When Iron Man was released back in the summer of 2008, it was a refreshing take on the superhero genre. Where Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight explored the more mature themes boiling under the comic strip, Iron Man embraced the snark and lighthearted nature of the medium. Featuring a career resurrecting performance from the indelible Robert Downey Jr, Iron Man was a rock star superhero, one not detained by strict moral guidelines or verbal barriers. Piggy backing off of Robert Downey Jr’s inescapable charm, Marvel studios released Iron Man 2 to a great deal of anticipation in 2010. But, where the franchise starter felt fresh and engaging, Iron Man 2 relinquished any sort of freedom by embracing the mantra of a studio sequel: bigger is better. Naturally, Downey Jr. was beyond affable as our titular character, but the film self destructed due to unnecessary plot points, an overabundance of characters, and a lack of relevance from its villains. It was a bloated piece of nothingness, with little redeeming qualities outside of Downey Jr’s sugary charm.
Unfortunately, Tony Stark’s latest adventure, and apparently his last, continues the franchise’s trend of diminishing returns. We pick up sometime after The Avengers, with Tony Stark’s confidence shrinking by the minute. Having survived an alien invasion, and flying up a wormhole, Tony Stark now distances himself from sleep and the ones he loves. In place of basic human needs is late night tinkering, as Tony spends most of his days re-engineering his metallic suits into remote-controlled drones. His persona buckles under the weight of paranoia, which is only amplified when the world succumbs to vicious, unexpected attacks from a terrorist known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). Feeling as if he’s the world’s protector, Stark challenges the Mandarin to fight him at his door. The Mandarin obliges, sending Stark into a personal abyss with a bevy of explosives. With his suit and laboratory destroyed, Stark attempts to strike a vengeful blow. Yet, not everything is as it seems as corporate rival Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) enters the picture with an agenda of his own. In many ways, Iron Man 3 practically treads on the same tepid ground as its predecessor, albeit in a much more inspired way.
Where the previous Iron Man films found Tony Stark blasting off into situations at breakneck speed, he behaves more like a detective in this adventure. Yes, there are some fantastic action pieces where Downey Jr. proudly wears the metal garb, but he spends most of the film in civilian gear, assembling an answer to a mystery that is too straightforward for its own good. Despite the film’s main plot thread being a dud, I respect writer/director Shane Black’s attempts to deconstruct comic book expectations by removing Stark from his suit, and exposing his human condition in a different capacity. Per usual, Robert Downey Jr. ignites the screen with his magnetic presence while delivering a shocking amount of vulnerability to his titan of a character. Mind you, Stark’s growing paranoia is a bit underwritten, and shades more towards comedic than dramatic, but Downey Jr’s swift mouth and manic eyes dig a bit deeper into Stark’s mounting anxiety. Downey Jr’s performance gains even more value with Shane Black’s dialog, which is fast, on point and surprisingly edgy for a summer blockbuster catering to the masses. Without Downey Jr. or Black’s fantastic dialog and well placed gags, Iron Man 3 is regrettably inconsequential.
The main problem plaguing the film is quite simple: it has no idea where it wants to go; it scratches at the surface of many intriguing plot threads, only to bail on them before they become involving. One such interesting plot point involves Rebecca Hall’s character, a hard-nosed botanist who shared a one night stand with Tony Stark years prior. Here is a character, with a secret no less that could open up a portal to Stark’s soul but she’s absolutely wasted. She is nothing but a plot device, showing up only when it’s necessary to propel the film forward. Because of this, the film feels largely disengaging. The only genuine moment of suspense and intrigue revolves around Air Force One hemorrhaging innocent bystanders while Iron Man breathlessly attempts to save them. Undermining the one great set piece are meek villains, one of which laughably shares an origin story with Jim Carrey’s The Riddler from Batman Forever. Much like in Iron Man 2, the villains set before Stark are vanilla, outmatched, and directionless. I do deliver the previous statement with one caveat: Ben Kingsley’s performance is fantastic, part of which can only be explained by delivering a spoiler, so I’ll avoid that at all costs. It’s just a shame that Kingsley’s effort, as well as Robert Downey Jr’s, is marred by an ineffective screenplay. As a whole, the Iron Man franchise, long after its refreshing beginning, has become rudderless outside of its star. Black’s vision for Iron Man 3 is earnest, at least when it comes to reframing a superhero narrative, but rarely does it expand on its intermittent moments of brilliance.