Anyone following the film industry's current love affair with superheroes on film has almost certainly been inundated with constant predictions about when the honeymoon phase will be over, which is kind of a stupid talking point to begin with since superheroes are a certifiable genre at this point and like any genre, they've had their peaks and ebbs. But as The Avengers began its swift ascent to the top of the box office and started smashing records, there was no denying that there was a distinct feeling that this was a bigger peak than normal, one which would have massive repercussions, both for good and for ill. All this puts Shane Black's Iron Man 3 in an unenviable position, as it is both the first post-Avengers Marvel film, and, perhaps more tellingly, the dreaded third installment in the franchise.
Third films in franchises seem to be cursed to be at best mediocre, but superhero films are especially doomed, as everything from X3 to Spider-Man 3 and all the way back to Superman 3 have proven. So in, a normal situation fans would probably go into a work like Iron Man 3 with lowered expectations. But because Iron Man 3 is the first glimpse we're getting at the post-Avengers Marvel film universe AND a Shane Black joint, expectations were more than a little high. As the film begins, Black seems hellbent on not just dodging expectations, but subverting them altogether, doing his damnedest to make Iron Man 3 into a peculiar mixture of his and Robert Downey Jr.'s prior collaboration Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and the smarmy action blockbusters he got paid an obscene amount to write way back in that genre's own peak. This is a superhero film with an axe to grind and a notably gleeful disinterest in following rules and I say that because it's a superhero film that fucking starts with Eiffel 65's “Blue” and a meta-voiceover by RDJ.
The voiceover– which actually comes full circle in the film's post-credits ending, in one of the few instances where Black and crew decide to finish a plotline– clues us in on how Tony Stark is feeling after that business in New York, albeit through the memory of how he spent his Y2K New Year's. Long story short, Stark was kind of shitty to a girl and a guy and in the process, he created some demons that we will see bite him in the ass over the next couple hours. Iron Man 3 admirably tries to work in The Avengers by dwelling on the impact it would have on someone like Stark, who was the lone regular human on a team of displaced super soldiers, cocky gods and angry green freaks. Sure, Hawkeye and Black Widow lack superhuman abilities, but unlike Stark, they're trained soldiers through and through, able to filter out trauma and shut down their emotions and as Iron Man 3's story really starts, Stark is stressed to the max, incapable of sleeping and determined to distract himself with tinkerings and late night engineering sessions.
In a perfect world, Iron Man 3 would have honed in on that human element, making this that rare third franchise film that dials back the explosions and gives us a chance to dwell on the humanity of the character because goddamn have we earned it. Instead, Tony Stark (or more accurately Stark's anxiety) is merely one of three or four villains Iron Man faces in the film, depending on how you count things. The film is stuffed to the gills with possible narrative threads, which is perhaps the most visible of its flaws but also the greatest threat to its success. Any one of those threads would have worked had the director and screenwriters focused on it and sustained it but Black and his collaborators unfortunately seem to think that audiences can't be trusted to be entertained by just one storyline at a time, so they've given them dozens. The short list includes Stark befriending a latchkey kid, Stark's distance from his continuously vaguely defined love interest Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, back again) and his kind of friends Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, slumming it now that he has vacated the director's chair) and James Rhodes (Don Cheadle, also returning, also slumming), another threat from another Stark corporate rival, a bizarre twist about televised villainy, and a ridiculous misuse of the Extremis tech that turns Warren Ellis' defining Iron Man storyline into an excuse for some God of War-level graphic shenanigans. Oh, and War Machine is now Iron Patriot, for "PR Reasons," which I think secretly means Marvel liked the look of Norman Osborn's Captain America-Iron Man mish-mashing but couldn't figure out a way to get it out of that Spider-Man contract.
Shane Black has never been celebrated for his subtlety or ability to keep from being distracted, but Iron Man 3 is his worst habits run rampant, a constant stream of winks at the screen, overly choreographed action sequences and explosion after explosion after explosion that reduces a character who had arguably found salvation through his first film appearance into a checklist of action hero cliches. If The Avengers succeeded because it made us interested in a group of archetypes and the ways their egos threatened their heroism, then Iron Man 3 fails because it loses that thread entirely, in favor of high concept gimmicks and creative uses of flammable industrial machinery. It will almost certainly still make a shitload of money, but for the naysayers who view superheroism as a fad rather than a genre, this is just another straw man for their argument, an eager new recruit to the legions of poorly executed works within the genre.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he's the last of the secret agents and he's your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Comics Bulletin, where he reigns as the co-managing editor, or at Panel Panopticon, which he started as a joke and now takes semi-seriously. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd rants about his potentially psychopathic roommate on twi
tter @Nick_Hanover and explore the world of his musical alter ego at Fitness and Pontypool.