Iron Man 3
There's a disconcerting moment early in "Iron Man 3" (or "Iron Man Three," as it reads in the final titles): a bomb goes off at an American landmark: LA's Grauman's Chinese Theater. Okay, it may not be as iconic as the Boston Marathon, but the moment is a chilling one as the smoke clears and debris and carefully made-up bodies are seen. (This is, after all, a PG-13 film: no messy body parts or pools of blood are on the pavement, as were seen in photos after the Boston attack.) As in last summer's "The Dark Knight Rises," real events intrude upon a feel-good, cinematic fiction, making for an odd sense of unease.
Not that it flavors the entire film, which goes on to show a terrorist attack of a super-sleek Malibu beach house, a televised execution of a political leader and even Air Force One blowing up mid-air. We are clearly in the super hero/comic universe that Marvel Comics has so effectively brought to the screen with varying degrees of success - why take it seriously? It's only a movie; a very busy and noisy one, at that.
Under the off-hand direction of Shane Black, "Iron Man 3" plays like a joke that most of the audience is in on. I say ’most’ because some of the plotting will likely feel bewildering to those who have not seen the first two films in the series; or even someone like me who saw the first two films, but couldn’t make heads or tails of the anxiety crisis that industrialist Tony Stark (played with usual sarcasm by Robert Downey Jr.) is going through. (I guess it has something to with the experience he had in last summer’s far more enjoyable "The Avengers.")
Or why the Iron Man suits continue to malfunction, leaving Stark to solve the latest homeland attack with only his intellect and will power. This turns out to be the best part of the film, as Stark makes an odd alliance with a Tennessee boy, Harley (Ty Simpkins), who is something of a pint-sized McGiver. He assists the besieged Stark as he tries to unravel the conspiracy that has the nation in a post-9/11 mode.
Yet despite Downey’s droll delivery, a first-rate cast, its quick comedy and abundance of action, it was difficult to connect emotionally with this film. Could it be no one really cares if Stark overcomes his intimacy issues and comes to terms with his relationship with his live-in girlfriend and business associate Pepper Potts (a most aerobicized Gwyneth Paltrow)?
The story begins, clumsily, in 1999 on New Year’s Eve in Switzerland. Stark is seducing a genetic engineer (the excellent Rebecca Hall) on the brink of a biogenetic breakthrough that could turn people into human energy forces. He also is shadowed by Aldrich Killian, a nerdy entrepreneur (Guy Pearce), whom he dismisses when given a business card for his start-up. A bad move, it turns out.
Cut to the present: Stark, having undergone the transformation to Iron Man, is a celebrity industrialist with a basement filled with Iron Man suits fit for a fashion spread in some geek magazine. One suit, though, has been loaned to Col. James "Rhodey" Rhodes (Don Cheadle), a high-ranking military attache who has become a national figure as an Iron Man clone called Iron Patriot. (His earlier incarnation, from "Iron Man 2," the War Machine, didn’t score well with focus groups.)
But despite this cynical use of this symbolism, America is under a new terror threat coming from an Osama Bin Laden-wannabe named the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) who is behind a series of mysterious bombings that leave no trace of any explosives. Black and his co-writer Drew Pearce play the terrorist iconography both ways - dressing Kingsley up like a fundamentalist Muslim, yet giving him a voice that makes him sound like his terror cell is somewhere in Idaho.
Killian turns up again, this time as a sexy multi-millionaire out to seduce Pepper and interest her in a neurological development called Extremis, which has something to do with turning people into human torches that regenerate when injured. The process is a bit like Iron Man in reverse - no costume that acts like a shield, but rather a mysterious force that comes to the surface when under stress. Killian hopes to use this technology to bring the U.S. government down; but to do so, he needs to take Stark and Rhodes down first.
He has done so by recruiting American soldiers with limb injuries from the wars in the Middle East, promising them limb regeneration if they undergo his process. They get new limbs, but become Killian’s puppets - human bombs that can leave the scene of the crime in human form. He has also recruited the Mandarin, who turns out to be less a terrorist than a third-rate actor with addiction issues, played with panache by Kingsley.
Pitting the sarcastic Stark and the creepy Killian makes for a good premise, but "Iron Man 3" only develops it fitfully, if busily. There are endless explosions in air, on land and on water as Stark spends a good stretch of time trying get his Iron Man mojo back. He does, in an endless sequence that has something to do with a tanker that left an oil spill off the Florida coast. The battle onboard the ship goes on for what seems an hour, with characters falling hundreds of feet only to re-emerge unscathed.
If only this franchise rose to level of the first film. Instead, this calculated piece of entertainment simply regurgitates what came before, only with more noise, explosions and seamless integrated three-dimensional effects. Fans may love it; the rest of us will only look with wonder and dismay at its soulless sheen. It leaves you wondering what the talented Black would do if he had only a quarter of the film’s budget.