Tuesday, April 30, 2013

'Iron Man 3' Review

When it comes to the Iron Man franchise, I'm probably not to be trusted. I found the first film to be perfectly fine and quite funny, but it was merely the appetizer for Summer 2008's real comic book movie, The Dark Knight. If I thought Iron Man was a touch overrated, then I think Iron Man 2 is a bit underrated: Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell made for better bad guys than Jeff Bridges, and Scarlett Johansson was a welcome addition. (And as much as I've liked Robert Downey Jr. in these movies, Gwyneth Paltrow has been a wonderful foil.)

I mention all that because in some of the reviews I've read of Iron Man 3, the takeaway seems to be that this latest installment is a happy return to form. But that's only if you subscribe to the belief that the first film was great and the second was junk, which I don't. Though it's ultimately successful on its own terms, Iron Man 3 benefits greatly, as several of the Marvel films have, from being the first big summer movie out of the blocks. If this movie came out two months from now, when we've all been properly pummeled by several of these, one after the other, it would seem somewhat disposable. At the beginning of the season, its silly overkill feels almost novel and charming.

To get prepared for Iron Man 3, you don't just need to remember the first two films but also The Avengers, whose finale is crucial to where Tony Stark (Downey) is emotionally as the new movie begins. Shaken by his near-death experience battling the Chitauri alien race and saving Manhattan from nuclear destruction, Stark now suffers from PTSD, unable to sleep and constantly afraid for the safety of his beloved Pepper (Paltrow). But the man doesn't have time for therapy: A onetime-nerd-turned-evil-genius named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) is in cahoots with a dangerous Middle Eastern terrorist known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) who keeps detonating explosives around the U.S.

Stark wants to help, but all he does is incite the wrath of the Mandarin and his minions, who have the ability to generate extreme levels of heat within themselves. (I wondered if director Shane Black and co-writer Drew Pearce have watched much Fringe: The Mandarin's chums seem like the sort of freak-of-the-week concoction that the Fox show used to showcase on a regular basis.) Unfortunately, Stark puts everything he cares about into danger, including Pepper and his envy-inducing Malibu pad. Like Star Trek III and The Dark Knight Rises, Iron Man 3 is the edition in the franchise where our hero loses a lot of his cool gadgets or an iconic location gets trashed. We're meant to realize that, hey, the filmmakers aren't messing around in this one.

Of course, messing around has been a hallmark of the Iron Man films. It was Downey's cockeyed "I'm starring in what kind of movie?" take on Stark, helped immensely by director Jon Favreau, that made the first two films so light on their feet. They were wiseass while still being smart. (When other comic book movies have tried to follow in its footsteps, they've only come across as hokey, like Green Lantern.)

Favreau declined to direct Iron Man 3, although his wry bodyguard character returns, and in his place steps Black, the onetime hotshot action screenwriter of Lethal Weapon and Last Action Hero whose previous directing effort was Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, also with Downey. There's always a bit of a franchise-by-committee feeling to the Marvel movies, but Black has maintained the Iron Man films' sarcastic sense of humor. (Happily, he continues the series' best running gag, which is that it's completely ridiculous when Stark or Don Cheadle's James Rhodes character try to have normal, mundane conversations encased in their imposing, ass-kicking metal suits.) By now, we know the drill: Downey will improvise some of his best one-liners, and there will be a general what-me-worry demeanor to the whole affair.

That's fine as far as it goes, and the movie gets a surprising amount of comic mileage out of an unexpected pairing between Stark and a small-town kid (Ty Simpkins) who has to help him rebuild his badly damaged suit. (Also, anybody who knows Black's previous work will be amused to learn that Iron Man 3 continues his tradition of setting movies during Christmastime.) But as Stephanie Zacharek points out, Iron Man 3 is like a lot of recent comic book movies in that it's hampered by "too many pseudo-feelings." It's not enough that Stark has to save America from a scary foreign terrorist: He has to be haunted by the harrowing adventures he's endured and tormented about his inability to be a good partner to Pepper. (As a rule of thumb, if you're a character who's spent much time with Stark, your life will be gravely threatened in Iron Man 3, mostly so that Stark can have a worthy personal motivation to get the baddies.) The Iron Man films have been a sort of wisecracking counterpart to Christopher Nolan's grand-gravitas Batman movies, but the darker Iron Man 3 gets -- the more it reaches for pathos -- the more apparent it becomes that such nuance is better left to the Dark Knight.

As a result, Iron Man 3 starts and stops, picking up a little momentum and then sagging, rallying for a superb action set piece but then losing its way a little when Stark's emotional through-line gets addressed again. (This movie is only a few minutes longer than either of the first two films, but it feels quite a bit longer.) When it's in action-thriller mode, the film is wholly confident, and it stirs the giddy enthusiasm of a thousand summer movies past. But I can't say I felt very engaged in what was happening on a human level. The strengths of Iron Man 3 are the same as they were in the first installment: Downey's irreverent attitude and some world-class effects. (For a third straight time, the movie's principal antagonists are merely OK. Where is Iron Man's Joker?) But just like the obligatory Stan Lee cameo, the movie doesn't really surprise or delight you. It entertains you plenty, but it's oddly perfunctory. After the usual slog of bad early-year studio fare, offset by a few fine indie and art-house offerings, it's always fun to have summer movies back. But Iron Man 3 makes you hope that we'll see some better blockbusters soon.