Iron Man 3: The Iron or the Man?

Iron Man 3 stark with armor

Can you make an Iron Man movie while mostly leaving out Iron Man? Iron Man 3 is an attempt to see at least how far they can stretch it (so says Marvel cinematic universe strongman and despot Kevin Feige himself), and the results are…well, inconclusive. I think you probably can, but I’m not sure Iron Man 3 represents the best possible execution.

Bottom line: I liked the movie well enough – it’s often laugh-out-loud funny and Robert Downey, Jr. is simply pure damn fun to watch.

That said, I think it does have a lot of problems, mostly in that it feels like three different movies awkwardly crammed together. There’s the screwball comedy (which was always an element in the Iron Man movies, and a big part of The Avengers, too). Then there’s the typical Shane Black actioner, both for good (snappy dialog, half-kidding attitude toward its own existence) and ill (uninspired direction, half-kidding attitude toward its own existence…which can sometimes feel a bit contemptuous of the audience, as if Black is mocking us for wanting to care about his movie in the first place). And then there’s the Iron Man movie wrapped around the other two…which sometimes felt was only there because it had to be.

So, obviously SPOILERS at this point (as if anyone on Earth who would be interested hasn’t seen the movie already). But take the big action climax at the end. When Stark and Rhodes were sneaking onto the big oil tanker, guns readied, wisecracking back and forth, it felt like I could easily have been watching a Lethal Weapon reboot that miraculously sneaked into theaters unannounced, or maybe a lost scene from The Last Boy Scout. At least, until suddenly 40 Iron Man suits flew in and starting blowing tons of shit up.

But then that’s the thing – during the climax of Iron Man 3, there was no Iron Man. There were various Iron Men, but the suits were literally circling the action, never quite central to it. Downey would jump in one, fight until it fell apart, and ditch it for another. This made for a neat sequence in concept, but, again, a sequence that made the Iron Man elements feel almost tacked on by necessity.

Iron Man 3 all suits

Then there was the fun but somewhat forced middle-segment in Tennessee, with Stark entirely sans suit and teamed with a precocious kid sidekick (imagine if someone told you five years ago that “precocious kid sidekick” would be a large part of an Iron Man sequel, and you managed not to immediately punch them in the face). It worked better than any kid-sidekick-subplot had any right to, with lots of sharp dialog (“Are you going to leave me just like my dad?” “…Yes.”). But again, it felt so tonally inconsistent with not only the rest of the movie, but with the previous Iron Man movies and the previous Marvel movies in general, that it was as if a segment from an entirely unrelated film accidentally got spliced in.

And so long stretches of Iron Man 3 involve Tony Stark being Tony Stark, outside the suit. But I think a crucial miscalculation with the picture was a lack of focus in how to keep the audience engaged. It’s not entirely satisfying as a typical superhero movie, but neither as a smaller-scale action movie, nor as a wise-ass send-up of superhero movies in general, because each element canceled out another. The smaller-scale action movie sucked the air out of the superhero movie, but the jokey nature left little room to develop the action movie plot in any meaningful way, but Black seemed unwilling to go all-out with the screwball superhero movie send-up. It’s as if the three tones were constantly playing rock-paper-scissors with each other, amounting to little in the end.

Which I suppose brings me to my bigger point here. Critic Matt Zoller Seitz once wrote that the superhero movie genre is far less interesting than, say, the horror movie genre, in terms of breaking out of derivative formulas:

Audiences and studios alike are conditioned to view superhero films as more product than art. Art is allowed to fail; product isn’t. There’s a reason why positive reviews of superhero films often use the phrase “delivers the goods,” as if the movie were UPS or Fresh Direct. The tonal equivalent of “28 Weeks Later,” “Land of the Dead” or “Zombieland” would never get financed in the superhero genre, much less distributed or seen.

As Seitz admits in the article, it’s not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, but after seeing Iron Man 3, I wonder if we’re reaching a turning point in the superhero movie genre. After the onslaught of Marvel’s Phase One films (mostly good, but there is no better example of filmmaking as an assembly line of product), and at the end of The Dark Knight series, and with the second Superman reboot on the way, I think we’re reaching the point where audiences are demanding fresh spins on what has been the typical superhero movie formula for the past decade and change.

Iron Man 3 stark armor couch

The question then becomes: what will those fresh takes be, and will studios – and the genre itself – have the capacity to pull them off?

One of the reasons I never really became a big, ongoing comics reader is because I never knew where to start. With any of the long-running characters, there have been so many twists and turns and retcons and spin-offs and alternate universes and deaths and rebirths that it seems impossible to find an entry point. But how else do you keep one character’s storyline perpetually chugging forward, decade after decade?

What I’m curious to see is how much of that stuff typical moviegoers – not the hardcore comic book fans – will put up with, because the day will inevitably come when there’s no where else for superhero movies to go. Someday, Marvel will either 1) kill Captain America, replace him with Bucky, and then have Steve Rogers fucking phased back into existence (yes, this actually happened), or 2) reboot their entire cinematic universe, with brand-new Iron Man and Thor and Captain America and Hulk franchises starting from scratch, like a way smaller version of that awesome Futurama episode where the universe ends only to restart over and over.

Yeah. Terrifying. But outside the absurdity of perpetual reboots, just how many standalone Iron Man adventures will Marvel get away with? How many Avengers movies? How many Batmans?

So now, it’ll be interesting to see which way this genre goes. Do we see more superhero flicks – even the “mainstream” ones – digging into deeper, trickier, more off-beat stories, proving to have the capacity to branch out from what superhero movies have been so far even at the risk of misfires or audience disinterest? Or has this genre always been a huge, ludicrously lucrative magical money balloon, spewing bigger and bigger riches the more it inflates until it explodes in a spectacular display of torn spandex and severed super-limbs?

I’m guessing the latter, but I suppose either way it’s gonna be a shit-ton of fun to watch.

Note: Article title alludes to this. Hey, I’ve always been a huge Spider-Man fan…less so an Iron Man fan.

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