Review: Iron Man 3 offers bland branding, sketchy story, will make a zillion dollars

By April 30, 2013

Rating: 2/5 Stars

by James Rocchi

Iron Man 3 succeeds and succeeds superbly in one simple-but-necessary goal: It is much, much better than Iron Man 2. Not that that would be hard, but still: back then, in the pre-Avengers days, Iron Man 2 was the metal-clad fulcrum for the ambitious lever of Marvel Studios’ moviemaking and moneymaking ambitions in the days before the Disney buyout and the success of The Avengers. Iron Man 2 is a mess, a mix of awful plotting, unrestrained acting choices and entirely too much throat-clearing and set-up for in-the-pipeline projects like Thor and The Avengers. Judged on a curve, then, Iron Man 3 is clearly an improvement. How much of an improvement it actually represents will depend on how much tolerance you have for product placement being more important than plotting, or on spectacle being more important than storytelling.

Directed and co-written by Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the scripts for Lethal Weapon and The Long Kiss Goodnight), Iron Man 3 fumbles its plot, and if some of its ideas and character notes are undersold, well, they have to make room for the product placement. You may think that complaining about product placement seems like nitpicking, but it’s so egregious here it’s insulting. Early on, we cannot help but note that Tony Stark drives Audis; later, when he hijacks a minion’s car it is … an Audi. In another pointless digression, Stark uses to check an internet connection; the story doesn’t need the moment, and the movie doesn’t need the cash, but good salesmanship — to a point where Iron Man 3 should just be called Iron Brand — is more important than having a satisfying movie over at Marvel’s brain trust, it seems.

So, wedged between the product placements and the mostly incoherent fight scenes, the plot gets squashed into nothingness. Part of the plot involves the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley, borrowing Geoffrey Wright’s strangled strained speaking voice from Source Code), a multi-national terrorist intent on chaos through bombing.  There’s also technology mogul Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) whose new human enhancement program has a few bugs; his Extremis technology makes people better/stronger/faster/tougher, but it also makes some of the people who get injected with it explode. And finally, Tony Stark himself (Downey) has to cope with some shakiness and PTSD after the events in The Avengers, and is shutting out his now live-in girlfriend, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).

There’s a lot of stuff on the plate, here, and Black and co-writer Drew Pearce don’t do much more than push it idly around with their fork. Instead, we get ostensibly crowd-pleasing things like having Downey’s Stark bond with Ty Simpkins’ plucky loner kid. There’s some good small-scale action stuff here,  most interestingly when Downey and Don Cheadle are out of their armor (in part because you can actually see their faces). The final action piece is just a blur of pixels and effects, though, taking place in a shipyard where you have no clue of who’s on what side or how many they number. Calling Iron Man 3 a comic book movie is in that specific regard an insult to comic books, which for all their genre- and medium-specific flaws nonetheless mostly have clear, coherent visual storytelling.

Downey’s always been the best thing about these films, but the thing that made the first Iron Man even vaguely dramatically interesting — a munitions-maker publicly repenting for public sins played by an actor who’s publicly had to repent for public sinning — has been pretty much faded into the background now. Watching Downey Jr. play Tony Stark is essentially like watching Dean Martin from Rio Bravo in an exoskeleton acting charming, slack and not-giving-a-damn until he has to. It’s fun, but the joke’s worn thin after three movies of repeating it as a method of avoiding moving the character forward.

More damagingly, there are as many gaps and seams in the plot as there are in Stark’s armor, and they’re much wider and looser than the seams of his super-suit. Discussing them would ‘spoil’ the film and triple the word count of this review. Then again, the fact that they’re there, and in such profusion and magnitude, suggests that someone simply wasn’t thinking about logic and reason during the filming, just merchandising and tie-ins. Iron Man in many ways re-defined our movie-going landscape, but Iron Man 3 isn’t a Blockbuster, it’s a Blandbuster. It’s boring and safe and full of familiar-but-extravagant things to reward the reptile section of the brain that values stimulus over story. The only people I can imagine getting excited over Iron Man 3 are either die-hard Marvel fan (and thus immune to arguments about story or quality) or a Disney stockholder (and thus more inclined to think about their profit than the audience’s loss). Superman said to the audience “You will believe a man can fly!” Iron Man 3 says to the audience “You better believe … we’re just in it for the money.”

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James Rocchi lives in Los Angeles. Born in Canada, he's a regular contributor, interviewer and reviewer for MSN Movies, Indiewire's The Playlist, GeekNation, and the Toronto Star. He's also written for, Netflix, Mother Jones magazine and The Guardian UK. A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, you can find him on twitter @jamesrocchi.