I admit that my concern over the future of the Marvel Cinematic Film universe has steadily been growing. Here is a mythos that has now expanded into seven feature films, all of which are so deeply intertwined that the only conceivable way of making sense of it all at this point is to have become intimately familiar with every feature film and every title character. Without that knowledge, insider references, character appearances, and even entire plot points are liable to go over audience’s heads. I kept this in mind as I watched Iron Man 3, the newest Marvel film to be released in 3D. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that this is the third chapter of the Iron Man franchise; it’s really the one piece of a cinematic puzzle that includes characters from other franchise launchers, including Captain America, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, and The Avengers, which brought them all together.
Iron Man 3 is good-natured fun – an action and special effects extravaganza with an appropriately ludicrous plot that could only have come from the pages of the comic book that inspired it. Having said that, it cannot compare to the original 2008 film, which still ranks as one of the greatest superhero films ever made. It earned that distinction because it went the extra mile, giving audiences so much more than a CGI-laden stunt spectacular; it popularized the idea that a superhero didn’t have to be either a flawless do-gooder or an angst-ridden martial artist, and it intelligently incorporated themes of accountability, expiation, and the ways in which technology can be an asset rather than a liability. This new film, much like its 2010 predecessor, doesn’t go the extra mile, which is to say that it’s entertaining but not especially significant.
It also has more apparent narrative weaknesses, not the least of which is its pervasive sense of humor. Both previous Iron Man films have had an undercurrent of dry wit, aided in no small part by the inspired casting of Robert Downey, Jr., but in this particular case, the jokes are broader, goofier, more strained. It doesn’t help that the plot is made to seem more complicated than it actually is; specific details, most in relation to the film’s bountiful uses of made-up technologies, are surprisingly difficult to keep track of, as are what roles specific characters have to play. One character, a poor, precocious Tennessee kid the title character befriends, doesn’t have any role to play at all, apart from an unnecessary comic foil. This is itself hampered by the fact that he’s limited to just one major sequence and a few sporadic moments in the latter half of the film.
Ever since New York City was attacked by gigantic flying worm creatures at the end Marvel’s The Avengers, billionaire industrialist Tony Stark (Downey) has been suffering from insomnia and periodic anxiety attacks. That seems like a bit of a stretch, given the perils he encountered previously, including being held captive in Afghanistan for three months. Then again, not even that involved immortal gods or rips in the space-time continuum, so perhaps his neurosis is indeed justifiable. Be that as it may, he faces a new adversary in the form of a terrorist known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), who wears Asian garbs, sports a filthy beard that vaguely makes him look like Osama bin Laden, and sounds like your everyday American joe. One of his attacks seriously injures Stark’s security chief, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau); Stark retaliates by publically taunting the Mandarin, which in turn leads to Stark’s Malibu mansion getting destroyed by missiles.
Somehow connected with the Mandarin is the equally malicious Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). When Stark first met him on New Year’s Eve 1999, he was a crippled nerd eager to receive backing for a little-known scientific endeavor; now, his leg has been healed, his physical appearance has improved, and his attitude has seriously soured. His ambitions have also turned dangerous. Here enters Stark’s old flame, Dr. Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), who in 1999 was working on a way to genetically alter living specimens and give them the ability to instantly regenerate missing parts. These alterations have been corrupted by Killian into a kind of biological weapon; several of his test subjects, all brainwashed into being terrorists, have been scientifically bestowed with the ability to heal themselves, as well as to generate an inhuman levels of heat.
The trailer for Iron Man 3 gives the impression that the Mandarin is a significant character, and indeed, so too does the first third of the film. Don’t be fooled by appearances; not only is this character completely irrelevant, the scene in which his true self is exposed is one of stupefying disappointment. I was much happier with scenes involving characters we’ve already come to know, most notably Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), who has his own iron suit and, because of its red, white, and blue color scheme, goes by the alias Iron Patriot. I also appreciated the fact that the character played by Favreau, who directed the first two Iron Man films, has taken the reins from the Agent Coulson character played in the previous Marvel films by Clark Gregg. I liked this movie on a superficial level, but I can’t say it exhilarated me the way the first Iron Man did.