Flash over Substance

All of Iron Man 3's potential for meaningful moments goes up in a box-office bang

Let’s just get this out of the way: Robert Downey Jr. is, and always will be, magnificent as Tony Stark. The character’s cocky wit blends so pleasantly with the actor’s anxious charm, it seems impossible to pull one from the other. He clearly relishes the role, and races toward the spotlight it creates with unmatched vigor and enthusiasm. Stark has made Downey millions, but Downey made Stark a cultural icon. He is the reason people will watch Iron Man 3, even when his charisma occasionally fades to shtick. Everything that surrounds him — or rather, encases him — is polished, volatile window dressing.

At what point, however, does it all become too bloated for him to carry on his own?

Iron Man 3

Iron Man 3

Iron Man 3 is in an endless race with itself: more wisecracks, more arrogance, more fantastical suits of armor and weaponry, and with them, more explosions. More, more, more. The movie is cursed with too much, and an excess of everything hampers what could have been a devilishly fun, entertaining sort of action howler. What’s left is an excellent lesson for aspiring directors and chefs alike: When you stuff a recipe with too many ingredients, you’ll only taste the strongest flavors.

Although this frustrating overabundance cancels out many of Iron Man 3‘s otherwise intriguing moves, it’s a lucky accident that the film’s whiplash comedy is what rises above it all. Director Shane Black uses humor to push back against the gritty, self-serious superhero movies of the world, championing a mischievous playfulness in a genre that ought to have a lot more of it. Black knows a thing or two about writing funny for Downey — they worked together on the wonderfully neurotic, woefully underrated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – and when his dialogue is humming, it’s a perfect fit for the ambitious story he wants to tell.

Iron Man 3 is a sequel twice over, taking place after the events of The Avengers and (obviously) Iron Man 2. Early on, we learn that Stark is suffering from a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder from his past battles. (Although, he’s never explicitly diagnosed.) The billionaire playboy doesn’t live much of a playboy lifestyle anymore; he rarely sleeps or spends time with his girlfriend, the lovely Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Instead, he constantly tinkers in his lab to construct new and elaborate Iron Man suits. After facing off against aliens and gods from another dimension, Tony Stark wants to be prepared for anything and everything.

Meanwhile, a comically cartoonish-looking villain named the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) is threatening America with terrorist attacks. His motivations are purposefully vague, his mannerisms decidedly bizarre. Stark challenges the Mandarin to face him “like a man” at his oceanside home — which is promptly blown to bits, obviously — which forces him to go on the run, sans nearly all of his gadgets. And what of Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), the tech entrepreneur embarrassed by Stark in the movie’s opening scenes, who sleazily schemes to win over Pepper? Well, he’s precisely as evil as his name suggests.

Despite Black’s inventive storyline, Iron Man 3 races through an interminable two hours of low-stakes action, rarely risking the life and limb necessary to make a movie like this work. (The sole exception? An excellent scene where Iron Man must save more than a dozen people plummeting through the sky after an explosion on Air Force One.) What little drama exists here isn’t plumbed for anything meaningful.

IRON MAN 3
starstarstar
Rated PG-13
130 minutes
Opens Friday
Area theaters

Case in point: After Stark goes on the run, he turns up in rural Tennessee, where a precocious, towheaded child (Ty Simpkins) helps him rebuild his trashed suit. Black’s pairing of the swaggering genius and cute kid is a hilarious riff on a classic trope, to be sure, but it doesn’t amount to anything more than a half-hour of unnecessary screen time. It instantly burns away as the plot moves forward, of course — just about everything in this movie does the same — leaving us few reasons to understand why anything happens. Stark is a superhero, so he has to defeat the Big Bad Guy. As for everyone else? Their paper-thin motivations lack even a hint of reason, sapping any dramatic tension from Iron Man 3‘s chief conflict.

“I’m just a man in a can,” Stark laments midway through the movie. It’s not true, of course, but it’s comforting to know that he — or perhaps the actor who plays him — is capable of humility, even when he’s surrounded by chaos.