How would you put a label on the “Iron Man” franchise? What is it about this franchise that has allowed it to survive reboots, drastic recasting, self parody and made Tony Stark the most likeable character in the complete Marvel Universe?
The popular candidate is Robert Downey Jr., but his on-camera chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow is part of the reason the franchise has resisted description. These two are screwball comics on par with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, and their dialogue mixed with their story in “Iron Man 3” comes across as part comedy, part action movie, part superhero fantasy, part conspiracy thriller and even part social commentary.
“Iron Man 3” and its franchise as a whole has resisted a firm genre label because it’s trying to be everything at once and just feels like nothing at all.
Here is a movie that can follow-up a crotch shot gag with a horrific montage of terrorism. The flashily edited sequence combines any number of grim terror images from the last decade+ since 9/11, playing on just about any fear you may recognize. Even the villain responsible for this mass broadcast hacking the country’s airwaves, The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), is designed to be a hodgepodge of characteristics American audiences might associate with evil. Many reviewers have described his actions as similar to Osama bin Laden, but his ambiguous ethnicity of an Americanized accent, a British actor, a Chinese name and an Arabic heritage and insignia, play on fears more broadly. This is almost especially troubling later on when The Mandarin turns out to be not all that he appears.
The Mandarin spouts empty polemics about phony American inventions like a fortune cookie and finally goes one bombing too far, causing Stark to openly threaten The Mandarin with an invitation to his home address. Because for Stark, for a young boy Stark gets help from later and for any children in the audience, these national attacks are just action set pieces where superheroes can strut their stuff.
The only real drama in the movie is caused by Stark, always the poor old playboy genius billionaire, suffering from anxiety and insomnia. This is a blockbuster, so it dodges the bigger questions and settles with the simple, overdone, humbling feeling of being human in a superhuman world.
Those bigger themes, if it chose to focus on them, would be enough for one movie. But it gets us back to the idea that “Iron Man 3” is stuffed to the gills with conflicting feelings, punch lines and styles. Just watch the near 20-minute finale and try to describe to someone afterwards what transpired.
The climax has The President of the United States dangling in an Iron Man suit 50 feet off the ground on a big oiler tanker. Stark has borrowed a trick from Harry Potter and has summoned a legion of over 40 robotic Iron Men to engage in battle with gun-toting super mutants, some of whom are capable of breathing fire. Meanwhile, Pepper Potts (Paltrow) is being held captive as scientific experiments are performed on her body.
On paper, this is the most immense, absurd thing that’s ever happened in a movie. Watching this chaos unfold however feels relatively lifeless and familiar, a bit spectacular in its use of special effects, a bit funny as Stark inserts a few one-liners and a bit thrilling as it juggles so many moving parts, but like the movie, it doesn’t feel stylishly complex, just a bland mess.
It’s a shame because “Iron Man 3” is above average for a superhero film. Kingsley and Pearce give wacky, fully sold villainous performances, and Downey and Paltrow do suggest that Hollywood is in a new age of screwball comedies that borrows from the Old in style, just not genre or aesthetics. It even breaks out of the norm of past “Iron Man” films in which Stark is nearly bested by more advanced versions of his own technology. And unlike the disappointing second “Iron Man,” it’s not bogged down in product placement and overly cocky swagger.
The film’s end credits claim that Tony Stark will return, at the very least in the upcoming “Avengers” sequel, but I have to wonder how much more monstrous “Iron Man” can get. I’d be surprised to see yet another Marvel film more generally entertaining and amusing and yet troublingly problematic and disappointing than this.