'Iron Man 3' flogs viewers with action overload
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"Iron Man 3" pummels. It's loud, frenetic, filled with fast-moving, quick-cutting action involving so many figures in motion that one's eyes start to feel like badly abused pingpong balls after a bit. It's entirely expected that the third picture in the superhero franchise would try to deliver bigger bangs than the previous pictures in the series. In this case, the new installment makes up at least a little bit for the creative doldrums of the second, which lacked, some complained, the irreverent, mercurial wit of the first. So here new director and co-writer Shane Black finds himself stuck between the rock of sensationalist expectations and the hard place of concocting a genuinely engaging action narrative. The end result of the exercise is a lot of sound and fury, signifying ... well, you know.
Robert Downey Jr. returns as the glib wisecracking inventor and superhero, Tony Stark; Gwyneth Paltrow as his onetime Gal Friday turned love interest, Pepper Potts. Jon Favreau, who directed the first two installments of the series, gets demoted to executive producer and comic relief, and gets knocked out early in the film. Black comes to bat with the good-guy-with-"demons" (his word, and one of the first words out of Downey's mouth in the opening sequence) scenario that's a hallmark of most of the movies Black's put his name to, good, bad, or indifferent, from "Lethal Weapon" to "The Last Boy Scout." And what, pray tell, are Stark/Iron Man's demons? Well, apparently the ancient gods and aliens and wormholes stuff in "The Avengers" really freaked him out, and he is now prone to severe anxiety attacks. There's nothing in the writing or the performing of said anxiety attacks that's in the least bit convincing. Like everything else in the movie, including a moderately clever and maybe even mildly subversive plot device involving a terror-creating bin-Laden-esque figure who is not quite what he seems, these story "beats" are nothing more than exit ramps to the next hypertrophied action-effects sequence.
And yet there's a sense in which this movie seems desperate to convince more jaundiced viewers that it's doing something different with the genre. The story line is more along the lines of a recent James Bond picture than a superhero movie. There's even a moment when the despicable villain is shown to be ultra-extra-despicable by casually killing a character you might have expected was going to stick around at least a bit longer, which will strike a familiar chord with people who've seen "Skyfall." The villain, Aldrich (Guy Pearce), is an errant think-tanker who was spurned by pre-Iron-Man Tony Stark back in his even more rogueish days and is now de-hippiefied, and top of his class with a technology that replaces missing limbs but also has the problem of turning its subjects into human explosives. Having decided to treat this bug as a feature, Aldrich seems in league with a terrorist who calls himself The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), who, among other things, orchestrates a terror attack on Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. AND he destroys Stark's Malibu mansion, in one of the picture's more excruciatingly detailed set pieces. After which the picture turns around and says, "But wait! Stark now has to go through a long stretch of the movie without his Iron Man armor! He's stranded and lost, and far from home! Look at this relationship he strikes up with a young fan in rural Tennessee! It's kind of like that old Mean Joe Greene Coke commercial crossed with 'The Hangover'!" Yeah, sure thing, whatever you say. It's all very professionally done, but also utterly joyless.
Downey's smartass-who-gives-a-damn-but-has-a-funny-way-of-showing-it schtick is never not entertaining, but schtick is what it is, and here it serves as a form of punctuation rather than a way to genuine viewer engagement. In other who-cares news, Rebecca Hall doesn't make much of her stage-trained-it-girl-actresses-can-have-fun-too statement, Pearce adds another notch to his belt of big-budget sci-fi bad guys and Don Cheadle marks time until his character's subcontracted Iron Man gets his own franchise. Hey, it's a living.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.