Iron Man 3 is a terrible movie, an experience so painful that had I been forewarned of its limitless agonies, I would have saved myself the time and money and simply punched myself repeatedly in the face. I say this with little to no hyperbole. This is a bad film, muddled and confused, full of plot lines to nowhere, uninteresting characters, muddy visuals and a villain that cannot seem to sort out the motives for his villainy. I composed the opening line of this review about halfway through the movie, but stuffed it into the closet of my memory in hopes that things would pick up in the second half. I wanted a sudden turnaround, a classic come-from-behind victory; a home run deep into overtime. Alas, things only got worse, and my mind turned to thoughts of which kind of fertilizer I should use in my garden before the final and profoundly stupid third act had even begun.
Maybe I miss Jon Favreau. If so, then I blame this whole mess on him. As the director of the first two movies, he brought a sense of style and sardonic wit to the series, utilizing Robert Downey Jr.’s natural charm to great effect as Iron Man’s alter ego, Tony Stark. Those movies were fun and jolly, exciting as hell–superhero flicks by way of the Ringling Bros. This time, however, writer-director Shane Black seems to have disregarded the entire canon in favor of mindless action that borders on some kind of psychotic break. The plot is little more than a tether for three major slam-bang, whack-you-in-the-face-and-ears auditory and visual assaults that I would not exactly bet had not been edited by buzzsaw and a Costco-sized roll of Scotch tape. Worse, Black has reduced Tony Stark from an arrogant (if hilarious and admittedly brilliant) bloated gasbag to a whimpering idiot, prone to blinding panic attacks and suddenly unsure of his place in the world superheroes. It’s an attempt at some deep psychological analysis akin to The Dark Knight, to be sure. But are we really supposed to believe that a guy that once developed and sold weapons of mass destruction to foreign terrorists suddenly needs Ativan?
And speaking of that plot, I will have to confess that I can’t be certain of exactly what was going on at all times. There was a villain, of that I can be sure. I can also say with certainty that he was played by Guy Pearce (great in all but this and the regrettable Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark), as a super-nerd turned megalomaniac named Aldrich Killian. Killian has developed something called Extremis that’s intended to regenerate dead tissue, but inexplicably causes its subjects to spontaneously explode. Killian may or may not be connected to the Mandarin, an international terrorist who I believe is supposed to be Chinese, but is played by the very British and not-Chinese Ben Kingsley (making me wonder: if this were 1991 and the Mandarin had been played by Jonathan Pryce, would we be dealing with a whole different issue?). Kingsley is very good here, different than we’ve seen him before, and his character figures in a major plot twist that, frankly, blindsided me. Killian–or the Mandarin–is using his explosive subjects for nefarious purposes, but I was never sure exactly why. All the subterfuge involves the POTUS and the Vice POTUS, and there’s something to do with oil at the end, none of which is made clear.
Don Cheadle is back as War Machine–now re-dubbed the Iron Patriot, his armor painted red, white and blue, as a symbol of good will and security to America. He does a lot of flying around and always seems to show up at precisely the right time, but is otherwise a useless character. Gwyneth Paltrow figures into the plot, as well, as Pepper Potts, Tony Stark’s former assistant and now girlfriend. In the grand old tradition of superhero significant others, Pepper ends up dangling from something over something else on fire. How she fares, I’ll leave for you to discover. Not that you’ll care: you’ll have given up long before from the exhaustion of weeding your way through the convoluted plot and murky visuals.
All of this is downright depressing in its messiness. That being said, there’s a small sliver of light in the film that glows like a beacon in a sea of dreck, and that’s Harley, a young boy that Tony meets quite by accident. Harley continues a long and healthy lineage of perpetually parentless action movie boys (think Shortround from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). He provides Tony with just the right level of mental ass-kicking to start the last third of the movie into motion. Harley (Ty Simpkins, so good in Insidious) is wise beyond his years and as equally mischievous as Tony Stark, as if he’s the Iron Man’s younger self giving his elder body advice. Their scenes together are from an entirely different movie, the dialogue rich, funny and observant.
You may think my views of Iron Man 3 are harsh. Maybe they are. Maybe my perspective is all askew. Very well, but I sincerely dislike disliking certain movies so much. Some movies I hate to the point of violence; M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water almost caused me to wrench my seat out of the floor like a crazy, skinny white Hulk and hurl it at the movie screen. Iron Man 3 isn’t nearly that bad, but it’s lazy–lazy in its execution, lazy in its structure, and lazy with the arc of its characters. And it doesn’t respect its audience enough to not insult us by trying to cover up its shoddy effects with rapid-fire editing. Sin upon sin, it’s also uninteresting, and that, in turn makes it just about the worst thing a movie can be: boring.
I hope there are no more Iron Man movies; three is enough, I think. If the producers stop here and move on to another hero, the series can end with this, a tiny asterisk next to its entry in the history books.