human characters than watch them turn into robots and blow shit up. Which is strange for me personally to consider. When I was 16 this would have been my favorite movie. When I was 26 it may also have been. More and more I find myself less interested in the part where Downey and Cheadle stop talking and the explosions start. Maybe I’m growing up — unlikely, but possible. Maybe it’s all the real-world explosions lately that are making me less amenable to watching them onscreen — more possible, although I can still enjoy a bone-headed consequence-free action movie just fine.
No, it’s back to my original thought: In a weird way, I think when you have writers this good doing what they do best, it’s a shame to have to relinquish all that character-building over to scenes co-scripted by the stuntmen and the F/X department. Not that those craftsmen don’t do incredibly respectable work. But at times during these movies I feel like I’m watching someone else play a video game, when I’d probably rather see Shane Black doing another movie like KISS KISS BANG BANG, a genre movie, yeah, but one about people you could possibly meet in real life. It says plenty about my respect for his talent that, as much as I salute his success making IRON MAN 3, I’d have much preferred to see Shane Black make a JOE HALLENBECK 2 or a Gay Perry solo film. Maybe now that his latest movie has made eleventy billion dollars, he’ll be able to.
UPDATE: Not five minutes after this review went up, it was announced that Shane Black’s next movie will be a feature-film adaptation of the old pulp adventure hero, DOC SAVAGE. Not exactly the lower-key, self-generated, original follow-up I was hoping for, but it sounds like a passion project, and like anything else, it could always be great.
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Tags: Adam Pally, Ben Kingsley, Brian Tyler, Christmas, Don Cheadle, Explosions, Guy Pearce, Gwyneth Paltrow, James Badge Dale, Joan Rivers, John Toll, Jon Abrams, Jon Favreau, marvel, Miguel Ferrer, Paul Bettany, Rebecca Hall, Robert Downey Jr., Robots, Shane Black, Stan Lee, Superheroes, William Sadler