Let’s talk numbers.
Three: The number of Iron Man films that Disney outfit Marvel has produced.
Seven: The number of films Marvel has released in theatres.
Five: The number of films Marvel currently has in production.
Two: the number of films that Shane Black has now directed.
1,000+: Movies about robots.
This is where context becomes paramount. Before I dive into my thoughts on Shane Black’s Iron Man 3, and because I’m done tagging my reviews with silly stars that tell you nothing about a film, let’s put Iron Man 3 up against its peers:
Iron Man 3 is my second favorite Iron Man film, my sixth favorite Marvel film, and I can think of 50 other efforts I’d put in front of it in the pantheon of robot/cyborg/man-in-mechanical-suit films.
Before you accuse me of tearing the movie down, I had fun with Iron Man 3. It’s just that the film is constructed around a shoddy foundation, never really finding a narrative groove long enough. That it’s different from all other Marvel efforts before it is hardly a bad thing. It just so happens that those tonal and narrative shifts don’t amount to a coherent Tony Stark story.
Shane Black’s script, sharing credit with Drew Pearce, makes the very cool choice to bookend the film with Stark’s narration, first planting us in New Year’s Eve 1999, setting up the driving plot involving Tony rebuffing Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and his limb-rebuilding Extremis tech. Cut to present day, the free world is on its heels thanks to The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a terrorist bent on fear-mongering. After an attack that hits too close to home, Tony picks a fight with the Mandarin only to suffer another attack that actually hits his home.
$175 million opening weekend means most of us have already seen this one (yeah, I get it, I’m late), so let’s pull the curtain back on the film’s biggest ace in the hole: the twist in where The Mandarin is a smokescreen, played by an alcoholic actor under the employ of Killian, trying to advance his own master plan to control all the world’s weapons because … profit. Or something.
Except Killian says he is The Mandarin, late in the third act, long after the reveal would’ve meant anything, and as if he was the last to find out. This twist encapsulates why Iron Man 3 is something of a stunted mess, where we’re working backwards from the idea instead of building to it properly. Pull one thread and it all comes apart. We’re to believe that Killian is actually Patient Zero of evil in the Marvel Universe (at least on Earth). Before Raza, Obadiah Stane, Ivan Vanko and Justin Hammer, there was Aldrich Killian: The Mandarin – a guy rebuffed at a party. This Mandarin who pays an actor to pretend to be The Mandarin, lead terrorist organization the Ten Rings, and build human-bomb hybrids. Because, again, profit. And revenge.
This is dumb. And that’s okay.
It’s certainly a cute scene; one very much in the wheelhouse of Black, where we find that Kingsley’s character is a surly, aloof mess. But everything around it, from Killian’s revenge motivations to the endgame in his master plan, holds the careful forethought of a bird regurgitating in the mouth of its young.
Indeed, it’s more instinct than storytelling for Shane Black here, as he seems dead set on getting his trademarks into an Iron Man movie without first determining why or where they belong. Instead of getting Shane Black’s Iron Man, we’re seeing an Iron Man movie with a ton of Shane Black stuff blanketed over it. There are strange pairings (none stranger than Tony’s detour with the little kid), cute plot twists (the aforementioned Mandarin reveal) and the trademark Black Christmas (no pun intended). But the presence of these elements is too inorganic to be of meaningful impact. They’re there for the sake of being there, which is surprising, given how fantastic Black’s scripts have been in justifying their own proclivities up to now.
It bears mention that the cast here is excellent. Robert Downey Jr. is given more to do than being a face in the suit, as this is really a Tony Stark movie above all. Black matches Whedon in his ability to make his cornerstones of his respective franchise flourish. Gwyneth Paltrow and Don Cheadle are finally given moments to shine whereas Paul Bettany’s J.A.R.V.I.S. bangs it out with his finest voice work yet. Guy Pearce, who’s been on a tear as a character actor, seems to be channeling Val Kilmer here, though the performance is relatively ineffectual. Rebecca Hall is underused to the point where she could’ve been written out and the film wouldn’t miss a beat.
Iron Man 3 is Marvel’s most ambitious movie yet. But in trying to be both a great Marvel movie and a great Shane Black movie, it ends up achieving neither. A dumb, fun effort with enough distractions to make it worth your time but never commanding your full attention, Iron Man 3 still embodies what it’s commendably trying to avoid: forgettable comic book fluff.