Iron Man 3 (Black, 2013)

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Iron Man 3begins, fittingly, with an aborted monologue.

Wise-cracking but increasingly troubled playboy superhero Tony Stark suggests that we “make our own demons” by which he means…well, strike that, let’s start over again.

And he does. But the film never really shakes the impression that it is unable to articulate just what Tony’s thematic insight might be, although it spends the rest of its 130 minutes trying.

Iron Man 3 is a movie on a heroic quest in search of a theme.

The strange thing, the downright bizarre thing, about this quest is that Marvel Studios and Paramount Pictures have wagered a lot of money on the proposition (if the film itself is any indication) that the audience won’t care in the least whether superhero movies have stupid, artsy contrivances like themes. Comic book movies are about formulas, not themes, and the formula here is simple: a) show some new special effects wrinkle (in this case the armor flying through the air and attaching itself to Tony’s body); b) show it again; and, c) repeat as necessary.

It’s not as though superhero movies need complicated themes, either. What passes for subtly is a little foreshadowing, a little repetition. The opening voice-over should be sufficient, but perhaps the idea of blowback–the notion that bad decisions might be remote causes of things that look like “why do they hate us?” proximate hostility–is a little too risky in a movie that is referencing international terrorism.

Other thematic ducks that bob and float down the river include some standard issue domestic tension between Tony and his new co-habitator, Pepper Potts. He programs an empty suit to pretend to pay attention to her while he is working on their date night!!

Tony’s having anxiety attacks as a result of being in an alien wormhole. A superhero having anxiety attacks? The climax almost writes itself, no? Actually, no. Turns out that’s just an excuse to reference The Avengers movie, and once we move into the last act, anyone waiting for an anxiety attack at a key moment (or a resolution for why they disappear) is as out of luck as a secret service agent firing handguns at the Iron Patriot.

There’s the “I’ve endangered the ones I love” guilt trip, some sidekick bonding with–egads a cute adolescent!?!–and a rediscovery of lost confidence in the form of a scene that forces Tony to conduct a key mission without the suit, using only his mechanical genius for armor.

The latter scene plays like a parody of the worst kind of James Bond movie (i.e. the Roger Moore variety), but before you know it it’s time for the finale, and all the effort that might have gone into writing a script goes into a wonderfully choreographed aerial ballet fusing Terminator 2 with Spider-Man and whichever Dark Knight movie had the “which one can you save?” dilemma.

In the end, Iron Man 3 is a movie about special effects, and the purpose of the script is to get us to this final showdown, which it manages to do, however inefficiently. There is a surprising lack of emotion and more than one escape precipitated on the convenient arrival of some new suit. Having the armor able to fly without Tony, to fly to Tony, makes it rather than him the hero, blurs the line between Tony as rescuer and Tony as rescued, so when he insists in the film’s final stab at a theme that even without his toys, “I am Iron Man,” I honestly scratched my head and said, “what does that even mean?”

All that being said, the actors are comfortable and game in these roles, and other than Ben Kingsley (who seems to be given no choice but to play it like a joke and thus feels like he, too, wandered in from the set of the Will Ferrell movie next door) they are all comfortable in their roles. There is something approaching chemistry between Tony and Pepper, something approaching friendship and trust between Tony and Colonel Rhodes. There is a back story that approaches emotion with new villain Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce).

In the end, there was something approaching, hesitantly and recursively, entertainment.

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