by Paul Deines
This Marvel Avengers series may well be the most baldly mercenary cinematic venture of all time, and yet Disney has deftly managed to marry unmasked commoditization with a surprising dedication to craft. True, each film might play as an expanded trailer for the next entry, and true, every entry might be trifling to the point of near nonexistence. But the talent involved in these films – Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh, Joss Whedon – is more idiosyncratic, more authorial than necessary. Each film seems to subdivide between the scenes where each writer/director is allowed to riff on his own sensibility and scenes of the profoundly dull action. The Asgard scenes of Thor stand out because Branagh can turn his comic-book movie into a mass-market Wagnerian stage production. The best moments of the first two Iron Man films are where Favreau lets his actors chat like the dudes from Swingers. This most recent entry employs the talents of that king of the genre spec script: Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang).
Iron Man 3 encompasses the absolute best and the absolute worst of the Marvel franchise. On the one hand, Shane Black’s dialogue is better tailored to Robert Downey Jr. than any other writer/actor pairing I can think of. Much like Whedon’s Avengers, the sweet spot is a couple good actors in civilian clothes trading quips. What this means is that the high points are the most subdued: Tony Stark at home with Pepper Potts (Gweneth Paltrow), Stark and Col. Rhodes (Don Cheadle) bickering at an Applebees, and most pleasantly surprising, Stark forming a grudging friendship with a precocious moppet (Ty Simpkins) in Tennessee. Other good touches: there’s a smattering of that Shane Black meta-narration, and Black and co-screenwriter Drew Pearce have constructed a clever villain in their reimagining of the Mandarin, portrayed by Ben Kingsley with unsettling intensity (and off-kilter dexterity). A second baddie played by Guy Pearce is less remarkable.
Where the film goes off the rails is the action. This may be the minority opinion, but I’ve always found the Iron Man action sequences unbearable, so clear is it that they’re little more than a barrage of CGI graphics over a series of unpeopled shots. Save one clever freefall sky rescue sequence, the action of Iron Man 3 is a mess. From the beginning, we have no idea what the evil army of mini-Human Torches controlled by the Mandarin is capable of, or what can kill them. (The origin of this army – and its connection to America’s nonfiction wars in the Middle East – is both bold and queasy-making.) Once these smoldering henchmen are pitted against scores of unmanned good-guy robots in the climactic battle, no yawn can encompass the boredom. It makes one wonder why Disney would bother hiring someone like Black to pen this lump of a story.
Which is to say, can we imagine what would happen if Disney were willing to hand underutilized filmmakers like Joss Whedon or Shane Black even a third of the budget of one of an Avengers film and ask them to produce a personal project? Imagine something like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang or Cabin in the Woods with the resources and studio support of Iron Man 3. It’s a nice thought, but I doubt it’ll ever happen. For now, we can enjoy this listless summer moneymaker with a smattering of personality. It’s a shame, but at least it’s something.