Has there ever before been an actor as right for a role as Robert Downey Jr. is for “Iron Man?”
By Noah Gittell
Has there ever before been an actor as right for a role as Robert Downey Jr. is for “Iron Man?” It’s not just that Downey’s rapid-fire delivery and comic timing makes him a natural fit for a superhero with a penchant for comic book quips. Instead, look at how “Iron Man’s” dramatic arc matches that of Downey’s career. In each film of the series, Tony Stark (his alter ego) starts off arrogant and hugely successful before getting punished for his moral failures. Over the course of the film, he builds himself back up, finds himself through his good deeds, and earns the love of a grateful world.
Sound familiar? Downey was a Hollywood wunderkind before bottoming out on drugs and alcohol. After a prison sentence for drug charges, he paid his dues with supporting roles before director Jon Favreau fought to cast him in the first “Iron Man.” Now, Downey’s off-screen baggage is a shortcut to character for “Iron Man.” When we see him struggle and surmount obstacles, we feel Downey’s history invade the character.
But in “Iron Man 3,” both actor and character seem to be running out of rope. The film opens with Stark suffering from threats both internal and external. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after the events of “The Avengers,” Stark is now battling a terrorist named The Mandarin, an Osama Bin Laden look-alike who is killing military service members to punish America for its crimes. Stark’s relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) forces him to re-evaluate his attitude. After challenging the Mandarin to kill him on live television, the terrorist launches an aerial attack on his home, putting Pepper’s life in danger and forcing Stark to rebuild his life and his hero persona without his fancy toys.
It is the same plot device used in “The Dark Knight Rises,” in which Bruce Wayne had to lift himself out of that foreign prison and become Batman again. But “Iron Man 3” plays better due to an infusion of fresh blood. The film gets a boost of energy from writer/director Shane Black, who made a name for himself as writer of some very successful action movies in the 1980s (“Lethal Weapon,” “The Last Boy Scout”), then disappeared for 15 years. Black brings to “Iron Man 3” a host of 1980s action movie tropes that make the film play like a retro affair. Much like his earlier films, “Iron Man 3” is inexplicably set at Christmastime. The comic banter between Downey and Don Cheadle (as the Iron Patriot) recalls some of the best dialogue between Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in “Lethal Weapon.”
The film’s villain – a terrorist hell-bent on world domination – also seems to hearken from that era, as well, although Black has a trick up his sleeve on that count. Midway through the film, a second villain emerges, a mad scientist played by Guy Pearce whose motives are less grandiose than the Mandarin’s. Like Stark, he is a brilliant inventor whose flaws often get the best of him. In this way, his villainy is more complicated, more timely, and less dramatic. The way Black dismisses The Mandarin from the proceedings is hilarious and brilliant, but Pearce’s character is not bad enough. He may be an able match for Iron Man, but there is just never much at stake.
The real battle is going on within Stark himself. But the movie never quite pulls that off. When it is doing something, it does it well. “Iron Man 3” is the funniest of the series, the most thoughtful and introspective, and also has the most surprises. But the disparate elements never cohere into a satisfying whole. Black has an original sense of humor and a sharp sense of style, but “Iron Man 3” plays like a film directed by someone who was in just a little over his head.
Moreover, each film in the series follows the same arc for its hero, and this one even ends with the same line (“I am Iron Man”) as the first. It’s supposed to have deeper meaning after Stark’s journey of self-discovery, but with its convoluted plot and jarring tonal shifts, the journey never amounts to much for the viewer. As a result, the film feels like a bit of a repeat – even if the details are more developed.
My Rating: Put it on Your Queue