You know the weather’s gotten weird when a “summer blockbuster” features a prominent Christmas theme throughout. At least that’s the feeling you get throughout the first few minutes of the third Iron Man installment; after awhile, however, it becomes obvious that new director Shane Black just decided to add Die Hard to the pile of late-’80s action movies he’s busy paying homage to. Essentially marking time between Avengers sequels at this point, Robert Downey Jr. isn’t so much a 2013 superhero here as he is a 1990 action hero.
Not itself a bad idea. Downey’s reinvention of the classic Marvel supe as a slick egotistical billionaire who just happens to act a lot like Robert Downey Jr. pulled off the neat trick of reviving two dead characters by reflecting them off of each other; Superhero as Movie Star turns out to fit this new decade better than Superhero as Tortured Loner or Superhero as Troubled Teen. Those last two things have gotten a little too real. And since Black’s screenwriter pedigree in this area is impeccable (Lethal Weapon 1 and 2 and the endlessly self-referential and unfairly maligned Last Action Hero), it looks at first like a perfect mix of sensibilities.
Too bad Shane’s lens isn’t as impressive as his pen or his pop-culture sweet tooth. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is the only other time he’s been behind the camera, if that explains everything, and so he works hard, way too hard, on cramming all our favorite action tropes into two bloated hours: there’s a wiseass little kid subplot, the Christmas motif, seemingly indestructible killing machines, and a whole army of Downey’s metal upgrades. Iron Man? Try liquid metal. Black doesn’t do apocalyptic fear, so he goes for the fun stuff instead, updating the old reliables with veiled and direct references to Dora the Explorer, Osama bin Laden, Downton Abbey, and Slap Chop. As fresh as yesterday. This one will take some explaining to your future children.
Okay, it’s still a load of fun, and done up post-Avengers large, featuring the destruction of Stark’s penthouse lab, those protos being put to good use, and Iron Man topping Superman, possibly forever, in the “saving falling humans” department. But since Shane doesn’t linger on any one of his received ideas, the mood is all over the place, and the end result sometimes feels desperate and boring at once, as if the audience were also trapped in those suits like Tony (and some others!) when the shit goes down.
A returning Gwyneth Paltrow and Don Cheadle, that kid, and the tremendous import of Ben Kingsley as a comicbook villain? All mostly wasted by 3’s goofy tone. It’s almost impossible to not think of Murtagh and Riggs when you see Downey and Cheadle quipping in the middle of terrorist peril, and while that makes for an entertaining night, it also leaves Iron Man 3 feeling as rushed and slapped together as Stark’s dangerously killable prototypes. Nothing could destroy the franchise at this point, but Downey’s been carrying the sequels almost by himself, and his contract is up. They don’t make shoulders that big anymore, either.