The actual on-screen title of the third starring go-round for billionaire playboy/tech genius Tony Stark and his armored alter ego–Iron ManThree, the number completely spelled out–seems to oddly sum up my mixed feelings about the film. On a base level, it functionally fits in both the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole and as part of the individual Iron Man series. The events of last summer’s Marvel’s The Avengers are indeed addressed, but within the specific context of their personal fallout on Tony; and with that first super-team-up now over and done with, so is the clunky, company-mandated set-up baggage that weighed down the second film, with all attention here again zeroed in on Stark–as it turns out, quite literally. Robert Downey Jr. actually spends even less time in armor this time out, not that the famous suit isn’t lacking for screen time; somewhere between The Avengers and this film Tony has advanced his technology even further, not only building a wide variety of even more advanced suits but perfecting the ability to control them by remote–which all too accurately reflects, like that spelled-out “Three,” how on the surface the film appears to coast along yet is noticeably, naggingly off.
This is a bit surprising, for after all, the returning core cast of Downey, Gwyneth Paltrow (love interest/now-Stark Industries head Pepper Potts), Don Cheadle (best friend/former War Machine/now Iron Patriot, Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes), and Jon Favreau (former bodyguard/driver, now-Stark head of security Happy Hogan) is by this point a well-oiled machine of an ensemble. But also going for the film is another seemingly secure piece in place: the long-awaited big screen splash of Iron Man’s most notable nemesis on the comic book page, the Mandarin. Initially, director/co-writer Shane Black (taking over from Favreau, who retains an executive producer credit) delivers on the promise. If not exactly original, there is decent jumping-off hook of personal revenge for Tony after one of the mysterious terrorist’s attacks harms a loved one, and Ben Kingsley effortlessly exudes shadowy yet larger-than-life menace as the Mandarin. Stir in Guy Pearce’s smarm as a shady fellow industrialist Aldrich Killian, even more danger in the form of some baddies with some dangerous superpowers of murky origin (it is slick and savvy how what was a slavishly tech- and more reality-rooted series now has a reasonable out to delve into the realm of the fantastical after the alien threat in The Avengers) and some spectacular action (such as an early ambush on Tony’s familiar cliffside home) primes one for a big payoff.
But then things bizarrely go off the rails as the proceedings not only slow down considerably, but Black’s distinct filmmaking personality also comes out in ways that don’t exactly fit this particular property properly. His famous Lethal Weapon bantering buddy schtick expectedly turns up here, but not in the manner one would expect and even want, namely Tony/Rhodey; rather, Tony is given a kid sidekick (Ty Simpkins), a fellow technophile who is one of those gratingly precocious movie types. And so the film slowly but surely tilts toward Black’s more broadly comical instincts; while the Marvel Studios treatment of the character has, in its three previous film appearances, always maintained a light, witty touch (due in large part to Downey lending his own affable personality), when it comes to the nuts and bolts of the characters and mythology, it had heretofore always treated them with the proper dramatic weight and respect. While a grave examination of Tony’s post-traumatic stress disorder isn’t necessary (though it would’ve made for a seamless springboard to jump into his infamous substance issues in the comic), for the most part it’s treated as a set-up for punch lines (especially with the Simpkins character), making one wonder why even bother with such an angle in the first place. The same goes, sadly, for the decision to include the Mandarin in an admittedly original but overall disappointing manner that beyond being fanboy blasphemous (which, it must be noted, it certainly is) is simply just a lazy waste. Speaking as a longtime comic reader, it is understood to allow a fair amount of leeway when it comes to film reinterpretations of comics (after all, it is an adaptation, not a mere translation), but there comes a point where one strays so far afield that the essence and purpose of characters are lost. What makes Black and co-writer Drew Pearce’s ultimate treatmentof the character all the more baffling is that for the first half of the movie they successfully reimagine/reinvent him from the more touchy ethnic stereotyping of his 1960s-era origins in a way that honors the core qualities that make him such a formidable, enduring, and iconic adversary on the printed page. But in a move of misguided “cleverness,” they end up more or less obliterating all of their own work, to say nothing of decades of comic history, and cheaply reduce him to–in many senses–a joke. (Praise to Kingsley, though, for being a good sport and going all in with all the oddball directions the script takes him.)
None of this will matter to the masses, though, as Downey still whips out the wisecracks with precision timing; his chemistry with Paltrow still sparks even if it not as well-used as in their roles’ three previous screen appearances; and the explosive finale with armor literally flying everywhere is a step-up from the fizzled action anticlimax of Iron Man 2. But like the suits Tony pilots by remote throughout the film, it feels like an empty shell, all sleek and shiny and looking the part on the surface but hollow at the core, a point underscored by the film’s oddly rushed finale, which scrambles to definitively tie up a “trilogy” while glazing over, if not completely turning a blind eye, to many new issues and questions it brings up. I’m all for a good popcorn blow-’em-up in blockbuster season, but mere sensory stimulus isn’t quite enough from a series and “cinematic universe” that had previously served up much more than mayhem; spelling out the number “three” in the title doesn’t count as added substance.
By Michael DeQuina