With the release of Guardians of the Galaxy, by far the Marvel Studios film with the greatest personal voice for its writer-director, let’s take a look back about a year (I know, so long ago). Let’s place our gaze onto one of the company’s only other films to bear the sensibility of its primary author, and to play out less like another day at the office than a film of vision, however messy and uncontrolled that vision may be. Ladies and Gentlemen, Iron Man 3.
Iron Man 3 is important for a number of reasons. The only one destined to get any significant attention in the press was its release as the first “phase two” Marvel Studios movie. But none of that actually matters – phase two Marvel isn’t really meaningfully different from phase one Marvel, other than that we now realize that the series is getting very tired, very quickly, and that the company’s movies aren’t really the beacon to Hollywood blockbusters they were positioned as five years ago.
Thankfully, what is both notable and important about Iron Man 3 is something far fewer people will recognize or, perhaps, have any interest in at all. And that is that Iron Man 3 is an improbable re-teaming of writer-director Shane Black and his now-sitting-pretty secret weapon Robert Downey Jr. The two had previously worked together before on the criminally underrated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, one of the best Hollywood self-critiques of the 2000s. Here, Black’s famously cynical smarts and wicked sense of humor are tempered a little too much by the needs of Marvel’s fundamentally neutral brand name, but that’s no surprise to anyone who was paying attention. Too much of an authorial voice can crowd out the basic grandiosity and spectacle of a film that functionally exists to buy a house for the producers and stars. For that reason, Marvel has, so far, mostly kept a tight ship in keeping visionary filmmakers away from their products. Now, Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, Long Kiss Goodnight) is no visionary. But he does have a snarky voice, and a snarkier aesthetic to match, and it’s a statement to his command of the filmic medium that he powers through to produce the reasonably diverting finished product on screen here, despite Marvel’s domineering corporate will cutting his perspective off at the knees.
Now, Iron Man 3 has plenty of big special-effects driven action (including a gravity-defying set-piece where Iron Man rescues a dozen or so people from death-by-ground after falling from a plane), but it’s Black’s added elements which throw the movie for a loop, both for good and bad: increased humor, a mismatched buddy affair between Stark and a vaguely precious Southern boy, a back-to-basics approach which sees Stark sans Iron Man suit for much of the film, a reasonably evocative Christmas flavor, at least one terrific, meaningfully nervy twist that adds an unexpected dose of political commentary to the series, and above all an increasingly anxious, anguished Stark, rougher around the edges and coping with internal strife more dangerous than any external foe.
That list of ingredients sounds like a lot, and, well, it is. Black adds a lot, and at times the film strains under itself. The film’s early scenes are subdued and nervous, depicting a less fun-loving title character than in the first two films, someone who’s lost something of himself after the events of The Avengers and is struggling to function as a human being and a superhero simultaneously. It ponders that age-old question: is there a man behind that shiny metal yellow-and-red energy-beam shooting costume? Well maybe not age-old exactly, but you get the idea. Does it fundamentally change his identity, and what are the consequences, ultimately, of being a superhero? Black does more than pay lip service to this, and it fits the character better than you might expect. After all, Stark is an egotist, someone who loves being a superhero and wants us to know he loves it. Black, for his part, is more than perfunctory in chiseling away at Stark’s now-fractured image, a self emotionally set adrift and metaphorically embodied in a finale that involves dozens of empty, hollow Iron Man suits, all portions of a whole, slivers of an identity.
That may make it seem like this is a deep film. It’s not. It wants to be a deep film for about thirty minutes, but it is also a profoundly messy film, with a plot that is borderline incoherent and so off-the-cuff as to barely register. There’s a terrorist calling himself “The Mandarin” (Ben Kingsley) and, well, Iron Man has to deal with him, as he does, and the bumps along the way can’t ultimately disturb the fundamental smoothness of the ride. The fact is, the film does want to accomplish more, but it doesn’t realize how to go about it. So we get a dour first half which gives way to a mid-film out of another movie, rife with snarky comedy when we expect a broken and beaten Stark. Mid-way through the film, it becomes almost a buddy affair with Stark’s heavy being, of all things, a young kid with a smart mouth. Set around Christmas in a small Tennessee town, Stark is outmanned and outgunned here, with his suit largely out of service. He’s on his own, and it’s a nice change of pace, but it’s anything but dour. Most of all, it simply reflects the whip-smart sardonicism of Black by–way-of Downey. The relationship between the two characters is confrontational and bitter but laced with just the right amount of touching Christmas cheer, and it perfectly encapsulates Stark’s character in a way a bigger action scene couldn’t. But it’s also not exactly thoughtful, and Iron Man 3 desperately wants to be thoughtful.
As the film gears up for its conclusion, it starts to grind its gears. We get the sense that Black has used everything in his bag of tricks by this point, and one final trick he pulls out in hopes of saving the movie at the very end is quickly reversed by what may have been a producer’s decision or Black’s own sense that this is, after all, a big “safe” blockbuster from one of the most successful entertainment corporations today. He has some room to play around, certainly, but not as much as, say, Joe Dante’s “scribbling in the lines” approach to his own ’80s holiday classics like Gremlins. Either way, the end-game of the film cheats big-time, and the conclusion, while moderately entertaining, lacks the luster of the first two thirds – one could even call it mundane.
There’s also a nagging sense that Black’s ambition may get the better of him here. The guy isn’t exactly a “serious” director, after all. He’s dealt effectively with depression and anxiety in big entertainment pieces before (see, for instance, Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon 1 and 2), but we all knew at the end of the day that those films were limited by their foundation; they knew when not to aim for a fuller theorization of depression than they could justify. Here, he seems to be treading darker waters a little deeper, and he struggles a little more to keep afloat. The film earns a lot of goodwill early on with its depiction of Stark’s character – Black clearly wants to have his smaller character-driven anxiety cake and eat his big popcorn-munching summer blockbuster too – but you might get the sense that Black is here trying to kill two birds but didn’t bring a big enough stone. Instead, he opts for dozens of small rocks, throwing about everything he has at the film and coming away with a fun, appreciable work, even perhaps a daring one for its first two thirds, but clearly a destabilized one.
Of course, it’s all a reasonably entertaining film filled with tasty morsels, the biggest of all being Downey Jr. who has forever been a walking clothesline for Shane Black-style nihilist, coal-black anxiousness, even when Black is nowhere around. He’s as good as ever here, and he keeps the film going, sometimes in spite of itself. These two guys are a perfect match for each other, but they may have bit off more here than they can chew narrative-wise. The individual pieces are so tasty though that it’s perhaps easier than it should be to excuse the fact that they often don’t taste as good together.