Iron Man 3: One Big Joke
Tony Stark suffers from PTSD, Pepper Pots is mad because he bought her a giant stuffed rabbit for Christmas, and an enigmatic terrorist called the Mandarin is taking responsibility for supposed suicide bombings in major cities all over the world. Iron Man 3, on paper at least, resolves each of these crises and more before the final credits start rolling. It’s action filled, extremely funny, and on its way to make well over a billion dollars at the box office.
Iron Man 3 also marks the beginning of the end of big blockbuster comic book movies.
Shane Black, the movie’s writer and director, has succeeded in creating perhaps the funniest superhero movie to-date. An earlier movie of his, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, bridges the gap between crime thriller and buddy comedy, and Iron Man 3 attempts to do the same for the sci-fi superhero epic.
Comedies though are necessarily small in stature and narrowly focused, where as the superhero epic is anything but. The Avengers, the last movie featuring Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, pushed the genre well into the land of the absurd. If anyone was still unconvinced on that count though, Iron man 3 doubles-down, coming dangerously close to a point of abritrary purposelessness.
So how does a movie which excels at the perfectly timed delivery of jokes meant to subvert audience expectations still invoke the bold grandeur of a $200 million dollar heroic action flick? The avengers tried to be funny, but in doing so only made itself seem that much cooler. Iron Man 3 is undoubtedly hilarious, but at the expenses of being treated with any level of seriousness or semblance of respect.
The movie has no plot, and it’s either a testament or detriment (I’m still undecided) to it that this defect is ultimately so untroubling. Absolutely zero necessity links one event to another, except for maybe that necessity which accompanies any commercial project of this cultural and financial mass. That is, things must come to a neat and tidy end, certain characters are not actually in any danger, no matter how much the movie wants us to pretend that they are, and any hint of meaningful social commentary or political critique must immediately be followed by an overwhelming dose of comedic relief, often at the expense of the very concerns just raised.
As I said at the top, Tony Stark now suffers from Post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition he’s apparently had ever since the events at the end of The Avengers (when he flies a nuclear warhead off into space). Marvel spent a lot of money in that movie, and on the first two-thirds of the Iron Man trilogy, Captain America, Thor, and a Hulk reboot convincing audiences that its superheros were flawed but ultimately unbeatable. Each new movie involved bigger set pieces and bigger feats of strength and invulnerability than the last.
Which isn’t to say that PTSD is an uninteresting or unimportant subject, or one that shouldn’t be explored in superhero movies, but that perhaps, just maybe, Marvel has established franchises which are inherently unamenabale to that issue. There is nothing at all convincing about seeing Tony cower in his suit undergoing a panic attack after simply hearing the words “New York,” when he has spent the rest of the series facing similar threats without the slightest bit of concern or self-reflection.
If only the movie could have sold its basic premise as well as Ben Kingsley sells the Mandarin. His voice is goofy but contains a florid eccentricity made only more fitting as the movie progresses. Even the gross Orientalism surrounding the character gets a complete pass–watch the movie and you’ll know why.
And though not as compelling as Kingsley’s Osama bin Laden 2.0, Guy Peirce’s Aldrich Killian, a neglected scientist turned would-be world domineer, also offers a refreshing alternative to Downey’s predictableness. Pierce evokes disdain for those around him that shifts between bemused indifference and frothing bitterness, and with such ease that you’ll almost forget how shallow, incomplete, and boring his character actually is.
Iron Man 3 also has two female characters, but I feel I would be inaccurately communicating the essence of the movie if I bothered to mention their names, or the actresses who play them, or spend any longer than this sentence considering them.
It’s unfortunate then, even tragic, that with so much money, talent, and audience excitement Iron Man 3 is so conventionally unambitious. It’s hard to say it misses its target when it just flat-out doesn’t seem to have one. The movie trots out second-hand post 9/11 tropes with a consistency that’s criminal but which barely offends only because it’s so half-hearted.
Women decked out in burqas working in some textile shop somewhere in the Middle East exist only to be the butt of a 10 second gag and an all-too-convenient plot development. The President is corrupt, and the Vice President even more so, except maybe the latter is doing it for his amputee grand-daughter, but really who knows because it all happens in less than five seconds. Don Cheadle has been upgraded from War Machine to the Iron Patriot, from grey steel to stars and stripes; a beautifully simple metaphor for American imperial aggression that the movie nonetheless also prefers to wink at rather than interrogate. That’s the unfortunate part.
I write this completely unironically, and with out the least bit of snark: the funniest parts of Iron Man 3 (perhaps even the best) involve Tony Stark telling a child “Fathers leave, don’t be a pussy,” and that same child later returning the favor when Tony has another anxiety attack. PTSD is debilitating, even for a courageous billionaire genius with a super-powered suit, until the person suffering from it finally mans-up and quits being a vagina. This is the tragic part.
And that’s why I’m calling Iron Man 3 the beginning of the end of blockbuster comic book movies. When the most memorable parts of a movie are the parts where the movie is laughing viciously as it relentlessly pummels its central conceit–you know we’ve reached a turning point. The Avengers was more bombastic than bombast itself, and whatever its problems, The Dark Knight Rises probably attained as much seriousness as anything in which the most weighty character wears a cape and bat mask honestly could. Iron Man 3 includes bits and pieces of both with the sole intent of continually subverting them to elicit belly laughs deeper than everything it has to offer.
There will of course be plenty more big budget comic book movies, but there won’t be any new ones. We’ve seen exactly what that genre can do. Maybe eventually we’ll see a shift to superhero movies that emulate Chronicle instead of Transformers, but that will be something altogether different. Like a rollercoaster ride that goes on for way too long, it’s been exhilarating and forceful, but thank god it’s finally coming to an end.