I’ve always been the first guy to rail against a comic book movie taking itself too damn seriously. I mean sure, you should always have an appropriate sense of drama and severity, but there’s nothing wrong with a movie about guys flying around punching out robots having a little fun with itself.
By the same coin however, a comic book movie shouldn’t have too much fun with itself either, or the whole thing threatens to become one big joke, and I didn’t have an example of this until Iron Man 3. Now, don’t get me wrong, Iron Man 3 is a damn fun movie, a fine addition to Marvel’s roster of flicks and a good start to Phase 2 of the Marvel Studios endeavor. But unfortunately the words “fine” and “good” are really the best things I can say about it, due mostly to those tonal problems. But first thing’s first.
The movie picks up some time after The Avengers, with Tony still reeling from the events of the New York invasion and diving further and further into depression and anxiety issues (though not alcoholism, an aspect of the character the movies keep refusing to bring up like a stubborn toddler refusing to eat his veggies), obsessively tinkering with new suits and suffering from crippling anxiety attacks. Meanwhile, a mysterious figure called The Mandarin is orchestrating a series of terror attacks across the US and a smug business man named Aldrich Killian is sniffing around Tony’s affairs and generally just wafting around being smug and sinister. After a Mandarin attack lands Tony’s friend Happy in a coma, Tony swears revenge and the chase is on to track down the Mandarin and his super-powered henchmen, with Rhodey, newly repainted and rebranded Iron Patriot, and Pepper in tow.
That’s the basic setup, and from there the movie sets off with all the speed and determination of Oscar Pistorius on a few gallons of Red Bull. The first act moves at a lightning pace, barely stopping to breathe from one scene to the next. One barely has time to take it all in before Tony’s slinking around all incognito in a ball cap and hoodie after having all his shiney stuff blown up, and I kept having to mentally retrace how we got here. The pacing thankfully slows down around act two, but warning to the wise, if you pop out for a pee break before the halfway mark you’re likely to be completely lost by the time you get back.
Another thing which may take some viewers off guard (particularly the smartypants film buffs who have a good eye for image qualities and write self-aggrandizing film columns) is that the movie is frankly ugly as hell at times. Shane Black is normally a good director, but certain scenes look depressingly TV-ish in their execution. In particular, a scene between Rhodey and Tony in a restaurant looks Godawful, with flat lighting and composition and maddeningly digital-looking photography.
But I’m really just stalling before I get to the big nit-pick aren’t I? Frankly….the film’s too funny. Virtually every scene is a chorus of comedy beats, from one liners to slapstick to sight gags. Fight scenes don’t so much have comedy relief as action relief from the comedy. Now, Robert Downey Jr. and most of the rest of the cast do admittedly have great comedic timing, and the Iron Man movies have always had a great sense of humor, but this time around it just feels like too much, and I found myself repeatedly begging the movie to just stop mugging for laughs and just go one fight scene without stopping the action for a moment for some zinger or bit of slapstick. The movie generally feels like it wants to be a comedy more than an action movie, to the point that it starts making undue sacrifices for the sake of gags, and unfortunately I can’t talk about the best example without throwing up a
MASSIVE SPOILER WARNING
So you know how the movie’s big villain is The Mandarin, a mysterious Middle-Eastern-ish terrorist leader played by Ben Kingsley? SURPRISE! It’s actually….not. When Tony and Rhodey track down the Mandarin and confront him, turns out he’s really a bumbling British actor hired by Killian to be the front of a fictional terrorist organization Killian concocted as a part of his master plan. And I mean, it’s a funny scene but….you really just pissed away Ben Kingsley as your villain for the sake of a gag? He’s Ben fucking Kingsley, the man’s gotten playing bastards down to a science, did you SEE Sexy Beast?
And it wouldn’t be so bad if the movie had an interesting villain to fall back on, but instead the role is filmed for the rest of the movie by an evil businessman in a suit who wants to play people against each other and make lots of money. Now where have I seen that before? Oh yeah, every other damn movie in this series! I’ve had enough of guys in suits, give me Super-Bin Laden! Give me someone interesting for crimminey’s sake. Guy Pearce is a fine actor but Aldrich Killian is probably the most boring villain in any Marvel movie to date, and you got rid of the interesting guy….why? For the sake of a twist? So you can have Ben Kingsley play drugged out and doofy? Was it really worth it?
HERE ENDETH THE SPOILERS
The movie even uses the vaunted post-credits scene, normally used to tease the next Marvel movie or do some world building, for an entirely disposable comedy scene between RDJ and an old friend from Avengers. And again, it’s a funny scene and it was nice to see them onscreen together again, but once the funny wore off I honestly felt gypped. I’m supposed to leave that theater warm with the knowledge that I saw a tantalizing glimpse of what’s to come, usually something you need to be a comic geek just to understand, not a minute or so of improv comedy. I mean yeah, it’s breaking from the formula, which is good, but at the same time I was hoping for something a little more.
Now, all this isn’t to say Iron Man 3 isn’t a good movie. When it does remember to be an action movie, it’s a pretty good one (though despite what you may have heard, the finale doesn’t top that of The Avengers) and Robert Downey Jr, Gwenyth Paltrow and Don Cheadle all give great performances. It does a lot of things I like, like actually name its characters and even have Tony grow and move forward in pretty significant ways. But at the same time I kept getting the occasional nagging feeling that it just wasn’t taking itself seriously enough, and wasting too much time and potential on comedy. This is, of course, an entirely personal gripe and whether or not you’ll share it with me depends entirely on what you expect to get out of the movie. If you want a fun, high-comedic action adventure movie, Iron Man 3 is pretty up your alley. But if you’re hoping for the slightly more serious tone set by the last two movies, you may like me walk away a tad disappointed.