It is too late to meaningfully comment on and potentially spoil what will probably turn out to be the biggest blockbuster of the year? On the basis that everyone who’s going to see it has done so, and with fair warning, I’m going to keep this spoiler-laden comment short, because I have a thesis to write.
I decided not to see Star Trek Into Darkness because I heard that it was all flash, and despite strong fears about it, I went to see Iron Man 3 because Shane Black delivered one of my all-time favourite movies, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and so I thought he deserved the benefit of the doubt. I think I was, more-or-less, right to do so, but explaining why takes a tiny bit of mental gymnastics. The main thing you have to remember about Super Hero films is that their logic does not resemble our Earth logic. This is explicitly true in the source materials, where Super Heroes get beaten down only to rise back up once they decide to assert their iconic identity.
Now, some examples of this have bugged me for years, such as Superman throwing the Kryptonite island into space at the end of Superman Returns, and some haven’t. The reason some do and some don’t comes down to how much you can buy-in to the emotional journey. When Thor becomes worthy of picking his hammer up and fighting the doomsday robot in the recent film, it’s believable because we’ve seen growth and change. Iron Man 3 ends with just such a moment, perfectly skewered in things like this episode of How It Should Have Ended. The notion that Tony has these spare suits, that he could have summoned and used at any time seems illogical – until you recognise the essential truth that Tony Stark is Iron Man and summoning the suits is structurally the same as a hero with an internal power source reasserting it at the crucial moment as Superman does when he throws off the Kryptonite Island. Therefore. this critique is applying a totally inappropriate logic to the superhero film.
If you can accept this logic, then the Iron Man 3 ending is fine, and the story path that leads up to it is fine.
There is a kind of snag though, which is that this reduces almost every super hero film back to a single instance of the Super Hero formula: the origin story. I think it was Kenneth Hite who summarized Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy as being three different takes on Batman deciding not to be Bruce Wayne anymore, of being reset back to Square 1 and growing into the iconic character we all know so well. Iron Man 3 succumbs to this in a way that’s a little too interesting, because the kinds of things bothering him at the start of the film are not resolved – there is a deep existential vein deriving from the scale of the universe revealed to him in The Avengers. His final decision to invoke the power of Iron Man at the end of the film doesn’t really respond to this existential quandary. In other words, the reason he becomes not-Iron Man at the film’s beginning is not resolved, making his re-assumption of the mantel feel less than properly earned.
I imagine though, that this will be raised again in Avengers 2.
I think that’s the negative spin dealt with. There is a lot to like about this film. Shane Black’s direction is a lot tighter than Jon Favreau’s, bringing a clarity and focus to the film without compromising the charm Favreau created for a character that is essentially a prat. All of the supporting cast here seem to have enough to do, and are well used. In fact, I think Guy Pearce and Ben Kinglsey were both pretty much unfaultable. I’d have liked Pepper Potts to have either more to do, or less; but she definitely came off better in this outing than previously. In particular, it was a bit unsatisfying that without any setup whatsoever, she was able to win a fight with Aldridge… that could have worked if she’d suckered him, or if we’d seen any evidence of fighting capability.
And this film does deliver the “flash” that you now hope for. While this genre is still not without faults and problems, I feel like Marvel have finally managed to nail the look, tone and basic genre formula they needed to make these films work. It seems a bit unlikely that they’ll produce something as satisfying as The Dark Knight within this formula, but at least they are delivering solidly entertaining movies that make enough sense. Now they need to start addressing the historical baggage of the genre, such as the gender proportions.
The final thing I feel we should comment on is the ambivalent politics encoded in the plot. By locating the apparent main villain as a response to American Imperialism, Shane Black hints at the kind of critiquing discourse that we saw in The Dark Knight, but this discourse is never really developed. Aldridge eventually becomes simply another Mad Scientist bent on World Conquest ™ seemingly without much motive, the political discourse initiated via his puppet villain becomes just smoke and mirrors in a way that receives no commentary whatsoever. As Tony Stark says “this isn’t political, it’s straight up old-fashioned revenge” which sidesteps the issues raised in a slightly unsatisfying way. Again I think we need to look at a children’s show – Justice League Unlimited – for a more comprehensive and reasoned exploration of this concept than we’re getting in so-called adult entertainment. I could have done with some kind of response from inside the fiction on the issues being raised, even if that response was itself ambivalent.
Nevertheless, this is comfortably the best of the Iron Man films, indeed, is arguably the best of the Marvel universe films so far. I’m looking forward to seeing how the studio picks up with the next round of sequels, Captain America 2, Thor 2, Avengers 2 and I hope they’ll seriously consider giving the Hulk another treatment and Black Widow her own vehicle.