To say that the role of Iron Man fits Robert Downey Jr. like a glove is groan-worthy, but apt. How this actor, so nimble both physically and intellectually, uses his unique skill set to imbue an iron superhero with a supple grace and feline intensity is beyond me, but it works. Usually. In Iron Man 3, the latest refurbishment of an action-hero extravaganza, Iron Man and his human alter ego, Tony Stark, are noticeably shaken, thanks to a sort of PTSD derived from last year’s brouhaha, with super-friends, in New York City (The Avengers). He’s not sleeping; just tinkering, making even more iron suits as if their phantom presences stored within glass display cases will be enough to thwart his demons. Needless to say, that ain’t gonna happen.
Creeping into Stark’s subconscious is the presence of an evil warlord known as the Mandarin, who commandeers international cable feeds to air carefully edited video showing anti-American demonstrations and resulting in chaos, carnage and in one instance, on-air murder. The post-9/11 populace is edgy, terrorized by the threats posed by the Mandarin and his increasingly stepped-up attacks, which usually involve scarred combat veterans. Something that Iron Man 3 does almost too well is use our collective sense of battle fatigue and diminished global power to fuel the anxiety posed by a new world order. Writers Shane Black (who directed) and Drew Pearce milk that anxiety for all its worth, in the process spilling over the edge into voyeuristic thrill seeking. Stark spends much of the movie’s beginning reminiscing about the pre-9/11 era, when the dropping of the New Year’s Ball signified a new sexual conquest instead of a sense of wonder that we’d make it another year. We notice, with sick trepidation, that he’s making cocky mistakes that are sure to bite him in the ass.
As Iron Man 3 progresses, or rather, moves slowly past neutral, the script reintroduces us to old friends like Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Tony’s main squeeze, and Rhody (Don Cheadle), formerly super-suited as the Warrior but, thanks to focus-group feedback, now dubbed the Iron Patriot. They serve as the Greek chorus to Tony’s personal tragedy, and as expected, their warnings fall on deaf ears. Tony/Iron Man seem destined for a huge smackdown, which concerns much of the film’s middle, in which our protagonist contemplates issues of identity and fate, and during which the audience is well advised to take a bathroom or snack break, echoing as they do the insufferable Bergmanian scenes of wandering isolation in the second-to-last Harry Potter film. Brief rescue comes in the form of a lonely boy (Ty Simpkins) who helps Tony get his mojo back, sort of, and then it’s the inevitable 45-minute finale, laden with the requisite explosions and high body count.
A lot of the time in movies involving superheroes, it’s better not to think too much about details like “Why is he doing that?” or “What purpose does that gizmo have?” It’s better just to wait and see. In Iron Man 3 this proved more an especially difficult coping mechanism, as the details of machine calibrations and quantifications are particularly dense and don’t serve as much distraction from a self-obsessed, self-obsessing protagonist. I don’t object to the franchise’s taking a darker look at its source or its underlying themes—the Batman movies have done this quite well—but Black and company lack the filmmaking and storytelling finesse to pull it off. Instead of provocative questions, we get endless masturbatory brooding, punctuated by the very kind of graphic violence from which Tony and the movie’s wounded vets seem to want to recoil.